YouTube hovers in paradox: It’s a platform for expression that vacillates on the kinds of expression it wants to support. Even when the site makes constructive changes in the content it promotes or prohibits, the outcomes raise questions about censorship and curation. On Wednesday YouTube revealed extensive new policies around hate speech in a move to “reduce more hateful and supremacist content from YouTube,” as the company announced in a blog post.
The policy also meant the removal of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda epic “Triumph of the Will,” which left the site hours after YouTube announced its new standards. After all, “Triumph of the Will” falls under the rubric of “videos that promote or glorify Nazi ideology, which is inherently discriminatory,” as YouTube explains one prohibited category. The movie is also regarded as one with major historical value, raising essential questions about the nature of the film medium. Does it belong in the same category as Lunikoff, a German Neo-Nazi band whose channel also got the boot?
Riefenstahl’s harrowing depiction of the Nuremberg Rallies remains an essential look at the ideological power of the moving image, and how it can be co-opted on a mass scale. Despite the film’s aims, it has been taught in universities for decades — and not because film professors hope to advance the horrific mindset of the Third Reich. The movie uses the singular power of the medium to glorify Adolf Hitler in visceral terms: From the moment the filmmaker’s camera advances through the clouds, tracking Hitler’s descent to the rising crescendo of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” it elevates the rising dictator to god-like stature. Similarly, montages of soldiers saluting their leader — and, later, children in a Hitler Youth parade — illustrate the capacity of the Third Reich to convey the deranged euphoria of subservience.
The movie also illuminates how a nation can filter its own realities through recorded media. “Triumph of the Will” takes place one month after Hitler became Führer of Germany, and a little over a year after the first concentration camp, Dachau, opened near Munich. The systematic murder of Jews and other persecuted minorities, otherwise known as the Final Solution, was well under way. Yet Riefenstahl’s swooning portrait of military strength and Hitler’s delusional Aryan superiority complex swaps out the awful truth for the Nazis’ preferred version. “Triumph of the Will” plays like a dystopian vision of an alternate future in which Hitler won the war, conquered the world, and his supporters salute his splendor ad infinitum.
All of which makes it hard to argue that “Triumph of the Will” should sit on a global streaming platform sans context, or that it deserves to be there at all. Modern Nazism has to go, so it’s only logical to assume that its oldest tribute reel should get the boot as well. However, that argument negates the cinematic framework within which “Triumph of the Will” must be understood.
As a matter of pure formalism, the movie exists on the same continuum as Sergei Eistenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” in its capacity to galvanize a sense of national pride through the language of film. However, that deeper understanding is essential when considering these films; without it, their capacity to enchant continues to grow unchecked. North Korean media cranks out its own variations of “Triumph of the Will” on a regular basis; Fox News, in its lowest moments, has been guilty of similar charges. Studying “Triumph of the Will” gives us a baseline: This is not the way we want this medium used. But in order to understand how and why it happened, it can’t be erased.
YouTube’s decision is the latest installment in the complex discourse surrounding “Triumph of the Will.” Riefenstahl was at once ostracized and celebrated in her post-WWII life. And much like the racist worldview of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (which is still on YouTube), Riefenstahl’s most famous work has been a flashpoint for arguments about representation for generations.
Ultimately, YouTube is a business, not a haven for free speech or education; it lacks the nuance to tap into such debates. (There are other sources for that: “Triumph of the Will” remains on Archive.org, an essential academic and historical resource.) As of this writing, Riefenstahl’s 1936 “Olympia,” which includes a similarly fawning portrait of Hitler at Berlin’s Summer Olympics ceremony, remains on YouTube. So do tidbits from numerous Hitler speeches (many of which are credited to French distributor Pathé), at least one bootleg upload of “Triumph of the Will,” and plenty of clips. If enough users complain, perhaps those fragments will go, too.
YouTube did not respond to a request for comment, but in searching for “Triumph of the Will” on the site, one aspect of its strategy becomes clear. The first result is a trenchant essay from the insightful YouTube channel “One Hundred Years of Cinema.” Without endorsing Riefenstahl’s abhorrent agenda, the 18-minute piece explains how “Triumph of the Will” emerged from a tradition of propagandistic storytelling. This may be a sufficient end point for now, but in the long term, it raises major issues surrounding the platform’s capacity as a historical archive, and how much viewers can be trusted to do some of the legwork on their own. These are the challenges that no algorithm can solve.