The most durable piece of Nazi propaganda may yet turn out to be the belief that Leni Riefenstahl is an artistic genius. Ever since Triumph of the Will goose-stepped across movie screens in 1935, Riefenstahl has been central to the arguments about whether politics can be separated from art, whether form can be separated from content. With some dissenters, a critical consensus has emerged that goes something like this: Riefenstahl's films may be Nazi propaganda (and her own accounts of her relationship with Nazism sketchy at best), but they are also amazing and vital pieces of moviemaking whose art can be appreciated apart from the ideology they espouse.
It sounds like a good, hardheaded argument, just the sort of thing to upset the ideologues who insist on reducing art to a message–until you see the films.
Even if we could do what Riefenstahl's admirers claim we should, and separate the filmmaking in Triumph of the Will and Olympia (1938)–the two films on which her reputation rests–from their wholehearted assent to the public face of Nazism, we are left with an aesthetic that is at once inane and imperial. Intended as public monuments to the Third Reich, the films are impressive in the impersonal, imagination-starved manner of something like the Hall of Presidents at Disney World (and Walt Disney was an admirer of Riefenstahl). Veering from hearty triumphalism to cloying folk sentimentality, Riefenstahl's two most famous films worship an ideal of indomitable human perfection, whether in the architecture of Albert Speer or among the athletes at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Riefenstahl had an undeniable knack for a singular strain of monstrous kitsch, but she was no artist.
She was lucky enough to have a fallen angel hovering over her. Some variation of the eternal "but" always swooped in to keep her from being dismissed as a mere propagandist. Susan Sontag, who had earlier praised Riefenstahl, delivered a staggering blow to the director's reputation in her famous 1975 essay for The New York Review of Books, "Fascinating Fascism." In it, Sontag declared Riefenstahl's celebrated portraits of the African Nuba tribe "the third in [her] triptych of fascist visuals" and said that "anyone who defends Riefenstahl's films as documentaries, if documentary is to be distinguished from propaganda, is being ingenuous. In Triumph of the Will, the document (the image) is no longer simply the record of reality; 'reality' has been constructed to serve the image." It's curious, then, that Sontag's damning judgment didn't preclude an automatic nod to Triumph of the Will and Olympia as "undoubtedly superb films," maybe even "the two greatest documentaries ever made." A recent letter to the New York Times Book Review quoted Jodie Foster, who has long wished to direct and star in a film about Riefenstahl, claiming that Riefenstahl has been "libeled so many times" and that "people are afraid of how complicated she was."
Two new biographies, Jürgen Trimborn's Leni Riefenstahl: A Life and Steven Bach's Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl do not go so far as to break with the notion of Riefenstahl as an artist. But next to the damning evidence Trimborn and Bach have amassed, their occasional allowance for her talent has the force of a snowflake in an avalanche. It's too much to say that we are finally at the point where Leni Riefenstahl will be seen as the exceptionally lucky grotesque curiosity she was. There have always been film theorists and critics who've overlooked the meaning of her films in celebration of their form and, like Foster, those willing to believe in the complexity of an ambitious opportunist who, both publicly and privately, gushed over Hitler and the Nazi cause.
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In his preface, Trimborn points out that part of the problem with uncovering the truth about Riefenstahl is the dearth of official documentation that could have challenged the director's always exculpatory account of her life. Another, which he does not mention, is that she was notoriously litigious. But with Riefenstahl no longer around (she died in 2003, at the age of 101), and with dogged research having uncovered new sources, Trimborn and Bach are free to compile the sources that expose her as an inveterate liar, fantasist and self-apologist, and even to add some new ones. Trimborn proves to be an especially deadly prosecutor. It's impossible to imagine any future work on Riefenstahl that does not take into account his patient, thorough demolition.
Bach, the former United Artists executive who wrote Final Cut, the riveting account of the disastrous production of Heaven's Gate, and biographies of Marlene Dietrich and Moss Hart, has delivered more of a standard bio. His writing can be shrewd ("Fate smiled on her in the person of Adolf Hitler, and she smiled back") or infelicitous ("Children played in courtyards; geraniums grew on windowsills; music and love got made"). His book doesn't match the courtroom thrill of Trimborn's, the drama of watching the evidence mount. But Bach is no more taken in by his subject than he was by another world-class megalomaniac, Michael Cimino, director of The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate. And Bach includes one detail that could have been the invention of a wicked satirist. In 1989, claiming to work for a BBC producer interested in making a documentary about her, none other than that Holocaust denier, David Irving himself, came a-calling on Riefenstahl. Kismet.
