Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Unrepentant Leni Riefenstahl



Posted: 31 Aug 2013 10:13 AM PDT This review originally appeared in Critics at Large
“The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K.”

– George Orwell, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali”

In 1974 Susan Sontag wrote a two-part widely read and controversial essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” that was prompted by the publication of Leni Riefenstahl’s photographic book about the Nubian people in the Sudan. Although acknowledging that the images were “ravishing,” Sontag was disturbed about the “disquieting lies” Riefenstahl was peddling about her life – some were included in the book’s dust jacket – at a time when her cinematic output was being de-contextualized at film festivals and museum retrospectives. The former Nazi propagandist was celebrated by some feminists – especially problematic since Riefenstahl had never been concerned about the condition of women, only her own career – and celebrities from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol who admired her creativity. Sontag set out to rebuke Riefenstahl’s rewriting of her personal history, and to define and condemn what she called “fascist aesthetics” arguing that her early mountain films, her documentaries made during the Third Reich, which Sontag acknowledged as “superb films,” and the Nuba photographs constituted a “triptych of fascist visuals.” My purpose is to critique what Sontag got right and to demonstrate that Ray Müller’s highly praised 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, rather than clarifying Riefenstahl’s misrepresentations, ends up largely affirming them.


Critics had had little to say about how Sontag’s essay exposes the yawning chasm between Riefenstahl’s mendacities and the truth that have been more fully documented and expanded upon in the publication of two recent biographies of the Nazi doyenne: Steven Bach’s Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (Alfred A Knopf, 2007) and Jürgen Trimborn’s Leni Riefenstahl: A Life (Faber & Faber, Inc., 2002 translated by Edna McCown in 2007). By asserting that she was an independent filmmaker who had to overcome the bureaucratic interferences of Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, and that she created a film of “pure history,” Riefenstahl is disingenuous on several grounds. First, she had the full support of the Nazi regime which provided her with unlimited resources, and there is no evidence of any interference from Goebbels. To state that “not a single scene is staged” is rubbish. Scenes were rehearsed and filmed more than once. When she made Olympia, the Nazis wanted the international community to believe that she produced it independently, but in reality the Nazis commissioned and financed the film. What she failed to understand, must less acknowledge, was that it was not possible in a police state for an artist to create and showcase a work of art unless approved by the authorities unless the artist produced underground copies (as, for example, the samizdat authors who produced handwritten manuscripts during the Soviet era) or was willing to accept the often painful consequences of defying the official Party line.
film director Ray Müller
Riefenstahl misrepresented her relationship with the Nazi leadership characterizing it as an “acquaintance.” She was a close friend of Hitler, Goebbels and, unmentioned by Sontag, Julius Streicher, the most fanatical Nazi and editor of the notorious Der Stürmer. She had personal access to Hitler through whom she dealt with skeptics within the Nazi bureaucracy and secured the best production conditions for her own projects. In one of the few instances that The Wonderful, Horrible Life effectively challenges Riefenstahl’s perception occurs when she states that she had the “worst kind of relationship” with Goebbels. The voice-over commentator reads passages from the Propaganda Minister’s diary that clearly indicate a friendship which Riefenstahl dismisses as “pure fantasy” and becomes indignant at the suggestion.

Adolph Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl
One of Riefenstahl’s most telling lies was the one she told about Streicher. She said that she had loathed him. But there is preserved correspondence to prove that she invited his company and treated him as a close friend until quite late in the war. Trimborn presents a photo of them together at the Nuremberg premiere of Triumph of the Will. At the conclusion of The Wonderful, Horrible Life, Riefenstahl became vehement that not only had she “thrown no atomic bombs”; she had never “spoken an anti-Semitic word.” During her de-Nazification hearings after the war, in which she was briefly held under house arrest, she lamented the fate of her Jewish friends in the film industry while claiming, on the one hand, that she had been ignorant of the Reich’s racial policies and, on the other, that she had protested them personally to the Führer. As a result of her testimony that took place intermittently over four years, she was certified de-Nazified and declared a “follower” on whom no restrictions were placed in her undertaking creative work. Had the examiners been aware of documents procured years later by her biographers the results might have been different. Both Trimborn and Bach cite a letter first published thirty years ago in a biography of Riefenstahl by Glenn Infield in which Riefenstahl appeals to her friend, Streicher, for help with, as she puts it, the “demands made upon me by the Jew, Béla Balázs,” who fled Nazi Germany given that he was a Communist of Jewish descent. Balázs was Riefenstahl’s collaborator and co-screenwriter in her directorial debut, The Blue Light. She expunged his name from the credits so that a judenrein (Jew-free) version of the film could be released, and Balázs, hearing of its success, wrote to her from exile in Moscow to ask for his deferred fee. It was an easy task for Streicher to deprive him of it. In Müller’s documentary, Riefenstahl waxes effusively about her “ideal collaboration” with Balázs, but he makes no effort to set the historical record straight. Nor does he take the opportunity to question her about her relationship with Streicher.

