The ghost of Tannhäuser haunts the opening scenes of Leni Riefenstahl’s hyper-real document of the 1934 Nuremberg rally. The surging rhythms and melodic leaps from Wagner’s great overture are intertwined within Herbert Windt’s blustery score. Ironic, perhaps, that the theme for the Goddess of Love should here soundtrack the entrance of the high priest of hate. Shortly afterwards, we hear something that at first we might mistake for the Internationale – of course, it’s not. But the resemblance is typical of the way the National Socialist regime appropriated motifs from the International Socialist Movement. Later on, the manner in which the front ranks of the crowd will speak in unison was, in the words of Siegfried Kracauer, an ‘outright imitation of communist propaganda methods’.
It is tempting to see in Herbert Windt’s diffuse and oleaginous appropriation of popular themes and classical allusions some sort of articulation of a distinctly Nazi aesthetic – the analogue in many respects to their rhetoric. But Wagnerian motifs and Straussian harmonies were as common to pre-Nazi German cinema as they were to Hollywood films before and after the war. What Triumph of the Will‘s music lacks, of course, is the element of doubt and uncertainty introduced by the influence of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system on many Hollywood composers. Nonetheless, in its jingoistic heroism, and the peculiarly thin, under-composed feel much of the music reveals on closer examination, Windt’s style finally recalls none other than John Williams. It is a fact remarked on by Mervyn Cooke in his recent History of Film Music, that many of Windt’s themes and fanfares would not sound out of place in Star Wars.