July 5th, 2008



Did you ever read a movie review where you not only can't believe you and the reviewer watched the same movie, but you come away wondering if the reviewer watched the whole movie at all? Roger Ebert recently rewatched and reviewed Leni Riefenstahl's TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, which is a legitimately great piece of filmmaking -- and, inconveniently, it's unabashed Nazi propaganda. Ebert reviews the film and requestions its greatness. Here's a sample:

Try to imagine another film where hundreds of thousands gathered. Where all focus was on one or a few figures on a distant stage. Where those figures were the object of adulation. The film, of course, is the rock documentary "Woodstock" (1970). But consider how Michael Wadleigh, that film's director, approached the formal challenge of his work. He begins with the preparations for this massive concert. He shows arrivals coming by car, bus, bicycle, foot. He show the arrangements to feed them. He makes the Port-O-San Man, serving the portable toilets, into a folk hero. He shows the crowd sleeping in tents or in the rough, bathing in streams, even making love. He shows them drenched with shadows and wading through mud. He shows medical problems. He shows the crowds gradually disappearing.

By contrast, Riefenstahl's camera is oblivious to one of the most fascinating aspects of the Nuremberg rally, which is how it was organized. Yes, there are overhead shots of vast fields of tents, laid out with mathematical precision. But how did the thousands eat, relieve themselves, prepare their uniforms and weapons and mass up to begin their march through town? We see overhead shots of tens of thousands of Nazis in rigid formation, not a single figure missing, not a single person walking to the sidelines. How long did they have to stand before their moment in the sun? Where did they go and what did they do after marching past Hitler? In a sense, Riefenstahl has told the least interesting part of the story.

Ebert is on crack. I can't quite believe that I'm defending Leni friggin' Riefenstahl here, but as it happens I've seen TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and *I distinctly remember being surprised by how Riefenstahl humanized her subjects that way.* You see people pitching tents. You see them making *ginormous* pots of porridge to feed the multitudes. You see them playing blanket-toss. You see them washing up in makeshift facilities. You see a shitload of people who are having a great time on what looks like a camping trip or a scout Jamboree or a multi-day outdoor concert, and their sense of delight is a little infectious, and then you remember, "Holy shit, they're Nazis."

(I would not have been surprised if Riefenstahl had not included those things, being as she was making a documentary glorifying an insanely-ordered dictatorship where everything is great and works perfectly, all the time, DO NOT QUESTION THE FUEHRER YOU JEW. But she did, and I don't know if Ebert just went to the bathroom during those bits or what.)