The visual similarities between Leni Reifenstahl’s 1935 nazi propaganda film Triumph des Willens (english: Triumph of the Will) – easily the most notorious propaganda film ever made – and the rebel ceremony closing Star Wars seem striking, presenting an interesting paradox as the values previously placed on the monolithic empire, are suddenly bestowed upon the rebel force:
Given the use of other visual references in Star Wars, from westerns, japanese cinema and of course WWII movies, the seeming use of Reifenstahl’s imagery could indicate a conscious decision meant to invoke mixed emotions over the rebels victory; the inherent dangers of military organization and so on. But frankly, it seems rather unlike the film’s otherwise straight-forward story and family-friendly approach.
But even so, Will Brooker notes in his book:
However, a spirit of play and improvisation creeps in as the main characters exchange glances in closeup; Luke struggles to keep a straight face but grins at Leia, who smiles back and tries to swallow it when Han smirks at her. As such, the Rebel gang introduce a sense of banter even into a silent scene, and threaten to sabotage the formality of the ceremony just as they undermined the Death Star’s system. [p79, 1]
Ultimately however, while the thought is interesting to entertain, Lucas’s own explanation does seem quite likely:
Another minor controversy the press got hold of was the rumor that Lucas had deliberately used Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) for the throne room scene. “The truth of that particular situation is that I hadn’t seen it for about fifteen years,” Lucas says. “I had wanted to see it again because very early in the writing process, I was thinking of doing a scene with the Emperor on the Empire planet, and I wanted to do that like Triumph of the Will. But it unfortunately got published that I was going to try and see Triumph of the Will and use it in Star Wars; evidently somebody read that somewhere and then looked at the end of the movie and thought that looked just like Triumph of the Will. But the end of the movie is just what happens when you put a large military group together and give out an award.” [p297, 2]
Given the fact that Star Wars makes wide use of imagery from films in general, perhaps most notably The Searchers, without carrying over thematic context, there probably shouldn’t be put too much more thought into this particular connection, even given McQuarrie’s statement that:
George wanted something akin to a Nazi rally with hundreds of troops lined up and huge banners on display. [p53, 3]
Lucas is certainly a very visual film maker, and for all of the things it has since come to rightfully represent, Triumph des Willens is nothing if not a visual masterpiece. And whether the use of imagery similar to Riefenstahl’s was conscious or not, Lucas’s point that any military gathering has a tendency to look like that stands. That fascist states have a proclivity for this imagery is true, but one needs to look no further than to graduation day at any military school for similar imagery. It’s arguably hard to hold a ceremony with for hundreds or thousands of people without some sort of order.
Will Brooker. BFI Film Classics: Star Wars. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Dale Pollock. Skywalking: The Life And Films Of George Lucas, Updated Edition.
Ralph McQuarrie. Star Wars: The Art of Ralph McQuarrie. Celebration Japan Exclusive. Dreams and Visions Press, 2008.