So I’m probably about a week late in the discussion here, but I finally got around to watching Triumph of the Will. I was surprised to find it so readily available on Netflix, but unsurprised by the 2.5 star rating. It seems the Netflix world is as torn about the aesthetic value of this film as our class was last Tuesday. I wanted to watch the film in its entirety, from beginning to end, to give myself a chance to really feel the experience that Riefenstahl, according to Devereaux, so expertly crafted. I was honestly a bit frightened to watch it, for fear of loosing the sense of horror surrounding this time in history that the Holocaust museum exhibits have instilled in me. I steeled myself with Deveraux’s critique and clung tight to her assessment of the film itself, which attempts to examine the work outside of its historical and moral context. While I usually try my best to receive an experience as it was intended, I planned to use Deveraux as an anchor while I slowly let myself drift into this film, for fear of getting swept away.

I am changed.

As I watched the plane descend from the clouds I felt confident I could maintain this dual perspective, both observer and experiencer, throughout the film. I was moved by the footage, the music, and the symbolism of Hitler, whom we hadn’t yet seen, descending from the sky. The images of the old town, which is now most likely bombed and entirely rebuilt, brought a sense of nostalgia, and the first sight of people, of the crowds gathered, made me curious for more. What were these people feeling?

And then Hitler’s plane lands and we see his face for the first time as he greats the crowd. I was shocked by his  appearance, it felt sudden. I had tears in my eyes; this man’s face is the face of the Holocaust. The view is as an observer in the crowd and I felt pity for the people celebrating his arrival. They cannot know what he will do, is doing, has done. “He tricked you!” I wanted to yell.

I grasped at Devereaux, noticing we still had yet to see his full face. As Hitler’s motorcade moved through the crowd-lined streets we see over his shoulder, catch glimpses of him around someone’s head, and see people salute and smile, true ear-to-ear grins of adoration, as he passes. When he appears in a balcony, we see him as his followers see him. We are looking up at him, up to him, and he hasn’t even said a word. I’m drifting again. It’s not that I believe in Hitler’s cause or that what he did was right. I’m adrift in the film because I’m caught up in the vision of Hitler as a leader.

I don’t think I could have understood this without having watched the whole film. As it progresses, we see more and more of Hitler through the eyes of his subordinates, of his troops, of the German youth, as well as the German people. We see Hitler speak, and he is speaking to his people. It is intoxicating, and imagine how irresistible it must have been for a people who had been without strong national pride for decades. Hitler calls for the “racially best in the nation” to answer their duty to become leaders and I am pushed out of the film and back to a historically situated perspective.

I find it harder now to dismiss this film as an aesthetic work than I did at the end of the class discussion on Tuesday. This was orchestrated, it was designed, and it was executed brilliantly. I was moved by it, I experienced it, and I feel what Riefenstahl wanted me to feel. The vision is flawed, it is morally repugnant, it is evil. It is beautiful.

And I laugh at myself because I do feel like a bad person for finding this evil vision so beautiful. I will not see pictures of Hitler in the same way; I will not see him as simply the face of the Holocaust, but as a leader who was able rally a nation, who was able to inspire genocide.

Okay, so it’s both beautiful and evil. Does that mean I should give it 2.5 stars? It moved me and it changed me irrevocably. Should I give it 5 stars? I don’t want Netflix to recommend any more Nazi films, I detest the message of the film, and would not recommend it to my friends except under very particular circumstances. Should I give it 1 star? I’m very tempted to leave it unrated, but that seems so weak after I’ve invested so much of myself in watching the film!

I give it 4 stars. As a propaganda film, Triumph of the Will is a design with an evil vision meant to encourage people to follow Hitler. It served an evil purpose in helping to bring about the events of the 2nd world war. But I argue that in the present historical context, it is aesthetically beautiful. It brings a deeper awareness of the events and historical context at that time, it has value as a groundbreaking cinematic work, and it artfully achieves its vision and enables viewers to see Hitler in the way the artist must have seen him. It gets 4 stars instead of 5 because I really don’t want to watch any more Nazi movies o.O.

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