Her anti-Semitism also emerged during her trip to America. One of Riefenstahl’s most cherished ambitions was a Hollywood career like that of Marlene Dietrich, and she clung to this fantasy tenaciously even after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November, 1938, which derailed what was supposed to have been a triumphal cross-country American publicity tour with Olympia. Upon docking in New York and hearing the news, she refused to believe it, and dismissed the hostility that greeted her at nearly every stop as a plot fomented “by the Jewish moneymen,” she told an interviewer on her return, a comment that is absent in The Fascinating, Terrible Life.

In the making of Tiefland (Lowlands), Riefenstahl used Nazi racial policies to further her career which she later misrepresented. Her pet project needed Spanish-looking extras, so she shipped in some Roma from a concentration camp where they were waiting for a train to Auschwitz. Müller’s narrator does mention the allegation but it is not explored. There is nothing to indicate that they were forced labour, of which she was aware, and not a word is said about the fate of those extras. Her later claim that she met almost all of them after the war was a flat-out lie since almost every one of them perished. Müller does not ask her anything about this period in her life likely fearing that she would sabotage the film or enter into another litigious libel suit for which she was renowned. Most of this sequence in the film either shows scenes from Tiefland or recounts her difficulties in making it.

There are other dubious statements, omissions and interpretations in Müller’s film. When Riefenstahl volunteered as a war correspondent in Poland in 1939, she witnessed what the voice-over commentator describes as “the brutal ill treatment of Polish civilians” which in reality was a massacre of Jews. Riefenstahl may have been horrified by these events but that did not deter her from flying into Danzig and meeting with Hitler so that she could film Hitler’s march into the city in order to create a Triumph of the Will redux about Hitler’s invasion of Poland that would serve as a supreme monument to him. The film was never completed but some of her footage does appear in a Fritz Hippler (creator of the infamous The Eternal Jew) documentary about the invasion of Poland. Perhaps most disappointing in Müller’s direction is his attempt to get her to make a statement of contrition at the end of the film. When she was not reminiscing or explaining some technical difficulty, she would lapse into a self-pitying stance or an aggressiveness that sometimes veered into temper tantrums; an apology seems like wishful thinking. Earlier, when shown grisly scenes from the camps, she initially appears to empathize with the victims but then shifts gears and comes close to equating her suffering with that of the regime’s victims. Her only regret about her role during the Third Reich, specifically making Triumph of the Will, appears to be the subsequent problems it caused her.

Triumph of the Will
Müller must take some responsibility for not correcting Riefenstahl’s factual errors, puncturing her narcissism and probing more rigorously the historical record. He might have accomplished more had he juxtaposed Riefenstahl’s answers with the narrative voice-over, the technique he successfully employed in the Goebbels sequence. By failing to hold her to account, Müller reinforced Riefenstahl’s selectively constructed self-image as an apolitical artist and contributed to the rehabilitation of her personal reputation. And yet the film is valuable in that it extensively documents her incapacity for any kind of self-reflection, her inability to distance herself from the films she made during the Third Reich and admit that she served an evil regime. Nonetheless, I agree with Bach when he suggests that the one sequence that hinted at an unconscious self-revelation occurs when she is at the editing table reviewing scenes from Triumph: “Her eyes glittered, and it was not possible to know if she was lost in admiration for her superb editing skills, or for the film’s chief actor as he surveyed the eager multitudes massed in submission to his will, or both.” Regardless, Riefenstahl’s own personal failings do not sufficiently explain the appeal of her films and her photography. For that we must return to Sontag’s essay.

