The Film: N/A
Note: I have decided against determining a numerical rating for this film because there is no way I can see myself judging it on anything but its technical merits. The actual content is deplorable and was made in the service of great evil. Therefore, it must be approached as such.
Propaganda is one of the most powerful weapons the human race has ever devised. It is a perversion of the constantly evolving tools used to realize the 20th century’s great contribution to the arts, cinema, and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is one of the most influential of its kind. A German actress and budding filmmaker best known for starring in several mountain climbing features, Riefenstahl already one propaganda film under her belt – 1933’s Victory of the Faith, which documented that year’s Fifth Party Rally of the Nazi Party in Nuremberg – when Adolf Hitler personally selected her to immortalize the forthcoming 1934 Congress of the National Socialist German Workers Party on celluloid. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph (Josef) Goebbels understood all too well that film was the most powerful medium the party had at its disposal to confound and coerce the people of Germany into giving Hitler their unconditional love and support. Triumph of the Will, a 110-minute love letter to the glories and prosperity of a nation unified under the Third Reich, cast an optimistic glow over the horrors the Nazis had already inflicted upon Germany in the name of achieving ultimate power and its success would play a large role in solidifying Hitler’s authority, enabling the Holocaust, and making a second world war nothing but inevitable.
The main focus of Triumph is the Party Day of Victory held on September 4-10, 1934 in Nuremberg, beginning with Hitler’s arrival in the city by plane to signal the start of the congress. Riefenstahl was granted unlimited resources and unprecedented access to make the film, ensuring that she and her production team (including cinematographers Sepp Allgeier and Franz Weihmayr) would be on hand to capture every one of the week’s major events. Among them is the aforementioned arrival of Hitler which is followed by a significantly photographed and edited motorcade through the streets of Nuremberg lined with smiling Aryan faces offering loyal Nazi salutes, the lavish opening ceremony where many prominent party officials offer thundering speeches of fealty to their Fuhrer, a rally of the Hitler Youth, and a climatic address by Hitler to an assembly of over 150,000 of his soldiers. The grandiose pageantry of these final moments is possibly the most enduring visual legacy of Riefenstahl’s one-sided epic, as anyone who has thrilled to the medal ceremony at the close of the original Star Wars and the opening FedNet broadcast from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (itself a thinly veiled satire of WWII propaganda films) can attest.
The Nazis considered Triumph of the Will a documentary, but there is rarely a moment in this film that wasn’t staged for the benefit of Riefenstahl’s cameras. The imagery she is able to capture is powerful because it’s all purely for show, and Triumph is such a manufactured spectacle that the television programs that we dare to call “reality shows” can’t help but pale embarrassingly in comparison. If you believe the singular perspective the film presents to us without argument, then Germany in the 1930’s was a great place to be. Everyone was happy (see the smiling children presenting Uncle Adolf with flowers and a hearty Sieg Heil), peace was not in short supply (the Hitler Youth romp and play like kids at summer camp), and the nation’s ruling party was staffed by proud men confident and united in the belief that their leader was less of a man and more of a god living among mere mortals. The Party Day of Victory was an extended celebratory lap to honor the Nazi Party’s rise to power in the wake of the infamous Night of the Long Knives in which left-wing members of the party and conservative political opponents were arrested and executed in order to pave the way for Hitler to assume complete control of the German government, but there is absolutely no mention of that totalitarian massacre during the Congress except as veiled historical footnotes. Why should there be? That was the past, and as history has proven time and again, we tend to ignore an ugly past when it is being blinded by the brighter light of a hopeful future (which happened to include world domination). Of course there is that old saying about what happens when we choose to forget the past….
Riefenstahl was hired to make a film that would portray Hitler and Nazism in general in the most positive of lights, and needless to say she succeeded. She keeps the party leader isolated from his adoring subjects most of the time and when he does meet a few of them up close he is quite obviously awkward and uncomfortable in their presence. When he gives his speeches, Hitler is standing far above his public behind lecterns, delivering bold pronouncements and espousing his delusional philosophy while gesticulating wildly. It’s a pure performance piece that the crowds buy into and eat up with a hunger for more. No wonder Donald Trump seems to hold Hitler in high regards. Riefenstahl’s crew had multiple cameras on hand to capture the festivities from every conceivable angle, giving the director many options to choose from in the editing room, most of which were scored to the music of Herbert Windt (one of the Reich’s most notable film composers who later collaborated with Riefenstahl on her other influential propaganda film, the two-part epic Olympia) and classic pieces created by Hitler’s favorite composer – the late Richard Wagner. The cinematography is confidently artistic as the director goes out of her way to frame Hitler as the figure of mythical origin he wishes to be viewed as to his followers. Orson Welles was most likely paying attention to Riefenstahl’s progressive filmmaking techniques in between viewings of The Searchers as he was gearing to make some film history of his very own.
