Triumph of the Will (1935)

This is another old review of an even older film… oh my goodness… what a film! This is still so shocking even as scenes from the film cascade down my senses as I tidy up my old review of the film.

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I was at a friend’s place and saw some interesting films in his collection and borrowed a few. Grey Gardens, an OOP Criterion film was one of them. But inside the DVD case was something interesting – Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. I had no idea what it was… thought it was some old German film. Turned out to be a magnificent Nazi propaganda film.

Triumph of the Will is one of the most important films ever made. Not because it documents evil – more watchable examples are being made today. And not as a historical example of blind propaganda – those (much shorter) movies are merely laughable now. No, Riefenstahl’s masterpiece – and it is a masterpiece, politics aside – combines the strengths of documentary and propaganda into a single, overwhelmingly powerful visual force.

Riefenstahl was hired by the Reich to create an eternal record of the 1934 rally at Nuremberg, and that’s exactly what she does. You might not become a Nazi after watching her film, but you will understand too clearly how Germany fell under Hitler’s spell. The early crowd scenes remind one of nothing so much as Beatles concert footage (if only their fans were so well behaved!).

Like the fascists it monumentalizes, Triumph of the Will overlooks its own weaknesses – at nearly two hours, the speeches tend to drone on, and the repeated visual motifs are a little over-hypnotic, especially for modern viewers. But the occasional iconic vista (banners lining the streets of Nuremberg, Hitler parting a sea of 200,000 party members standing at attention) will electrify anyone into wakefulness.

OMG! You can really know a person through his movie-music-book collection. I had no idea my friend is a Nazi sympatheizer! I think I need to bring him out for beer and some counselling 😃. Jokes and politics aside, this is an amazing film. The documentary footages interweave with a strong narrative at its spine to create an immersive assault on the senses. I love the sweeping epic beautiful camera shots and flawless editing. I do have propaganda films by Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, Strike, Alexander Nevsky) but compared to Triumph of the Will these are much subtler films. Riefenstahl’s film is very in-your-face rousing and definitely a horrific masterpiece!

In one scene, Adolf gave a rousing speech in a stadium to 200,000 youths… “We want to be one people and through you, to become this people.  We want a society with neither castes nor ranks. And you must not allow these ideas to grow within you. We want to see one Reich!  And you must educate yourselves for this. We want this people to be obedient and you must practice obedience in yourselves. We want this people to be peace-loving but at the same time to be courageous.  You must be both peace-loving and strong. We want this people not to become soft but to become hard and, therefore you must steel yourselves for this in your youth. You must learn sacrifice and also to never collapse. Whatever we create today, whatever we do, will all pass away but in you Germany will live on. And when we can no longer hold the flag that we tore from nothing you must hold it firmly in your fists!” 

Tell me that doesn’t shake you to the core. The power the speech exudes is so compelling and frightening at the same time. But those are just words. Imagine taking a time machine to that particular instance and standing amongst the 200,000 youths in the stadium.

I have to confess I didn’t finish watching the film. Not because it was boring but because I already got the full message and I am not kidding when I say I was scared my mindset would change just by watching the full 114 minutes. I was scared that the film would show up what I truly am deep inside. I can also tell from 10 minutes in, this is a bonafide masterpiece because God forbid, I felt something stirring inside me… that little moustached fella sure knows how to give a speech and the director’s brilliant cinematic shots really sold the whole package.

PS – my friend’s DVD of this film goes mighty well with his humongous heavy metal music collection. I would urge him not to hide it inside the Grey Gardens DVD and to display it proudly. 😬

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