Literature of the Holocaust
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Just What Did Leni Riefenshahl's Lens See?
The New York Times
Sunday, March 13, 1994
ONE OF THE MORE REMARKABLE anecdotes in the recent autobiography by Leni Riefenstahl, who is also the subject of the new documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl," is her account, of being summoned to see Benito Mussolini in 1936. She remembers being asked by him to give Adolf Hitler a crucial message.
"You can tell the Fuhrer that whatever happens with Austria I will not interfere in Austria’s internal affairs," Mussolini reportedly told his then-celebrated visitor, who relayed those words to Hitler as soon as she returned home. That exchange, she acknowledges, paved the way for Germany's later unimpeded annexation of Austria.
But in Ms. Riefenstahl's telling of this story, she also emphasizes Mussolini's admiration for her film-making talents, which she says was as ardent as Hitler's. And she describes a subsequent invitation from Hermann Goring; he asked her to his apartment for tea to try to find out what was on Il Duce's mind. A few pages earlier, Ms. Riefenstahl writes in detail about a privileged visit to Hitler's private quarters. "Hitler wore plain and seemed totally at ease," she begins, setting the scene.
Stories like these have the jarring effect of presenting some of this century's most monstrous figures in light of sheer celebrity. Needless to say, that attitude is not common among chroniclers of the Third Reich. But Ms. Riefenstahl, who had what was then much-coveted access to Nazi luminaries, still sounds bizarrely proud of having traveled in such rarefied circles, despite her pro forma claims of regret. The apologies sound weary and reflexive by now, but the memories of her glory days are still very much alive.
Coming as it does after she has endured early a half-century of public opprobrium, Ms. Riefenstahl's glaringly impolitic tone actually corroborates her most controversial claim. Her own voice makes it plausible that even while exalting Nazi ideals with breath-taking skill (in the 1934 "Triumph of the Will" and the 1936 "Olympia," two documentaries that are undisputed works of genius), this pioneering film maker was ableto live and work in a self-created vacuum.
"The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl," a tough and fascinating three-hour documentary by Ray Muller, does a fine job of isolating the issues raised by Ms. Riefenstahl and her troubling career. It presents a woman whose brilliance and energy remain undimmed (she is now 91) even as her actions will always invite censure. Structured as a straightforward synopsis of the Riefenstahl resume, this film starts and ends with scenes of its subject in a wet suit, taking underwater pictures of mysterious sea life. That image is the perfect evocation of the artist herself, still working passionately while living in ghostly isolation, and every bit as exotic as the creatures she captures on camera.
Mr. Muller's documentary, which opens at the Film Forum on Wednesday in conjunction with a two-week retrospective of Ms. Riefenstahl's films, incorporates seldom-seen glimpses of Ms. Riefenstahl's early acting career, which shaped the astonishing daredevil ethos that initially brought her to Hitler's attention. Clambering barefoot atop the Alps, and in one film battered by a dangerous-looking avalanche, Ms. Riefenstahl herself defined the exultant physicality that Hitler would later appropriate as an Aryan virtue. The links between her own career before the camera and the stirring imagery she would use to celebrate Nazi ideals are startlingly clear.
So is the ferocity with which this passionately dedicated film maker still speaks about her work. Ms. Riefenstahl, smiling daintily for Mr. Muller's camera and delivering well-rehearsed accounts of her past, becomes an entirely different person when discussing cinematic technique. She can sit in front of an editing machine and recall exactly how each shot in one of her films was achieved, right down to the color filter and the brand name of the camera.
Her tunnel vision, which is even more stunning than her detailed memory, allows her to look at an image from "Triumph of the Will" and see the tiny elevator used to hoist the camera up a flagpole, ignoring the huge swastikas that flank that flagpole.
The film maker's ladylike composure occasionally deserts her, as when she grabs Muller by the arm and berates him for mentioning her earlier, pre-"Triumph of the Will" film about a Nazi rally. The issue is technique: the earlier work is more primitive, lacking the dazzling inventiveness that will always keep "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia" on the short list of films any student should see.
Ms. Riefenstahl resents being grilled at her obvious admiration for some aspects the Nazi cause, even though she herself he immortalized that admiration. But what she really resents is the idea that her work was ever anything less than pure artistry.
How pure can artistry really be? That is the central question raised by any account Ms. Riefenstahl's life and work. "Didn't a film maker have terrific public influence the days before television and radio?" Mr. Muller asks his subject. (No. To her, "Triumph of the Will" wasn't about politics, it was about an event.)
"The artist should maybe ask himself what will be done with his creation," Mr. Muller says. "If it had been harmful, the French would never have given it a gold medal," counters Ms. Riefenstahl. She goes even further out on a limb in declaring, "Work and peace are the only messages of 'Triumph of the Will.'" There is only one person on earth who would claim to believe that last statement.
And from the evidence of "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Lani Riefenstahl," she is hardly that naive. Rather, Ms. Riefenstahl has spent a lifetime distancing herself from even the most unavoidable questions about the implications of her work.
In the 1960's and 70's, long after she had been ostracized and denied the chance to continue her film-making career, Ms. Riefenstahl spent time in Africa photographing the Nuba tribe. Her fascination with these near-naked people, who celebrate physicality no less vigorously than the Nazis did, still prompts all sorts of strange thoughts, as does the sight of this matronly adventurer cavorting gaily among the tribe for her cameras. Yet even here, despite the peculiar circumstances, her sense of creative urgency was never in doubt.
"She would do anything for a good shot," says Mr. Muller, interviewed by Robert Sklar in a forthcoming issue of Cineaste magazine. "At her age even. In that respect she's a model for every film maker." Still, Mr. Muller is by no means an apologist for Leni Riefenstahl, even if she sometimes called him "my director" while this documentary was being made. He understands her culpability well enough to intersperse her self-justifying comments with still photographs of the young, vibrant Ms. Riefenstahl trading admiring glances with Hitler. Those photographs speak louder than any denial ever will.
But he also understands that Leni Riefenstahl is one of the most imaginative and daring individuals ever to have held a movie camera. Mr. Muller's documentary makes that clear, along with the fact that her phenomenal ability has been part of her undoing. Mr. Muller is asked in the same Cineaste interview whether a man could have aroused so much, controversy had he been in Mr. Riefenstahl's position. A man would not have captivated Hitler in the same way, but it's still a fair question.
Mr. Muller thinks that gender was a real liability for his subject, even though she was anything but stereotypically feminine when it came to working furiously or taking chances. He also thinks that sheer ability was a hindrance: many other documentaries were made depicting Nazi rallies, but Ms. Riefenstahl's 1934 film is the masterpiece that survives. "She was just so good it's never been forgotten," Mr. Muller says, "Her talent was her tragedy."
Did that talent have to be such a liability? Could she not have taken responsibility for her films' content in a more satisfactory way? Watching Mr. Muller's documentary, no viewer is likely to see an easy answer to those questions. Ms. Riefenstahl sounds most honest when she says she had no foresight and was truly obsessed with her art at the expense of political acumen. "How can you tell who will assure us the right sort of future?" she asks Mr. Muller.
If she was too myopic and even too arrogant to place her art in its full political perspective, Leni Riefenstahl has paid a fitting price. Her career cut short and her reputation permanently tarnished she thinks her work should be allowed to speak for itself.
It's no coincidence that Mr. Muller includes brief scenes of a Nazi book burning, representing the censorship that Ms. Riefenstahl's own work has been spared. To watch her films, at once so galvanizing and so horrifying, is to be forced to examine the relationship between art and accountability and no audience should be shielded from that debate.
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