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Mark Steyn

Mark at the Movies

Triumph of the Will

Eighty years ago this week, the National Socialist Party had just wrapped up its hugely successful rally at Nuremberg - the Reichsparteitag des Willens, or Rally of the Will. Unlike previous get-togethers, the 1934 rally produced a hit movie, one that cinéastes still watch with appalled fascination to this day. Its creator was a brilliant cinematographer and editor who could compose and edit anything - except, in the end, her own life. If only she'd been able to snip one problematic decade out of her 101 years, we'd know Leni Riefenstahl as a game old gal who in her sixties went off to live with an African tribe, in her seventies learned to scuba dive, and at the age of 98 survived a plane crash in the Sudan. There was a documentary made about her a few years back in which she's seen getting off the boat at the end of a day's diving. The captain and her friend Horst walk up the pier ahead of her, lost in conversation. She follows behind, carrying her scuba gear and oxygen tank. She's 92, and it never occurs to either man to give her a hand. They don't think of her as a woman or as a nonagenarian.

If only it weren't for that awkward patch…

In the 1930s, Fräulein Riefenstahl put her formidable film-making talents to the cause of the Third Reich, and, after attending the Reichsparteitag des Willens in 1934, produced one of the most remarkable films ever made: Triumph Of The Will.

Go back to that scuba-diving disembarkation scene in Ray MĂĽller's The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl. In theory, it could all be a setup, and the participants chewed over how best to do it beforehand and did 15 takes: anyone who's worked in documentaries knows how phoney the whole business is. But the point is it seems careless - as if it happened, and the camera happened to be there to record it.

There's no sense of that in any frame of Triumph Of The Will. Granted that audiences were a lot less media savvy in 1934, and granted that a people dumb enough to fall for National Socialism will fall for anything, it's still hard to believe that even in its day anyone accepted what remained Fräulein Riefenstahl's official explanation to the end - that this was just a "documentary record" of the 1934 annual party convention. Early on, we see the Führer's motorcade driving through Nuremberg, with what seems like the entire citizenry jammed on to the streets to greet him. Riefenstahl's camera shoots Hitler (if you'll forgive the expression) from directly behind him, a sequence which for some reason always reminds me of Gore Vidal's boast that only very famous people such as himself know what the back of their heads look like. There's a fabulous moment when the great man — Adolf, not Gore — is responding to the Hitler salutes offered up by the crowds with his campy little elbow-bend and wrist-flip and, as his Mercedes moves forward, the sun catches his fingers and fills the palm, first bathing it in glory and then making it appear as if the Führer's hand is the very source of the sunlight itself. Did the director just get lucky? Did the sun just happen to hit? Seconds later, we cut to a long shot of Hitler in the Mercedes continuing down the street. There's no camera in the car, although the scene we've just witnessed could only have been filmed by someone in the back seat. Another minute goes by, and we're back to the close-up of the Führer's neck.

Did she stop the car, get out and film the long shot, and then get back in? Did Leni get Adolf to do re-takes? Or maybe she made the entire population of Nuremberg re-take the scene; maybe they staged the procession twice. If Hitler was unusually agreeable about taking direction, it was because this was never a filmed record of an event so much as an event created for the film. Whatever Triumph Of The Will is, it's not a documentary. Its language is that of feature films - not Warner Brothers gangster movies or John Ford westerns, but rather the supersized genres, the epics and musicals where huge columns of the great unwieldy messy mass of humanity get tidied and organized — and, if that isn't the essence of totalitarianism, what is? Riefenstahl has the same superb command of the crowd as Busby Berkeley, the same flair for human geometry (though Berkeley would have drawn the line at giving the gentlemen of the chorus as swishy a parade step as Hitler's personal SS bodyguard do).

The sets (that's what they are) that were built for Hitler's speeches blend Cecil B. de Mille with expressionist sci-fi: no party convention in Britain, Canada or even Obama's America ever offered its leader a stage like this. It exists in the same relationship to reality as, say, Berkeley's "Lullaby Of Broadway" sequence in Gold Diggers Of 1935: in that scene, the conceit is that the number's taking place in a nightclub, but, as the song continues and the dancers multiply and the perspective extends ever further into the distance, you realise that no nightclub anywhere on earth has a stage that vast. Riefenstahl stretches reality in the same way, beginning in the streets of old Nuremberg with the band serenading Hitler below the balcony of his ivy-clad hotel, and steadily abandoning human scale until the FĂĽhrer is standing alone atop a giant stone block as thousands of standard-bearing party members march in formation below: extras on a set. In the 21st century, you can see Riefenstahl's influence in the work of George Lucas (Star Wars) and Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers), both filmmakers for whom the principal thrill of directing seems to be the opportunity it affords to subordinate the individual.

