Art or propaganda? Is it possible to appreciate the importance of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” without seeming to embrace the repulsive politics of its subject, Adolph Hitler? Does the docu sculpt the week-long 1934 Nazi Party rally into a hideously persuasive glorification of his totalitarian ideals, rep the form’s most groundbreaking and influential marriage of art and technique — or both? These are big, slippery questions that are sure to be posed once again as a spruced-up version of the notorious landmark comes to market courtesy of Synapse Films. While the new disc and its trappings won’t definitively settle that first query, it makes the second and third marginally easier to ponder via a brighter print, expanded and removable English subtitles, a politically informative commentary track and Riefenstahl’s subsequent 17-minute short “Day of Freedom.”
An established dancer, actress and film director, the independent-minded but likely politically naive Riefenstahl was persuaded by Hitler at the 11th hour to film the 1933 Nuremberg confab, a primitive and disorganized event documented in “Victory of Faith.” After this disaster she swore never to make another movie for the despot, but was soon persuaded to film the 1934 Congress of the National Socialist German Workers Party (the word “Nazi” is never shown or mentioned).
Helmer assembled and oversaw a crew of some 172 people, with 16 lensers and a like number of assistants (all in uniform) using 30 cameras and 29 back-up newsreel cameramen to record the action from fixed positions and such novel moving devices as roller skates, fire truck ladders, dirigibles and even an elevator built into a stadium flagpole (cameras can be glimpsed more than a dozen times throughout). Frantically edited over five months and scored with the imaginative, tradition-based music of Herbert Windt, docu played to acclaim and awards. Per Riefenstahl, the negatives of all three films disappeared as World War II neared its end in early 1945.
Rap on pic and maker has always been the deification of Hitler, then in the process of consolidating his newly minted power. From the opening sequences showing the tyrant literally descending like a god from the skies through larger-than-life framing of him against the massed throngs, effect is chillingly fetishistic — a huge, propagandistic photo op meant to acquaint the populace with the fuhrer and his flunkies. Yet to this day — durable helmer will turn 99 in August — Riefenstahl remains determinedly unrepentant, claiming the gig was “just a job,” and insisting the aesthetic achievement can be separated from the politics.
Looking past the evil subject to the craft, pic is a harbinger of virtually every sporting event, parade and inauguration since broadcast (beginning with Riefenstahl’s own “Olympiad” in 1936), an influential template of large-scale lensing technique. And helmer herself manages to stay in the news, via a recent helicopter crash in Africa and interest in her life story from Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures.
Synapse founder and president Don May Jr. obtained a complete 35mm fine-grain copy from prominent restorer Robert A. Harris (the “Day of Freedom” print is from David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates). The subtle blue tint of the windowboxed telecine transfer offers greatly enhanced detail and clarity, particularly during the intentionally murky nighttime rally sequences. Though cleaned up significantly, RSDL dual layer edition exhibits many of the same tears, reel change markers and other imperfections found in previously circulating copies, but restores the overture dropped from other pressings — to which English titles have been affixed near the end — for a total running time of 01:50:29.
Removable subtitles have been re-translated and expanded by Virginia-based Ph.D.s Anthony R. Santoro and Peter B. Gushue, adding not only detail and emphasis to the speeches and their makers but event identifiers to the rallies and parades. Windt’s music survives just fine on the unavoidably scratchy mono track.
The relaxed, even-keeled commentary track from historian Santoro is dazzlingly long on political nuance and trivia; the personal backgrounds and peccadilloes of Hitler’s henchmen are knowingly recounted, as are their ultimate fates.
Unfortunately, Santoro is no film historian, and package’s greatest shortcoming is its paucity of artistic insight into the filmmaker and her work. Viewers seeking info in that arena will have to look elsewhere, notably Kino Video’s DVD of Ray Muller’s 1993 docu “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.” There is not even a photograph of the director anywhere on the discretely designed sleeve or booklet, although viewers who freeze pic at 01:18:01 will spot her at lower right, to the left of the camera with hands on hips, wearing a long white skirt and black sweater.
Perhaps indicative of apprehension that surrounds distribution of pic to this day, fine print on sleeve’s back declares “issues and views presented in ‘Triumph of the Will’ are in no way endorsed or supported by Synapse Films Inc.” and promises “a portion of the sales will be donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.”
So, is “Triumph of the Will” art or propaganda? Maddeningly, the answer remains “both,” perhaps to the detriment of the former and the eternal, unfortunate and perhaps unavoidable glorification of the latter.