The Birth Of A Nation was a crucial breakthrough in cinema history: the first to break out of the short-filmed-play box and stand on its own as a movie. It also glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and contains some of the most racist images imaginable of black people. Triumph of the Will: Special Edition is a brilliantly filmed ad campaign—and what it’s selling is Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Both films are on DVD. Why would you ever consider watching them?
Well, D.W. Griffith developed the language of film we still live with — the close-ups, the cutaways — and Birth of a Nation is the movie where he put it all together. The uproar when it was first released (the NAACP, among others, threatened a boycott) is also of import, although since the Image DVD lacks scholarly commentary, you won’t get the full story. A filmed record of the 1934 Nazi Party Convention at Nuremberg, Leni Riefenstahl’s ”Triumph” remains a chilling, visually mesmerizing example of the Wagnerian propaganda that got Hitler elected in the first place; as such it’s useful in understanding modern-day despots like Milosevic and even bin Laden (the DVD does have a commentary track, and a dandy one). But the best reason to watch these two films today? Easy: Know thy enemy.