Approaching Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will eighty years after its production is at once problematic and surreal. Nazi imagery has become a rather strange component of popular culture at large – just look at The Force Awakens or The Man in the High Castle for recent, decidedly different, examples – and, as important as it may be to do otherwise, it can be difficult to accept it as something that was once very real. Riefenstahl’s film is carefully edited, rousing propaganda filmmaking from a time when such a thing was viable as both as a means of political engagement as well as entertainment. That it is comprised of footage of moments that actually occurred is hard to accept in an age when a still or moving image isn’t necessarily able to be accepted as reality. But, it is here and in a cleaned up, recent restoration supervised by Robert A. Harris.
I’m not quite sure who the audience for Triumph of the Will is in 2016, outside of scholars and the more completist cinephiles. Anyone expecting the salacious thrills associated with nazisploitation will find none of that here nor will anyone seeking any type of “shockumentary.” Riefenstahl’s film isn’t shocking because it is gruesome or otherwise graphic but, rather, due to the ideology it is able to capture and put forth. And, naturally, that this film was intended to make this all look positive. The footage was filmed during the 1934 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremburg, allowing for a, naturally, inside look at what the party wanted the public to see, with Josef Goebbels overseeing the production, which could have as much to do with the final product as Riefenstahl herself.
Regardless of how you approach Triumph of the Will or what you end up taking away from it, it is hard to ignore its existence and/or the power of its images even eight decades later. With digital software allowing for the image to be manipulated in a shocking multitude of ways, having something that exists as a confirmed historical record is – despite its content and subsequent purpose – necessary and, in some strange way, comforting. This is our history, for better or worse. And this new 2K restoration makes that as accessible as possible for a new generation.
Synapse has brought the film on to Blu-ray in the aforementioned 2K remaster which was supervised by Robert A. Harris. It is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio and contains burned in subtitles (which may be a point of contention for some). These subtitles only serve to identify, not to transcribe. The quality of the restoration itself is great and is absolutely an improvement over Synapse’s DVD. Blacks are deep and outside of some minor damage, the image is remarkably clean. Grain is present and inherent throughout, allowing for an organic presentation. This restoration has been a long time coming and – like Synapse’s exemplary work on Thundercrack! – really essential work. Audio is DTS HD MA 2.0 and is void of the type of hissing and popping that can come with soundtracks this vintage. Speeches are clear and the music is balanced and carries weight. Solid presentation all around.
There are only two supplements to be found on the disc but they’re both worthwhile. We start with a commentary by Dr. Anthony Santoro. Our host is clearly knowledgeable about his subject and anyone with an interest in German history, WWII, or the film itself will likely find the track rewarding. It can be a bit dry at times but I feel like that has more to do with the subject than with Santoro himself. Following that we get Riefenstahl’s 17 minute short film Day of Freedom which concerns the Nazi Party Rally of 1935, the year following that of Triumph of the Will. It’s a nice companion piece, obviously much shorter than the feature, and finds the filmmaker heading in a more abstract direction which would lead to Olympia.
Synapse has put out the now definitive release of Triumph of the Will. The restoration has been years in the making and looks fantastic, if you can get over the burned in subtitles (which you really should) and the couple of supplements that accompany the feature are informative and rewarding. The film itself will always have its detractors, but its an important document that deserves to be accessible. Synapse have made that possible, twice now. Highly Recommended.