Sweet lord have mercy. I’ve tried to watch this thing before and just couldn’t deal. This time, with the finger on the fast forward/rewind button, I saw most of it. Somebody on the web called it “the most frightening movie ever made,” and it’s entirely possible that this is true. Leni Riefenstahl’s “Gestaltung” (the usual German word for direction, Regie, had too much French influence to be used in ’35) is so effective and influential that clips from Triumph of the Will are showing up on YouTube along with music by Fischerspooner, Elliot Smith, even the Village People. Peter Jackson cops to using it as an inspiration in The Two Towers, but most of Leni’s disciples clearly would rather not reveal their influences. (Who are these BattleCry people anyway?)

In the 70s and 80s, my teachers covered the Third Reich ad nauseam–in history class, in German class, in social studies class, probably even in math, over and over and over again. But we never saw much of the actual iconography, just a few assorted photos here and there. I suspect that the imagery–Die Macht der Bilder–was still considered too powerful, and after facing the full-on blast of Triumph of the Will, it’s hard to argue with that. Watching this film won’t turn you into a Nazi, but it is difficult to deny that these images have pull and power. Just see the kind of tizzy it throws American critics into: “As sickening as it might be to watch, it’s this alternate point of view that is important in helping us learn from the past.” Say what? There’s something to be learned here, but it has little to do with the Nazi’s point of view, and it’s propabably more about the present than the past. And then there’s the beginning of a sentence that I never want to hear the rest of: “Even if she is a nazi…

The film gets high ratings at Rotten Tomatoes and on the IMDb, and it’s obviously a tough nut for any critic. Is there any other work where the divide between artistic achievement and moral implications is this monumental? Triumph of the Will is undeniably accomplished–you look in vain for cracks in the facade, for one of the standard bearers to roll his eyes or a marching Mädel to trip–but there has to be more to a critic’s job than judging pretty pictures without worrying about the implications. As somebody who has attacked Hollywood fare for its subtext, I can’t give this film a rating that ignores its message. Thus: one star–despicable.

Triumph des Willens, Leni Riefenstahl, 1935. *