Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" is a mixed bag – even more so if you are indeed German, as I am. I had never had the chance to see this film before, as it seems to be censored in Germany, and was indeed looking forward to Riefenstahl’s infamous piece of politic antics. Synapse Films – traditionally more of a supplier of horror films for hardcore fans – has now taken heart and prepared a release of this film for release on DVD. The result – in an ominously black case with a blood-red swastika – is now sitting on my desk, ready for me to explore.
As expected, "Triumph of the Will" turns out to be a propaganda piece of the sort the "Wochenschau" offered plenty of during World War II. However, there is something almost lyric about the film and a perfection that is somewhat unexpected. Although the film depicts rigid regimen of soldiers, mass discipline marching and parading, stiff salutes and most of all politic antics, certain shots of the film appear almost serene. It is what made Leni Riefenstahl’s film so lasting and at the same time sheds a weird light on the filmmaker herself, as she helps glorify what she knew was fascism, dictatorship, hatred and fanatism - and there simply cannot be an excuse for that.
The film is such a twisted portrayal of reality that it is surprising it worked – but so is a lot that has been going on during the Third Reich. People obviously believed what they saw in those pictures, the elaborate glorification of a demagogue and staged beauty of dictatorship. Riefenstahl’s skillful artistry helped no doubt to manipulate and mislead the masses, and one wonders what would have happened if this film in particular had failed to get its message across. Chances are millions of people would potentially still be alive if a few more people had asked themselves how certain shots in this film could have been achieved if it were indeed an authentic piece of documentation. The entire film is obviously staged and cleverly edited to create an emotional context, to glorify its contents and to lure people, ultimately disguising the horrors beneath.
"Triumph of the Will" documents the 1934 Nazi party congress in Nuremberg at which Adolf Hitler and countless other Third Reich politicians drove home the message that Germany will be united and dominating the world. From Hitler’s arrival all the way to the end, the shows an incredibly orchestrated spectacle featuring tens-of-thousands of extras. Watching it makes it obvious that this film is a puzzle that has been pieced together very carefully, a notion that is stressed even more when we learn in the disc’s accompanying supplements that Riefenstahl shot 61 hours of footage using 30 cameras to capture the event, all of which was then edited down to a 2 hour pseudo-documentary over the course of months.
Given its importance and the fact that it is a real historic document, it is nonetheless surprising that the film is ultimately not nearly as exciting as it may seem. The ranting in which Hitler is driving himself in his familiar screaming frenzy, the knuckleheaded tirades about the glory of Germany, the stultification of people with arguments that make their point through blaring intonation rather than their common sense, all this is becoming tedious after a while.
At the same time, "Triumph of the Will" raises a few interesting questions in my mind, such as the ever-present, "How could this have happened?" which is now replaced with a more pressing question, "Could this happen again?" I am afraid so. The way media bombard us with half-truths and wrangled information, the sensationalism that overrides any form of real journalism, ethic or integrity, and the way people so eagerly embrace this sensibility, clearly shows that there still is a breeding ground for ignorance, intolerance and stupidity. Every day we are lambasted by examples of people who clearly do not mesh with our society and whose intellect is more than dubious.
Synapse Films has done a top-notch job bringing "Triumph of the Will" to DVD. The transfer looks much better than I had ever expected. Although the signs of age are clearly visible, traditionally historic documents like this are marred with blemishes and oftentimes barely recognizable. Not so here. The image is grainy but for the most part clean and stable. The contrast is harsh with very deep blacks and glaring highlights, but given the film’s origins and nature, this is an impressive presentation.
The audio is coming in the form of a slightly noisy mono track in German. There is a constant hiss that goes through the film but given its authenticity, I truly did not mind at all. The audio track has a very narrow frequency response, creating the extremely harsh sounding resonance we know from old footage.
The disc contains an audio commentary track by historian Dr. Anthony Santoro who does a very good job conveying valuable facts and information during the course of the film. He manages to put the entire film in a historic context that allows viewers to see the bigger picture of which "Triumph Of The Will" was only a relatively small shard of. Santoro also points out people throughout the film to ensure viewers learn about the characters and key players in this controversial piece. The disc also contains Riefenstahl’s short film "Day Of Freedom" as well as some interesting liner notes by Roy Frumkes.
After seeing "Triumph Of The Will" on this DVD, I can’t help but feel utter disdain for a woman who was obviously extremely talented. While the film may be a great achievement, the cause was certainly not and the fact that Riefenstahl knew who she was working for and simply did not care, makes "Triumph Of The Will" certainly one of the most dubious achievements in the history of motion pictures. It is clearly the single-most successful film ever made in terms of achieving its goal, and at the same time if there ever has been a film that should never have been made, "Triumph Of The Will" is it. While the film is nothing to be proud of, the DVD certainly is. Synapse Films gives everyone interested in true historic documents a film at hands here that has been unavailable for the longest time – for good reason I may say. In the wrong hands, with a twisted mind, this film can most certainly still be viewed as a call to arms. That’s how scarily effective this 60 year old production is!