Triumph of the Will (1935)

Genres - Culture & Society  |   Sub-Genres - Propaganda Film, Politics & Government  |   Run Time - 110 min.  |   Countries - Germany  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Dan Friedman

Many films which are considered to be landmarks of cinema often deal with subject matter so abhorrent to the modern viewer that it is difficult to get past the content to understand why they are truly remarkable pieces of work. D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, for instance, with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan is the most well known of these films. However, whereas Griffith's film is lauded for creating the technical language for the full-length feature film, the template for the documentary, or at least a major one, is Triumph of the Will. There are those who will argue that the film is more Nazi propaganda than a historical document, and while it can't be denied that its purpose was to deify the greatest evil of the 20th century, it also can't be denied that from a simpler perspective it is a masterwork of cinematography and documentary filmmaking. That conclusion is frightening, but it serves to demonstrate how the medium of film can be used in the wrong hands. Though Leni Riefenstahl forever claimed that she was not a Nazi and was simply a director trying to make the best film possible, it's so easy to feel the adoration for Adolf Hitler that pours off the screen that her argument is hard to swallow. The main focus is the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremburg, and the sheer spectacle of the event, along with the knowledge of the historical events that followed, is what gives the film its eerie power. The best version to watch, again from a purely cinematic view, is the non-subtitled edition. This is effective for two main reasons. First, if you are a non-German speaker, it allows you to focus on the images alone and avoid the propaganda that encompasses the speeches. Second, it prevents distractions from looking at the bottom of the screen for the translation. Many of the images, especially for 1934, are rather remarkable. Riefenstahl has almost inevitably become one of history's more intriguing figures based on her gender, her nationality, and her place in time. While arguments about her will rage on for many more years, one fact that can't be disputed is that she was talented. Another interesting film to be sought out is her documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics entitled Olympia.