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.
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.
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.