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Synapse Films presents
"Around you stand the flags and standards of this National Socialism. Only when they are threadbare will the people be able to understand, by hindsite, the greatness of our time, because of what you, my leader, mean to Germany!"
DVD ReviewFor those of us born in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, conceiving the series of events that could ever bring a character to power as repugnant as Adolf Hitler is difficult, if not impossible. As the world would find out at the culmination of World War II, as allied forces first entered the death camp gates of Auschwitz, Dacchau, Majdanek, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor or Chelmno, and later at the war crimes tribunals at Nuremberg, the full impact of the crimes against humanity perpetrated under Hitler's totalitarian regime would only just begin to emerge. How could anything like this ever have happened?
Leni Reifenstahl's 1934 Triumph des Willens (Triumph Of The Will), now considered a propaganda masterpiece for its role in these events, does not give any indication of the horrors that its subjects would later commit. Featuring powerful cinematography and editing, the film builds an image of a charismatic leader contradictory to his later actions. We see his adoration by his public, the respect by his subordinates, and the strength with which he would lead Germany into their future. By omission, the nature of his true character is never revealed. The techniques and imagery used in Triumph Of The Will would serve as example to many filmmakers, and its influence can be found in many modern productions, from political campaign ads to the closing ceremonial scenes in Star Wars.
With the opening titles, it is clear that Triumph Of The Will was set up to pose as a historical documentation of the NSDAP (Nazi) Party meetings of September 1934, although that could not be further from the truth. The film was an elaborately staged affair, constructed and orchestrated by Leni Reifenstahl, under the guidance of the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Josef Goebbels. Goebbels also commissioned the shorter Triumph of Victory, shot at the previous year's rally, which was ordered destroyed due to the prominence of Ernst Rohm, the former head of the paramilitary SA who was assassinated under Hitler's command during the "Night of Long Knives" the month prior to the 1934 rally. Given free reign on budget, each sequence was staged and shot from multiple angles, with insets designed to create the most powerful imagery possible. The inset card notes the opening motorcade sequence where the camera used to shoot over Hitler's shoulder mysteriously is not present in the distance shots. Hitler is rarely seen speaking with the crowd in view, instead, reaction shots are cut in to give weight to his pronouncements. This is a serious piece of propaganda, commissioned by the state, and a film that would be shown on screens throughout Germany for the next ten years to demonstrate the unity and strength of their cause, and especially the man behind it.
The film opens with Hitler's plane flying through the clouds, and as mentioned in the commentary, descending like a new messiah to the waiting throngs of people gathered to meet him. The wonderful architecture of Nuremberg is presented, decorated with national banners, and the introduction of the new National Socialist icon, the hooked cross, or swastika adorning magnificent structures in this historic city. Through streets crowded with enthusiastic onlookers, Hitler waves to the crowd from the seat of his custom made Mercedes Benz, as his motorcade winds through the city streets. Attention is made to his pleasantries with young women giving him flowers, or the featured blonde haired, blue eyed children anxiously awaiting his arrival. Upon arriving at his hotel, also adorned with party banners and a lit "Heil Hitler" sign, the Fºhrer waves to his assembled audience from his hotel room. Under an illuminated swastika on the hotel roof, Hitler is given a nighttime serenade by one of the army bands in the first of many evening assemblies. The following images show the expansive tent city erected by the youth corps, and we see happy and energetic citizens having breakfast, playing, and most of all working together. To an audience of 52,000 members of the labor service, uniformed and wielding their shovels in military fashion, Hitler extolls his vision of a new Germany, where every man is free of caste, and where the worker is honored. The scale and majesty of future assemblies is impressive, from the "Sea of Flags" to the inspection parades through the streets of Nuremberg, all caught by the careful eye of director Reifenstahl, and edited into a procession of images designed to entrench solidarity behind the new leader of Germany.
Nuremberg had been the center for the annual National Socialist party convention since 1923. The significance of the 1934 meeting was that it followed two major historical events in Germany: 1) the death of former president, Paul von Hindenburg, allowing Hitler free to assume the role of both chancellor and president, to which the position of Fºhrer was created; 2) Hitler's subsequent purging and execution of former SA head, Ernst Rohm, only a month previous. This meeting was an attempt to unify Germany behind Hitler and the NSDAP, bringing all of the party factions into line, and reassuring them that the divisiveness of the past was over. Germany's future lay in the hands of their selfless leader, Adolf Hitler.
