BR: Triumph of the Will / Triumph des Willens (1935)

February 5, 2016 | By

TriumphOfTheWillSynapse_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Synapse Films

Region: A, B, C

Released:  December 8, 2015

Genre:  Documentary / Propaganda / WWII / Third Reich

Synopsis: Inarguably the most potent propaganda film ever made, showcasing the Nazi party and deifying Adolf Hitler using stunning footage from the 1934 Nuremberg party rally.

Special Features:  New 2K 2015 HD transfer / Audio Commentary by German National Socialist specialist Dr. Anthony R. Santoro / Bonus Short: “Day of Freedom” (1935) / 4-page colour booklet with liner notes by Roy Frumkes.




Perhaps the ultimate and scariest propaganda film ever made – and rightly so – Leni Riefenstahl’s self-professed ‘document’ of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg was a meticulously plotted production designed from the ground-up to assault the senses of German audiences and make it clear Adolph Hitler was not only the country’s man in charge, but its self-appointed savior and visionary.

Riefenstahl had previously shot an hour-long documentary at the 1933 Party Congress, and while that short, Victory of the Faith / Der Sieg des Glaubens (1933), covered almost the same ground and structure – Hitler’s arrival, entry into the old city of Nuremberg, addressing the populace from a hotel balcony, an evening oom-pah-pah serenade, and assorted marches interspersed with speeches before concluding speeches – it pales in being much cruder in filming, assembly, and the director (and party’s) attempt to deify Hitler.

Faith also featured shots of and speeches by Ernst Röhm, the powerful leader of the brown-shirted SA, the Nazi party’s rabid militia, who was soon slated for execution in a 1934 purge that routed out other SA figures and had the potential to endanger Hitler’s newfound position as Chancellor and Fuhrer, self-crowned after former President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1933.

Triumph was design to live up to its name and the will of the Nazi party (the NSDAP) to cement their placement as the only party that should ever lead the country, and unlike the hastily assembled quality of Faith, it’s clear both party leaders and Riefenstahl wanted their remake to be the most definitive record of the party’s power and ideal image as representing the country’s truest social values, inarguably setting the NSDAP as the only true defender of a classless society, and the governing body that would bring back the country’s glory after two devastating depressions, the penalties inflicted upon the country after WWI, and the postwar Weimar Republic which Hitler fully loathed.

The sometimes perfunctory edits in Faith, including Hitler’s arrival, were replaced by elaborate and meticulously measured cinematic transitions and montages that certainly in Triumph’s famous opening, attempted to deify Hitler: POV shots from a plane flying through stunning cloud formations, the plane’s shadow as it descends upon the old city of Nuremberg, and its landing in an airfield packed with throngs of multi-generational citizens and representatives from the various governmental factions in their military-styled uniforms.

As historian Dr. Anthony Santoro cites in his audio commentary track on Synapse’s stellar Blu-ray, the Treaty of Versailles had reduced Germany’s army to 100,000 men, so Hitler’s clever workaround was to create paramilitary governmental branches – the police; the worker’s union; and the Hitler Youth, an ideological version of the boy scouts where each member wore a uniform, was indoctrinated in the party’s philosophy, had to stick with an unwavering sense of discipline, and maintain absolute loyalty to Hitler.

The messages brow-beaten into the militias emphasized each man and woman was a vital member of a greater movement which mandated total fealty to the party and its orders to ensure that the country’s struggle to return to the world stage would never be eroded by further Allied meddling. In essence, each faction formed a military-like corps, pre-inculcated for the discipline required for war when the Nazis would soon break treaties, expand the military, re-arm the Rhineland, ramp up war production, and go on a European and North African conquest spree, murdering millions at home and abroad.

As Riefenstahl celebrated the ideological heaviness of the Nazis by glorifying their fetishes for organized and disciplined Romanesque tributes to Hitler, it also transformed Triumph into the kind of film Faith wasn’t to such a heavy degree: a meandering, almost neverending parade of fetishized militarism that would probably make even war geeks glance at the clock more than a few times, especially in the final third.

It’s also a ‘document’ (the NSDAP’s own branding for their feature-length advert) that’s been referenced and parodied in a variety of pop culture films. The massive symbolism of the Nazis looks surreal, given the use of icons and slicked-backed paramilitary figures that dominate George Orwell’s still gripping 1984, if not the animated version of Orwell’s Animal Farm (1954) with its Hitlerian pigs branding ‘worthless’ members of society (like an old horse) for extermination (a glue factory).

There’s no mention of wiping out sub-humans in Triumph, but there are moments when closing speeches bring up issues of faith, fear of impurity, and expunging threats to the new order of the magical Third Reich.

