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Triumph over "Triumph of the Will"

I've just finished viewing Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" (1935) for the second or third time, and it will be a Great Movie published June 27. Whether it is truly great or only technically qualifies because of its importance is the question. As faithful readers will know, I have been avoiding this particular opportunity with dread. I felt it would involve grappling with the question of whether evil art can be great art. Since moral art can obviously be bad art, the answer to the flip side would seem to be clear enough, but it took me a fearsome struggle to thrash out "The Birth of a Nation," even though many more excuses (of time, place and context) can be offered for Griffith than for Riefenstahl.

As it turned out, "Triumph of the Will" turned out to be a relatively easy assignment for me. The film itself informed me how I was to review it, and this process took place during the act of viewing. What I wrote will have to await publication day of the article. But these are general observations:

I wrote about what I saw, and how I felt when I saw it. I decided not to devote long paragraphs to rehearsing the evils of Nazism, as if that subject was not already pretty well settled. I was not pious in my denunciations, as if I had something to prove. I simply wrote about the sounds and the pictures.

That's the approach I long used in the "shot-by-shot" film analysis sessions that I conducted annually for more than 30 years at the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, and also for many assorted years at the Hawaii, Virginia, and other festivals, and in classes at the University of Chicago. I recommend the approach to any film enthusiast. The film teaches itself to you.

I began in about 1970, on the advice of John West, a Chicago film exhibitor, teacher and historian. "You know how coaches use a stop-action 16mm projector to go through game films?" he asked. "Do the same thing with a feature movie. You don't stop after every frame, of course, but you stop at anything interesting, and discuss it, and you can back up and look at it a frame at a time."

This I did, to begin with, during U of C classes. The rules were simple: Anyone in the audience shouted out "Stop!" and we did, and discussed why they wanted us to stop. Beginning with Hitchcock, who remains the most fruitful director for such analysis, I worked my way over the years through the work of Welles, Bunuel, Bergman, Herzog, Truffaut and many others. I found that with a large group, there would always be one member with the expertise to settle the question at hand: A Hungarian speaker, for example, or a psychiatrist, or a specialist on Japanese medieval history. The Colorado groups often numbered 1,000 students and locals, and over the years we formed a community.

Of course the introduction of the laserdisc, and later the DVD, made this process infinitely easier.

When I was asked by Criterion to do a shot-by-shot commentary of Ozu's "Floating Weeds," I almost balked. (In his late work, Ozu's camera never moves. He always cuts between static set-ups. What would I analyze?) I had in fact between through the film a shot at a time at the side of Donald Richie, greatest English-language expert on the Japanese cinema, at Hawaii, but that had been years ago. All the same, I proposed "Floating Weeds" at Colorado one year, and the discoveries we made there were so fruitful that I modestly believe the resulting commentary track is superb. The greater the artist, the more deeply you can look, and the more you will find.

Viewing "Triumph of the Will" a shot at a time would be a relentless and harrowing experience, and that realization gave me my angle in writing about the film. I did not have to settle vast questions of good and evil. I simply had to look at what has been frequently called "the greatest documentary ever made." But to look slowly, and carefully, and at the screen, not the reputation.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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