Triumph Of The Will has become syn­ony­mous with pro­pa­gan­da, rep­re­sent­ing to many the defin­ing cel­lu­loid ver­sion of this con­cept. As Roy Frumkes points out in his lin­er notes for the recent Synapse blu-ray release of this film, its styl­is­tic tricks have been bor­rowed for every­thing from polit­i­cal com­mer­cials to Star Wars. Over eighty years after the fact, it remains one of the most impor­tant films ever made because it shows how even the cin­e­mat­ic medi­um can be manip­u­lat­ed to lend a beau­ti­ful style to the most hor­ri­fic con­cepts imag­in­able.

TriumOTW-bluTriumph Of The Will was filmed at a 1934 ral­ly for the Nazi Party in Nuremberg, Germany. It bypass­es any sort of con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive struc­ture to offer an impres­sion­is­tic por­trait of the event. It is con­cerned with two things. The first is rev­el­ing in the iconog­ra­phy and pageantry of the Third Reich, show­ing off sev­er­al parades and offi­cial func­tions full of crisp uni­forms and pre­cise march­ing. The oth­er con­cern is chron­i­cling the speech­es of Hitler and his under­lings as they make a pas­sion­ate case for their lead­er­ship of Germany.

Of course, the real­i­ty it presents was care­ful­ly manip­u­lat­ed at every lev­el. Hitler want­ed an “offi­cial record” of the ear­ly days of the Nazi par­ty, one that would por­tray them in the most glow­ing terms pos­si­ble. He found a dia­bol­i­cal­ly gift­ed co-con­sipi­ra­tor in Leni Riefenstahl, a film­mak­er who was given the run of the cer­e­monies and a mas­sive cam­era crew.

Riefenstahl brings a breath­tak­ing visu­al style to the film, mak­ing use of pre­cise angles and glid­ing cam­er­a­work to present the care­ful­ly designed iconog­ra­phy of the Nazis in a hyp­notic man­ner. She was also a pio­neer in stag­ing “real” events, get­ting mas­sive groups of Nazi under­lings to re-enact speech­es, march­es and pro­ces­sions for her cam­eras so she could per­fect her cov­er­age of the­se events.

The end result is both beau­ti­ful and hor­ri­fy­ing all at once. There is no deny­ing the tech­ni­cal skill of Riefenstahl and her abil­i­ty to use those skills to give her Nazi cam­era sub­jects an air of author­i­ty and grandeur. However, the knowl­edge of what Hitler and his dis­ci­ples would do dur­ing the sec­ond World War brings a ghoul­ish qual­i­ty to the­se pro­ceed­ings: know­ing the ter­ri­ble crimes the Nazis would com­mit makes observ­ing their self-wor­ship in this film a grim process. The moral bank­rupt­cy of Riefenstahl’s approach, treat­ing Hitler like a god, only enhances that grim feel­ing.

TriumOTW-02Thus, Triumph Of The Will is a piece of cin­e­mat­ic his­to­ry that remains valu­able on mul­ti­ple lev­els: it’s a crash course in pro­pa­gan­da, a mem­o­rable record of how Hitler and his par­ty saw them­selves and a tes­ta­ment to how decep­tive peo­ple can use art to manip­u­late real­i­ty to their own ends. If you want to under­stand how pro­pa­gan­da works on the big screen, this is where you start.

Blu-Ray Notes: Triumph Of The Will has long been a part of the Synapse Films library in DVD form and the com­pa­ny has recent­ly revis­it­ed it for a blu-ray edi­tion. The trans­fer is tak­en from a new 2K scan of a fine grain mas­ter, super­vised by Robert A. Harris and cap­tured at the orig­i­nal 1.19:1 aspect ratio. It looks stun­ning, bring­ing a new lev­el of depth and clar­i­ty to the black-and-white pho­tog­ra­phy while min­i­miz­ing age-relat­ed dam­age.

The loss­less mono audio also impress­es, offer­ing a clear and well-defined ren­di­tion of the mix drawn from the orig­i­nal opti­cal sound­track of the fine-grain mas­ter. Optional English sub­ti­tles are avail­able to accom­pa­ny the speech­es and they also include help­ful iden­ti­fca­tions for the Nazi offi­cers shown in the film.TriumOTW-01

The disc also includes an excel­lent, high­ly infor­ma­tive com­men­tary track by his­to­ri­an Dr. Anthony R. Santoro. He’s able to provide con­text for Riefenstahl’s imagery, dis­cussing every play­er in the Nazi par­ty that appears onscreen and offer­ing detailed info on their biogra­phies as well as a his­to­ry and analy­sis of the ral­ly the film chron­i­cles. It’s a great accom­pa­ni­ment to the film and a must-lis­ten for his­to­ry buffs.

Also includ­ed is Day Of Freedom, a 17-min­ute short about the German army that Riefenstahl made after Triumph Of The Will. Hitler com­mis­sioned this film after the army com­plained about being under­rep­re­sent­ed in Triumph Of The Will and it thus por­trays German mil­i­tary might in the most wor­ship­ful and fetishized style imag­in­able, using the same bag of styl­is­tic tricks that Triumph offered. Scenes of the mil­i­tary men enact­ing war games for a huge audi­ence are chill­ing when one con­sid­ers the real destruc­tion that they would both cre­ate and suf­fer.

The pack­age is round­ed by con­sise yet high­ly infor­ma­tive lin­er notes by filmmaker/critic Roy Frumkes that put Triumph Of The Will in its prop­er con­text as a film that is both influ­en­tial and dis­turbing at once. In short, this is a great update of a his­tor­i­cal­ly impor­tant film from Synapse.