The interest here isn't in the account of Riefenstahl's career: her short-lived incarnation as a sort of Isadora Duncan manquée, starring roles in the wildly popular mountain-climbing films of Arnold Fanck, the start of her own filmmaking career with The Blue Light in 1932 and eventually the work for Hitler that would bring her fame. Trimborn believes that the key to Leni Riefenstahl was that she was a careerist. "The main thrust of her life and creativity," he writes, "was to create a major career, for which she willingly sacrificed everything and for which, through her pact with Hitler, she ultimately had to pay a high price." The key word in that sentence is "willingly." For both Trimborn and Bach, any suffering Riefenstahl encountered as a result of throwing in her lot with the Nazis she brought on herself.
The writers recognize that Riefenstahl's main interest was always self-interest. That doesn't mean that they buy her oft-repeated defense that she was ignorant of politics (one of her most outrageous claims was that she had never heard of Hitler until 1932), that she never shared the Nazis' anti-Semitism, that art was her only interest. As Riefenstahl always told it, she was only following oeuvres.
The books disprove those claims time and time again. When Béla Balázs, the avant-garde film theorist who, as a Jew and a Communist, was doubly under threat from the Nazis, pleaded to be paid for his collaboration with Riefenstahl on The Blue Light, she not only refused to pay him but wrote to Julius Streicher, editor of the viciously anti-Semitic tabloid Der Stürmer, requesting him to intercede to prevent "demands made upon me by the Jew Béla Balázs." (When the film was re-released in 1938, Balázs's name was removed from the credits, thus making it "Jew-free.") Trimborn quotes a 1976 interview in Der Spiegel with Harry Sokal, the Jewish banker turned producer who was also Riefenstahl's lover, remembering her blaming "Jewish critics for ruining her career. She said they were 'foreigners' who didn't understand her art, and that Hitler, were he to come to power, would no longer allow something like that." When cameraman Emil Schünemann refused to work with her on Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl denounced him to the Reich Film Group in the Ministry of Propaganda in a letter that said, "As I perceived this statement to be a disparagement of my work, which is being carried out at the order of the Führer, I consider it my duty to communicate this to you and leave it to you to take a position on this matter." A telegram Riefenstahl sent to Hitler after the German occupation of Paris begins, "With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany's greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind." Witnessing the September 1939 murder of Polish Jews by German officers in Konskie, Poland, did not prevent her from claiming fifty years later in her memoirs, "I did not see one dead person in Poland, not one soldier, not one civilian."
One of the more horrifying examples of Riefenstahl's willful blindness and subsequent lies given special attention by both Trimborn and Bach has to do with the filming of her movie Tiefland in 1940. Wanting authenticity for this tale of a Gypsy dancing girl, Riefenstahl, though she later denied it, went to the Maxglan transit camp and personally selected twenty-three Gypsies interned there, fifteen of them children. She also chose sixty-eight adults and children from the Marzahn camp. In her memoirs she would claim, "We saw almost all of them again after the war. They said that working with us had been the most wonderful time of their lives. No one forced them to say this." Bach records that Riefenstahl paid their fees directly to the Gypsy General Fund to "defray overhead costs at Maxglan, especially during the coming winter should the Gypsies' 'resettlement' to Poland and points east be delayed." In effect, the Gypsies were forced unpaid labor. A month before she paid the Marzahn officials, the Gypsies were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where many died.
