The story of Leni Riefenstahl's rise from renowned professional dancer to beloved German movie star to perhaps the greatest woman filmmaker of all time is marked by one constant--her brash, archaic, even narcissistic belief in herself and her creative abilities.
Her artistic achievements, specifically her film versions of the gargantuan 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg (Triumph of the Will) and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (1938's Olympia), have been debated to the point of exhaustion by film critics and historians. She has been the object of ecstatic praise and righteous scorn, the latter so dominant as to prevent her from working in the international feature-film industry for the past 45 years.
While pundits on both sides of the aisle have scored relevant points, the central question in this controversy has never been answered: was Riefenstahl--who never joined Hitler's National Socialist party--a Nazi sympathizer, or a nave egoist who seized an opportunity that would soon prove to be career suicide?
The rampant speculation about her politics hasn't continued because of a lack of access to the source herself. Riefenstahl, very much alive and preternaturally active at 93, published her memoirs in 1987 (the English translation appeared stateside in 1993), and stated unequivocally she was not a racist, not a Nazi, but a young artist swept along by a tide of desperate hopes, vanity, and the FYhrer's potent demagoguery. Some combination of all these caused a majority of the German electorate to name Adolf Hitler as chancellor in 1932.
Still, there has been widespread skepticism about the accuracy of her memories, and really, who can believe Riefenstahl has been totally honest? The autobiography offers a detailed account of her short-lived association with the FYhrer, but her recollections are bereft of personal motive.
Riefenstahl admits it was she who initiated the first meeting with Hitler. She sent him a letter requesting a conference after witnessing one of his frenzied pre-election speeches in a stadium, and recounts in (suspicious) detail two conversations they had about "the Jewish problem" (she claims she raised objections to his anti-Semitism, and he refused to discuss it with her), and her role in being the official filmmaker of the Third Reich (Riefenstahl swears her most adamant condition for working with the Nazis was they would have no say whatsoever in the content of her films).
She also paints herself as a good deal more wide-eyed and rosy-cheeked than her extraordinary accomplishments suggest. The most glaring omission here is the cunning ambition it must have taken for a woman of her era to be granted such incredible creative opportunities.
The book, in fact, feigns surprise at everything from her entrance into motion pictures (she literally talked her way into a starring role in filmmaker Arnold Fanck's [**not Franck?**]1926 The Holy Mountain), to her formative friendship with Joseph Von Sternberg that made a jealous rival of his protege Marlene Dietrich on the set of The Blue Angel, to the idea that Adolf Hitler would grant a request to meet one of the most beautiful actresses in German cinema. (Riefenstahl's debut as writer-director-star, 1932's The Blue Light, was said to be one of his all-time favorite films.)
But craven opportunism and genocidal complicity are two vastly different charges. Or are they? Here the moral dilemma of Riefenstahl's life blossoms into a conundrum that encompasses the role of everyone in society. Is the first responsibility of the artist to her own vision or to the service of humanity?
Writer-director Sam Muller's 1993 documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl is not timid in its attempts to untangle the motives behind her career. He spent many months with Riefenstahl at home and traveled with her on location to the various sites where she shot her most famous movies.
The reflections he records, from her spurning of a horny Goebbels to her frank admiration of a doomed Hitler, are definitive. Yet she still refuses to do the one thing that might satisfy her detractors--apologize for her powerful image-making on behalf of the Nazis--because she feels she has been unfairly singled out for a shortsightedness suffered by many artists and citizens of her generation.
It's not hard to see why Riefenstahl has earned such enmity. She was about to turn 90 when Muller began his filming, yet she looked 20 years younger, and the superhuman resolve seen in her barefooted mountain-climbing stunts as a young actress resurfaced in her octogenarian pursuits as an underwater photographer--surely the oldest undersea adventurer on record anywhere.
She would seem to be the embodiment of the fascist ideal: mindlessly physical, ideally sculpted, inspired by some pagan notion of stamina. Yet her appreciation of athletic skill also lead her to spend eight months among the dark-skinned African Nuba tribes, a community known for its dancing and wrestling competitions.
The Wonderful, Horrible Life showcases Riefenstahl at her best and most temperamental. Muller includes numerous segments in which his subject attempts to take control of the project--as when she stops the production to complain she "cannot walk and talk at the same time," or when she grabs the director's arm and shouts that he has confused her incompetent first film for the Nazis with the masterful Triumph of the Will.
