Introduced by J. Hoberman
The Lambeth Walk, Charles A. Ridley, 1940, 16mm, 3 mins
Why We Fight: Prelude to War, Frank Capra, 1942, 16mm, 54 mins
Triumph of the Will (Abridged Version), Leni Riefenstahl, 1935, 16mm, 42 mins
There are movies which raise the issue of artistry and evil. The Birth of a Nation is one. Triumph of the Will is another.
A staged documentary on the 1934 Nazi Party Congress, commissioned, according its credits, by Order of the Führer, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is regarded by many as a canonical motion picture—distributed by the Museum of Modern Art and included, like The Birth of a Nation, in Anthology Film Archives’s Essential Cinema. Is it a propaganda masterpiece? A work of art? Or simply, as Zero Mostel says in The Producers of his calculated Broadway flop, “a love letter to Hitler”?
George Lucas quoted Triumph of the Will in Star Wars as did John Milius in Red Dawn. At the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, Peter Kubelka regularly programmed Triumph of the Will as part of his series “What Is Film” on a bill with Flaming Creatures. (They are “two flaming and triumphant films” describing “the huge orbit of the planet, Cinema,” he told me.) For her part, Riefenstahl argued that her movie was simply reportage—a pioneering work of cinéma vérité—and, in the 1960s, she successfully claimed and retained the movie’s rights.
Triumph of the Will had its German premiere in March 1935, won award for Best Foreign Documentary at the Venice Film Festival and was shown (and decorated) at the same 1937 Paris Exposition where Picasso’s Guernica was unveiled. Supported by Riefenstahl, Iris Barry acquired a print from the Reichsfilmarchiv for the Museum of Modern Art Film Library. This appears to have been during the course of Barry’s 1936 tour of Europe although some say that MoMA received the movie from the German Embassy in Washington in 1938.
While Triumph of the Will seems not to have had an American release or public screenings, it did have a life as a sort of documentary of itself. MoMA created a 45-minute study version, begun in late 1940 and completed the following spring, apparently by Edward Kerns, a veteran editor employed by the Film Library. (The same year, Charles A. Ridley of the British Ministry of Information edited footage from a BFI print of Triumph of the Will and scored it to a popular dance tune that had been specifically condemned by the Nazis for the three-minute short The Lambeth Walk.) Frank Capra saw MoMA’s version—less than half the length of the original film and vastly improved—in 1942. He thought it the most impressive propaganda movie he had ever encountered and incorporated material from the film into Why We Fight.
Luis Buñuel who, along with Siegfried Kracauer, Helen Levitt, and Jay Leyda, was employed by the MoMA Film Library liked the 45-minute version so much that he took credit for editing it, maintaining in his memoir My Last Sigh that when Charlie Chaplin saw the abridged Triumph of the Will at a 1943 Hollywood screening he “laughed, once so hard he actually fell off his chair.”
If MoMA was responsible for improving Triumph of the Will, Anthology Film Archives and the Telluride Film Festival had the most to do with the film’s (and Riefenstahl’s) aesthetic rehabilitation, at least in America. Writing in the Village Voice in November 1974, Jonas Mekas gave his personal “final statement” on Riefenstahl’s films: “If you are an idealist, you see idealism in her films; if you are a classicist, you’ll see in her films an ode to classicism, if you are a nazi, you’ll see in her films Nazism.” And if you’re a comedian?
© J. Hoberman
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