By Daniel Miller
An airplane appears in the skies over Nürnberg. Accompanied by the strains of Wagner, slowly bleeding into the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Führer is descending, like an eagle, or a god. Upon landing at the aerodrome, he will emerge from his plane, to thunderous applause, thence to be driven into the town, through cheering crowds, and even a cat, entranced, will stop to behold him.
Upon meeting Riefenstahl in 1971, a swooning Mick Jagger told her that Triumph of the Will was his favourite film, “I've seen it fifteen times!” the singer enthused, and in fact the nature of his specific interest is not hard to comprehend. Even today, more than sixty years after his death, Hitler still remains the most televised man in the world, with whole banks of cable channels revolving their schedules around him. This is a magnitude of sustained exposure that Jagger could only dream about. To live inside the simulacrum is also to live by it, the transfixion traversing it, and the rigid hierarchy spun by that. Jagger is an intelligent man, and he appreciates his own status. Thus, with the wages of his own rapt attention, he submits to the superior star.
In his breakthrough 1985 novel White Noise, Don DeLillo satirized academia, making his tired hero Jack Gladney a Professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college. In the grand conservative tradition of gruff common sense, “Hitler Studies! What a ridiculous pseudo-subject!” one initially thinks. And yet, the satire here is really double - on closer inspection, the question reveals itself for a good one. After all, what really is a Hitler? What does it do, what does it want: what really is the scope and source of its power? What follows is a dissection of the concept with needles.
THE FÜHRER IS THE ONE AND ONLY
“The party is Hitler, and Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler,” Rudolf Hess declares, strident behind his podium. This statement, the very axiom of totalitarianism, suggests a situation far stranger than one of simple despotism. It is not just that the Führer is greater than his followers, he is his followers, everything they already are, and could ever wish to become. No deeper identification is necessary, even technically possible: one witnesses that the space between the mass and the man has here been closed down completely.
This suffocating closure expresses itself in the strained relation Triumph of the Will maintains with its viewers. Riefenstahl’s frames follow hot on the heels from each other, and between her long shots of the speaking, senior Nazis, and her quick fire cuts to their silent, handsome supporters, no real possibility of a perspective remains. Instead, one finds oneself compulsively swept away.
In marked contrast to Brechtian theatre, where a minimal alienation is maintained in the spectacle so as to force the audience to form a critical connection towards it, here, even the very idea of such a connection is mercilessly suppressed. Watching Brecht, one is encouraged to ask oneself engaged moral questions like “what would I have done in his situation?” By contrast, watching Riefenstahl, one is encouraged to simply nod along.
In this way, directly positioning itself against critique, Triumph of the Will works to foster a state of anaesthesia, or what Brecht called “sleepwalking.” In the manner of a summer blockbuster, this film asks you not to think about it, instead to simply let it flow over you.
THE FÜHRER IS YOU
As Owen Hatherley also stresses, with Riefenstahl, whatever we might see, the montage ultimately always takes us back to Hitler. Thus the singular importance of the Führer is emphasized. Yet, in fact the precise nature of this importance is surprising.
The fact that the montage always returns to Hitler does not represent a statement of his power, but a statement of his impotence. Like a dog pestering you for food that you do not possess, the montage always returns to Hitler because, remaining unsatisfied, it wants something from him that he cannot give it.
In true Slovenian style, a joke serves to make this last point clearer. A boasting new husband walks into a bar, and announces to the barman, “Last night I didn’t sleep a wink, I was up until morning making love with my wife.” “How many times did you do it?” says the barman. “Eight times in a row,” responds the husband. “You have my sympathies,” concludes the barman, “You could have slept fine if you had only done it properly once.”
Just as the temptation in the face of the pathos of Riefenstahl’s Hitler is to read it as some kind of artistic error, the temptation here is to read the shaming of this figure along the lines of somebody crushed by semantic slipperiness. In fact, this temptation should be resisted both cases.
The interpretation of the joke runs as follows: the husband has sought his own humiliation, or rather, to put it more precisely, has taken an opportunity to manifest it. Only the pathologically guilty start conversations with strangers by declaring the state of their sex life. Indeed, only the pathologically guilty hang around in bars so shortly after getting married for it still to be a novelty.
