It is either the most reviled example of cinematic artistry ever created, or a perfect piece of propaganda sullied by the context in which it was conceived. For many, it's an unseen example of the Nazi's evil ideals, while for others it's a misunderstood masterwork by a naïve yet talented filmmaker. Whether you believe it to be real, or a complete fabrication, whether you find its message horrifying or easily dismissed, Triumph of the Will stands as a landmark moment in both political and motion picture history. It represented the first time a regime used the canvas of cinema to sway an entire nation toward a single party platform, while its maker, the equally notorious Leni Reifenstahl, utilized dozens of technical innovations to make her movie a true creative and ground-breaking statement. Long unavailable for reasons both understandable (bootleg copies have been used by modern day white supremacists as recruitment tools) and alarmist, Synapse Films is finally bringing out a Special Edition DVD of this contentious classic. Not surprisingly, the film is still as difficult and disturbing as it was 70+ years ago.
Offered as a factual record of the annual National Socialist German Workers Party Congress held in Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will is a collection of set-piece sequences combined to deliver the highlights surrounding the 1934 conference. Divided into four separate "days", we witness the events as they "supposedly" unfolded during this vast political rally. Specifically, we see the following:
Day 1: Hitler arrives by plane to greet the participants. He drives into town in a procession flaked by thousands of well wishers. He takes up residence in the local hotel, where throngs stand outside, waiting for a glimpse of their leader. A night rally occurs.
Day 2: The Hitler Youth encampment is visited. The Fuhrer then attends a Labor Party rally. The Congress opens, with Hitler, Hess, Goebbels and other important members of the National Socialist leadership speaking to the party members.
Day 3: Hitler attends a Hitler Youth rally, and oversees a military procession through the streets of Nuremberg.
Day 4: At a gathering of SA and SS troops, Hitler commemorates fallen party members. He reconfirms his loyalty to the Party's secret police, and they to him. The Congress ends with another rousing speech by the Fuhrer.
It is impossible to watch Triumph of the Will in 2006 with a clear and open mind. History has clouded its filmic facets in terms both shocking and saddening. Had Hitler not been one of the most ruthless, reactionary leaders in the legacy of world politics, and had his policies not resulted in the mindless slaughter of millions of innocent individuals, this Leni Riefenstahl 'document' of the 1934 Nuremberg Rallies would be nothing more than an artistically made, if occasionally noxious, newsreel. Indeed, while the level of cinematic accomplishment makes for a minor masterpiece, it's the notion of seeing inside actual and eventual evil that gives the movie its major sticking points. Granted, any discussion of the film has to focus on the purposeful manipulation of the proceedings to reflect the National Socialist's desire to sell the party to the rest of Germany, and Riefenstahl doesn't shy away from sanctifying her subject matter. But the truth is that, without the Holocaust, the man's insane desire to rule the world, and the deserved demonization of this horrid little dictator, what we have here is just a stellar example of communication experimentation. It is context that creates the conundrum, as very little of what is depicted here creates actual outrage.
In fact, if you've ever seen military documentaries with soldiers marching in formation and officers making jingoistic speeches, you've seen the basic elements of Triumph of the Will. Under the auspices of Deutschland's newest demagogue, Riefenstahl was told to take the bland, boorish posturing that would make up the majority of the Nuremberg proceedings, and amplify it into a manifesto on Teutonic pride and birthright. Through a carefully consideration for shot selection (one of the director' strongest points) and unlimited access to people and places (including the ability to control events for the sake of the camera), Riefenstahl went about her duty. The result is simply astounding. Heavily edited, dripping with unwavering iconography, and polished to the point of undeniable political potency, Triumph of the Will stands as a singular achievement in both artistry and atrocity. It is difficult to deny this filmmaker's way with an image. The various compositions, carefully chosen to accent Hitler's command as well as his character, look like lost canvases from the museum of manipulation, while the rallies themselves are staged to maximize spectacle and minimize speculation. The main message that the Fuhrer wanted projected was that the Nazis were strong, solid and fully in control of the country. All Riefenstahl had to do was cement this sentiment and she had done her job.
She did more than that, for better and for much, much worse. Triumph of the Will is a true assault on the senses, a greatest hits presentation of the Nazi's best, most baneful material. During one particularly memorable sequence, Hitler oversees a Labor Service rally, where instead of rifles and guns, the participants carry swastika-embossed shovels. These workmen, sworn to rebuild the Fatherland from its agrarian roots up, are so focused and fierce, so determined in their calling, that their organizer is visibly moved. So is the Fuhrer, who delivers one of his more mesmerizing speeches. In it, he tells his farming followers that, in his Reich, there will no longer be a division between intellectual and menial work. To the Nazis, all efforts are equally valuable. The response is so passionate that we actually dread the success of these devoted individuals. They put the SS and armies to shame in their clear determination. Similarly, the visit to the Hitler Youth congress is equally disquieting. Like a repugnant rock star, the Fuhrer enters the stadium and takes the stage, wooing the wee ones with his "you are Germany" lip service. As flags fly and that sickening salutes stab at the air, these brainwashed babes smile in stupefying recognition of their beloved leader's attention. One wonders how they'd react if they knew they would soon be dying by the millions to serve his strangled cause.
