Triumph Of The Will (DVD)

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Triumph Of The Will (DVD)

This documentary of the Sixth Nazi Party Congress at, ironically enough, Nuremberg, is a frightening example of powerful film propaganda. It helped la...

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Review of "Triumph Of The Will (DVD)"

published 09/03/2013 | eve6kicksass
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Excellent
Pro Riefensthal's infamous doc is spellbinding in its aestethics and artistry
Cons Not for everyone, too much for some to take, chilling and unnerving to the core
exceptional
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"Riefenstahl's Triumph of Speeches, Imagery, Music & Movement"

Adolf Hitler & Leni Riefenstahl in a break during filming

Adolf Hitler & Leni Riefenstahl in a break during filming

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TITLE: Triumph of the Will (1935)

RATING: *****

DIRECTOR: Leni Reifenstahl

STUDIO: Reichsparteitag-Film / Synapse Pictures

RUNNING TIME: 114 Minutes

AVAILABILITY: 15 GBP New from Amazon

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PART ONE: THE MOST INFAMOUS “DOCUMENTARY” OF ALL TIME
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"An incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement." --- Adolf Hitler

When people think of Leni Riefenstahl, they usually place her in one of two camps: she was Hitler’s film mistress whose plan was to poison the minds of the German people with the Fuhrer’s disgusting anti-Semitic propaganda to further the cause and message of the Third Reich or a genuinely great filmmaker who was simply hired to do a job, which was filming the 1934 Nazi rallies at Nuremberg at the request of Hitler. One thing is for sure: she is still the most (in)famous female filmmaker of all time, and Triumph of the Will is considered her finest work; for nearly 80 years, the film has been a required staple on any serious filmmaker’s education, being taught in film schools all around the world. I always knew about Triumph of the Will, however I wasn’t exposed to it until I watched it in a Documentary Film & TV university class in early 2002. Our professor had already shown us the great-grandfather of all documentaries, Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), a vivid look at the survival of Canadian Arctic Eskimos, as well as Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, the 1929 Russian doc recently named as the eighth best film ever made according to Sight & Sound magazine.

The class, however, wasn’t prepared for Riefenstahl’s staggering parade of sounds, swastikas, and the Fuhrer’s fiery speeches praising the Third Reich’s rise to power. For lack of a better word, it stunned the entire class…yet, at the film’s conclusion, all were unanimous as to the film’s undeniable power, and Riefenstahl’s masterful command of the medium. Oh, yes, we had significant debates as to her overall intentions, as well as her questionable political views: Triumph of the Will indeed blurs the line between documentary and propaganda, as the viewer is thrust out of his/her comfort zone and plucked right down into the lion’s den of crowds praising their fascist leader over and over again. As history has dictated to us, Hitler and the Nazi Party not only paralyzed Germany morally and politically, yet also led to the truly horrible mass genocide of millions. In Triumph of the Will we see, unflinchingly, how reality opened the door to the unthinkable. Many of us seem to forget that Hitler was voted into office via democratic presidential election by the German people, and the masses are seen again and again giving unwavering, unquestioning praise and devotion to their Fuhrer, a virtual ocean of raised arms and a military marching like cattle amidst the celebration. Triumph of the Will is certainly not for everyone, yet it’s a film that cannot be ignored—frighteningly reminding us why we study history in the first place.

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PART TWO: THE MOUNTAIN GIRL WITH A MOVIE CAMERA
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Born in 1902, Leni Riefenstahl started her career as a dancer, studying Russian ballet and becoming a sensation in Europe until a knee injury forced her to look in another direction. Enter Arnold Franck, who had a created an entire genre in the 1920s known as the “mountain film.” There were no female mountaineers at the time, yet her initiative and striking athleticism caught Frank’s eye, and thus she became an actress in many of his mountain films while also learning how to operate a camera behind the scenes. In 1932, right after sound was introduced in motion pictures, she garnered the perfect opportunity to direct herself, thanks to Franck’s crew and her mountain climbing skills. The film would be known as the The Blue Light, where Riefenstahl played a mysterious, seductive mountain girl, considered to be a mystical witch of some sort that would collect crystals which most men have fallen to their death trying to obtain. Filmed entirely on-location in the Swiss Alps and punctuated by Riefenstahl’s hair-raising mountain climbing (that’s her the entire time), the film would garner the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. It would prove to be the perfect training ground, as Riefenstahl had found her calling: she wanted to be a director, yet it was her “dance by the sea” in Franck’s The Secret Mountain which caught the attention of Adolf Hitler.