Through a series of extravagant parades and impassioned speeches, Hitler addressed the nation through those gathered, presenting an image of a unified Germany, free of the Imperialist caste system, and placing the importance of the future of the country on all its citizens, whatever their role. Gatherings of hundreds of thousands of party members, from the labor core, farming association, SA and SS, to the Hitler youth, were addressed in impressive fashion, given their duty to perform for the collective good of Germany, and encouraged to pledge their allegiance behind the Fºhrer, the embodiment of Germany. Nowhere in this film is any mention made of Hitler's fervent anti-Semitic policies, nor any indication of the course his country would take in the years following. The wording is careful, the presentation polished, the intent subliminal.
It is important to note that these are not actors - these are the authentic architects behind one of the most heinous periods in modern history. Aside from Adolf Hitler, most of the key members of the Nazi party are seen here, including: Hermann Gring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, and responsible for ordering the instatement of the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem, the policy which ordered the mass extermination of Jews; Heinrich Himmler, Chief of German Police, responsible for the routing of the SA in June 1934 that ensured the power of the SS and placed him at its head, and the one who implemented the Final Solution by setting up of the first concentration camp at Dacchau; and Reinhard Heydrich, who administered the policy. It should also be remembered that, with the exception of a brief four minute display, none of the hundreds of thousands of participants in this event were part of the German armed forces, despite their military style uniforms and presentation - these are all various factions of the NSDAP, since Germany's military was limited by the Treaty of Versailles to only 100,000.
Triumph Of The Will's historical importance is in that it is an example of how effective propaganda works. Take away the swastikas and the goofy mustache, and the speeches being delivered here could be by just about anyone in a position of power: a coach, a teacher, politician or religious leader. Messages of unity, group effort and selfless sacrifice, and installing a sense of pride are all tools that can be used to manipulate an audience. Pay attention to the style of delivery Hitler uses, a style found in a frighteningly large number of speeches by contemporary orators. The procession of images: the children, the architecture, the happy people and grand spectacle of the meeting places, all place an importance on the central figure in the film. While its historical ramifications have relegated Triumph Of The Will to a status hated by millions who suffered as a result of the people being glorified here, it is a film that deserves preservation, if only as a warning and reminder of how the media can be used to manipulate public opinion, and as an example of the true power that words and images can have on a collective consciousness.
Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C
Image Transfer Review: Triumph Of The Will is presented in a windowboxed 1.33:1 transfer, though the windowboxing is very slight. For a film of this vintage, the image quality is fairly decent. Although a fair amount of continuous specs, dust, splotches and other print defects are present, there is very little in the way of major damage, such as rips or tears. Greyscale is variable depending on the shot, but overall looks quite acceptable. Black levels and sharpness are quite good throughout. While you will never mistake this for a recent release, it has been preserved quite well.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The audio presented is the original German mono, and sounds fitting for a film this age. There is a fair amount of rumble and noise present, though this does not seem out of place with the picture. Distortion is at a minimum, and frequency range is understandably limited. I can't complain, as any faults seem to be source related.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by historian Dr. Anthony R. Santoro
Layers Switch: 01h:05m:13s
Also included is Leni Reifenstahl's short film, Day Of Freedom, produced after the armed forces' objections to the diminutive role they played in Triumph Of The Will, which is first and foremost a Party picture. This 17-minute film shows various field demonstrations by the branches of the service, including the cavalry, motor corps, ground troops and artillery, with the air force as mock targets in the exercises. The film shows its age in both audio and video quality, but is an interesting companion piece to the feature film.
A commentary track by historian, Dr. Anthony R. Santoro is also present. Santoro highlights the figures shown throughout the film, noting also the reasoning behind many of the presentations, and the groups that make up Hitler's audience during the Party Day rallies at Nuremberg. This insight is extremely welcomed, as many of the people shown, though indicated with subtitles, would not be brought to attention nearly as well without his commentary, and the historical context presented gives far more relevance to the speeches than could be gleaned otherwise. I did find the menu option for enabling the commentary track a bit cumbersome, since the on/off selection triggers a switch to a second screen where the selection must be made again.
An interesting essay on the film and its creation lies in the enclosed leaflet.
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsSynapse should be commended to having the nerve to release such a highly controversial film to DVD, and a portion of the profits from its sale will benefit the US Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Without the context of the events that would follow, Triumph Of The Will appears as nothing more than a series of parades, demonstrations, flags and speeches, which despite some excellent cinematography, is pretty dull. With its context intact, however, the film takes on a new perspective. Conceived as a tool to rally support behind the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, Triumph Of The Will now also serves as an example of and template for effective propaganda, whatever its cause. The recognition of the style of seductive and manipulative imagery presented here should be seen by every student of history, and the traits and messages delivered herein should keep audiences vigilant for the intent behind seemingly innocent images when they resurface in our present day media, lest we ever forget what can occur when the will of some is allowed to triumph.
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