Some of you will have seen Leni Riefenstahl’s classic, mesmerizing documentary, “Triumph of the Will.” It’s a real time film of a humungous Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in 1934, one and a half years after Adolf Hitler came to power.
Hitler is, of course, the star. Though he does not say a word until well into the film, he ends dominating it, ultimately concluding it with a riveting speech. His most trusted followers, especially those who have been with him since the start, since the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, are also prominent players. We see them throughout the film; occasionally some even get briefly to speak.
But to Riefenstahl’s everlasting credit, “Triumph of the Will” focuses as much on ordinary Germans, on followers, as she does on leaders, on the Nazi elite. From the beginning of the film to the end there are countless shots – some in closeup, some at a remove – of German men, women, and, yes, children cheering on their Fuhrer, their leader, with an eagerness and an enthusiasm, indeed with an unmitigated joy, that to all appearances is boundless. There is scant sense during these early days of the Third Reich that Hitler’s followers – including close disciples, rank and file foot soldiers, wealthy industrialists, Christian clergy, hard-working farmers and day laborers, mothers and babies; all coming to crowd the streets and hang from the windows to catch even a brief glimpse of the Great Man – had even the slightest reservation, the slightest doubt about who they would follow to the end of their lives, no matter what.
Riefenstahl’s film is propaganda. So, naturally, she confined her cast nearly completely to those who were rabid enthusiasts. But, even now, more than three quarters of a century later, there is no mistaking her message. The leader’s, the Fuehrer’s, Hitler’s, capacity to control depended absolutely on his followers, the German people. They followed him willing, gladly, with a passion that rivaled their pleasure.
“Triumph of the Will” came recently to mind. In fact, the movie has come to mind several times in the last few years, but there are some moments when the similarities between past and present frankly frighten.
Two examples. The first when during a rally in Mississippi Trump mocked, ridiculed, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who, the preceding week, had painfully and painstakingly testified that as a 15-year old girl she had been sexually assaulted by the Supreme Court’s newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh. What was so scary was not so much Trump as the crowd behind him, consisting of fervid, fervent followers, who, the more outrageous and offensive their leader’s behavior, the more they hooted and hollered their approval.
The second example was just a couple of days ago, at another campaign rally, this one in Montana. Trump had come to extol the virtues of Representative Greg Gianforte, who a year earlier was sentenced for having assaulted a reporter. Trump warned the gleeful crowd behind him to “never wrestle” Gianforte, and then added, “Anybody that can do a body-slam, That’s my kind of guy.” This in the immediate wake of the disappearance of another journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian columnist for the Washington Post. Need I add that Trump’s followers ate it up, cheering with great gusto the president’s suggestion that violence against a member of the press is not to be condemned but condoned?!
Our obsession with the president is as understandable as inevitable. But more clearly and completely to understand what the hell is happening in this country at this moment do what Riefenstahl did. Pay close attention, pay equal attention, to the rest of the cast. From acolytes and activists, to bystanders and isolates, it is, after all, followers who make Fuehrers possible.