Nazi Germany knew how to edit

By Aristophanes

For modern art, few forms can claim to match the proliferation and cultural power of the feature film. A well-made movie can have powerful effects, and dire consequences, for the society in which it is distributed. Thus, while this art can certainly produce extraordinary opportunity for social and moral education, so too can it be used as a tool in less-than-noble endeavors.

Triumph of the Will is a 1935 propagandist documentary produced for and by Nazi-controlled Germany; Adolf Hitler himself was executive producer. Directed and edited by Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph depicts the 1934 congressional gathering of the Nazi Party in Nuremberg. The film, which sought to portray the political party in an unreasonably positive light, received widespread acclaim for its intelligent approach to cinematography, musical score and editing technique.

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In an objectively critical sense, Triumph is indeed a triumph. By choosing to cut the film in such an insidious manner, Riefenstahl was able to manipulate her malleable audience through the crosscutting of different images. Associating the majestic German skyline with, for example, Hitler’s first arrival by plane in Nuremberg, the film presents a succinct theme of grandeur further accentuated by a sweeping orchestral score, painting an extremely idealistic picture of Nazism. Few periods of history have managed to develop widespread nationalist fervor on the same level as the years during and leading up to World War II, a fact which Triumph manages to convey all too well through its incredibly persuasive editing style.

The story proceeds over the course of four days. Hitler’s first day, after his initial arrival in Nuremberg, continues with a welcoming parade flanked by German citizens in support of the Nazi regime. Hitler’s grand stature, often filmed from the side and at a low angle, is intercut with the smiling faces of ordinary men, women and children.

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After a night concert and rally, the second day begins with dawn breaking above the Nuremberg skyline. The montage continues with a few slow, sweeping pans of the various buildings as the city awakens, all the while aided by a slow, beautiful background score.

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These two instances, the first of cutting between two opposing images on the first day and the second of using music to establish a particular mood and feel before continuing the ongoing plot of the narrative, are both examples of the associative property of editing. By choosing to intercut Hitler’s entrance with faces of smiling children, viewers are psychologically primed for admiration; this dashing fellow just makes those kids so happy! By using establishing shots of Nuremberg overlaid with such soft and sweet background audio, we are mentally prepared to receive whatever comes next — in this case, the first day of the Nazi Party Congress — with enhanced acceptance.

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In a technique similar to that used on the first day, the second day precedes the Nazi Party Congress with a short snippet of the Hitler Youth as they prepare to attend. The little rascals are shown practicing their wrestling moves on each other as incredibly annoying yet psychologically effective shots of an extremely pale-white blond child, laughing obnoxiously, are interwoven with the ongoing competition. Riefenstahl, and Hitler, as well, wanted the audience to have a favorable disposition toward this kind of young, competitive spirit. The militaristic regime of the Nazis needed warriors, and so we see Triumph intercutting this laughing child, a positive image, with the youth wrestling spectacle, an image the filmmakers wanted us to associate with positive thoughts.

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The rest of the film continues in this same manner. At the Nazi gathering, we see various speakers take the podium amidst cheering crowds. The words spoken are punctuated at regular intervals by shots of the adoring people clapping, cheering and even giving the occasional standing ovation. What more would we need to establish the idea that these men deserve our respect and support?

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The terrible genius of Triumph is in how disturbingly close, despite being undeniably propaganda-filled in nature, it manages to mirror real life. It quite effectively establishes the ever-present Catch-22 of political leadership: Those receiving the widest range of support are also those most likely to be shown greater loyalty, which in turn will lead to greater support down the line.

As the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany by taking advantage of this real-life associative property, so too does Triumph capitalize on this effect by subtly influencing its audience. One of the most powerful narrative devices of the documentary — or of any film, for that matter — is in saying something without words, without anything innate to the images themselves, but through the existence of external thought created by mere association.

This technique is prime for misuse, and must be handled with great care. As Plato once wrote of the importance of instructive artwork in his seminal dialogue, The Republic: “Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”

In that same spirit, we must recognize the vital position modern filmmakers continue to fill in the ongoing ethical advancement of contemporary society, as well as the undeniable role that associative editing plays in the interpretation of their work. The insidious Triumph, and the regime it lauds, represents the danger of media’s moral abstention.

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