Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted February 14, 2006 in propaganda in the Nazi era
Leni Riefenstahl, Excerpt from Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir (New York: Picador, 1987)

Leni Riefenstahl was hired to make a film about the 1934 Nazi party congress in Nuremberg which became Triumph of the Will. (She had made a short film about the 1933 rally, a film which she claimed later to have been very unhappy with, the previous year.) She claims that she did not wanted and told Hitler’s deputies that she had to see Hitler. As she writes in her Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir (1987), pp. 156ff:

One hour later I was in my car, speeding to Nuremberg, with only one thought in mind: to free myself from this project. That afternoon I found Hitler. He was at the rally site, surrounded by a group of men…, and as I headed towards him I sensed that he knew what I wanted.
After our exchange of greetings he said amiably, but earnestly: “Party Member Hess has told me why you wish to speak to me. I can assure you that your worries are groundless. You will have no problems this time.”
“That is not all, my Führer. I am afraid I cannot make this film.”
“Why not?”
“I am completely unfamiliar with all the subject matter. I can’t even tell the SA from the SS.”
“That’s an advantage. Then you’ll see only the essentials. I don’t want a boring Party rally film; I don’t want newsreel shots. I want an artistic visual document. The Party people don’t understand this. Your Blue Light [Riefenstahl’s first film] proved that you can do it.”
I interrupted. “That wasn’t a documentary. How am I supposed to know what is politically important or unimportant, what should or shouldn’t be shown? If my ignorance makes me leave out some personality or other, I’ll make a lot of mistakes.”
Hitler listened attentively. Then he said, smiling, but in a resoluted tone, “You’re too sensitive. You’re just imagining all these obstacles. Don’t worry, and don’t force me to keep asking you. It’s only six days you’ll be giving me.”
“Six days?” Again I interrupted him. “It’s going to take months. The main work starts in the editing room. But quite apart from the time factor,” I pleaded, “I could never take responsibility for such a project.”
Then Hitler became insistent. “Fraulein Riefenstahl, you have to have more self-confidence. You can and you will do this project.” It sounded almost like an order.
I realized I could not break Hitler’s resolve. Now at least I had to try and obtain the best possible working conditions. I asked him, “Will I have complete freedom in my work, or could Dr. Goebbels and his people order me around?”
“Out of the question. The Party will exert no influence on you. I have discussed this with Dr. Goebbels.”
“Not even financially?”
“If the Party were to finance the film,” he said sarcastically, “it would obtain the money only after the Party rally was over. The Party agencies have received instruction from me to support you and your people.”
“Will I be given a deadline for the completion of the film?”
At last, growing impatient, Hitler barked, “No, you can take a year or several years. You are not to be under any time pressure!”
Abandoning my resistance, I ventured to make one last request. “I’ll try it. But I can do it only if I can be free after completing this project and do not have to make any more films to order. That must be my reward. I apologize for making this request. But I wouldn’t want to go on living if I had to give up acting.”
Hitler, clearly satisfied that I had given in, took both of my hands and said, “Thank you, Fraulein Riefenstahl! I will keep my word. After this Party rally film, you can make any films you like.”
Despite everything, once the decision was made, I felt a sense of relief, and tremendously encouraged by the thought that I would be completely free after this project and be able to do whatever I wished.

The filming of Triumph of the Will
I had to work out how to raise the film above a newsreel level and it wasn’t easy to transform speeches, pageants, and so many almost identical events into a motion picture that would not bore the spectators. A plot, of course, would be inappropriate. The only solution I hit upon was to shoot the documentary events in as versatile a manner as possible, with the emphasis on dynamic rather than static tasks, and I achieved this by having the cameramen practice rollerskating. Such effects were seldom employed in those days…..I wanted to try it and so I built rails and tracks wherever I could at the rally site. I even wanted to install a tiny lift on a 140-foot flag pole in order to achieve intensely visual effects…..
We did not always get what we wanted. For instance, we provisionally added a 35 foot balcony, with tracks, to a house from which Hitler usually watched the parades. Here we could have made first-class tracking shots of the marching groups. But just a few minutes before the start of the period, the track was shut down by SS men. We had to make do with shooting from roofs and windows.
I had a brainwave concerning Hitler’s speech to the Hitler Youth….and by sheer persistence, I managed to get my way. In order to liven up the potentially monotonous shots of countless speeches, I had circular tracks built around the podium. The camera could circle Hitler at a suitable distance while he spoke. This resulted in new and lively images.

Putting together the actual film
I had to sift through 400,000 feet of rushes, of which I wanted to use only about 10,000 feet. ….. The task seemed almost hopeless.

At the premier of the film
Holding my eyes shut most of the time, I kept hearing more and more clapping. The end of the film was greeted by long, indeed almost endless, applause. At that moment my strength ran out altogether. When Hitler thanked me and handed me a lilac bouquet, I felt faint—and then lost consciousness.
After the war, the German illustrated magazines with high circulations claimed that after the premiere Hitler wanted to present me with a diamond necklace and that I gazed so deeply into his eyes that I blacked out.”

Category: propaganda in the Nazi era