Sontag generated the most controversy in her essay when she referred to Riefenstahl’s artistry, including her Nuba photographs as embodying “fascist aesthetics.” The photographs, she argues, celebrate “physical skill and courage and the victory of the stronger over the weaker…where success in fighting is the ‘main aspiration of a man’s life’…[and where] women are merely breeders and helpers.” These aesthetics were also present in the 1970s when fascism was eroticized in such films as The Night Porter and The Damned. But they have greater relevance to art created in any totalitarian society in which its function is to immortalize its leaders and doctrines. Subtle differences do exist – fascism exalts physical perfection, the pinup nude, whereas official Communist art celebrates the asexual chasteness of the masses – but the main point that Sontag might have emphasized more fully is that the purpose of art in a police state is to reinforce the worldview of its particular ideology. She has drawn the most criticism when she focused on the cult of beauty as the essence of fascist aesthetics. The pursuit of beauty her critics say is the cornerstone of Western art that goes back to the Greeks. But they often fail to understand that the Nazis co-opted this tradition to promote their worldview. They despised avant-garde art because it exposed the ugliness and injuries of war and the pain of living: this “degenerate” art was seen as the violence of the Bolsheviks and the Jews against the German people. German art would only show the beautiful: any physical or emotional imperfection was to be expunged from art reflecting the official policy toward people who were physically and mentally unsound. Fascist aesthetics in effect meant aesthetic cleansing in art – and in life. That the skin colour of the Nuba or the sprinter Jessie Owens was black was immaterial: they were specimens of physical beauty. Riefenstahl does not photograph aging or sick Nuba, or film Caucasian children lining up for autographs from Owens. Violating that taboo would have demonstrated an independent spirit.

Leni Riefenstahl in her nineties
In the last decade of Riefenstahl’s life – her nineties – as memories of the Third Reich faded and historical awareness diminished, the director of cinematic works once regarded as political provocations was now celebrated in some quarters as a media star, particularly when she possessed a personal vitality that would have shamed a person twenty years younger. As a result, Riefenstahl’s version of her life acquired a greater currency and more people were willing to accept uncritically “the power of the images” without any understanding of the context in which her films were made. In addition to those already mentioned, her admirers now included Madonna and Francis Ford Coppola. George Lucas acknowledged that he freely borrowed from Triumph for scenes in his Star Wars films. Even Steven Spielberg, the director of Schindler’s List, said more than once that he wanted to meet her. When Riefenstahl’s autobiography was published in English, she received effusive accolades in a front page New York Times Book Review from the feared film and theatre critic, John Simon, even though her biographer Trimborn considered the memoir “worthless as an historical document.” Once disdained as persona non grata, Riefenstahl’s renaissance that had troubled Sontag in the 1970s had by the 1990s, turned the greatest propagandist of the Third Reich into the celebrity she always wanted to be.

artist Ai Weiwei
When I recently visited the AGO’s retrospective, “According to What?," of the wide-ranging creative expression by the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, I could not help thinking about how he and his artistic output provide a stark contrast to Riefenstahl and her oeuvre. I am not referring to the mediums they worked in but to their aesthetics and how Weiwei understood that art, especially in a police state, operated in a political framework, whereas, Riefenstahl refused to acknowledge this reality, even in hindsight. Her films were generously funded and appreciated by the Nazi potentates because they reinforced the message that the Party wanted to communicate to the German people and the international community. By contrast, Weiwei’s commitment to individual freedom of expression and human rights and the conversion of those convictions into his artistic output have resulted in the demolishing of his studio in Shanghai, a life-threatening brain injury and a three month detention. Drawing upon his memory of the time he spent incarcerated, he has produced large-scale dioramas of his treatment that the world saw in the 2013 Venice Biennale. The rage that provoked this punishment is an installation entitled “Straight,” made up of thirty-eight tons of rebar recovered from collapsed school buildings in Sichuan after the earthquake made by straightening thousands of twisted metal pieces. In the background are the five thousand names of children who died in large part because of shoddy construction materials. On display at the AGO, this mammoth piece is a memorial to those children whose deaths the Communist Party refused to acknowledge much less mourn or assume its share of responsibility for that human tragedy. We may admire Riefenstahl’s images but we should never forget in what context they were created and to what purpose they were deployed. We will have no similar problem with the creative output of Weiwei.


Although I have written about Riefenstahl in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions 2013), I felt that I needed to revise my original assessment of Ray Müller’s documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl and that I had more to say about her that was beyond the scope of the book.

– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visitwww.thatlineofdarkness.com.

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