Riefenstahl, as filtered through Muller, is a woman still obsessed with the technical aspects of the cinema. She positively glows when prompted to recall the camera work she pioneered (shots from airborne balloons, trenches, and so on), and berates the director for not seeking "a cinematic solution" to the difficulties of his shoot. Yet her oft-ignored innovations must be considered alongside the catastrophic consequences they helped create.
Although Olympia is available on videocassette, it still hasn't been widely seen, and the assertions about its propagandistic qualities--that her camera's erotic appreciation of the muscled, heroic European bodies in action was a by-product of fascistic tendencies--seem more than a little hysterical. The director was a woman who'd long prided herself on her own physical prowess, and why, if she was such an Aryan mouthpiece, would black American track star Jesse Owens appear as an equal beneficiary of her admiration?
The same cannot be said of the terrifying Triumph of the Will, a film Riefenstahl insists she didn't want to make yet which bears the unmistakable testimony of an artist passionate about her subject.
In this case, that subject was Adolf Hitler, a mad revolutionary portrayed by Riefenstahl's groveling low angles as a messiah, a savior sent from the heavens (literally, by the contrast between the FYhrer's frantic, spitting head and the majestic clouds rolling behind it) to redeem an economically demoralized Germany. Historians still try to outshout each other over whether the movie was art or propaganda.
That is, in many ways, a misleading question. If propaganda can be as passionate, formally innovative, and effective as Riefenstahl's Nazi trilogy (she made two short films about party rallies before and after Triumph of the Will, 1933's Victory of Faith and 1935's Day of Freedom), then it certainly qualifies as art, if by "art" we mean a creative production that strikes some universal emotional chord. On the other hand, it's impossible to make the claim that truly great art is devoid of propaganda, if by propaganda we mean the conscious effort of an artist to conjure an emotional response from her audience.
The more relevant--and chilling--question is, what are the consequences when an artist shuts herself off from social responsibility? To this, The Wonderful, Horrible Life gives an answer--she becomes the instrument of forces who disguise their ultimate purposes amid the pageantry that attracted her in the first place.
Riefenstahl's stature in the history of film has been shackled, even by her few promoters, to gender. Yet she repeatedly achieved something even legendary male contemporaries like D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein cannot claim--an unscripted, instinctual re-creation of reality not as she imagined it, but as she witnessed it.
Triumph of the Will and Olympia are much more than just documentaries, as even the most fervent anti-Riefenstahl critic would tell you. They are reconstructions of epic events involving numerous locations, many days, and hundreds of thousands of participants each. Along with a handful of assistant cameramen, she shot hundreds of miles of footage and then personally edited them into dramatic sequences we now realize are based on concepts about narrative structure and suspense as old as the Greek myths.
Some critics continue unjustly to discount Riefenstahl's artistic reputation. In the December 1993 Premiere, J. Hoberman wrote a critique of both The Wonderful, Horrible Life and Riefenstahl's autobiography. He titled the article "Triumph of the Swill," and questions her status as the century's most influential woman director, then later in the piece cites two fuzzy quotes as examples of her presumed disparaging views of Jews and blacks (why would a black-listed artist who so desperately wants work feed lines to the press that only reinforce her fascist reputation?), and blithely calls her compelling but unreliable autobiography "a doorstop."
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This is the typical (and typically dangerous) response to Riefenstahl's legacy. While it's legitimate to criticize her for the myopia and apathy that led her to court the company of Third Reich leaders, one dismisses her 20th century significance at great peril. Is it really so great a leap from her pre-WW II work to contemporary American TV political ad campaigns, most notably Ronald Reagan's grandiose, effective "Morning in America" spots from the '80s?
Riefenstahl created magnificent art--apolitical but stubbornly visionary--that flattered, even deified, a popularly elected fascist bureaucracy. Neither she nor many of her fellow citizens would allow themselves to believe their government capable of monstrous acts, although its atrocities were, in retrospect, a logical extension of the rhetoric everyone had heard.
The filmmaker had just one allegiance--not to Hitler, nor to the cause of German nationalism, but to Leni Riefenstahl. And she was happy, if it meant the advancement of her own career, to breeze past signposts that something horrible lay beyond the horizon. May we all remember the consequences of such willful ignorance.
The Southwest Film/Video Archives screens The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl February 22-25 at 7 p.m. in McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus. Tickets are $5. Call 768-1684.