The pathos of Hitler conforms to a similar logic. The error when dealing with Nazism is to take it at its word, and understand it is an ethos of power. In fact, its real meaning is otherwise, carried beneath the breath of its statement. At the nerve centre of Nazism is a brilliant idealism of power that exists only to shine light on the hysterical, pathetic failure that deep down you are.
In his ceaseless struggle with the montage, Hitler incarnates this failure, and thus we acknowledge him, as one of us, as our legitimate leader. “Let’s observe above all the way he acts while delivering his big speeches that prepare or justify his slaughters,” Brecht noted. “You understand, we have to observe him at that point where he wants to make the public feel with him and say: yes, we would have done the same thing! In short: where he appears as a human being and wants to convince the public that his actions are simply human and reasonable, and thus to give him their blessing.”
THE FÜHRER IS YOUR MOTHER
Returning now to the joke: in effect, what has transpired here is as follows. Before the community of men, as incarnated here in the form of the barman, the husband has made manifest two different things. First, his profound shame for taking up with a woman at all, and deserting the community of men. Second, a latent resentment at the humiliating fact (which all men secretly know full well) that all relations between men are mediated by women, to the extent that no male fraternity is even thinkable otherwise.
This first affect, shame, in effect, serves as his affective passport back into the brotherhood. The barman recognizes it, registers it, and responds in kind. He too feels ashamed, frankly he prefers sleeping to sex with a woman. The pact, then, is resealed without difficulty. Or at least, would be resealed, were it not for the presence of this second affect, resentment. This feeling now suddenly appears, excessive over language, to the point where it threatens to wreck even all implied contracts.
Where has this feeling come from? In fact, the irony here is that it is nothing else but the form of the contract itself, forged, like the ring of the Nibelung, out of a possessive tension. In this context, a loose conversation elsewhere, the real wife of the husband, and the imaginary wife of the barman, both exist only as figures of speech. They are really two different fantasies with nothing to do with each other, two different products and bearers of two different desires. On account of the deceit of language, the flattening aspect of it that reduces two different things to one word, under the name of woman, they here collapse into each other, and form one single, illusory wife, now with one single, contested desire. And yet, given her ghostliness, who really has the right to decide what she wants?
This matter is more than simply particular. The problem is rather extremely generic. All male homosociality is mediated by contesting figures of the woman, each purporting to express what she wants. But the woman does not exist, and so the matter can never be settled. But the matter must be settled, because male fraternity demands it.
Thus the Führer is summoned from the heavens to mediate. His task? In effect, the mediation of the mediation itself. In the pursuit of male tranquillity, dancing for peace, Hitler must not only flatten particular difference, he must flatten the difference as such. This dilemma is serious, and taking every different matter in hand individually will obviously yield no solution to it. The cunning of desire will always conspire to outfox all floundering, retroactive attempts to trap it: difference must not even be allowed to arise in the first place. The sliding of the signifier must be halted at source. One idea of the woman must be sovereign beyond dispute. The endless series of libidinal substitutions must be stopped before it even begins. Desire must be arrested, before it even starts to stir.
This is to say, it must be arrested at some point before the loss of the original object, beyond even desire itself, at the very point of this object. What is it? An object that not is one: nothing less than the blissful lost unity enjoyed by the child with its mother, prior to its cruel cleaving away in consciousness from her.
This is woman as phallus: woman as a dereflexivized, mechanical servicer of demands, singularly untouched by desire, and driven to stifle it. At root composed of two elements, mother and child, assumed once to have been magically whole, self-enclosed and serene, the phallus is an autistic circuit of need. The child that needs, the mother that services needs. There is not an exit.
The model migrates. The need to mediate mediation is still a need, and thus it is clear that unhappy society belongs on the left side of this equation. In the meantime, recognizing our agony, and endeavouring to solve it, the Führer inserts himself onto its right side. He becomes our real mother, a mother more maternal than the mother itself. As for ourselves, we are left in the position of the eternal child. Society, meanwhile, is made fit for male bonding. A perfect contract.
