leni riefenstahl with hitler

Propaganda: Activating Flawed Ideologies

Regarded by cinema historians as ‘the best propaganda film of all time,’ and a film that continues to inspire violent debate, Triumph of the Will linked Riefenstahl forevermore in the public record with fascism and Hitler.
—Felicia Feaster, Turner Classic Movies

Neither is there anything to be gained by ignoring her skill as a filmmaker, her place in film history, or her influence. Rather, we hope that this retrospective . . . will contribute to a discussion of the unsettling power of cinema and the relationship between documentary and propaganda, as well as the complex but crucial interplay of aesthetics and ideology.
—Leni Riefenstahl • UCLA Retrospective, UCLA Film and Television Archive

Throughout this year as we examine the theme of propaganda, it is useful to introduce a few simple concepts along the way that can help us to see why a film may fit into this theme, and if it does, to decide whether or not its communication succeeds in its intended influence given its design. Defining propaganda can help us with the first task, so that is where we will begin.

Many of us think of propaganda as subversive communication, but propaganda can also be used to influence positive outcomes, for example to promote improved public safety or to educate. In fact, for better or for worse, it was a formal project of the Catholic Church in the 17th century that first employed propaganda to influence the masses toward Catholic beliefs (Auerbach & Castronovo, 2013).

In 1622 to counter the widening influence of the Reformation, Pope Gregory XV charged a group of cardinals with the mission of spreading the faith worldwide.  . . .  the pope called for an organization dedicated to propaganda, not to distort information or to proliferate lies but to disseminate what he and other believers took to be the one truth about religion.

Propaganda is described in Krull & Shukyn’s work (2015) like this:

Presenting information subjectively rather than objectively is generally referred to as bias. When politicians do it, it’s referred to as spin. When it’s used to control the thinking and behavior of a group of people, it’s called propaganda.

Further, I especially like their tips for recognizing bias and propaganda:

    • note what’s included and what’s not,
    • notice the language used, and
    • consider the credibility of the source.

The information (or idea) in the work is biased if you find that only one side of a complex issue is being presented. Think of a court case where only the state presents evidence regarding the accused. Without evidence that supports more than one side, it is difficult if not impossible to understand or to evaluate in order to make a good decision.

A Definition of Propaganda

The “Testimony to Tolerance Initiative,” a program established by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, offers the following definition for propaganda (2009),

  1. Information or ideas methodically spread to promote or injure a cause, movement, nation, etc.
  2. The particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement.

Lies spread in today’s political climate may be called misinformation, “fake news,” or simply “not the whole truth” depending on your perspective. In a review of Jason Stanley’s book How Propaganda Works, Muder (2015) says, under the heading of “Defining Propaganda,”

Stanley proposes a broader definition of propaganda than just lies . . . it’s the use of deception, emotion, misdirection, intimidation, or stereotype to eliminate certain facts or points of view from the discussion.

A specific use of a slur, for example, may not contain any false information, but instead pushes out of mind the humanity of the slurred person or group. Having police pay special attention to ‘thugs’ doesn’t sound as bad as racially profiling young black men. Undermining ‘that bitch at the office’ is easier to justify than driving women out of the workplace.

Thus the words people use can offer clues that the information presented is intended to influence perceptions. For example, it depends whose side you’re on when we use slurs to describe people in a conflict. We may describe Islāmic factions in Middle East conflicts as either “terrorists” or “rebel forces,” depending on the point of view.

Very recently, the Dilbert cartoon strip focused on the use of words to influence perceptions (Adams, 2018).

Dilbert cartoon by Scott Adams
Insulting Within Company Guidelines, by Scott Adams

Hitler’s Creation of a Flawed Ideology

Appointed Chancellor in January 1933, Hitler first created an image of a united and powerful Germany—through his inspiring oratory and dissemination of the Riefenstahl film, Triumph of the Will (1934), among other much more nefarious activities. He deceived many people during this time, including world leaders, drawing on his charisma and potential for leadership, and through his study of mass psychology.

Then, he popularized a flawed ideology, the false belief or delusion that Germany needed to achieve a racially pure and productive society, “to restore the racial ‘integrity’ of the German nation” (“Euthanasia Program”, 2018). According to the US Holocaust Museum (“Timeline of events – 1933–1938”, 2018), Hitler’s regime

established the first concentration camps in 1933, imprisoning its political opponents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others classified as ‘dangerous.’

Beginning in late 1939, Hitler accelerated the heinous offenses that resulted from instilling the false belief of racial purity and its relationship to restoring the German nation—that persons less than physically fit did not belong and that Germany’s Jewish population was a significant problem.

