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Triumph of the Will: Special Edition

Synapse Films

A documentary feauturing Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels,
Hermann Goring, and Rudolph Hess

Written and Directed by Leni Riefenstahl

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"I am not interested in purely realistic , slice-of-life, every-day ordinariness. I love all that is beautiful, strong, healthy and alive."

— Leni Riefenstahl, in a Cahiers du Cinema interview.

There is a small contingent of epic, sprawling, officially important films that are admired for their cinematic skill despite their politics. D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation is the big one, a campy, pro-South Civil War drama that scholars bend over backwards to praise while offering a blanket condemnation of the fact that it's also a rousing recruitment film for the Ku Klux Klan. What they neglect to add is that Birth is also a clumsy piece of filmmaking. Even before you get to its political aspects, the film shows its age because it fails to overcome its primitive technique and melodramatic narrative structure, rendering it a document of solely historical and sociopolitical interest, a movie not at all tolerable in even the conventional sense.

Second on the list is Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Shot in September 1934 at the annual NSDAP (Nazi) Party rally in Nuremberg 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. This was the first NSDAP convention since the definitive accession of Hitler to unified leadership of Germany with the death of Hindenburg, and it also occurred in the wake of Hitler's whacking of Ernst Röhm and other rebellious members of the S.A. Free of such historical details, Triumph of the Will glides obliquely over these events. The supposedly documentary footage moves operatically from Hitler's arrival via air at Nuremberg to a night rally at Hitler's hotel, then to the opening of the Party Congress (where Rudolph Hess figures prominently, along with Goebbels and Goring). Also to be seen are a Labor Party celebration where shovels stand in for guns, followed by an S.A. night rally; a large youth rally; a brief display of military equipment; another night rally featuring Albert Speer's famous "cathedral of light"; an outdoor memorial ceremony dedicated to the dead of World War I; and then the crucial review of the S.A and S.S. forces, the actual raison d'Ítre of that year's Nuremberg Rally. Finally, there is an elaborate parade of all NSDAP organizations, and Hitler's speech at the closing ceremony, where he refers vaguely to the assassination of Röhm.

After viewing Triumph of the Will the viewer is most likely to realize that, for a propaganda film, there are hardly any ideas in it, mainly just emotional references to an undivided Germany, to the past, and to blood. That suited director Riefenstahl just fine — she prided herself on not knowing what was going on in her own backyard, a trait that can be seen in her other projects, as well as the self-proclaimed "neutral survivors" of a war-mongering country. Riefenstahl seems neither to have understood the implications of the political party she was mythologizing, nor to have understood what she was doing on the field during the week of shooting. She has claimed that she used only two cameras and had a small crew, but a great deal of her massive autobiography, as well as her comments in interviews about this film and other matters, have been easily disputed. A book published by the Party and credited to her (but ghosted by Ernst Jäger) about the filming of the Nuremberg Rally charts the 30-plus cameramen and the elaborate mechanical set-ups needed to capture the events — which, at the very least, implies that the Nuremberg Rally and Riefenstahl's filming of it were not discretely independent projects.

Riefenstahl may be a notable figure in the history of cinema. However, she started out as a dancer before graduating to movies, and was a popular actress in the "mountain film" genre of romantic adventures, viewed widely as precursors to Nazi ideology (along with Wagner, Nietzsche, cowboy writer Carl May, and a few hundred other cataloged influences). After few affairs with colleagues, she was directing herself in starring roles, and Hitler — a fan of the genre — contacted Riefenstahl to film the Nuremberg Rally. She directed a dry-run precursor of Triumph, and also did a minor, sluggish follow-up called Day of Freedom to appease the military, who felt they had been slighted in Triumph. Eventually she directed Olympia, which Susan Sontag, among others, has described as the perfect synopsis of the Nazi aesthetic (although that view is debatable).

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Is Triumph of the Will a documentary or a propaganda film? This is the conundrum that has faced film scholars since the 1930s. The answer isn't as easy as it seems, but the question has added currency in the present context of so-called "reality" TV shows that record "actual" events — events that would not have happened unless the producers had created settings for them in the first place. This seems to be the situation with Triumph. Riefenstahl had minimal cooperation from Nuremberg site designer Albert Speer, and yet the series of events during the convention seem to have been designed to be filmed. 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 convention 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.

Context is everything. Like certain kinds of pornography, you wouldn't know what Triumph was about unless you knew what it was about. On the surface Triumph of the Will is a rather innocent-seeming enterprise. A leader arrives. He speaks to some of his people, many of them earnest kids, others sturdy youths with shovels. Night torches are lit; people march through the street. Everyone seems happy and dedicated. 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. And only when you clue in to the emotional Eisensteinian editing technique do you realize how greatly you are being manipulated. In an early sequence Hitler is reviewing a group of farmers celebrating the produce harvested in fall. One beautiful farm girl is shown several times looking rapturously at Hitler. This moment is meant to show not only how much the people like Hitler, but subtly how much he turns them on. But was this girl actually looking at Hitler at the time? Was he even nearby? It is impossible to say, but the emotional effect is telling. Triumph of the Will does not try to "convert" anybody to anything, and as such it is not typical propaganda. Rather, the film is preaching to the converted. It wallows in the strength of numbers at the Nuremberg Rally, but it also attempts to scare the shit out of all political dissidents.

This vivid black-and-white movie is presented in the "windowbox" format on Synapse's DVD release, which means for the viewer that on some televisions a black border will surround the image (for the film 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 in monaural Dolby Digital, for what is essentially a silent film, and with optional subtitles in English. (There is another DVD of Triumph of the Will, released by Connoisseur/Meridian Films in August of 2000, but this reviewer has not seen it; its only supplemental feature seems to be a six-page booklet. Celluloid Chronicles Home Video, based in Texas, released a Triumph of the Will videotape in 1990 that was advertised as a complete version of the film, running 133 minutes and containing outtakes and other supplemental footage.)

Supplements are minimal but significant. A highly informative audio commentary by historian Anthony Santoro basically tells us everything we need to know to understand the film'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.

— D. K. Holm

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