Cult of Personality, Propaganda Film, and Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Exploring Putin’s Dictatorship Through State Funeral (2019) and The Triumph of the Will (1934)

We have all seen news of the devastating Russian invasion of Ukraine. On February 24th, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, causing major escalation within the Russo-Ukrainian war. The Russian build up to this invasion has been ongoing since early 2021.

The United States reported unusual movements of Russian troops near the Ukraine borders in November 2021. Vladimir Putin went forward with this barbaric invasion. This further shows his aggressive tactics. This will lead to more war and dictatorships in the future of our world. This invasion showcases the dangerous path of the future, especially within Russia and Ukraine. But this impacts the world as a whole. Louise Branson for USA Today writes, “Putin, like other dictators, is driven by vanity, the thirst for power and the willingness to do almost anything to keep that power. But his KGB past, now coming into play, adds a scary element.”

When we reexamine propaganda films from our past–such as The Triumph of the Will–, as well as recent documentaries highlighting dictatorships–such as State Funeral–, Putin’s current rein as President of Russia can clearly be seen as the dictatorship that it truly is.

Lora Korpar for Newsweek writes, “shortly before the invasion began, the Levada Center, an independent Russian opinion research company, conducted a poll that found 60 percent of people thought the “initiators” of conflict in eastern Ukraine were the United States and NATO.”

The report from Levada Center also said only 3 percent of responders felt Russia was responsible for the invasion. 14 percent viewed Ukraine as responsible. These results signify a modern Cult of Personality. This points toward Putin’s status as a dictator. He tries to make his people view everyone else as the problem except him.

The Triumph of the Will and State Funeral feature crowds of supporters. These supporters stand beside leaders who make dangerous decisions  because they want to maintain ridiculous levels of power over their people–and the world–through war.

Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1934)  is a pure propaganda film through and through. It views Hitler as a man wanting unity, rather than a man driven by hatred of people he deemed not worthy. Ukrainian film director ‘s State Funeral (2019) is a documentary utilizing real footage of Stalin’s funeral. The documentary showcases the cult of personality and the brainwashed people of the USSR. We will examine the connections between these films, how they both showcase dictators from different perspectives–those brainwashed and those who see the truths behind the actions of these disgusting men–as well as with the current political climate and Putin’s dictatorial actions.

Examining the differences between older and newer films–as well as current events– is a staple of  the great guys with VMP Films. They advised me to write this article.

Film-Making Techniques in the Propaganda Film & Documentary

The Triumph of the Will is well-regarded as one of the best documentaries of all time for its film-making techniques. These included its use of crane and tracking shots. This signified a change in the film-making landscape. But can a film truly be regarded as the best of the documentary genre if it does not tell the truth? These crane shots highlighted the size and scope of the crowds of Nazis, especially within shots of parades and speeches, trying to brainwash the audience. 

State Funeral uses similar footage of crowds gathering for Stalin’s funeral, listening to broadcasts pumped through the cities, expressing Stalin as a friend of the people, someone with a kind-heart. These propaganda speeches pumped throughout the city worked to brainwash the citizens through praising Stalin, creating a Cult of Personality.

The Triumph of the Will (1934) / State Funeral (2019)

The Triumph of the Will / State Funeral

Reifenstahl uses tracking shots to showcase huge crowds through parades and meetings with the youth in The Triumph of the Will. These moments include extended shots of people marching in support of Hitler, with no indication of his atrocities. This is a pure propaganda film, highlighting the moments of outward joy from his supporters and suppressing the fear.

Loznitsa edits the tracking shots of crowds in State Funeral to explore the dread of the people. This editing also shows how they are brainwashed through a Cult of Personality. The people are forced to follow and listen to this unending praise of Stalin.

Putin’s Speech on Ukraine

On February 21st Putin gave a video address to the nation. Within this speech, he singled out two regions in Ukraine that are Russian-backed. He said, “I consider it necessary to take a long overdue decision to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.”

This happened three days before the invasion. This shows how Putin only wants to protect those who believe and support him. He wants to gain more and more power, but only from those he deems worthy, much like fellow dictators of the past.

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This invasion is dangerous for everyone, and Putin has tried to place the blame on the Ukrainian people. He said, “all responsibility for possible bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine” and said that Russia sought the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine.

Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine for his own quest for power, further intensifying the Russo-Ukraine war, and possibly leading to a third World War, yet he wants his people to view him as a hero. This modern dictatorship is dangerous for everyone across the world.

When we watch The Triumph of the Will, the speeches are loud and forceful. They are also trying to place the blame on their victims. Hitler in these speeches is telling his supporters that people who do not follow him are trying to rip Germany apart. Putin’s stance that Ukraine is responsible for the invasion rings all too similar to Hitler’s accounts that he was unifying the people of Germany from those he was killing, but he was the one creating this unrest. He blamed everything on those he deemed unworthy. Putin is doing the same thing presently and this will lead to more and more death and destruction.

