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Triumph Of The Will
The classic German documentary Triumph of the Will seems to be the ultimate litmus test on admiring a film despite the terrible, reprehensible message it puts forth. When Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi-glorifying film was released in 1935, the rest of Europe took notice of Adolf Hitler's rapid ascension to power. As straight-up propaganda, it still impresses as a vulgar, at times beautiful document of arrogance at its most monumental. Synapse's Blu-ray edition boasts a crystalline picture for this landmark of the documentarian's art.
Triumph of the Will captures the Nazis' self-exaltation during the Nuremberg rallies, a celebration the Party held more or less annually between 1923 and 1938. Riefenstahl's film of the sixth rally, from 1934, represents the only time these rallies were recorded for posterity in a comprehensive way. Like most propaganda, the film doesn't shy away from being as strident as it can - Riefenstahl opens with footage of Adolph Hitler's plane descending from the clouded heavens above Nuremberg, as if guided by divine providence. Hitler is in full "Der Führer" mode, with everyone from top-ranking officials to Mr. and Mrs. Rural Germany deferring to him. At this particular rally, the Nazis had just taken over Germany's parliament, assuming total control of the government. Riefenstahl emphasizes Hitler's role in that success throughout the film, but mostly it's about how everyone can contribute to the Party. It's definitely got a myopic point of view - in this world, every German is a Nazi who unfailingly loves Hitler and will follow all that he stands for. The Jews, the intellectuals, and the people of non-German heritage are pointedly left out of this "Nazis are for everybody" message.
Painful as it is to admit, Riefenstahl was an innovative documentarian with a refined visual sense, prodigiously seen in both Triumph of the Will and her follow-up feature Olympia (1938). Her cameras follow the movements of Hitler, cutting between him and the admiring reactions of Nuremberg's townspeople, soldiers and high-ranked officials. She also makes sure to include striking, nearly abstract shots of soldiers in formation (not really soldiers but Party members in military dress), along with evocative scenes of daily life in the picturesque town - vignettes which more subtly convey the recurring "Germany is the greatest" message. In segments like the nighttime Cathedral of Light ceremony, she includes a lot of beautifully composed, seductive imagery, edited together with a hypnotic repetition. Yeah, she makes being a Nazi look sexy (I think that's why Olympia holds up slightly better - at least it's propaganda is more coded).
Watching Triumph today, knowing how history turned out, it's kind of surprising how many seemingly ordinary Germans completely fell for Hitler's doctrine. Although Riefenstahl does her mightiest to make Hitler into this larger-than-life figure, in the documentary he appears more belligerent than anything else - hardly the quality for a great leader. The film does a better job of showing the strict hierarchy the Party had in place at the time, from Hitler down to the smallest kids in the youth camps. The best thing about Synapse's edition in particular is the use of descriptive subtitles, identifying most of the figures on screen and the purpose of each ceremony. The disc also comes with an informative commentary track, which puts Riefenstahl's beautiful imagery in the context which it was made. For a film as debatable as this one, the additions are worth their weight in a thousand swastika-branded flagpoles.
The Synapse Films Blu-ray edition of Triumph of the Will uses an all-new high-def 2K digital remaster of the film, presented in pillarboxed 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Derived from a duplicate 35mm fine grain master, the film stock has a few instances of flashing but looks terrific for the most part, conveying an appealing texture without appearing too cleaned-up. Light levels are kept attractive, while the digital restoration cleaned up bits of dust and other artifacts without affecting the original integrity of the image. One thing I need to point out is that the film sports a small logo in the lower right corner - a digital "bug" - which appears for a couple of seconds every twenty minutes or so. The bug may be a deal-breaker for some, although I found the intrusions relatively discreet.
The 2.0 Mono German-language soundtrack is slightly cleaner-sounding than most films of this vintage. It gets hissy and distorted at times, though never enough to be truly noticeable. Optional, descriptive subtitles are provided in English, Parisian French, Castilian Spanish, and Japanese.
The disc includes a feature-length Audio Commentary with Dr. Anthony R. Santoro, a specialist on National Socialist German history. Throughout the track, Dr. Santoro enthusiastically provides background on each ceremony, pointing out their purposes and the various duties of Hitler's associates - it's a fascinating listen throughout. A valuable addition is Day of Freedom (1935), a 17-minute short commissioned by the Nazi Party to show maneuvers and daily vignettes from the Party's armed forces unit (who apparently complained about not being given enough screen time in Triumph). Riefenstahl's cameras capture impressionistic scenes of virile soldiers in their morning routine, staging combat practice drills and putting on a display for the Nazi high officials. The package also includes a 4-page Booklet with credits and an essay from Films In Review editor Roy Frumkes.
For the first time, descriptive subtitles are provided on Synapse Films' Blu-ray edition of Leni Riefenstahl's unsettling Nazi-glorifying documentary Triumph of the Will. That in itself would make the disc worth checking out, although the improved picture quality makes this Hitler-worshipping opus chilling as it ever was. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.