The ‘euthanasia’ program was Nazi Germany’s first program of mass murder. It predated the genocide of European Jewry (the Holocaust) by approximately two years.

Establishing the false ideology, tactics could then be put forward as necessary to defend the integrity and peace of the country. Stanley (2015) describes it this way:

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

Thus, Hitler had laid important groundwork for the Holocaust with Riefenstahl’s film in 1934. Robert Cialdini describes this as “pre-suasion, i.e., laying the groundwork for influence before you make your pitch. If you wish, you may get up to speed on some major influences in social psychology that came after WWII by watching a few minutes of the following YouTube video (Cialdini, 2012):

Is This Movie Intended As Propaganda?

As we know, all documentary filmmakers must be selective in the information they show because, if for no other reason, running time is a constraint. However, what they choose to include and what they omit in telling their stories can offer clues to bias.

In this month’s documentary film, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Müller, 1993), it may be difficult to determine its alignment with our theme. For one thing, we may not be aware of what is left out. And another, we may not be able to judge whether the information that is included is valid, and whether the chosen sources of information represent facts from all sides of the events.

This movie was made in the early 1990s, which, as we may remember, is the same time the World Wide Web became available as an Internet protocol. When Leni Riefenstahl directed her first film, The Blue Light, in 1932, motion pictures were in about the same relative stage of development as the Web.

With the Great War in Europe over, it may have been an exciting time for some young people just starting a career—especially for one as bright, assertive, and grandly ambitious as Riefenstahl, who was limited by the lack of opportunities for women in the traditional workforce, but not so in the movie industry.

By then, Riefenstahl had already become internationally-known first as a dancer and then as actress in Arnold Fanck’s “mountain films” of the 1920s. When The Blue Light (Riefenstahl, 1932), for which she both acted and directed, won the award at the Venice Film Festival, her career advanced even more. However, it also was a time of great need in Germany, when many people were disadvantaged because of an economic depression.

Leni Riefenstahl, actress
Leni Riefenstahl, actress

Riefenstahl must have been enormously flattered by the Führer’s attention, as any young person would be if tapped for duty on a project personally important to a country’s leader. When she helped to fulfill his dream so ably through her movie, Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1934), and then when it garnered international acclaim, she surely felt overwhelmingly gratified.

Not long thereafter, her film of the Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia (Riefenstahl, 1938), “considered a classic cinematic masterpiece,” premiered in Berlin on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1938 (Flippo, 2003). However, since by then she had acted in a number of movies, she may have accepted the work of directing these films only as a stop-gap activity when she really wanted to become a Hollywood movie star. Who knows? In any event, according to one account, it seems that she couldn’t tolerate negative criticism of her work (Austerlitz, 2007).

Riefenstahl’s eye for sumptuous imagery was in evidence even at this early date, but some German critics were less than enthusiastic about her work. . . . As she noted to film critic Rudolf Arnheim (himself a Jew, soon forced to flee his native country): ‘As long as Jews are film critics, I’ll never have a success. But watch out, when Hitler takes the rudder everything will change.’ And in fact, Riefenstahl’s account of her first meeting with the future German chancellor reveals . . . ‘It was as if the earth opened up before me. . . . I had been infected, no doubt about it.’

At the end of our movie, we are still left with a question, as Feaster (2017) notes,

Muller’s documentary raises a compelling question about whether an artwork can be judged separately from the political context in which it was made.

Her now-famous film, Triumph, was later recognized for the propaganda that it was, after Hitler became so powerful that he convinced an entire country to, in effect, participate in mass murder.

Glossary terms

Flawed ideology

A flawed ideology is a set of false or misleading ideas that are impervious to evidence (Stanley, 2015).


Pre-suasion describes the process of gaining agreement with a message before it’s been sent.

  1. Information or ideas methodically spread to promote or injure a cause, movement, nation, etc.
  2. The particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement.

Subversion refers to a process by which the values and principles of a system in place are contradicted or reversed, an attempt to transform the established social order and its structures of power, authority, hierarchy, and norm (social) (“Subversion”, 2017) .


Adams, S. (2018, Jan 9). Insulting within company guidelines. Dilbert. Retrieved from https://dilbert.com/strip/2018-01-09

Auerbach, J., & Castronovo, R. (Eds.) (2013). Introduction: Thirteen propositions about propaganda. In The Oxford handbook of propaganda studies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Austerlitz, S. (2007). Focused on the Führer – Riefenstahl made Hitler’s films; new biographies ask: Did she share his beliefs? San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/books/article/FOCUSED-ON-THE-FUHRER-Riefenstahl-Made-Hitler-s-2567993.php

Cialdini, R. (2012, Apr 20). Robert Cialdini explains social psychology. Big Think. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZF1pVqkGTO4

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