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TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Leni Riefenstahl
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Synapse Films
Features:  Historian Commentary, Day of Freedom short film
Length:  120 Minutes
Release Date:  March 28, 2006

Film ****

Some of cinema’s greatest cinematic achievements have been deeply rooted in political propaganda.  Yet while some films like Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin have been relatively tamed by the passage of time, others like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (or Triumph des Willens) still manage to unnerve and unsettle almost seventy years after it was made. 

Is it more historically relevant today than Potemkin?  Possibly…one could argue, in fact, that while the Russian film still packs a visual wallop, there are no modern lessons left to be learned from it.  Watching the Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally of 1934 in Triumph of the Will still leaves us asking questions:  how did charismatic hatemongers manage to bend a prolific European nation to their will?  How did they take it as far as they did?  Most importantly, how do we assure that it never happens again?

Question one is fairly easy to assess, both from historical perspective and from watching the hypnotic images on this film.  The Germans, who were forced to assume full responsibility for World War I (though they had no role in its outbreak), had been living under economic strain and personal humiliation for 16 years.  Poverty was everywhere (see D. W. Griffith’s overlooked Isn’t Life Wonderful? for a dramatized look at post WWI Germany) and spirits were low.  Such a people were ripe for a new leader with a strong voice, especially ones as gifted at publicity and self promotion as Paul Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler.  Hitler was a master at manipulation, saying the right words and expressing the right messages that the German people could rally to.  His National Socialist party grew, ironically, partially owing to this film, which he commissioned as a tool to make the party appear as though it were already universal.

Triumph, in fact, is a nightmare of numbers and geometric precision.  Our first view of Hitler’s supporters comes from his personal aircraft en route to Nuremberg for the rally.  Storm troopers are seen far below, marching in disciplined form.  Upon landing, we are exposed to sights of civilian crowds cheering and offering the raised arm salute enthusiastically.  The first half hour of the film plays only with music and sound effects, but demonstrates Riefenstahl’s uncanny knack for camera placement and editing.

The scenes of the first night come across as campy, despite the realism.  Hitler is serenaded by military bands and enthusiastic throes while he watches from the high balcony of his hotel, with the words “Heil Hitler” in lights just beneath his window.  A tacky penchant for self promotion?  Yes, but it would grow much worse and more disturbing.

The Hitler’s Youth segments are the most unsettling.  Soon after the first night, Riefenstahl’s camera captures an expanse of perfectly organized tents, and the youth movement’s daily rituals.  These manipulative scenes ring out with “join the army, it’s fun” sentiments, as we see smiling teenage and younger boys washing, shaving, eating, playing games, and later lined up in enthusiastic awe to greet Hitler.

The numbers increase from scene to scene.  An address to the workers’ division shows throngs of shovel carrying men who wield their tools like rifles, as they praise those who died in the first war and take their oaths of loyalty to Hitler.  Later, during the Hindenburg funeral, crowds fill the screen in uncountable numbers, yet again, with a perfectly crafted and efficient precision that demonstrates the machine like quality of the blossoming Nazi party.  Hitler’s speeches repeat similar themes, inspiring his crowds to set an example for those who have not yet joined the party or his way of thinking.

All of this culminates into the final stretch of film, which closes the rally.  Between what takes place in front of the camera and Riefenstahl’s mastery behind it, these are some of the film’s most disturbing images.  Hitler is almost overcome with fanatical power as he addresses by far the most enthusiastic crowd, who interject with passionate cheers and the Nazi salute, shown to us as a sea of humanity with arms springing up and up and up.  By the end of the film, the second question is certainly answered:   we’ve seen how these men were able to take it as far as they did, leading a country so stripped of dignity and ideals that any semblance of pride was as a banquet to the famished.  The National Socialist party was all about pride, and this film captures that with surgical precision.

Perhaps, ironically, the film today also answers the last question for us.  Without historical perspective, one can appreciate the power and the seduction these images had.  It’s no wonder Triumph of the Will ran in full and in parts in theatres across Germany until the end of the war.    But with the perspective of the Holocaust, the fall of many European countries, and the near successful run at world domination by a maniacal leader, we can really comprehend the dangers of oppressing a people to the point where A) they have nothing left to lose, and B) they will latch on to anything in order to rise again. 

And that’s why, despite the continuing controversy, Triumph of the Will must be seen and digested in all its horrific, hypnotic glory.  It is a blueprint for the rise of totalitarianism, and as such, now serves as a warning to modern nations who would refuse to believe that another Hitler could ever rise to power.  It is also a study in seduction, one that proves far better than most examples how powerful the motion picture image can be in conveying words, thoughts, and emotions.

Video ***

This is a remarkable transfer whose only flaw is the appearance of normal aging effects of scratches and spots (mostly in the early going; they become less apparent later on).  This is arguably the cleanest and sharpest presentation Triumph of the Will has enjoyed, with remarkable clarity and detail, particularly in the expansive crowd scenes.  Images are unmarred by undue grain or compression.  My only real complaint is a poorly placed layer switch.  Given the age and the history of the film, this could never be a reference quality DVD image, but for cinema or history buffs, this presentation will be a pleasant treat.

Audio ***

With the constant and surprisingly dynamic roars of the crowds on the soundtrack, two notions came to mind:  this film would be an ideal candidate for a new 5.1 remix, and I’m kind of glad they didn’t do it.  The images in the film are disturbing enough without a sound mix that puts you in the middle of it; I’m happy just to have that one channel emanating from my center speaker.  Given the age of the film, the Dolby mono presentation is a very good one, with very little inherent noise and potent clarity of dialogue, effects and music.  The sound and visuals work together to recreate Riefenstahl’s mesmerizing sensual effects.  A terrific effort.

Features ***

There are essentially two extras, but both are excellent.  The commentary track by historian Dr. Anthony R. Santoro is rich in detail and information.  His knowledge of Nazi-era Germany is extensive, and as a bonus, he also provided the identification of figures, places and events that appear at the bottom of the screen when you activate the English subtitles.  He also demonstrates an uncanny understanding of Riefenstahl’s style, and how she used calculated editing to achieve certain effects within the picture.

The other feature is Leni Riefenstahl’s short film Day of Freedom, made shortly after Triumph of the Will.   This is a fast paced presentation of the German military’s rapid, efficient operation as Hitler and his staff watch approvingly.  It’s filled with Riefenstahl’s pioneering and liberating camera work, including some remarkable aerial photography.

Summary:

Though Leni Riefenstahl claimed never to have been a Nazi party member, and history has never proved otherwise, she has never apologized for her work with Hitler and Goebbels and the films she created that fanned the flames of Nazism throughout Germany and across most of Europe.  As such, she remains one of cinema’s most gifted artisans, yet one of its most enigmatic and disturbing figures.

Synapse Films’ terrific Special Edition DVD of Triumph of the Will stands as a testament to both sides of Riefenstahl.  The film is unsettling in content, yet undeniably brilliant in construction.  It remains one of the most important movies ever made for both reasons.

PLEASE NOTE:  DVD Movie Central’s decision to review Triumph of the Will both as a film and as a Digital Versatile Disc should not be construed in any way as an endorsement of the views and ideas presented in the movie on the part of any of its employees.

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