Posted: 31 Aug 2013 10:13 AM PDT This review originally appeared in Critics at Large
– 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.
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.
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.
are subscribed to email updates from Critics At Large
To stop receiving these emails, you may unsubscribe now.
|Email delivery powered by Google
|Google Inc., 20 West Kinzie, Chicago IL USA 60610