Up until this point in her career, Riefenstahl had always been apolitical, much more interested in her dancing, climbing, and filmmaking. She had heard Hitler at a 1933 rally and was, by her own admission, quite impressed at his way of giving a speech like it was nobody's business. The director’s own words: “He seemed very natural, straightforward, modest and friendly. When I’d seen his face on posters, I’d thought him decidedly ugly. But when I met him personally, that all disappeared. You just didn’t notice his features and the mustache: he radiated something very powerful, you forgot all the rest. But as a man he did not interest me at all.” Riefenstahl noted Hitler had a ‘hypnotic effect’ on her, as did about 90% of the German people; in a later meeting, Riefenstahl questioned Hitler about the book-burning parties taking place, something he refused to discuss. As for Minister of Propaganda Goebbels, he apparently wanted Riefenstahl to be his mistress, yet she categorically refused and in fact claimed she hated Goebbels, citing him as “the master of the lie.” Riefenstahl was not—and never was—a Party member, yet somehow Hitler convinced her to make a film showcasing a 1933 Party rally called Victory of Faith. Ironically enough, the Party itself halted shooting after only a few days, throwing a huge monkey wrench into Riefenstahl’s perfectionist style. Hitler insisted she try again the following year, as he wanted the 1934 Party Congress to be made by an artist outside of Party circles. Riefenstahl later compared the decision to “making a pact with the Devil”, yet she was assured she would never have to film the Party in any way ever again.

Shot over the course of four days beginning on September 1, 1934, Triumph of the Will begins with the disclaimer citing itself as the documentary of the Reich Party Congress, “produced by order of the Fuhrer”. We open up in the clouds above Germany, with Hitler’s plane descending as if he were God coming down from the heavens to be his country’s savior. We follow Hitler as his plane lands to overwhelming applause, his journey to his Nuremberg hotel by car, his greeting of adoring fans holding flowers and saluting their leader without mental reservation or evasion. Riefenstahl’s camera never stops moving as we feel like we are sitting behind Hitler and witnessing the crowds and armed guards standing at attention at the Fuhrer’s passing. What follows is a series of rallies involving the Party leadership and the Hitler Youth, as they honor the fallen soldiers from the last War as well as the men of labor who have been rebuilding the country since then. On the final day, we spend a good amount of time in an indoor auditorium, as Hitler (hailed as the “guarantor of peace”) gives a passionate climactic speech, wrapping up the Congress' festivities.

Riefenstahl obsessively spent five whole months editing the picture until she herself was completely satisfied: she wanted to avoid the amateurish, static approach which were exhibited in newsreels (remember that television didn’t exist at the time) by making the viewer feel like they were actually physically present amongst the crowds. She chose Richard Wagner’s music to compliment the film’s imagery, hitting the mute button only when Hitler or the other Party leaders take the microphone in front of the roaring crowds (Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer). The images speak for themselves much of the time, resulting in a picture that’s a real sucker punch to the senses: during my second viewing, I shook my head in disbelief many times, utterly floored at Riefenstahl’s monumental approach in documenting these events, regardless of what took place at those events. While there isn’t a single anti-Semitic phrase uttered, it’s also difficult to not be repulsed, emphasizing how film can prove itself a portentous form of art. There’s no denying the fact it aided the Nazi cause, keeping the Germans under their Fuhrer’s demonic spell: indeed, Triumph of the Will remains more horrifying than many of today’s Hollywood horror flicks.

