Movies for the Classroom: Triumph of the Will

If any teacher is starting, or is in the middle of, a unit about the Holocaust, you MUST include this film in your lessons.

Triumph of the Will (1935), directed by Leni Riefenstahl, is widely considered among the greatest propaganda films of all time.  Riefenstahi documents the 1934 Party Congress of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), or Nazi Party.  In her camera work, editing, and use of moving and close-up shots, Riefenstahi succeeds in creating a dazzling, upward movement of a people on the rise–and a leader at the forefront of that movement.

 In many classrooms, students have at least a cursory understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust.  However, many teachers, due to either ignorance, lack of content knowledge, etc., paint the tragedy as a simplistic moral tale: innocents slaughtered by heartless, unfeeling monsters.  Here’s an experiment I do that proves this otherwise.

Play the film for the students–and make sure you don’t tell the children any more than its a movie from the 1930s.  Watch and note how many times the children tap or play along to the marching music, cheer, give a Nazi salute, etc. 

I then ask, “Class, you know about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, right?”  Most of my kids will probably respond about the Holocaust, about starting wars, hating Jews, or at the very least “he’s a bad guy.”

Then comes my response: “…then why did you enjoy the film so much?”

Most of the class would sit, stunned.  One year, a girl started to cry.  For the students, the realization that they became immersed in Nazi propaganda is a frightening experience.  Its an experience that’s absolutely necessary in order to understand the Holocaust.

The slaughter of millions of people was not done by mere monsters.  As shown in Triumph of the Will, an entire nation of regular people–people just like you and me–was seduced by the call of a return to glory and happiness.  

Little did they realize then the horrible cost of that seduction.

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