The controversial Triumph des Willens has been notorious for ages; discussion of it cannot be limited to just to the aspect of brilliant filmmaking. Lenin may have declared the motion picture as the most powerful propaganda tool of the state, but it was Leni Riefenstahl who created the masterpiece of the genre, and this is it. Every film technique known in 1935 was used at its highest level, but for a supremely negative purpose. There's a lengthy documentary called, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, and even the Wonderful aspect of this show is Horrible in its cold-blooded calculation.
This is a cinematically- augmented representation of the Nuremburg National Socialist rally of 1934, a week-long gathering of Germans under their brand new Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. Starting with Hitler descending Godlike from the clouds, the film is two hours of parades, adoring crowds, torchlit serenades, and massed reviews of what look like hundreds of thousands of regimented workers, Hitler youth, and party members. Hitler makes several bombastic speeches, along with pieces of speeches and testimonials by other top party members.
Savant was shown this film several times in film school, and remembers a course taught by Stephen Mamber where we studied the distinction between documentary filmmaking and propaganda. I think we concluded that a film record of almost any subject so selects and chooses how to represent it, that objective documentation is an almost unattainable ideal. We are bombarded with calculated, insidious media messages today, all pretending to present 'the truth', whether about a consumer item or a political candidate for sale. There are those who claim that the culture as a mass, has lost the ability to discern for itself simple values of right and wrong, truth and lies.
Creating a controlled 'truth' seemed to be exactly the aim of Riefenstahl and her Nazi producers, who created and ran the giant rally as much to make this propaganda tool, than for its own purpose. The giant stadiums were designed to accomodate special cameras (you can see little elevators for camera buckets going up and down the colossal bannered columns) and many shots were obviously accomplished by repeatedly restaging ostensibly 'candid' scenes. Because of camera placement and sound recording, it's more than probable that key 'dialogue' scenes were actually shot totally separately, including whole speeches by Hitler himself. The staggering job of assistant- directoring dwarfed the dimensions of anything Hollywood ever made: there are literally tens of thousands of people following 'direction' and 'hitting their marks' far more perfectly than in any epic. When the pomp and circumstance becomes more complicated, the spectacle turns in a Busby Berkeley vision of Hell.
And it is staggering. The camera tracks along endless lines of people whose life's fulfillment seems to be the honor of massing to adore Hitler. The huge rally of workers, with Hitler and two cronies walking calmly down a wide causeway between vast regiments of men standing to attention, is the most potent image of 20th century totalitarianism in memory.
Synapse's DVD adds a dynamic to the movie that makes this disc more 'useful' than seeing Triumph of the Will projected on a screen. Watching the the show with only its own few titles as a guide, it's easy to get lost; you wish you had a college professor sitting next to you to identify all the historical villains onscreen, and the significance of whole rallies, as well as details like insignia (Who are those guys carrying shovels instead of guns? Are there any girls in the Hitler youth?). The DVD provides this extra dimension through the pleasant-sounding Dr. Anthony R. Santoro, whose running commentary is priceless. His explanations of basic facts are clear and well-timed: So that's what the infamous Streicher looks like. 'Swastika' isn't a German word - they cal it a 'hooked cross.' What happened to all those Nazis making ecstatic speeches, and who were the nastiest of them? Santoro also notes for us the not-so-obvious indications of directorial influence : the restagings, the moments 'designed' for the camera. Without making weighted judgements, he points out the sources and the ironies of Hitler's power, remarking that everything in the rallies was chosen to bolster weaknesses in the party's rule (Hitler had just assumed full control of the state; a major party leader had just been purged). Finally, he makes the vital distinction between autocratic power, which wants to control your actions, and totalitarian power, which wants control over your actions and your thoughts. Thought control of masses of people wasn't possible until the 20th century and modern communications; this film pretty much proves the theory that the most powerful tool of thought control is the Cinema.
Since study of Triumph of the Will proves that it is an obvious promotional film, and in no way a documentary, Riefenstahl's defensive claim that she was an artist not concerned with politics cuts no ice with Savant. Aesop wrote a fable about a battle trumpeter who, when captured, pleaded that he was no soldier because he carried no weapon. The conquering general had him executed along with the rest of the soldiers, with the moral that he who enables hostilities is as much a combatant as the soldiers themselves. As Riefenstahl was not even a conscripted soldier, her participation in the deification of Hitler has to put her right up with the most heinous enablers of his crimes.
Synapse's DVD gives a reasonably clear image of the show, with the best sound Savant's yet heard. Besides the great commentary, there are newly translated, removable English subtitles, reportedly more accurate than the old ones. An extra from David Shepard is a much shorter promotional film about the army from 1935's Nuremburg rally, called Day of Freedom. Apparently it was produced because the army felt slighted by the National Socialists hogging the spotlight in the previous film; here Riefenstahl turns her camera to artsy and dynamic views of crack troops demonstrating their skill with various miliary hardware in a mock battle staged before a huge crowd, Roman-Coliseum style.
When people want to suppress key films like this because they might inspire further adulation of Naziism or encourage hateful rhetoric, Savant becomes suspicious. The greatest value in seeing something like Triumph of the Will today is that it might inspire viewers to question the content of the avalanche of messages they have to fend off every day: not only what passes for 'news', but attitudes and judgemental bias in other kinds of entertainment. You don't have to be Philip K. Dick to see the Ubik-like hidden messages in our modern world, but education seems to be the only way to help bring anything like truth to light. This Synapse disc of Triumph of the Will is an eye-opener and a significant DVD release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,