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PART THREE: GREAT DOCUMENTARY, GREAT PROPAGANDA OR BOTH?
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“I was only interested in how I could make a film that was not stupid like a crude propagandist newsreel, but more interesting. It reflects the truth as it was then, in 1934. It is a documentary, not propaganda.” --- Riefenstahl, BBC interview

Needless to say, Triumph of the Will was an instant box office success in Germany, yet it amazingly won international awards from many countries, including France and the United States! Today, many are convinced the film is nothing more than Nazi propaganda, yet it feels more like a documentary shoot of an actual historical event—in fact, nothing was staged! Surely, Hitler originally intended the picture to serve as a political tool in “educating” his people, yet Riefenstahl has always maintained there is a significant difference between politics and art. Immediately following Hitler’s defeat, Riefenstahl was labeled a propagandist, and ended up serving four years in prison (yet was never charged with any crime). Personally, not to side with the Reich in anyway, I actually think the Frank Capra series Why We Fight is a more blatant form of propaganda in comparison, as it fueled the Allies’ desire to stand up to Hitler’s invasion of Europe. William Wyler’s excellent feature Mrs. Miniver, the 1942 Oscar winner for Best Picture, was made specifically to rally American support for our British Allies following the invasion by the German Army...despite the fact its depiction of British life was completely inaccurate. I adore the films of both Capra and Wyler, yet it should be noted those two films had been written and planned with precise, political goals.

I firmly believe Riefenstahl set out to make a work of cinematic art and not a political statement, even if Triumph of the Will contains political statements. Perhaps she was naïve to a fault, yet I think she was merely fulfilling Hitler’s orders to film the event, complete her “contract” with him, and then move on to other subjects to film. And while Hitler himself would feature prominently in Riefenstahl’s next project, the four-hour epic Olympia showcasing the 1936 Olympic Summer Games in Berlin, she was in complete awe of the black American runner Jesse Owens. Riefenstahl insists Hitler didn’t want to attend the Games at all, and that her intention was to present Germany as a unified country wishing to promote world harmony. An athlete herself, Riefenstahl was less interested in Hitler than those competing—particularly Owens, whom TIME magazine noted she had given him a similar God-like treatment onscreen as she had given Hitler in Triumph of the Will. Reportedly, Hitler was furious and went into a rage over his “successor” gaining so much attention and refused to shake the Olympic winner's hand; considering his unbridled racism, however, it’s impossible to question. Riefenstahl’s pioneering techniques of shooting the swimmers, runners and equestrians were eventually adopted by most sports news outlets and television channels; with Olympia, she was more concerned about the rhythm and breathtaking beauty of the athletes rather than competition or awards. Indeed, you could say she was the biggest influence on those who photograph and film sporting events.

Following the Holocaust and her imprisonment, Riefenstahl would end up being persecuted for decades, all but destroying her film career. In fact, aside from 1954’s Tiefland, she wouldn’t officially release another film until 2002—when she was 100 years old!—called Underwater Impressions, inspired by her deep-sea diving experiences. Yet, she will always be known because of her still-debatable associations with Hitler and the Third Reich. All I can say is you need to see Triumph of the Will and make your own conclusions as to Riefenstahl’s true intentions: no matter what you think of Riefenstahl as a person, you cannot deny her brilliant artistry, forever changing the way how documentaries—and films—are made. For those who are more interesting in learning about Riefenstahl, her history and craft, you should check out Ray Mueller’s aptly-titled, three-hour documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (available for about 100 GBP new, yet you can obtain used copies for about 20 GBP), and there are also many books written about the filmmaker. Copies of the Triumph of the Will DVD are available for 15 GBP, yet used copies are as low as 7 GBP, although I recommend you view it streaming or as a rental before submitting to a purchase; the complete version of Olympia is available for 13.50 GBP new, and is a must-watch for sports fans, particularly those interested in Olympic history. Thank you for reading! Copyright © 2013 by Christopher Kulik


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Comments on this review

  • justarube published 22/09/2016
    Great review
  • ladyofflame published 29/06/2015
    Informative, interesting and of course well written.
  • siberian-queen published 11/05/2015
    e review
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This documentary of the Sixth Nazi Party Congress at, ironically enough, Nuremberg, is a frightening example of powerful film propaganda. It helped launch Hitler into power and its sweeping style was later used by American director Frank Capra for his war documentaries.

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