ENJOY YOUR FÜHRER!
At the outset of Triumph of the Will, Hitler descends from the sky, and at the aerodrome, in the streets, the cheering crowd is already there, waiting for him. It would seem that some kind of call has been issued, sinuously put out through the buzzing tissue of this world. And yet who really has summoned whom? And how?
It will be noted that one single, striking schism runs down the middle of this film, along aesthetic lines. A manifest discrepancy in physical attractiveness inheres between the nameless Nazi followers who Riefenstahl shoots as a mass, and the prominent ones whom she frames as individuals. The former appear as identical, unblemished, unblinking flowers of Aryan youth, the latter all look, each in their different ways, as somehow distinctly wrong, weird, even disgusting. Like the seven members of the Council of Anarchists in G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday, each appears to bear “a demoniac detail somewhere... something about him... which was not normal, and which seemed hardly human.” From Hess and his mad, staring eyes, to Goebbels with his bony, death mask-like face, to the prominently pulsing vein in Julius Streicher’s shaven head, up to and including Hitler himself, and his high, wheedling voice, every prominent Nazi appears equipped with their own personal hideous quirk, unique to them alone, whereas their followers remain an essentially homogeneous unity of undifferentiated physical perfection.
The dialectic at work in this disjunction is a curious one, relating back, but now modifying, a point made above. Hitler and his henchman are you, in that they incarnate the worst of you, which is to say, to the extent that they incarnate your enjoyment. What is your enjoyment? In effect, the unique, obscene, inhuman, repellent core of you, mordantly lurking beyond your pleasure principle. As Lacan understands it, your enjoyment is spectacular, to the extent that is always performed before an audience, whether real or imaginary, and ductile, for the reason that it is socially produced, through semiological processes.
In this way, enjoyment, making up the substance of this world, can be seen to have sent for Hitler from heaven. Why might it have done so? According to Lacan, the explanation here runs as follows: from a certain perspective your enjoyment forms the most terrible part of you. It is the thing which is most unique about you, and hence most your own, and yet, it is also the thing which is least under the sway of your power, and hence a constant, painful reminder of your guilty impotent helplessness. Hence your enjoyment pleads to be quelled, sloughed off somehow, and this is effectively what has happened here. The mass have contracted their enjoyment out to the Nazi party. Thus the former has remained beautiful, innocent, pure and homogeneous, while the latter has found themselves, like experimental military mutants in genetic soup, twisted into terrible shapes.
THE FÜHRER EVEN KNOWS WHEN A SINGLE HAIR MOVES ON YOUR HEAD
Throughout much of Triumph of the Will, Hitler moves around spontaneously, delivering speeches, in a manner loosely resembling Christ. This poses a question: Christ, fine, but which one?
Riefenstahl provides a clue here. “[N]ineteen months after the beginning of the German renaissance, Adolf Hitler flew again to Nürnberg,” she announces in her opening title card, drawing attention at once to the fact that the event has already begun. Here, at least, we are not holding our breath awaiting the main attraction of the crucifixion. Furthermore, Riefenstahl describes the event as a renaissance, some kind of rebirth of a prior event. Another way of putting this would be to say second coming. This puts us somewhere in the vicinity of the carnivorous lamb Christ of Revelations. Finally, in using the word beginning, Riefenstahl darkly implies that this is only the beginning. Thus we are given to understand that the climax is still to come.
What might this climax amount to? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer Triumph of the Will gives to this question sharply diverges from the millions of burning bodies that history supplied to it. At the heart of this film is really neither a social message, nor a political claim – indeed, not even a spurious one, like the one which forms the core of Mein Kampf, but rather, something closer to a drug experience. Unusually for a documentary film, after her introductory title card, Riefenstahl provides no further establishing context for her narrative. Thus the impression is formed that we are dealing, not so much with an edited series of contiguous scenes, but instead, with one unitary unfolding event. Hitler appears at the aerodrome, in the town, in a wood, the mass simply feels itself pulled towards him, the scenery arranges itself around him. There is no bureaucracy, no boredom, no waiting, no deferral, no plot – rather, just sublime, autopoietic creation.
