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.