Riefenstahl's repeated lies about her activities at Maxglan came to light in 1982, thanks to a young filmmaker named Nina Gladitz. Bach tells the story: Gladitz discovered evidence of Riefenstahl's contracts with the SS at Maxglan. Posing as a fan, Gladitz won Riefenstahl's permission to shoot footage of the filmmaker at a book signing. There she arranged for Josef Reinhardt, who at 13 had been one of the extras chosen for Tiefland, to confront Riefenstahl. He was especially damaging to her claims of seeing the Gypsies after the war because he was able to match faces in production stills to names on Auschwitz death lists. The documentary Gladitz made, A Time of Silence and Darkness, was shown on German television in 1982. Riefenstahl sued, and after two appeals the case was decided in 1987, largely against Riefenstahl, who was found to have selected the Gypsies at Maxglan and used them as forced labor. But the one count Riefenstahl won, discounting Reinhardt's claim that she had told him that he and his fellow Gypsies were destined for Auschwitz, in effect ruined Gladitz. In order for the film to be shown, all existing prints and videocassettes had to be re-edited and the soundtrack remixed to delete Reinhardt's reference to Auschwitz. Bach points out that Gladitz, a freelancer, had no money to make the necessary alterations. Nor was German television eager to aid a film that had "triggered four years of litigation." Though Gladitz's career was effectively over, Riefenstahl, until her death, threatened to sue any institution that showed the film. (A question Bach's book raises: With Riefenstahl no longer around to intimidate anyone, isn't there some filmmaker, some museum or institution, willing to finance new copies of Gladitz's movie and bring to light the truth about one of Riefenstahl's most odious lies?)
Even with as thorough a demolition as these books accomplish, there will still be those who insist on the greatness of Riefenstahl as an artist. Their enthusiasm can be summed up by the noted character assassin John Simon, who, gushing over Riefenstahl's memoirs for the New York Times Book Review in 1993, concluded, "She may have compromised her humanity. But her artistic integrity, never." That quote should come as no surprise. Simon's judgment of artistic integrity has certainly never been compromised by humanity. But the belief that such a separation is possible tells us much about the fantasies of those who applaud the fantasies of Leni Riefenstahl.
To insist that art can't be separated from humanity isn't to insist that all art has to be humanist, that art should express only "good" things, or to be so naïve as to pretend that talented people are always nice people. Art opens up questions and contingencies, sharpens our perceptions instead of dulling them, expands our range of emotion instead of narrowing it and, one hopes, expands our willingness to understand experiences different from our own. "In the realm of totalitarian kitsch," Milan Kundera wrote, "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions." That's what separates art from kitsch, and it's why art cannot be separated from humanity. What Riefenstahl achieved by leaving her humanity out of the creative process is a denial of everything art is supposed to stand for at the service of an ideology that realized its truest ambition in a war that Cyril Connolly described as being against "every reasonable conception of what life is for, every ambition of the mind or delight of the senses."
Anyone determined to look simply at Riefenstahl's aesthetics should look at the aesthetics on display in the turgid, endless Triumph of the Will. To watch it is to see life reduced to the view from a parade-reviewing stand. Humanity is present either in geometric formations of massed people–some marching, some standing still, none doing anything to spoil Riefenstahl's pristine design–or in ecstatic close-ups of people who can conceive of nothing more thrilling than to lose their identities in that mass. How is it that anything that aims for facelessness can be thought of as art?
Olympia, Riefenstahl's two-part film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, has always been the picture trotted out to prove that the director's aesthetic was not entirely determined by the ideology of the Third Reich. Inevitably, someone will point out the way Riefenstahl's camera admires Jesse Owens, or Japanese swimmers, or other non-Aryan athletes. And in fact, as Trimborn reports, Riefenstahl defied Goebbels's order to downplay the victories of non-Aryans.
But Riefenstahl didn't need Aryans to make Olympia the clearest expression of the Reich's master-race aesthetic. All she needed was to present athletes as if they were ticks on an evolutionary chart, prototypes for the master race that will one day return mankind to the glory and purity of the Greek athletes (portrayed by nude models in the film's howler of a prologue). In his great sports picture Personal Best, Robert Towne isolates the straining muscles of female athletes and slows down the camera to put us inside the bodies of these women so that we seem to be gliding through their routines with them: We're in harmony with their bodies and yet amazed by what they can do. That is precisely what Riefenstahl cannot do because as she presents them, the athletes, like all she worships, are above mere mortals. Following Kundera's definition of totalitarian kitsch in which "all answers are given in advance," Olympia allows no room for amazement. It's a given that the über-athletes Riefenstahl fetishizes can do what they do.