The use of the swastika in both films as a brand logo is scary and rather hysterical in appearing everywhere on everything, but unlike Faith, it’s been isolated to more decorative and formal placement instead of the ridiculous, like the bumper pistons on a train that arrives at the beginning of Faith. (Trains decorated with party regalia isn’t exclusive to the Nazis, but a similarly excessive bombardment of brand iconography was used satirically in Edward Dmytryk’s 1972 sexy version of Bluebeard, in which the legendary wife killer is affiliated with a fascist party, wears a Gestapo-like uniform, and features a train similarly peppered with a fascistic logo.)

The icon-branded drapes hanging from old city buildings and balconies as banners and bunting are surreal, but in one goofy shot a small flag’s been poked into a potted plant as the camera looks out from a window into the brightening morning view of Nuremberg. As propaganda, it adds to the image of a household’s devotion of the party, but outside of Germany, even in 1935, that image may have been regarded as absurd, like some daffy fertilizer rod that channels Nazified ammonia-rich nutrients (shit) to embolden potted plants into flowering to their maximum capabilities.

The brilliance of Riefenstahl’s filmmaking techniques have made Triumph a work to study by generations of film students, but it’s perhaps most effective in extracts as these manage to synthesize the film’s constant bombardment of the same images and visual themes which as an aggregate flow like Hitler’s own speeches – calm, measured, organized, repetitive, and erupting in a cyclical barking of core themes designed to stir up passion in party acolytes.

Riefenstahl’s film has been available in shorter versions, some lacking the orations by party loyalists in what may have been an attempt to perhaps improve the film’s ‘flow’ or ‘tone down’ the verbal messaging (as if the imagery and constant interpolation of Sieg Heils wasn’t enough on its own). In actuality, the speeches in the grand hall are sometimes more intriguing than the mega-marches because they deal with dangerous subtext and the party’s overt ideology in being utterly reliant on one master figure and his loyal cronies. Interestingly, it also features Nazi figures seen speaking on camera instead of archival photos and scratchy newsreel clips with off-kilter speeds.

In spite of being filmed by an ace team of cameramen with flattering lighting and editing – a marked contrast to the awkward moments and often poor composition of Faith –  Riefenstahl’s team nevertheless captured candid details that pepper her formal ‘document’ narrative. Whereas Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess offers measured introductory comments in Faith (plus a nod to an invited member of Italy’s fascist party), he’s a shrill, shrieking acolyte in Triumph; a caffeinated loon who barks short intros and salutes, and shouts to the audience instead of letting the microphones do the work.

In Faith, the audio is especially poor, so one suspects the decision was to make sure speakers were both cleanly audible and more passionate in this second go-round, instead of making looser and more banal intros, and taking screen time away from Hitler. In Riefenstahl’s remake, any spoken words are more precise, more formal, and the clips (many obviously staged for static and pre-planned tracking cameras) are designed to present Hitler as a statesman than a military nut, a racist, and a mass murderer.

But even within the strictly organized format, like Faith, there are small moments that reveal arrogance within party ranks, and physical imperfections.

In a later moment during the film’s last and brutally prolonged street parade finale, a SA leader approaches and salutes Hitler, then backs up against the big black Mercedes to view his passing troops. He turns right and tries to show Hess some love with a similarly pronounced salute, but receives instead a tepid ‘Yeah, whatever. You’re not worth my time’ quarter-wave which captures the friction between the passé SA brownshirts and the Nazi bigwigs, whose sights are trained on militarized international conquest than SA street fighting.

In the Nuremberg hall speeches that break up the mass marches and stadium and airfield assemblies, Hess isn’t alone in being filmed with beady sweat bubbling across his head – even Hitler can’t hide the wet spots on his uniform, although one can argue those far rarer glimpses into his biological fallibility were retained due to continuity issues, whereas Hess & Co. were allowed to look like sweaty pigs because they make Hitler look more perfect.

Riefenstahl undoubtedly had a massive selection of footage to assemble a perfect cut, but she had location sound that wasn’t just properly miked, but often synced with speeches. Many close-ups resemble the official portraiture imprinted on stamps, coins, and stills, replicating Hitler’s branding in this live film; and when standing, he’s seen from below among the erect and utterly still masses, or to the side, with a spotlight hitting his waist and creating starry backlighting.

Santoro states in his commentary the Nazis never again crafted such a similarly pure feature-length commercial – Riefenstahl’s masterwork couldn’t be topped – and the film ran for 10 years in cinemas, although one suspects near the end those stats may have been part government spin: the film may have been physically screened, but it’s doubtful hundreds trekked through bombed out streets near the end of the war and spent valuable bread money on fascistic claptrap. Even the Third Reich’s last completed production, the nationalistic epic Kolberg (1945), was seen by minimal audiences.

