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Leni Riefenstahl’s Lost Film: Victory of Faith (1933)

DVD Cover [1]2,015 words

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s [2] Triumph of the Will (1935-German), about the 1934 Nuremberg Party rally, is one of the most famous documentary films ever made. Virtually unknown is her first-ever documentary, a comparable film about the 1933 Party rally, Victory of Faith (Der Sieg des Glaubens) (1933-German). It was lost between 1934, when Hitler ordered all prints destroyed, and the 1990s, when a surviving copy was discovered in Great Britain. 

WWII historian David Irving thinks Victory of Faith is a better film than Triumph of the Will. He writes [3]:

Victory of Faith provides a revealing look at the Nazi movement in the first years of its triumphs. The National Socialist movement still bears the marks of its street-fighter origins; its rituals are often raw, lacking the orchestrated precision and theatrical grandeur we associate with later Nazi stagecraft. Victory of Faith fills a gap in our understanding of the Third Reich, where Hitler and his Party are at a pivotal stage in its early development.

Party rallies [4], which were festive occasions as well as political gatherings, were held between 1923 and 1938, mostly in Nuremberg.

The 5th NSDAP rally, 1933’s “Rally of Victory” (each congress had a theme; this one signified the NS rise to power earlier that year), filmed by Riefenstahl as Victory of Faith, was the first of the monster rallies, with 500,000 attendees.

Over a million Germans attended the following year’s rally, filmed by Riefenstahl as Triumph of the Will. (Hitler, not Riefenstahl, selected the title.) Later rallies were even larger.

The final Nuremberg rally, the 10th, the “Rally of Greater Germany” celebrating the annexation of Austria, was the last.

A planned 1939 “Rally of Peace,” scheduled to begin September 2, 1939, was cancelled after Hitler, in joint agreement with Stalin’s Communists, invaded Poland on September 1. Two weeks later, Western elites’ long-time friend, and soon-to-be affectionate comrade-in-arms again, the Soviet Union, invaded from the East, and the two dictatorships split Poland between them.

Official films of the Nuremberg rallies were made from 1927 on. Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries of the three rallies between 1933 and 1935 are the most famous. The first was Victory of Faith in 1933. The 1934 rally was the subject of her most celebrated movie, Triumph of the Will. For the 1935 rally she made a short exclusively about the Army, Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces (Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht) (1935-German, 28 mins.).

A non-Riefenstahl short about the 1933 rally can also be seen: Der Deutsche Reichstag zu Nürnberg [5] (1933-German, 5 mins.). It is a silent film (except for a musical score) with German intertitles shot on 16 mm stock. The camera or playback speed is not well-synchronized, so movements appear speeded up and jerky, as with many silent films played back at incorrect speed.

In addition to the official films and newsreels, two sets of official or semi-official books covering the rallies were issued.

The “red books” were published by the NSDAP and contained the proceedings of the congress as well as full texts of every speech given in chronological order.

The “blue books” were published initially by Julius Streicher, Gauleiter of Nuremberg, and later by Hanns Kerrl, not by the party press. These were larger scale books that included the text of speeches and proceedings and photographs. The volume by Streicher commemorating the 1933 rally was Reichstagung in Nürnberg 1933 (Berlin: Vaterländischer Verlag C. A. Weller, 1933).

Collections of Heinrich Hoffman’s photographs were published to commemorate each Party congress as well, along with pamphlets of Hitler’s speeches.

The various publications are today considered collectors’ items.

The Rally of Victory

Victory of Faith is the film record of the 1933 Party rally. Following the Röhm purge several months later, Hitler ordered the film banned, every copy withdrawn and destroyed, because Ernst Röhm figured so prominently in it.

Röhm was the chief of staff of Hitler’s street-fighting, paramilitary brownshirt SA (Sturmabteilung), which by 1933 numbered two million men. He was the second most powerful man in the Party behind Hitler.

According to Wikipedia,

The film Triumph des Willens was produced to replace Victory of Faith and follows a similar script which is evident when one sees both films side by side, for example, the city of Nuremberg scenes—down to the shot of a cat that is included in the city driving sequence in both films. The innovative camera angles and editing that made Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens such a ground-breaking film are already demonstrated in Der Sieg des Glaubens. Furthermore, Herbert Windt reused much of the musical score for this film in Triumph des Willens.

Windt was one of the leading film score and radio composers of the Third Reich.

The documentary begins slowly, with architectural shots of old Nuremberg buildings, and no people at all. Next we see men constructing wooden bleachers in anticipation of crowds, and the arrival of dignitaries on a train pulled by a swastika-bedecked locomotive. Hitler arrives separately by plane.

The movie gathers momentum as the viewer peers over Hitler’s shoulder as his car moves through Nuremberg’s crowded streets.

The camera shows swastika banners, marching brigades, music, parades, speeches, and enormous masses of people, interspersed with dozens of individual faces of party members, soldiers, SA and SS men, Hitler Youth, and townspeople.

There is no narration.

It is unfortunate that color photography had not yet been perfected by the early 1930s. Both Victory and Triumph would have been marvelously enhanced by its use. One cannot refrain from imagining what such hypothetical color films would have looked like.

One gradually becomes aware that not only the passage of time, and the German language, makes us see the movie differently than contemporaries would have, but that many of the faces of dignitaries instantly recognizable to German viewers in 1933 are completely obscure today.

For example, David Irving mentions that Ernst Röhm’s role in the 1933 rally was second only to Hitler’s, and that he figures prominently in Riefenstahl’s film.

Yet, while I could pick Röhm out in some of the scenes, I became aware as I watched that I was basically unfamiliar with his face.