Use of Music in The Triumph of the Will and State Funeral

The Triumph of the Will uses a score to make these crowd shots feel like a place where people are happy and supportive of the party. 

State Funeral wants us to see these crowds of people, not as heartfelt mourners, but through their dread. We see the way Stalin’s propaganda has made his people view him in a positive light. But the film wants us to see this as the disturbing reaction to propaganda that it is, rather than as a tribute to his funeral. 

We are watching crowds of people mourning their leader, while city-wide public announcements reinforce Stalin as someone worthy of mourning. The announcements often repeat, ‘“his heart has stopped beating” followed by varying phrases suggesting he had a kind heart and a heart for the people. 

Even after death, Stalin is still working to brainwash his people through these recordings. State Funeral chooses the section of recordings we hear to make this idea of the cult of personality that much stronger.

Hearing these recordings, which repeat the same phrases praising Stalin, we now look into the faces of these mourners. Do they look sad, or do they look scared? Even though he is gone, Stalin still forces the people into a performative state-sanctioned mourning. 

Volume of Speeches in Triumph of the Will and State Funeral

In contrast, The Triumph of the Will uses shots of big crowds and loud speeches to change the mind of the viewers. This is used to brainwash them into thinking of Hitler as someone trying to unify Germany. But the Nazi party is so far gone with their grotesque views that lines such as “We carry the best blood and we know this” make it into the film.

In State Funeral, often the announcements are about communism living on rather than about the mourning of Stalin. The people listen to these recordings, hearing similar wording to the speeches that fill The Triumph of the Will. In State Funeral, we see their uneasy expressions, remaining quiet as these pro-communism speeches fill every inch of their towns.

In The Triumph of the Will, any speech expressing the views of the Nazi party as withstanding are met with loud applause or fireworks. Every speech suggests Hitler wants unity. Even though we know this to be false. 

One of these films is about a quiet, more somber moment in time. If this documentary was made with the same end-goal as The Triumph of the Will, these speeches about communism and Stalin living on within the people would have been met with applause, rather than disquieting looks. 

Russian Response to Invasion

Aljazeera reports on the Russian response to the Ukraine invasion. Putin’s power over his people comes through in the pro-government responses to this invasion, especially referring to it as a necessary response to Ukraine’s aggression.

Alexander Kots–often referred to as a propogandist and his news program is referred to with the same word–is a war correspondent in Donbas, which is one of the Russian-backed regions in Ukraine. He said, “Ukraine tried to solve its territorial issue by force”. This style of statement recalls the public announcements that we hear throughout State Funeral, referring to Stalin as a friend of the people.

Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian journalist, television presenter, and propagandist said, “Today is the day on which the righteous de-Nazification of Ukraine begins. A most important day, a day which decides the course of our history,”.

Niko Vorobyov for Aljazeera writes, “De-Nazification refers to the supposed presence of far-right and ultranationalist elements in Ukraine’s leadership.”

Solovyov tries to place the blame of Putin and Russia and onto Ukraine, trying to turn people away from their president’s own totalitarian practices.

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This propaganda has not stopped Russians and people around the world from fighting back and protesting this war and this disgusting invasion. People around the world have come together to offer protection and hope to the people of Ukraine.

This modern propaganda recalls what we have seen in The Triumph of the Will and the real footage utilized in State Funeral to show the people of the USSR being controlled and brainwashed by Stalin through city-wide announcements even after his death.

These examples of propaganda are happening today. They are trying to brainwash the Russian people into accepting Putin’s dictatorial rule and believe his lies about the Russo-Ukraine war.  Putin’s actions–both past and present–reflect those of dictators throughout history, and this is especially prominent when we revisit propaganda films such as The Triumph of the Will.

Use of Found Footage to Highlight the Cult of Personality

State Funeral presents footage of a moment in time and presents its reality. Through this reality of mourning, we see the truth and understand the pain. These recordings playing throughout the city want its people to mourn and celebrate the continuation of communism. When we look into their faces, we feel their dread. The feeling they are mourning in the spots the state expects from its brainwashed people. 

The people do not know their own dread. The cult of personality, through constant praise of their leader, pushed them to feel they must love him. As we watch close ups and crowd shots, the people underneath that conditioning seep through during their forced mourning.

The Triumph of the Will (1934) / State Funeral (2019)

The Triumph of the Will / State Funeral

The volume of words within the two films also showcase the differences in the purpose of the films. The Triumph of the Will is loud throughout every scene from its music to its speeches. So much of the film consists of Hitler’s speeches, trying to make people believe his words about unifying Germany through the loudness of his voice. If he says it loud enough, will the people forget the genoicide? That is what the film-makers are hoping for with this propaganda film. 

