Donald Trump upon his return to the White House October 5, 2020 by the Forward

Did the Trump White House really echo ‘Triumph of the Will’?

In film theory, there’s something called the Kuleshov Effect, which teaches that juxtaposing images in sequence can suggest completely different reads of a shot.

A typical example is an image of a blank-faced man placed alongside an image of a baby in a casket, a contrast that makes viewers interpret the man’s expression as sad — but if the man is instead shown alongside a bowl of soup he reads as hungry. All film students learn this quirk of editing.

Most also watch Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”

Now, a viral tweet comparing a montage from that film to a White House video of President Trump’s return to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center is testing the Kuleshov Effect’s premise — while drawing a troubling parallel.

Journalist and filmmaker Matt Danzico paired the images of Trump’s homecoming with shots from Riefenstahl’s film. The resemblance, when seen in a split screen, is striking, including similar shots of landing gears touching grass, close angles of Trump and Hitler disembarking from aircrafts, and reverent up-tilted views of the two leaders waving from balconies.

Danzico called the images “eerily similar,” while noting in a second tweet that he’d placed a single clip from the White House film alongside non-continuous footage from “Triumph of the Will” that he’d arranged to mirror the Trump film. And while his argument was persuasive enough to go viral — the shots do look alike — he also did heavy Kuleshov-lifting by putting them together and forcing our association. Humans are wired to find commonalities, and make meaning out of images placed close together. We seek patterns.

So is there any merit to the comparison? Riefenstahl’s films, despite their subject, are still touchpoints of modern filmmaking because they serve as a template for creating effective visual stories. Techniques she pioneered continue to be used in documentary filmmaking, and her imagery has frequently been invoked as a shorthand for fascism in blockbusters like “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones,”

But Riefenstahl was a subtler breed of propagandist than those homages indicate — and subtler still than whoever was behind the film for Trump. Her films were effective because they didn’t just prop up Hitler, but the German people as a whole. Even in the Danzico’s clip, curated to predominantly focus on Hitler, we see the people receiving the dictator with glee. The full film devotes far more of its time to Hitler’s volk than to the man himself, because it knew that it was ultimately for their eyes, and meant to rouse their spirits.

And therein lies the main difference: The filmmakers aren’t thinking of boosting Trump’s supporters. They’re thinking of pleasing Trump. And that alone is all the distinction we need.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at grisar@forward.com

Is this Trump video like ‘Triumph of the Will’?

Author

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

Did the Trump White House really echo ‘Triumph of the Will’?

Thank you!

This article has been sent!

Close