Again, I did not realize until later that one of the prominently featured speakers was Julius Streicher (Gauleiter of Nuremberg), because I was also unfamiliar with his face, person, and voice—even though, as with Röhm, I know a fair amount about the man. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. The Jewish-owned megasite YouTube even flags a 3-minute compilation of films clips [6] of Streicher as “offensive.”

Such ignorance lessens comprehension of what one is watching, because the vast majority of dignitaries are not explicitly identified. The same is true of many of the organized units one sees massed or marching.

Of course, everyone knows who Hitler is. And I readily recognize familiar figures such as Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and Heinrich Himmler. Even so, many things undoubtedly went over my head.

As an aside, this is the only film I’ve seen, or remember, where Rudolf Hess speaks. My impression of him otherwise—probably derived from still photographs and the absence of talking film footage—is one of  extreme taciturnity, even though that may not have been the case.

Several selections from Hitler’s speeches are included. In one he speaks of victory after struggle, and aspirations for ethnic unity:

Many of you look back on a fight that has lasted for years. Today we see the result of that fight. The National Socialist Party has become the state. Its leaders today are the leaders of the German Reich who must answer to history. You are answerable before God and history to accomplish through the political education of all Germans that they become one people, one idea, and one expression of a single will.

A laser-like focus on youth, akin to the Left’s, was apparent in his remarks to 65,000 Hitler Youth from every corner of the Reich (another 1 1/2 million members were not present in the arena):

You will be one people bound together as tightly as you are now. As German youth, our only hope—the courage and faith of our people. You, my youth, are the living guarantee, the living future of Germany, not an empty idea, nor empty formalism, an insipid plan. No! You are the blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh, spirit of our spirit. You are the continuation of our people.

Joseph Goebbels [7]—like Hitler, a consummate orator [8]—gave a speech on “The Racial Question and World Propaganda [9]” that does not appear in the film, perhaps because he explicitly criticized Jews.

Indeed, none of the excerpts from any of the speeches mention the Jewish question.

Ernst Röhm

SA chief Ernst Röhm was a homosexual, as was the hierarchy of the SA. In 1931, the Münchener Post, a Left-wing newspaper, obtained and published Röhm’s letters to a friend discussing his homosexual affairs. (Jews and the Left are fanatically pro-homosexual, except when homosexuality can be used to discredit ideological, racial, or religious enemies.)

Röhm and the SA also belonged to the extreme Left wing of the NSDAP. After the seizure of power from the Jews, Communists, and conventional socialists in 1933 (the “first revolution”), the SA demanded a “second revolution” to dispossess business and the Army: the nationalization of industry, worker control, confiscation and redistribution of landed estates, and social equality.

Indeed, one suspects that a pointedly egalitarian passage in one Hitler speech—only Röhm is present on the platform with the Führer—may have been tailored to fit his powerful lieutenant’s ideological predilections.

Adolf Hitler and SA leader Ernst Röhm stride together toward the cenotaph during the national party day of the NSDAP, Nuremberg, Germany, September 3, 1933 [10]

Adolf Hitler and SA leader Ernst Röhm stride together toward the cenotaph during the national party day of the NSDAP, Nuremberg, Germany, September 3, 1933

As part of the second revolution, Röhm and his colleagues envisioned the SA, now over two million strong, as the German army of the future, replacing the Reichswehr and its long-standing professional officer corps [11] with traditions dating back to Frederick the Great. In February 1934, Röhm demanded that the Reichswehr be absorbed into the SA to create a “people’s army” under his leadership.

Adamantly opposed by the Army, Hermann Göring, SS leader Heinrich Himmler, and others, Röhm evidently planned a coup if his demands were not met.

During the purge known as the Night of the Long Knives on June 30, 1934, Röhm was personally arrested by Hitler, and subsequently shot on the orders of Himmler and Göring in his prison cell in Munich. Many other SA leaders were liquidated as well.

Lost Film

As a consequence, Hitler ordered all known copies of Victory of Faith destroyed. It was long believed lost until a single copy was found in storage in Britain in the 1990s. Triumph of the Will, produced the next year, showed the new Nazi hierarchy, with the SS now featured as the Nazis’ premier uniformed paramilitary group, and Röhm replaced by Victor Lutze as the much less powerful new head of the SA.

Mainstream sources state that in April 1934 (i.e., before the Röhm purge in June) Riefenstahl was visiting Great Britain to speak at major universities to discuss her documentary film techniques. During the visit at least one copy of Victory of Faith was made. This copy was rediscovered in the 1990s, after being in storage for more than 60 years, and is the only known surviving print.

However, in a lecture, David Irving, who knew Riefenstahl and discussed Victory of Faith with her, said that she possessed a copy—the implication being she had retained it for herself.

According to Irving, Victory of Faith is censored in Germany. Presumably, ownership or possession of the DVD would subject citizens to fines, imprisonment, or other criminal penalties.

Film Credits:

Victory of Faith (Der Sieg des Glaubens) (1933-German)

Documentary film of the Nuremberg Party Rally held August 30–September 3, 1933

Produced, directed, written, and edited by Leni Riefenstahl (Screen credit: “Artistic arrangement: Leni Riefenstahl”)

Studio: Propagandaministerium (Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, headed by Joseph Goebbels) and Hauptabteilung Film (Screen credit: “Produced by the national leadership of the N.S.D.A.P. Film Section”)

Distributor: UFA (Screen credit: “Distributed by regional Party film bureaus”)

Cinematographers: Sepp Allgeier, Franz Weihmayr, Walter Frentz [12], Richard Quaas, Paul Tesch (Screen note: “All the German newsreels made their footage available for this film”)

Music: Herbert Windt

Released: December 1933

Running time: 64 minutes

Language: German with English or Spanish subtitles