Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous 1935 salute to Nazism and Adolf Hitler, is playing at the Roxy Theater near Rittenhouse Square – and, in fact, is being held over for a second week. The other screen at the venerable twin theater? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.
“I think it’s one of the most important films of the 20th century,” says the Roxy’s owner, Bernard Neary, about his decision to book Riefenstahl’s stirring documentary, shot at the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg attended by some 700,000 zealous supporters. “It’s amazing how a film like this seems to be in the consciousness as universally reviled, but then nobody’s really seen it…. If you mention Triumph of the Will, people look at you and say, `Oh yeah, it’s that terrible movie made by that German filmmaker.’
“But have they seen it? Not too many people have, really, except for clips on the History Channel.”
Conceived and commissioned by Hitler as a vehicle to convey the might and glory of the Third Reich, Triumph of the Will is rightly considered one of the most innovative and powerful pieces of propaganda ever made – propaganda in the service, as it turned out, of a nightmare vision of fascism. Riefenstahl, who spent the years immediately after World War II in prison and detention camps (but was ultimately never convicted of war crimes), has been called by film critic David Thomson “arguably the most talented woman ever to make a film.”
Her use of sound, music, perspective and editing influenced generations of filmmakers since. The rousing scene at the end of Star Wars, when Luke, Han and Chewbacca get their medals? George Lucas cribbed it straight from Riefenstahl.
“I have watched it in small viewing theaters with a handful of people,” Thomson writes of Triumph of the Will in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “and been stirred by its confusion of power and regeneration. The experience helps to explain how so many Germans responded to National Socialism. For Triumph of the Will is such a monument to warped beauty that it serves to make us cautious of beauty itself.”