Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" on DVD

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Last week, Warner Home Video brought out a superb set of Busby Berkeley musicals from the 1930's; this week, Synapse Films is re-releasing in a slightly upgraded version its edition of Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will," by far the most notorious Nazi propaganda film. The coincidence is too suggestive to ignore.

Ever since Susan Sontag linked Riefenstahl's Nazi "documentaries" (the films were, in fact, as carefully staged as any Hollywood feature) with their geometrically arranged goose-stepping soldiers to the extravagant fantasies of Berkeley's mammoth dance numbers, many critics have assumed a kinship between the filmmakers.

Berkeley's abstract musical numbers, with their own geometric patterns and tendency to absorb individuals into standardized, idealized groups, seem to apply the characteristics Sontag listed in her essay "Fascinating Fascism": situations of control, submissive behavior, endurance of pain, domination through pageantry, turning people into things, multiplications and "orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets." Rather than smartly tailored military uniforms, Berkeley placed his performers in scanty costumes that emphasized the symmetry of legs and bosoms; the uniform platinum wigs that many of his chorines wore invite comparison with the caps and helmets of Hitler's massed forces at the Nuremberg rallies filmed by Riefenstahl in 1934 (filmed one year after Berkeley's best film for Warner Brothers, "Footlight Parade").

The resemblances are striking ....

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