Review: Triumph of the Will (Synapse Films Blu-Ray)

Despite its glorification of the Nazi agenda, Triumph of the Will is considered a masterpiece in the documentary/propaganda film style; perhaps part of that comes from director Leni Riefenstahl’s ability to make Hitler look like a pretty nice guy, even with our current historical context in place. But her ability to stage a ridiculously large event, framing it as a panel devoted to making Germany better, is the real draw, a skill that took passion and dedication to achieve. The techniques utilized in the film seem generic today, standard issue direction-work with B-roll footage, but for a film shot in 1934, Triumph of the Will truly is a work of art that forced Riefenstahl to use all of the tricks up her sleeve. It results in a nearly two-hour long piece of propaganda that showcases just how charming and powerful Hitler could be on the exterior while secretly murdering thousands of people behind the scenes.

Triumph of the Will takes place during the 1934 Nazi Party Congress, but almost none of the footage espouses actual Nazi beliefs like internment and murdering of Jews or preserving of a master race. Instead, Hitler and his cronies enlisted the help of Riefenstahl to craft a propaganda piece that would help influence viewers to side with the Nazi party, and Riefenstahl’s commitment included staging and editing each piece of this rally to completely change the focus of Hitler’s political and maniacal ideals; instead of news of the alarming scapegoat tactics and massacres Hitler was conducting, viewers of Triumph of the Will would see Hitler greeting forces of the German army, shaking hands with various rally supporters, and receiving praise from many prominent Nazi leaders who give powerful speeches about bringing Germany back to its former power (sound like current events to you?).

Throughout, Riefenstahl gives subconsciously powerful imagery. Groundbreaking techniques like filming from an airplane put the viewer in magical settings, and it intends to highlight the power of the Nazi party. Massive crowds line the streets of a parade, all cheering for Hitler; sweeping shots and wide angles attempt to fit the sheer enormity of the masses into one shot. Riefenstahl uses movie magic to create an expanse of people for as far as the camera’s lens can see, and it’s a moving display of solidarity.

Each section of the film, too, is heavily structured, switching between these panoramic shots to speeches delivered by Nazi party leaders. Triumph of the Will‘s editing is truly a sight to behold, and it’s also amazing to see how passionate each of the speakers is about the rise of a new Germany. The film has been cleaned of almost all mention of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazi party underneath the guise of German expansion, and it’s hard to believe that Riefenstahl was unaware of Hitler’s attempts to purge detractors of his regime.

There are two ways to view Triumph of the Will, though it’s difficult to distance one from the other. One way is to watch for the cinematic prowess of it all; the other is to attempt to contextualize the historical significance of this piece of propaganda, which will most likely make one disgusted in the process. Contemporary viewers will most likely not enjoy the nearly two hour runtime on an entertainment level, as Triumph of the Will ultimately contains few narrative pieces to latch onto; it’s difficult to get excited about a film full of landscape shots and carefully edited depictions of the massive Nazi Party Congress. But on a historical level, and as a classic of cinema, Triumph of the Will is worth at least one viewing, if only to observe how Riefenstahl was able to craft Nazism into something the German people could support.

Special Features

Synapse Films has released a carefully restored Triumph of the Will in this 2K remastered edition thanks to digital restoration artist Greg Kimble, and it truly does look great. There’s none of the flickering of black-and-white cinema, and very few digital artifacts or noise. The Blu-Ray’s audio, too, sounds good, with no noticeable flaws in the mono track. Subtitles provided by film historian Robert A. Harris are included as well, with multiple languages provided.

Audio commentary from Dr. Anthony R. Santoro adds another layer of complexity and historical education to this film, along with a nice two-page liner note pull-out. Another Riefenstahl “documentary,” the short film Day of Freedom, is also included. While it’s nice to have these options, I would have liked to have a few more interviews with historians and film critics on the merit of Triumph of the Willthat could have provided even more depth to this Blu-Ray.

However, those looking to supplement their film collection with a restored classic will want to get their hands on this disc from Synapse. Learn yourself something.

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