BOOTLEG FILES 297: “Triumph of the Will” (Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda landmark).
LAST SEEN: It is available on several web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been released in both commercial and unauthorized copies.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lot of people mistakenly believe the film is in the public domain.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Been there, done that – but the bootlegging continues!
I wish I had a dollar for every time that I emerged disappointed or worse from a film that the critics proclaimed it to be a must-see production. Trust me, I would have a lot of dollars! And one of those dollars would be associated with the 1935 Leni Riefenstahl propaganda landmark, “Triumph of the Will.”
My first experience with “Triumph of the Will” came about 10 years ago in a theatrical screening at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. I can recall looking up at the big screen, aghast, and muttering in a highly audible voice: “You’ve got to be kidding!” From everything I read and heard about “Triumph of the Will,” I was expecting to see a stylized, artistic masterwork. Instead, I found myself bored witless by a repetitious, vapid, and thoroughly dismal filmed record of a genuinely stupid political rally. Viewing the film again for this column (this time via a full-length bootlegged upload, complete with English subtitles, on YouTube), my opinion remains unchanged – “Triumph of the Will” is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.
I have to acknowledge the historical significance of “Triumph of the Will.” The Nazis were shrewd enough to realize the power of cinema in propping up their regime – though, admittedly, they were taking a page from Stalin’s Soviet cinema, which used celluloid to sell their revolution since the 1920s. But rather than settle for short films or feature-length dramas, the Nazis opted to create feature-length documentary films highlighting their unique brand of knockabout. Considering that feature-length nonfiction films in the early 1930s were mostly limited to travelogues, this was a fairly daring move.
For no very clear reason, Hitler himself chose Leni Riefenstahl to create the first feature-length Nazi propaganda film. Riefenstahl was an actress who directed herself in the crummy 1932 melodrama “The Blue Light,” but she had no experience in nonfiction filmmaking. Even more galling to many in the Nazi hierarchy, she was not a party member. And being a fraulein didn’t win her many fans in that elite circle, either. Still, Hitler was calling the shots, and Riefenstahl was hired.
What many people don’t realize is that “Triumph of the Will” was not her first Nazi production. In 1933, she filmed that year’s Nuremberg rally under the title of “Victory of Faith.” However, that film prominently featured Ernst Rohm, a leader of the Sturmabteilung and considered by many to be the second most powerful man in Germany. However, Rohm was among the Nazi leaders killed in the 1934 purge known as the Night of the Long Knives, and his presence in “Victory of Faith” became an embarrassment. Realizing that Rohm could not be edited out of the film, the Nazi hierarchy decided to bring Riefenstahl back to shoot another film, this time detailing the 1934 Nuremberg rally. (“Victory of Faith” was ordered to be destroyed and was considered lost for many years, but one print turned up in London in the 1990s.)
“Triumph of the Will” was pretty much a remake of “Victory of Faith,” with many shots replicated and much of the Herbert Windt music score recycled. However, Riefenstahl was granted a larger budget and was able to hire an unusually large crew, including 36 cameramen to capture the grandeur of the Albert Speer-orchestrated rally.
The problem with “Triumph of the Will” is that the oversized grandeur of the rally – with its thousands of cheering Germans giving the ol’ “Sieg Heil” amidst waves of huge, billowing Nazi flags – achieves the exact opposite of its goals. Rather than elevate Hitler and his crew to godhead status, it actually makes them seem like small, lumpish, silly men for whom the mass of cheering adoration is wildly out of place. The utter lack of spontaneity in the rally – with crowds arranged in geometric formation and soldiers marching in perfect synchronization – makes the endeavor a bloated mass of cynical showmanship.
But even in terms of showmanship, “Triumph of the Will” offers very little in the way of style. The film’s opening, with Hitler descending by airplane through the clouds to Nuremberg while Wagnerian music blares across the soundtrack, is a lot sillier than mnay critics would lead me to believe. (Hey, the airplane lands and Hitler pops out – big deal.) Most of the film, though, is overpacked with endless marches and endless speeches – so many that I can recall, during my aforementioned New York screening, yelling out in total disgust by the film’s halfway mark, “Oh, God, not another speech.”
And it was not just Hitler who bloviates through the film, but there are also comments from Joseph Goebbels, Hans Frank, Julius Streicher, and other Nazi officials. All of the talk is too similar, with vague praise of nationalism and Nazi brotherhood.
Strangely, “Triumph of the Will” completely avoids any mention of the central point of the Nazi doctrine: anti-Semitism. The omission does not seem like an accident – one cannot help but imagine the Nazis wanted to use the film to win friends and influence collaborators overseas, and the Jew-hating rants could have been considered a sales killer for the international markets.
If that was the case, it didn’t matter. Very few Americans in pre-World War II America ever saw “Triumph of the Will” – no distributor would pick it up for release, and only the Museum of Modern Art in New York would accept a print for its archive. (Oddly, exiled Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel was hired to edit down the “Triumph of the Will” for the museum.)
During World War II, however, “Triumph of the Will” was heavily bootlegged by the Allies for their propaganda purposes. Frank Capra used Riefensthal’s footage to justify the American war effort for his “Why We Fight” series, while the British Ministry of Information used editing tricks and inappropriate sound effects to give the impression of Hitler and his marching soldiers frolicking to the comic tune “The Lambeth Walk.” In the postwar years, footage from “Triumph of the Will” was used extensively in a seemingly endless number of documentaries – and, mostly, without authorization from Riefensthal, who never gave up the copyright ownership during her lifetime.
Even today, “Triumph of the Will” is heavily bootlegged. Companies specializing in public domain titles continue to release it on DVD, and the full film can be seen online at several web sites.
But, in all seriousness, if you never saw “Triumph of the Will,” you are truly not missing anything. The film is not a work of art – it is a piece of s**t.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!