Over the past twenty years, “Hitler” and “Nazi” have become part of pop culture terminology (an adoption that may have been cemented by satirical examples such as the ‘Soup Nazi’ episode of TV’s Seinfeld); unlike its 1934 release, in 2016 Triumph has the combined ability to scare, to bore, to amuse, and to function as a cautionary artifact for future generations.

Riefenstahl’s film still scares because it is the most ideal, self-aggrandizing portrait of any organization – in this case the most murderous group of thugs ever to seize power and inflict horrendous suffering on millions of innocent people. Hitler isn’t a still image but a living force surrounded by up to 200,000 faithful. When he pays homage / sends a ‘Fuck you-Thank God you’re finally dead’ to the recently deceased Hindenburg, the event isn’t filmed by a few oddly placed cameras as in Faith, but from a bird’s eye vantage, following the long and sorrowful trek as three meticulously uniformed goons walk down an alley, flanked by SS troops before they pause by a giant wreath and smoldering Romanesque pots.

That sequence is followed by another speech, more mass troop movements, and a flag-touching ritual in which Hitler unites the party’s “blood flag” – a blood-stained flag used in the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch – with new flags assigned to faithful standard bearers.

Other events designed to solidify the party include Albert Speer’s evening “cathedral of light” that surround troops at the Zeppelin air field where Hitler’s backlit like a God; and the superb sound design that blends enormous choruses of “Sieg Heil” salutes with drum rolls to ensure words boom and resonate instead of echoing and melding into a reflective audio mush as in Faith.

Composer Herbert Windt, who also scored Faith with long cues, wrote very little music for Triumph. The lack of original score does give the film a docu-like quality, but it also contributes to the film’s monotonous music track that’s almost exclusively march pieces. Those familiar with actor Gert Frobe (Goldfinger) might get a chuckle, as the actor spoofed the pomposity of classic German marches by mimicking the oom-pah-pah brass and percussion as part of his version of a pompous, shrill Prussian autocrat in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965).

Triumph also bores due to its nearly 2 hours, much of which is devoted to marches and militia movements with flags and standards, as each faction makes its statement of mass-love to Hitler in epic montages.

There’s a peculiar break in the film when the infantry – horseback soldiers and armed vehicle maneuvers – are showcased for a perfunctory 2 minutes in less grandiloquent imagery and editing, but Triumph is about moving strands of disciplined humans in perfect ideological harmony, mass celebration, and mass adulation, not snapshots of horseback infantry, tanks, and anti-aircraft guns on a muddy field. (Santoro adds that these 2 minutes were reluctantly sliced into the film to appease the infantry, and their subsequent displeasure in being given such perfunctory screen time resulted in an appeasement – the 1935 short Day of Freedom, also directed by Riefenstahl, and included in Synapse’s Blu-ray.)

To think outside of the classic Nazi borders is inferred to be an act of national betrayal, if not heretical to party philosophy and its appropriated rituals of military structure, commercial iconography, and pseudo-religious relics to create something that appears ancient and sacred but was mass-produced within 10-20 years.

Riefenstahl’s film also (unintentionally) amuses because Hitler is surreal as a potent leader, given his ridiculous haircut, Aryan upper lip soul patch, and oratorical style that progresses from calm and disciplined to a kind of head-and-hip twerking hysteria, but there’s also the inherent scariness of the film which goes beyond seeing Hitler walking, talking, and (sort of) smiling onscreen.

When the Fuhrer addresses his junior namesakes, the Hitler Youth, Triumph becomes quite unnerving as Riefenstahl folds together shots of early morning male bonding via breakfast and swastika-branded calisthenics – material also present in Faith as well as collegiate athletes in Olympia – plus manly mirth-making and song, but when the SA leader calls out to his ‘troops’ in the air field and a member of each shouts back from whence they came, it’s like watching a cartoon version of a fascist propaganda short instead of the real thing.

The not-quite liturgical call-and-answer exchange – blatantly staged for the cameras – is shot with grave sincerity, and Riefenstahl’s own fixations on the body beautiful: blondes have been pushed to the forefront of the troops and cameras, and select youths are shot like Greek marble busts with heavenly soft lighting. Riefenstahl may be indulging in her Greek God fetish for the body beautiful (filmed with the same love of classicism she applied to headshots and full body portraiture in her exhilarating Olympia diptych) but the selected young men also establish a new breed of SA that’s transitioning from SA street thugs to uniformed soldiers. Soft lighting makes the headshots glow unnaturally, and the use of clouds and background smoke adds to the footage’s classical / occult tone.

That specific ‘I’m from X’ interplay between the SA leader and spotlighted blonde minions was later copied in The Battle of Stalingrad (1949), one of Joseph Stalin’s ‘artistic documentaries.’ At the end of that 2-part epic (which, unlike Hitler’s fixation on mass formations and Romanesque pageantry, fetishized mass movements using the infantry, air force and navy via tank and land troops, canon fire, masses of planes, and meticulously choreographed blasts by Red Army bombers), there’s a more compact but no less impressive version of soldiers of diverse ethnicities that have gathered in Stalin’s sacred city from across the Soviet Union to quash the Nazi fascists.