Unmistakably it is, in a certain way, a little like Woodstock: this happening vision of a life without death, a world without borders and a body with organs. And indeed, perhaps this proximity is why Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea chose to set the denouement of the occult-Fascist plot in their novel The Illuminatus Trilogy at an international music festival. After all, where else do you find a more potent combination of the fey and the fake-redemptive, such as Nazism can clearly be seen to represent here, then in a sea of stoned hippies, doing capoeira, by the dawn’s early light?
THE FÜHRER: WHAT IS HE GOOD FOR
“Sixteen years after the beginning of our suffering, nineteen months after the beginning of the German renaissance, Adolf Hitler flew again to Nürnberg to review the columns of his faithful followers.” So reads the introductory title card with which Riefenstahl opens Triumph of the Will. This text is the single concession that this film makes toward the cause of contextual understanding, and goes some way towards establishing how it depicts reality.
Three elements immediately stand out. Firstly, the fact that time, rather than being given according to an objective chronology, is instead charted against an imaginary index of vitality, ranging from suffering to renaissance. Second, the fact that the city of Nürnberg is here presented as directly militarized, presented as a garrison composed of military columns. Finally, the fact that the primary principle of military organization is posited here as faith.
This film was shot in 1934. The “beginning of our suffering” occurred sixteen years previously. Our suffering, then, does not begin with the beginning of the mechanized slaughter that was the first world war, but rather begins with its end. Is the matter simply that the Great War ended in humiliating defeat for Germany? Or is the objection more radical? Andrei Tarkovsky comments somewhere that it is easier to live in wartime than peacetime. As he understood it, in wartime the spheres of the private and public overlap with each other, rendering social life straightforward and clear, whereas in peacetime they cleave, creating social confusion. It will be noted that a certain irony buries itself in this dictum: it may well be easier to live, but it is also easier to die. And yet, perhaps this is precisely the point.
“What makes life worth living,” Slavoj Zizek notes in the concluding pages of The Puppet and the Dwarf, “is the very excess of life: the awareness that there is something for which we are ready to risk our life.” But what if there is nothing for which we ready to risk our lives? Under such conditions, we would be forced to invent something. This, effectively is the the origin of clinical depression, a simulacrum of truth contrived for depressives to live by, and the abiding function of fascism as well.
The more extreme subversion inheres to the latter case. In accepting the idea that at least some kind of excremental project is necessary, only erroneously taking for his own something so abstract (but not entirely abstract: after all, there are real psychiatrists, just as there really are art critics) the depressive still retains at least the basic form of orthodoxy. By contrast, the fascist renounces orthodoxy entirely by resolving that death constitutes the excess over life: thus he closes a perfect logical circle around himself, and death. “Long live death,” as the Spanish fascists put it.
A kind of spiral effect is produced in both cases: in the former a spiral of ennui, and in the latter, a spiral of murderous violence. One enters into a perpetual present, an entire synthetic environment arranged according to an aesthetic structure. “War and time and being are compounded into one great narcotic experience,” as Michael Hoffman puts it, writing of the proto-fascist poet Ernst Jünger. Meanwhile, writing of the same, Klaus Theweleit quotes Euripides. “A man in ecstasy becomes a violent storm, a raging sea, roaring thunder. He merges with the cosmos, racing toward death’s dark gates like a bullet toward its target.” All anxious matters of intelligence fade into irrelevance. The obscene torture of the cogito finally abates, shrinking to the space of a mutely chaotic equation, ultimately so simple that even a child could grasp it.
The idea of utopia, which began life with Thomas More as a principle of political rationality, finds expression in Triumph of the Will in the terms of a cinematic trajectory. Riefenstahl’s title, in fact chosen by Hitler, is extraordinarily precise in this respect. Literally, what is being depicted here is not the triumph of any particular will, not even that of the Führer himself, but rather nothing less than the triumph of will itself: this fateful stirring of this dramatic, supra-historical, transcendent force, now set to sweep the anxious, neurotic, empirical-transcendental doublet of man into historical oblivion. Such is the propaganda message of this film; disregard it at your peril.