BERLIN – In the latest in our celebrated Making of… series, we look at the behind the scenes drama that went into the making of Leni Riefenstahl’s political documentary “Triumph of the Will”.
Mountaineer and film maker Leni Riefenstahl had dreamed for years of making a film with famed comedian Charlie Chaplin. She wrote him a number of letters including this one:
Dear Herr Chaplin,
My name is Leni Riefenstahl. I am a German film director and my work includes such hits as Das Blau Licht. I’m mad keen to do a film with you and seeing that I’m German and you have more than a passing resemblance to our Fuhrer, what do you say you come over and we kick around a few ideas? Hmmm?
However, Chaplin was unresponsive and so Riefenstahl wrote a letter to the proposed subject of her film:
My name is Leni Riefenstahl. I am a German film director and my work includes such hits as Das Blau Licht. I’m mad keen to do a film with you and seeing that we’re German and you have more than a passing resemblance to our Chaplin, what do you say you come over and we kick around a few ideas? Hmmm?
To Riefenstahl’s surprise Hitler responded immediately by telegram:
WONDERFUL IDEA STOP ALWAYS WANTED TO BE IN THE MOVIES STOP MUCH MORE FUN THAN ZE POLITICS STOP BUT IN FUTURE WRITE IN GERMAN YOU KEEP WRITING IN ENGLISH AND I WANT YOU TO STOP
Leni Riefenstahl was given carte blanche and all the resources of both the Nazi Party and the German state. She could use aerial shots and miles of film footage as well as a cast of thousands of obedient fanatical extras. However, Leni was not happy as can be seen from this diary entry.
June 4th, 1934
Filming again today all day. Got home exhausted. Stopped over at the Kino to check out the rushes and I can’t make head nor tail of it. No matter what direction I give, Adolf insists on improvising his own business. He siegs away all the time and then looks stern and glares with those eyes. It’s all very well but he looks nothing like Chaplin when he’s doing that. He doesn’t have Charlie Chaplin’s lightness, nor his warmth. Plus he refuses me to film him out of uniform. I did one day with him wearing the bowler hat and walking with the cane and it was fantastic, but for some reason he felt it beneath his dignity and had the negative destroyed and shot my first AD. NOt all is lost. Speer’s set design is impeccable.
Triumph of the Will was a massive hit in Germany. Not so much in Austria until the Anschluss, it performed poorly in Poland until 1939 when it picked up and France until 1940 when it became a huge hit. Any country where the film failed to perform soon became a target for Adolph Hitler’s armies. The Riefenstahl was satisfied with the film although she rued having to abandon the Chaplin story-line for making a more straightforward film about Hitler and the Nazis. However, she was furious when in 1940 Chaplin released The Great Dictator which she claimed was essentially her idea. She attempted to sue Chaplin but with the ongoing Second World War the legal papers were never properly served.
The Triumph of the Will was released in 1934.
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