Indeed, having the hindsight of world events to rely on makes Triumph of the Will an easier artistic pill to swallow. Since we know that Hitler planned this pageantry for ultimate persuasive effect, we can view it like current political propaganda and scoff at its self-important rhetoric. We can also dismiss the emotional grandstanding of Rudolph Hess, Hitler's Vice-Fuhrer, as he sweats and shrieks in his fervent introductions of his adored leader. We even shudder at the subtle yet serious gestures toward genocide we experience. As a matter of fact, several speakers argue for "national purity" and " the one German race", and since we are keenly aware of the coming ethnic cleansing that will define the Nazi's role in the war, such sentiments are both telling and tough to bear. For his part, Hitler is all buzzwords and catchphrases, the post-modern politico in pre-contemporary times. He chooses his language carefully, calling on tradition, heritage and past persecution (German was still suffering from its defeat in World War I) to strengthen his statements. In fact, he doesn't do very much except tote the party line and call on the rest of the nation to do the same. Yet his pitch is so fevered, his mannerism so gripping that it's not hard to see how his country came to embrace his beliefs. Certainly he was preaching to the converted here, but Triumph of the Will makes faith in the Fuhrer as important – or maybe even more so – than faith in oneself.
This is why Riefenstahl's film is so troublesome. Buried inside its amazing vistas, aesthetic artifice and pure cinematic majesty is a deeply disturbing celebration of oppression, corruption and intolerance. The Nazis were already making their disgusting anti-Semitic beliefs known, and history has only hardened our hatred for this morally vile philosophy. Without stating it clearly, Triumph of the Will makes it clear who Hitler believes to be the "proper" peoples of Germany. Riefenstahl's camera avoids ethnicity, shying away from individuals with clear racial characteristics. Instead, we see shirtless men grooming and grappling in Aryan superiority while crowd reactions are purposefully picked to accentuate joy, pride and unswerving devotion. There is also a clear compositional choice the director utilizes to amplify Hitler's importance as a leader. Constantly shown lost among a sea of supporters, the Fuhrer is almost exclusively glimpsed as a stern, solitary figure, face frozen in a permanent glare of importance. It is an image – along with that of the raised Nazi salute – that she repeats constantly, confirming in our mind that behind all this ballyhoo is a man clearly capable of controlling the world. Once he gets his homeland in order, the rest of the planet needs to take notice. You can call it corrupt. You can try and defend it as something outside its horrendous backdrop, but it's impossible to deny the visual power of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. It's the best abomination you'll ever love hating.
Synapses Films deserves some kind of kudos for having the guts to release this title, considering that, like Auschwitz or Nuremberg, just referencing Triumph of the Will causes a lighting rod of controversy. To offer an excellent 1.33:1 full screen "windowboxed" transfer of the film is a brave, bold step on the part of this DVD distributor. The image is clean, clear and, for the most part, carefully preserved. There is some print damage, and a few moments of dirt and scratches, but overall, this is a wonderful version of a much reviled relic.
Thin, reedy, and occasionally distorted, the stock elements of Triumph of the Will were never perfect to begin with. Instead of remastering the mix, however, Synapse chooses to offer up some newly translated subtitles. They do help us with certain places and people (they don't just decipher the speeches) and help us understand the deplorable politics at the center of all the pageantry.
What a film like Triumph of the Will demands, in order to have any hope of being accepted by a modern audience, is a full length audio commentary by someone with the scholarship and the insight to properly dissect the disturbing imagery. Luckily, Synapse found Dr. Anthony Santoro, a historian closely linked to the film's restoration and study. Offering his opinions on both the movie and the people populating it, Santoro is not afraid to question authenticity, undermine character and dispel myth. In fact, after applying a play-by-play approach to the track, Santoro spends the rest of the discussion providing backstory on many key Nazi Party players, as well as delivering the kind of data that makes a repugnant piece of propaganda come alive with legitimate chronological value. Along with another example of Riefenstahl's work, 1935's war games short Day of Freedom and an excellent insert essay by Roy Frumkes, this is a well though out and supplemented DVD presentation.
When watching Triumph of the Will, a lot of questions immediately come to mind? Is there any doubt that the German people completely bought into this bogus display? Are we, as modern viewers, capable of understanding the film outside of the volumes of learned scholarship on the subject of the Nazis and their regime? Can Riefenstahl be appreciated as an artist considering the impact her images had on history, and in light of the horrors hidden from the lens? Honestly, it will be up to the individual human being to decide. If the mere mention of Hitler and his diabolic dictatorship leaves you angry and disturbed, by all means avoid this film. But if your perception is just a bit more adventurous, if you can put aside your well-earned hatred and revulsion for a moment and experience the cinematic finery Leni Riefenstahl was inventing here, you'll be witness to something quite extraordinary. The message is indeed moronic. The messenger was a skilled and clever artisan. In fact, as a piece of history, Triumph of the Will deserves to be Highly Recommended. While it's impossible for the film to redeem itself as a statement of purpose, it is still filmmaking of the highest order. In the course of human events, however, that may not be enough.
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