This is a cinematically- augmented representation of the Nuremburg National Socialist
rally of 1934, a weeklong
gathering of Germans under their brand new Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. Starting with Hitler descending
God-like 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 believe
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' was 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 accommodate special cameras (you can see little elevators for camera buckets going
down the colossal bannered columns) and many shots were 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 into 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.
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 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 call it a 'hooked cross.' What eventually 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
judgments, 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, Santoro 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
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 unconcerned 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 soundtrack Savant's yet
heard. Besides the great commentary, there are newly translated, removable English subtitles,
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. 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. Newly equipped military teams enact a mock battle 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
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 judgmental 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 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,
Triumph of the Will rates:
Movie: Excellent, and Horrible too.
Supplements: Commentary, additional short subject
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 23, 2001