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Triumph of the Will: Special Edition

Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, like Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, is one of those sprawling, epic films that critics want to like, even though it often requires an enormous amount of rationalizing to shower praise on Third Reich propaganda. Shot in September 1934 at the annual NSDAP (Nazi) Party rally and released the following March, the film is a full-blown celebration of the power and seductiveness of the Nazi regime. The narrative of Triumph of the Will (if it can be said the film has any plot at all) surveys the ecstatic exultation in the Party, and by extension the charisma of Adolf Hitler, as it chronicles the week of events at the Nazi rally, culminating in Hitler's speech. But what the modern viewer comes away with is that, for a propaganda film, there are hardly any ideas in Triumph of the Will, mainly just emotional references to an undivided Germany, to the past, and to blood. That suited director Riefenstahl just fine — she was adept at an emotional version of Eisensteinian editing that worked better if there were no concrete ideas involved. The lesson one learns from Triumph is that editing is the key to good propaganda. Working with what she had, and with a mountain of footage to draw upon, Riefenstahl was able to film the rally as a documentary and then recreate it on film as an emotional event. The CBS-TV series Survivor surely has as staggering a number of cameras and amount of footage as Riefenstahl had to deal with, and follows much the same approach, a blend of physical hagiography and emotional milking. Only if you know the historical context do you realize how subtle the film is at saying things and not saying things at the same time. Triumph of the Will isn't a great film in a conventional sense, but it is endlessly fascinating, and continues to be deeply influential over other filmmakers regardless of their political affiliation. This vivid black-and-white movie is presented on the Synapse DVD release in what is called the windowbox format, which means for the viewer that on some televisions a black border will surround the image (for the movie buff, it is supposed to mean that more visual information is visible). The source print is fairly scratchy and has chemical staining and other problems. Audio is a monaurual track for what is essentially a silent film, with optional subtitles in English (another DVD of the film, released by Connoisseur/Meridian Films in August of 2000, is available via many online retailers). Supplements are minimal but significant. A highly informative audio commentary by historian Anthony Santoro basically tells us everything we need to know to understand Triumph of the Will's historical setting and influence; a four-page insert offers additional information. Also on the disc is the once-lost Riefenstahl short film Day of Freedom, containing footage of a Nuremberg rally from the following year, but focusing solely on military maneuvers. Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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