Riefenstahl has no interest in the experience of athletes who don't fit her ideal of physical perfection. You can't imagine her making a place for Emily Dole, "The Throwin' Samoan," the all-American shot-put champ who shows up in Personal Best. Squat and well over 200 pounds, with her frizzy hair sticking out in clumps, Dole looks nothing like the athletic ideal, and yet in action, she gives you the rare joy of watching someone doing what they were made to do.
To watch Olympia in tandem with Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa's masterful epic of the 1964 Olympic Games, is to see the claim to art of Riefenstahl's film collapse but to understand its value as propaganda. One of the first sights Ichikawa shows us is the shells of buildings destroyed in the Allied bombing being pulled down to make way for the Olympic stadium. You can argue it's an ambiguous image, one that can be read as both a suggestion of what Japan wrought and what it suffered. But whatever way you read it, it is an acknowledgment of the fact of war. And so is the shot of Emperor Hirohito, no longer a divine being but a human bowing before the assembled athletes as he declares the games open.
There is no similar acknowledgment of reality in Riefenstahl's film. In Philip Kerr's novel March Violets, set in Berlin during the games, his detective hero, Bernie Gunther, sees two SA men taking down the kiosks selling Der Stürmer. "It's for the Olympiad," one of them tells Bernie. "We're ordered to take them all down so as not to shock the foreign visitors who will be coming to Berlin to see the Games." Bernie comments, "In my experience, such sensitivity on the part of the authorities is unheard of." Riefenstahl's film is the actions of those two SA men writ large. As Bach notes, it's the cinematic version of Hitler's sanitization of Berlin, and thus a much more insidious piece of propaganda than Triumph of the Will. That film is a souvenir book for true believers. Olympia is designed to show Nazi Germany as a place where athletes and spectators from all over the world can gather and compete in peace and brotherhood. In the August 1, 1936, edition of this publication, a correspondent reported from Germany: "He sees no Jewish heads being chopped off…. People smile, are polite, and sing with gusto in beer gardens. Board and lodging are good, cheap, and abundant…. Everything is terrifyingly clean and the visitor likes it all." That's the voice of someone bamboozled by Hitler's clean-up campaign. Olympia is that campaign.
one of this is to say that form can never be separated from content. At its most benign, that separation can be a case of a talented director making something stylish and witty and entertaining out of trashy, routine material (or a good script ruined by bad direction). And we certainly have to be able to separate art from politics. The best liberal intentions have never made John Sayles's movies anything more than plodding, inept pieces of storytelling. The most simplistic fantasies of agrarian revolt cannot make Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 anything less than one of the movies' most staggering examples of epic lyrical filmmaking.
There are great pieces of political filmmaking that don't pose a moral dilemma because what they expose is so obviously an injustice. Movies like Costa-Gavras's Z or Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday or Barbara Kopple's documentaries Harlan County, U.S.A. and American Dream rouse our passion for justice more than our thirst for vengeance. The same is true of Hollywood's tradition of good liberal muckraking melodrama, from Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang to Martin Ritt's Norma Rae or Tony Richardson's The Border.
But if we are truly going to face up to the movies' propagandistic potential, we can't sit back and pretend to be aloof from the feelings the most talented polemical filmmakers can rouse, even if we are appalled by those feelings. It's cowardly to acclaim The Birth of a Nation as significant because it was the first film to succeed on an epic scale without acknowledging Griffith's ability to get our blood pounding as we watch the Klan race to the rescue in the climax. Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers is so brilliantly made, so emotionally involving that you glide right past its contention that violence was the only avenue open to Algerians under French colonialism. And while I'd argue that Potemkin, like all of Eisenstein's films, is more a demonstration of his theories of montage than a dramatic experience, there is no denying the revolutionary fervor the director stirred up.
Riefenstahl's admirers have never owned up to whether or not her movies make them feel a similar surge. And the films may not match the same excitement you feel watching Griffith or Pontecorvo or Costa-Gavras or Eisenstein. But that would suggest that the greatness claimed for Riefenstahl is a purely technical triumph, and that it's necessary to empty her films of their emotional and moral content before being able to praise them. For those who see art in the work of Leni Riefenstahl, it's not enough to express their admiration. Her admirers have to fess up to whether, if only for the time the film is running through the projector, they feel any temptation to give themselves over to Riefenstahl's vision.