Triumph’s generic purity makes clear what constitutes blatant propaganda in sound and image; Orwell’s 1984 may have been a fictionalized version of life under a Nazi-like regime, but Triumph is a document of the type of self deifying new media container that should send an alert whenever aspects of a totalitarianism, autocratic rule, or ideological brow-beating are adopted by regimes – political, corporate, and social – for their own interests.

For better or worse, Triumph is also a stellar example of film technique in the realms of editing, sound editing, sound design, and distilling an event to a very specific series of dramatic sequences; some compacted, others expanded to epic proportions. At the end of the Hitler Youth rally, Riefenstahl employs a money shot that, as with each other sequence, hammers home the epic scope of the mortal-to-Reichian God relationship that’s being hammered to audiences: placed on the rear of a car exiting the air field, Riefenstahl’s singular camera holds on the edge of saluting faithful, and the shot just keeps going, revealing unending row upon row of enthusiastic (and maybe coached) followers

And in the Hindenburg / “blood flag” sequence, it’s the aforementioned walk along a wide stone court by Hitler and his leading goons, flanked by masses of SS men as they approach the smoldering cauldrons that memorialize both Hindenburg and fallen members of the NSDAP. This is the sequence where three massive banners reach skyward behind the wide podium upon which the Fuhrer speaks, and lines of standard-bearing troops march up steps, twist around the podium, and spiral to the rear in salute. (It’s also the locale where a small ‘camera cart’ slides up and down the banners to capture the stunning aerial views.)

If Faith was the precursor to the refined propaganda film that became Triumph, then the latter’s flawless production coordination set the template for Olympia and future mass camera coverage of later filmed and televised Olympic and sporting events.

Riefenstahl remains the Nazi era’s most controversial filmmaker perhaps because unlike the blatant racist works of Fritz Hippler (The Eternal Jew) and Veit Harlan (Jud Süß), she showed a special brilliance in advancing the art of filmmaking in fiction, ersatz documentary, and documentary / sports films. Her final feature, Tiefland (filmed between 1940-1944, but not completed and released until 1954), used slave labour selected from concentration camps, and it’s impossible to believe she knew nothing of Hitler’s anti-Semitism nor suspected the regime was mass-exterminating Jews and anyone else deemed sub-human. The subtext is more than palpable in Triumph, and her stubbornness in denying any knowledge of anything sinister ensures she remains loathed and admired, and perhaps a symbol of what happens when a brilliant talent gets too close to the Devil, becomes his servant, and chooses to wear blinders to ongoing horrors.

Leni Riefenstahl’s films as director include The Blue Light / Das blaue Licht (1932), Victory of Faith / Der Sieg der Glaubens (1933), Triumph of the Will / Triumph des Willens (1935), Day of Freedom / Tag der Freiheit (1935), Olympia Parts One and Two (1938), Tiefland (1954), and Underwater Impressions / Impressionen unter Wasser (2002).

She was also profiled in Ray Müller’s brilliant The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl / Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl (1993) which also includes images from her stills and filming of the African Nuba tribe (later documented in book form) and her work as perhaps the world’s only octogenarian underwater cinematographer.


* * *

This marks the third time (first in 2001, followed by a more definitive 2006 edition) Synapse has released Riefenstahl’s Triumph on video, here boasting a fine new Robert A. Harris-supervised 2K fine transfer that balances digital restoration with the film’s original grain and obvious wear (supervised by Greg Kimble). (Note: the new transfer done by The Film Preserve does feature a recurring ‘bug’ that places the logo in the lower right corner for a short moment, and the main titles are a blend of original fonts laid over a film background, and lacks the sharp-blurry text transitions present in the 2006 DVD.)

The audio is nicely balanced and brings out the striking sound design, and although historian Santoro does point out obvious shots on more than a few occasions, he contextualizes the grim characters of mass murders captured by Riefenstahl, and the political DNA of the Nazi party and each faction that made up the NSDAP prior to several amalgamations and the launch of WWII. Santoro’s commentary is extremely helpful for contextualizing the flurry of historical details within the film, and he also contributed to a series of onscreen captions that identify key figures, given Triumph features a heavy cast of recurring figures, some sporting similar-styled uniforms. (Also note: unlike the 2006 DVD, these onscreen identifications are non-removable.)

Synpase’s Blu also includes a booklet with liner notes by Roy Frumkes (Document of the Dead), and the aforementioned short Day of Freedom, which, like Victory of Faith, is reviewed separately.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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