Even in moments where people give speeches in State Funeral which consist of statements including: “The great happiness of building the universal and the wonderful happiness of communism. We must swear by Stalin’s glorious memory. We promise to our mother–the communist party–that our whole life, our every deed and every thought, will belong to the great party”, delivered in a quiet, monotone manner. This allows us to latch onto the words and feel the disturbing weight of this amount of control. 

Crime and Punishment and the Totalitarian State.

Crime and Punishment predicted the totalitarian beliefs and cult of personality surrounding dictatorships. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel focuses on a character who justifies murder in the name of his beliefs. Raskolnikov expresses the notion that an ‘extraordinary man’ has a right to commit crimes.

Isn’t this the same mindset of men like Hitler and Stalin? They view themselves as extraordinary and the answer to the problems of their people. But they killed millions to push their views and parties. They allow themselves to commit atrocious crimes such as genocide. Above all, they view it as necessary and see it as their right as ‘extraordinary’ men. 

When we examine every story that comes out about Putin, doesn’t he view himself in this way? As if he is more important than the rest of us? This is the mindset of every dictator that has come. If Russia does not stop this invasion of Ukraine, he will not stop his quest for more control and power. He will leave death and destruction behind in his path. 

Putin Views Himself as Above the Law

The news story that Putin stole Robert Kraft’s super bowl ring might seem like an unimportant, frivolous piece of news, but it points toward his darker mindset over control, and how the people around him appease.

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Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, took his super bowl ring out of his pocket because Putin wanted to see it. Putin put the ring on his own finger, and after removing it, put it in his own pocket.

The Russian government reported that the ring was a gift to Putin. In an effort not to upset the unstable balance between the United States and Russia, Kraft said he didn’t intend the ring to be a gift. He said he made the decision after seeing how much Putin liked it. This was a story he was forced to tell by the US government to maintain their relationship with Putin.

The story only went this way because he, and the Bush Administration, were uncertain what would happen if they did not go along with Putin. This goes to show his personality and believe that what he says always goes. In the true sign of a dictator, everyone else is too nervous to question him. And Putin knows this. He wants this type of power to never end. But it should come to an end, like any dictatorship.

Stories like these are coming to light more often now. They show Putin’s view of himself as above the law like so many dictators throughout history. Putin has recently denied he took the ring and maintains the position that it was always intended as a gift.

This mindset of dictators viewing themselves as more important is shown throughout The Triumph of the Will and State Funeral. In The Triumph of the Will, Hitler makes speeches saying he wants unity. The only way he views this as possible is if everyone follows him blindly. And we know what happens to those who don’t. State Funeral shows announcements, which should focus on mourning. Instead, they focus on the importance of Stalin’s people to keep communism alive. No matter what, Stalin wanted to be in charge, even after he was physically gone. The dread in the people of the USSR permeated, nervous of what would happen if they went against Stalin’s wishes.

Putin’s Dictatorship Could Lead to the Next World War

We are much too close to the next World War. Putin’s never-ending quest for power above all else is to blame. His invasion of Ukraine adds more tension to the existing Russo-Ukraine war. Putin blames the Ukrainian people for the invasion. This has lead to government responses in Russia blindly agreeing with everything he says. Putin is a modern dictator and his actions will impact everyone, no matter where in the world you live. His hunt for power will put us all in the crossfire. We stand by the Ukrainian people as this invasion continues on with more destruction and death every day.

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There are similarities to Putin’s rule as Russia’s President and dictatorships in The Triumph of the Will and State Funeral. Putin is a modern dictator. The pro-government responses agreeing with his speeches  make this more obvious. Putin, like Hitler and Stalin, points to a Cult of Personality. At least the pro-government attitudes are not the only we see. Each day, more and more Russians fight back against Putin’s lies. More Russians every day are standing up for the Ukrainian people.

Niko Vorobyov for Aljazeera writes, “As of time of writing, at least 86 journalists, reporters and media figures, mainly from independent outlets, as well as the BBC, had signed a petition condemning Russia’s operation in Ukraine.”

Even with early responses agreeing with Putin, more Russian journalists have come forward with their support of the Ukrainian people. They are actively working to end this Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Do you Want to Know more about VMP Films?

Do you want to see a modern interpretation of Crime and Punishment? If so, VMP  is currently in- active development on Crime & Punishment: LA. Learn more about the film here.

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Edited by Amanda Mazzillo & VMP Films

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Amanda Mazzillo

Amanda Mazzillo is a screenwriter, film critic, and blogger with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design and a BA in Writing & Linguistics from Georgia Southern University. She loves exploring connections between unexpected pieces of media.

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