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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/9/01

Triumph of the Will
Special Edition - 1934 (2001) - The Film Preserve (Synapse Films)

review by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits

Triumph of the Will Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A-

Specs and Features

120 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), B&W, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:05:14, in chapter 14), Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, audio commentary by Dr. Anthony Santoro, Professor of History, Leni Riefenstahl's short documentary Days of Freedom, scene access (18 chapters), languages: German (Mono) subtitles: English

"Hitler declared that I was talented." - Leni Riefenstahl

Triumph of the Will is just one of those movies. You know the ones... the kind where the quality is so superb and memorable, and yet they're still dwarfed by the power of the story behind them. In this case, the immense talent of Leni Riefenstahl is put on display in a film that utilized a huge crew and tremendously elaborate camera set-ups. Even cameramen on rollerskates were used, which only illuminates the inventiveness and experimentation of Riefenstahl. In the end, she edited sixty-one hours of footage into two, and put out what is easily the finest documentary/propaganda hybrid film of all time.

The problem for Riefenstahl is that this film was made for and about the Nazis, specifically their 1934 Nazi Party Convention in Nuremberg. That she made several other films for Hitler, who personally selected her after viewing her 1931 release, The Blue Light, certainly hasn't helped her cause. So despite her enormous talent for filmmaking, "Hitler's Favorite Actress" has never been able to shake her Nazi-connections and was effectively blacklisted following World War II.

To be sure, the degree and nature of sympathy Riefenstahl had for the Nazi party is a question of some debate. She has made numerous efforts to distance herself from the Nazi ideology, if only out of professional necessity, but has remained unrepentant for the films she made. The whole controversy is as interesting as any of her films, but it's had one indelible effect. Documentary filmmaking has forever been changed by Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl's fusion of propaganda with documentary techniques has skewed the assumption of objectivity afforded the documentarian.

Getting back to the film itself, the documentary opens with Hitler flying into Nuremberg for a week of events. These are made up mostly of marches and speeches by various officials, which makes sense given that this was designed to both introduce the new Nazi leadership to the people of Germany and also to pump those people up with displays of national unity. It probably did both very well for the ten years it ran in Germany, but to say it gets repetitive would be an understatement. Two hours of saluting crowds, marching uniformed Nazis and Hitler's ranting can grate on the nerves, and I can resolutely say that I find the subject material boring as well as repulsive.

However, the structure and style of this film is as mesmerizing as Hitler's speeches were to the Germans of his time. Riefenstahl's cinematography is stellar, to say the least. From religious iconography, such as Hitler's cross-shaped plane shadowing the ground and the halo of light around him, to the early shot of a night rally through a sheer Nazi flag, the movie is still visually amazing some 67 years later. It set new standards for documentary cinema when it was first released. As a film student, or someone who appreciates film in general, you simply can't escape the talent involved in the creation of Triumph of the Will. The saddest part of all of this, is that Riefenstahl's gift has never been fully appreciated due to the sheer depravity of her subject material.

So let us all thank Synapse for bringing this film to DVD. Almost 70 years after its original release, and with the knowledge that history has not been kind to this print, we have a stunningly high-quality piece of video here. Of course, there are still source defects - some grain and even water damage here and there. But you can't expect a black-and-white film of this age to be pristine. Culled from a master negative held by the Robert A. Harris' Film Preserve, Triumph of the Will just looks great on DVD and, given the film's artistic and historical value alone, this is a blessing. The image is relatively crisp, with solid blacks (as solid as they get considering the age and period of the print) and surprising depth. I've seen many "classic" films and, on DVD, they've all looked wonderful. But here I can go beyond the customary, "it looks better than it ever has." It looks damn good.

It also sounds good too, considering that this is a mono track from an era when recording technology introduced plenty of quibbles, pops and snaps to the audio. The speeches are powerful in their force - surprisingly so. The musical score, an element of her films for which Riefenstahl is famous, comes through nicely as well. Even background noises like the cheering crowds are pretty distinct, all things considered. Overlook the audio defects that remain, as they're simply unavoidable after this much time, and focus on the relative clarity here. It's simply impressive.

Even the extras here leave you feeling satisfied. Right up front, it's important to note that much more could have been done here considering the history of this film. How cool would it have been to get the documentary on Riefenstahl The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl with this? That said, I'm not going to bash Synapse for not seeking out more supplemental material (especially since Kino has the rights to that documentary). What they have included is top-notch. First of all, you get Riefenstahl's short film Days of Freedom, which runs about 17 minutes. It can be said that this is nowhere near as good as Triumph of the Will. Still, it serves as a further exploration of Riefenstahl's style, and is referenced in the commentary track. It turns out that this film, which documents the German armed forces, was only made because they wouldn't stop whining about getting short shrift in Triumph.

The other major bonus item is, in fact, the commentary track, which really shines and makes this DVD worthwhile. Featuring a professor of history, Anthony Santoro, it starts out as a sort of play-by-play, with no allusions as to the real opinions of our Ph.D. Then, as we reach a portion where various Nazi officials are shown in snippets, Santoro starts ripping in with how much he thinks these guys are garbage. We learn about the pornography of one guy, the person who should've been executed (according to Santoro) but offed himself before they could try him, etc. The shift sort of throws you at first, but then you just smile at the genius of this commentary. It's full of information, and Santoro's even, nonchalant delivery makes the opinionated zingers all the better. Watching this film without the commentary can be tough, but I sat happily through the whole two hours of Santoro.

Given the subject nature of this film, I feel like I have to put my own opinions (zinger-less though they may be) in here before I close. Hitler was a major league bunghole... but he sure knew how to pick his filmmakers. Riefenstahl displayed tremendous ability here - ability that forever redefined the documentary form and set a new standard for filmed propaganda. If you look past the vile nature of this material, you'll find a rock-solid and important DVD. It's absolutely worth a look.

Brad Pilcher
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