The “Horst Wessel Song”

As Hitler’s airplane finally emerges from the clouds in Scene 2, the audience hears a kind of brass fanfare that lets us know that something very important is about to take place. When Hitler’s plane begins its descent into Nuremberg and the impressive, medieval buildings come into view, the music transitions into a popular Nazi Party song. The particular song that Windt incorporates into the score is the Horst Wessel Song. The song was a kind of anthem for the Nazis and was named after its writer, Horst Wessel—a Party member who was murdered by a German communist in 1930. This song falls under the category of popular music and is meant to be sung by a large group of people, but Windt uses the tune to great effect in his instrumental arrangement. Though this particular song is normally performed as a rousing marching tune, Windt’s orchestration of the song is much more sophisticated. Windt uses a song that paints Hitler as a sort of folk hero while not allowing the music to be too simple or repetitive (attributes than can often be used to describe the songs of political movements).

The melody of the Horst Wessel Song is performed by trumpet, with the rest of the brass section giving the tune a kind of chorale-like quality. The same quality that gives Windt’s other brass features their heroic mood works well with the Horst Wessel Song as well. The string section, in a kind of role reversal with the brass section, pauses briefly before performing a counter melody. Because this counter melody begins a second later than the brass melody, its addition creates a kind of canon. Though the harmony of the Horst Wessel Song is extremely simple, the canon helps to add aural interest to Windt’s arrangement. Because of this aural trick of arrangement, the song is elevated from the category of popular music.

The choice to include the Horst Wessel Song is very symbolic and evokes an image of heroism. Of all the songs that could have been chosen for this particular scene of the film, Windt selected the anthem of the Nazi party. Even though Leni Riefenstahl always claimed that the film was not openly pro-Nazi, it seems evident that she was attempting to portray the Nazis in a very positive light. In Stefan Strötgen’s article on the role of music in Triumph of the Will, he writes, “the Horst Wessel Song was the Party Hymn and also a musical representation of the sacrificial myth—indispensable in the context of this movie.” In other words, the use of this important Nazi song was necessary because it helped to convey an important theme in Riefenstahl’s film. The film’s music is not just an incidental backdrop, but an integral element of the film that is used to great effect in portraying Hitler and the Nazis as heroes.

At the point discussed above, we are only about three minutes into the film and the film’s score already begins to remind us of the dramatic music of Richard Wagner. Barsam’s comment about the Valhalla-like nature of Nuremberg is fitting because the world of the Nordic gods is often the subject of Wagnerian operas. Though Wagner’s music is not used in Scene 1 or 2, Windt relies on the audience’s familiarity with Wagner’s music to establish a similar mood in Riefenstahl’s film. For example, Wagner frequently used the low brass to great effect in his works. In Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the composer relies on the low brass and shimmering strings for the musical motif used to symbolize Valhalla. Windt conjures up a similar feeling with his composition and arrangement.

It is possible that Windt’s Wagner-like music carried additional significance apart from setting the mood of the film. Wagner’s strong feelings of German nationalism are evident in his music, and the composer was also well known for his anti-Semitic feelings. It is at this point that we are reminded of the ugly realities of the Nazi Party. Riefenstahl tries very hard to make Hitler and the Party seem heroic, but even in slight musical references, modern viewers are reminded of the evil reality of Nazism. Riefenstahl’s film was called a documentary and was not created by the Nazis themselves, but its propagandistic objectives are only thinly veiled. A significant amount of time and energy was devoted to enhancing the public image of the Nazis. However, we must not be too quick to judge Riefenstahl or Windt. They cannot be entirely blamed for directly supporting an evil movement because in 1934, it would have been impossible to know of all the horrors that would eventually be perpetrated by the Nazis.