Filmed a mere 18 months into Hitler's rule, and only a few weeks after President Hindenburg's death removed the final remnant of the pre-Nazi state, Triumph played a critical role in establishing the sheer scale of the party's iconography. Riefenstahl was a genius: watch the opening, with Hitler's aircraft (he was the first politician with a campaign plane) descending through the clouds to the city below as if bearing a god to earth. She was one of the first to understand how to convey the unseen: thus, the shadow of the FĂĽhrer's plane falls on the columns of Nazis marching up the street in Nuremberg.

She was let down by the Nazis' weak spot: people. Not the blond boy drummers of the Hitler Youth. Nor the adoring women, gazing at their FĂĽhrer as enraptured as Hedy Lamarr in the heights of orgasm in Ecstasy. But in the Nazi bigshots, whom not even Riefenstahl can make look anything other than seedy and shifty. And the trouble with that Hitler salute is that on at least a couple of occasions it exposes an incredibly sweaty armpit. There are some things even a control-freak can't control.

Her directing career ended with the Third Reich. Had she been worse at making the Nazis look good, her insistence that she was no more than a hired hand might have been accepted. Instead, she found herself too toxic to get any project off the ground, until finally, at the age of 100, she got to release one last film, a simple undersea documentary. "Art is my life and I was deprived of it," said Leni Riefenstahl. Tough. Working in the German film industry, she saw that happen early on to innumerable Jewish film-makers. She was neither one of that select group of Nazi fanatics committed to industrial-scale slaughter, nor merely of that vast contemptible mass of Germans too indifferent to evil to object to it. Whatever her disclaimers, she made evil look better than it had any right to: a cautionary tale in the art of film.

from Mark at the Movies, September 13, 2014

 

Like a Movie

For our Saturday movie feature, here's a film column from Mark's book The Face Of The Tiger that originally appeared in The Spectator a few days after September 11th 2001:

"It was like something out of a movie."

Not everyone said that, but enough people did, watching on television or from the streets of Lower Manhattan. At times it was even shot like a movie, the low crouch of an enterprising videographer capturing the startled "What the fuh…?" of a street-level New Yorker as high above him in the slit of sky between the buildings the second plane sailed across the blue and through the south tower. The "money shots" were eerily reminiscent - the towers falling to earth with the same instant, awesome symbolism as the atomisation of the White House in Independence Day. In Swordfish, just a few weeks ago, a plane clipped a skyscraper; I thought at the time how bored John Travolta's innocent hostages looked...

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Sir Dickie in the Shadowlands

Yesterday would have been Richard Attenborough's 91st birthday. He died five days short, at a grand old age, and as the grand old man of British film, garlanded with knighthoods, peerages, fellowships and life presidencies of worthy bodies. I met him when I was very young, in his capacity as chairman of Capital Radio in London, and he gave me what proved to be excellent advice, although I neglected to take it for several decades. It was an amazing seven-decade career stretching back through ...

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We had many requests for a Robin Williams pic for our weekend movie feature, but I have to confess I was never the biggest fan...

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King Kong's Queen

We're having a mini-Canadian festival this weekend, and not just because it's a holiday weekend in the Great White North (Simcoe Day in Ontario, Natal Day in Nova Scotia, etc). Ten years ago this week, one of the great iconic Hollywood leading ladies died a few weeks shy of her 97th birthady - and a long way from her hometown of Cardston, Alberta: According to the "old Arabian proverb" that opens King Kong: And the Prophet said: And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed ...

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Fahrenheit 9/11

Steyn on the high water mark of Michael Moore's cultural moment

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Independence Day

For the post-holiday weekend in America, how about an Independence Day movie? We're not the most inspired chaps around here, so, from 18 Glorious Fourths ago, here's Roland Emmerich's Independence Day. The music for this film is by David Arnold, who went on to succeed John Barry as James Bond's house composer, in part because his score here reassured Barbara Broccoli that he could handle a big-budget blockbuster. You can hear David and other members of the 007 family paying tribute to John ...

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Alison Anders' movie recreates the Brill Building pop sound of the early Sixties

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Steyn celebrates Stanley Donen, the last surviving director of Hollywood's Golden Age

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Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2

Ten years ago this month Quentin Tarantino unveiled the second part of his Kill Bill double-bill. He wasn't making a lot of movies in those days. Kill Bill was his first picture since Jackie Brown six years earlier. I'm not the biggest fan of Tarantino, and I think he's almost incapable of engaging you in narrative drama rooted in real characters, but Kill Bill has moments that have stuck with me over the years...

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The role that ensured Kim Novak's name will last as long as movies do...

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A Theme to a Kill

John Barry was a versatile musician of prodigious talent who in a half-century career worked in pop music, film and theatre. But, if he'd never done anything else, he'd have a claim on posterity as the man who singlehandedly created the instantly recognizable sound of big-screen spy music.

He was born 80 years ago - on November 3rd 1933, in Yorkshire, where his dad owned the local cinema. To mark what would have been his 80th birthday, here's an encore presentation of Mark's audio salute to John, and the man he musicalized for a quarter-century, the only spy with his own song catalogue, James Bond.

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