In fact, Triumph’s influence continues to be felt today and will likely do so for generations to come. It inspired countless propaganda films made in nearly every country around the world and opened the eyes of many to the potential of cinema to win the hearts and minds of the masses. Once the U.S. entered World War II, they employed the major Hollywood studios to create entertaining combat films and documentaries that would help keep stateside popular opinion on the side of ongoing military action. Riefenstahl’s film has also been used as a roadmap for corporations and political parties to craft their own partisan documentary features supporting and opposing causes, laws, and elected officials. The director herself was the toast of the Third Reich following Triumph’s success, and once Hitler’s reign of terror came to an end a decade later she was deservedly tarred forever as a Nazi and went to her grave in September 2003 at the ripe old age of 101 haunted by the role her filmmaking played in the mass death and devastation the Nazis inflicted on Europe and the soul of the world. Good. She may have had final cut, but she was still following orders.
The centerpiece of Synapse Films’ Blu-ray edition of Triumph of the Will is an all-new high-definition transfer presented in the film’s original 1.19:1 aspect ratio that was created from a 2K scan of a 35mm duplicate fine grain master print that underwent an extensive digital clean-up over a period of two years. The restoration was carried out under the supervision of Robert A. Harris of The Film Preserve and special effects expert Greg Kimble. At the expense of the important preservation of grain, the transfer contains a few digital artifacts, but according to the liner notes they are “less intrusive than the original film damage”. Given the age and condition of the elements used for the restoration, the grain is very natural and not overpowering, while damage is minimal and black levels are solid and definite. Close-up shots boast the finest prominent upgrade in detail and clarity. The only audio choice is a German DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack that, per the liners, “was harvested from the original optical tracks of the fine grain duplicate, and digitally cleaned to make the listening experience as pleasant as possible”. The clean-up work produced robust, laudable results, with stable volume levels and a deficiency of distortion and persistent audio damage. English, Castilian Spanish, Parisian French, and Japanese subtitles have also been included.
Dr. Anthony R. Santoro, Distinguished Professor of History and President Emeritus at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia (the town where I spent part of my childhood, oddly enough), consulted on the restoration of Triumph of the Will and oversaw the new English language translations and screen identifications. He also contributes an audio commentary that is rich in historical context and background information about the events depicted in the film and the physical production. Santoro spends a good deal of the track pointing out who’s who at the Nuremberg rally and breaking down Riefenstahl’s revolutionary directing and editing techniques. This is a very meaningful supplement that makes watching such an odious work of the cinema much easier.
The only other extra is an HD presentation of Riefenstahl’s 17-minute 1935 short film Day of Freedom (Tag der Freiheit), which documents the Seventh Party Rally of the Nazi Party held in Nuremberg that year. Day is devoted to a fawning appreciation for the German Armed Forces and focuses on the unveiling of the Panzer tank before a large audience that naturally included Hitler. Riefenstahl reportedly made this film as a way to placate Hitler and the top brass in the Wehrmacht after they complained over their minimalized presence in Triumph and the director could not be convinced to include more footage of them. Santoro also provided the screen translations for this film.
Liner notes written by screenwriter (Street Trash), filmmaker (Document of the Dead), and Films in Review (www.filmsinreview.com) editor Roy Frumkes are included inside the Blu-ray case and supply the reader with valuable critical and historical perspective on Triumph laced with insight and biting humor.
I would recommend Synapse’s Blu-ray release of Triumph of the Will for students of cinema and anyone hoping to understand the true power of brilliantly-made propaganda and how it can lead to the rise of unimaginable evil. The new and improved high-definition transfer, sourced from a 2K resolution scan of surviving elements, and the inclusion of a fascinating expert commentary and Riefenstahl’s shorter follow-up to what is undoubtedly her greatest, and most heinous, work of the cinema give this disc much needed extra added value.