Director Leni Riefenstahl operating a camera from a lift basket while filming Triumph of the Will at the Nazi Party’s Nuremberg Rally, Germany, 1934. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Triumph of the Will, the 1935 Nazi propaganda film directed by Leni Riefenstahl in Nuremberg, comes up twice in the final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle. Both mentions of the film occur in the midst of Knausgaard’s epic tangent on Hitler’s autobiography and the rise of National Socialism in Europe.
The first comes during a discussion of the conversion of Martin Heidegger and other German intellectuals to Nazism. Quoting a German journalist on how Nazism provided a “widespread feeling of deliverance, of liberation from democracy,” Knausgaard indicates the sense we can get of “this aspect of the Third Reich—the popular demonstrations, the torchlit parades, the songs, the sense of community, all of which were unconditional joys to anyone who participated—by watching Riefenstahl’s films of the Nuremberg Rally… where all these elements are present.” Precisely because Riefenstahl’s film was so meticulously staged, Knausgaard alleges, it is striking how its “content far eclipses the fact, because emotions are stronger than all analyses, and here the emotions are set free. This is not politics, but something beyond. And it is something good.”
Knausgaard does not mean “good” in the moral sense. He refers to the feelings of the people involved in the marches and parades. As he does throughout the four-hundred page section, Knausgaard attempts to reconstruct the thoughts and emotions of those who were attracted to National Socialism, under the principle that it is impossible to understand the emergence of Nazism—“the last major utopian movement in the west”—without understanding what moved the people of Germany, and later of other European countries, to embrace it. And what moved them, in Knausgaard’s view, was not the Nazis’ promise to redistribute income, or Hitler’s analysis of world affairs, or even, initially, their hatred of the Jews. What moved them was, rather, the joyful feeling of togetherness and community, of being able to transcend not only the fragmented democracy of the Weimar period but politics altogether.