The Leni Riefenstahl-directed Triumph of the Will is Hitler's breakthrough live performance movie - his Don't Look Back (the cries we hear are for "Juden" rather than "Judas", but the contempt observed in the audience's voice is much the same), his Stop Making Sense, his Never Say Never. (Must all concert documentaries have such forbidding titles, or is that an inevitable consequence of their buying into the cult of the performer?)
If there's an element of tedium about this exercise in rabble-rousing, it's partly a result of the monomania it encounters and seeks to sustain, partly because, in form, it's no more than a sophisticated record of a party political conference - a version of the kind of footage that annually goes out live on BBC2 in the middle of the afternoon and makes everybody long for the bowls or snooker to come back on. The crucial difference is the scale of the project being recorded - thousands upon thousands in tents in the car park, people on horseback forming geometric shapes, no Bill Morris on hand to lighten the mood - along with a certain bias in presentation, and the regrettable fact the film became an enduring historical document: for the sake of those dispatched to the death camps, you'd rather the National Socialists had been routed at the next election, and no-one ever had cause to watch Triumph of the Will again, but sadly, this wasn't so.
The full horror of the Nuremberg Rally is only revealed in the film's final half-hour with Adolf's keynote address, which leaves the viewer in very little doubt as to how things in Germany were going to turn out; for the most part, the fascination resides in the Rally's trappings, which reveal not just the Nazi will to power (the film's relentless, processive motion strongly suggests Nazi rule - and everything that followed from it - was a fait accompli; there's no evidence of kampf in the picture), but also its potential for oblivious kitsch. Even back in 1934, did anyone really think installing the legend "Heil Hitler" in tiny white lightbulbs beneath Der Führer's balcony was anything other than supremely, well, theatrical? And was that not, perhaps, the point?
Triumph is the film that suggests Mel Brooks was very much onto something in The Producers in (re)framing Nazism as one vast floorshow, featuring a cast of well-rehearsed millions high-kicking and screaming their way across the stage: you're reminded of this every time a group of workers, spear carriers or juvenile leads are shown gathering before The Great Director, mouthing pre-scripted lines with a desperate need for affirmation in their eyes. (As reaches go, it's a large and somewhat dubious one, but I think you could spot a link between the upwardly raised arms Adolf uses to salute these auditionees, and the thumbs up or down offered by emperors in gladiatorial arenas, not to mention by the judges on the TV talent shows that dictate today's cultural discourse: brutal circuses, each and every one.)
It's not especially difficult to see how the spectacle was being used to seduce and distract. Riefenstahl gives her well-fed supporting players (Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich) a nice soundbite and a standing ovation, when a less wholeheartedly enthusiastic director might cut away to shots of delegates snoozing in the back rows of a half-empty auditorium after a heavy session on the complimentary glühwein and wienerschnitzel. More compelling is what's going on outside, and the use of Nuremberg as a backdrop, which may very well form the most conspicuous example of a political leader playing to his base.
This Hitler, portrayed from the outset as a celestial figure, descends into an old town of quaint houses, cathedrals and waterways, reduced by the event to the standing of a grand proscenium arch - every flag hung upon it further evidence of the extent to which the German nation had been suckered. Noting the banners lining the hall in his opening address, one senior Nazi insists "When their cloth rots, only then will people understand the greatness of our time." They were rotten all along, of course, but it would have required a perspective missing from Riefenstahl's film to see it; a failure by most objective standards, Triumph nevertheless remains a warning from history, not least on what there is to be feared from large crowds: it started to happen here.
Triumph of the Will is available on DVD from Simply Media.