Saturday, June 2, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's ideal German woman

I see that the New York Review of Books currently has pulled out from behind subscription the article by Susan Sontag from its 02/06/1975 issue on the infamous Leni Riefenstahl,
Fascinating Fascism. If you're under the misimpression than the nasty old pro-Nazi propagandist somehow repented her enthusiastic support for her Führer later in life, check out Sontag's article.

Of course, Riefenstahl lived for some three decades beyond that. But she defended her noxious role in the Third Reich until the end.

Sontag gave this description of Riefenstahl's best-known work, Triumph des Willens:

Although Triumph of the Will has no narrative voice it does open with a written text that heralds the rally as the redemptive culmination of German history. But this opening commentary is the least original of the ways in which the film is tendentious. Triumph of the Will represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater. In her book published in 1935, Riefenstahl had told the truth. The Nuremberg Rally "was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting—but as a spectacular propaganda film…. The ceremonies and precise plans of the parades, marches, processions, the architecture of the halls and stadium were designed for the convenience of the cameras." How the Party convention was staged was determined by the decision to produce Triumph of the Will. The event, instead of being an end in itself, served as the set of a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary. 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.
The current (06/14/07) issue features another article about Riefenstahl, Fascinating Narcissism by Ian Buruma, which opens with this paragraph:
That Leni Riefenstahl was rather a monster is not really in dispute. And if it ever was, two new biographies provide enough information to nail her. Bad behavior began early. Steven Bach, in his excellent Leni, tells the story of Walter Lubovski, a Jewish boy in Berlin who fell madly in love with Riefenstahl after meeting her at a skating rink. In a fit of teenage cruelty, Leni and her girlfriends tormented the boy so badly that he slashed his wrists at the summer cottage of Riefenstahl's family. To stop her father from discovering what had happened, she shoved the bleeding boy under the sofa. He survived and ended up in a mental institution before escaping to America, where he went blind. All Riefenstahl had to say when she heard was: "He never forgot me as long as he lived."
He also gives us this little anecdote: "The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once turned up in an SS uniform while Leni was photographing Mick Jagger." Yuck! And, yuck!

I have to admit that I'm neither enough of a film buff, nor familiar enough with film criticism (much less aesthetic philosophy, Good Lord, who is?), nor informed enough about Riefensthal's work (though I've seen several of her films) to make any confident judgment about the nuances of "fascist" art in the context Sontag and Buruma discuss them. The main value of Sontag's piece for me is her factual debunking of Riefenstahl's lying defenses of her enthusiastic collaboration with Hitler and the Nazis.

Buruma also gives us some similar analysis. Here was the slimy woman's reaction to first seeing her Führer speak:

I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the earth's surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.
In general, I tend to think all that talk about Hitler's hypnotic powers over his listeners is about 99% horse-poop. But that's a broader issue. But the fact that Riefenstahl would express her support this way is a notable fact in itself, whether it was an "honest" impression or not.

Buruma writes about Triumph des Willens:

Although she denied it, we know from various witnesses, quoted in the biographies, that several scenes were reconstructed after the rally in a Berlin studio. We also know that far from being ordered to make the film, Riefenstahl longed to make it, indeed lobbied for it. As with Speer's architectural plans, Hitler took a personal interest in the project. He was the ultimate producer of his own spectacle (the title was his choice). As a result, whatever Riefenstahl wanted, she got. Triumph of the Will was made with the resources of a major Hollywood production: thirty-six cameramen, nine aerial photographers, a lighting crew of seventeen, and two still photographers, one of whom shot nothing but pictures of Riefenstahl herself. She was the only filmmaker in Nazi Germany who answered directly to the Führer and not to Goebbels's propaganda ministry.

This became very irritating to Goebbels, especially when Riefenstahl treated her budgets as though she had a direct line to the national treasury, which in effect she did. His exasperation was later used as evidence by Riefenstahl that he hated her because she wouldn't sleep with him. But no matter. Many great filmmakers go over budget, and annoying Goebbels was no sin. Triumph of the Will is a stunning achievement. She used all the editing techniques and camera work learned from Arnold Fanck, but also came up with ideas of her own: cameras held by men on roller skates or installed in an elevator behind Hitler's podium, the brilliant cross-cutting between crowds and performers, the extraordinary choreography of a cast of thousands. The problem is that her genius, in this film, is purely technical, applied to an unworthy subject.
Buruma partially challenges Sontag's arguments about Riefenstahl's "fascist" art. But he basically argues that she exhibited technical brilliance in some aspects - something that seems to be generally conceded, especially on her filming of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin - but that artistically it's pretty dull:

Perhaps the Faustian bargain she struck with Hitler was her only shot at immortality. Even if we leave aside her personal views and sensibilities, her talents were a perfect match for Hitler's grand project of turning his murderous vision into a mass spectacle [in Triumph des Willens], a kind of musical of death. But it was too kitschy, in the sense of false and misplaced emotion, to be great art. In Riefenstahl, Hitler had found his perfect technician.
And he writes:

The problem with Riefenstahl, and the main reason for her limitations as an artist, is that she was not just an erotic frigidaire, but an emotional one too. Her lack of human understanding, or any feeling for human beings apart from pure aesthetics, does not matter so much in a film like Olympia. It matters hugely in a feature film about love, rejection, and intrigue. Tiefland, which took Riefenstahl more than a decade to finish, and was finally released in 1954, is exactly what [Steven] Bach says it is, "a kitsch curiosity, as nearly unwatchable as any film ever released by a world-class director."

The theme of a child of nature (Riefenstahl), persecuted by the wicked denizens of decadent civilization, is familiar. The sight of Riefenstahl doing a pastiche of flamenco dancing surrounded by Spanish-looking extras is beyond camp; it is plainly embarrassing. That the extras were in fact Gypsies plucked by Riefenstahl from a camp in Salzburg, where they were imprisoned before being sent to Auschwitz, added to her monstrous reputation. She lied about them too, claiming that they all happily survived the war. Most didn't. But the film fails artistically, not because it is fascist, but because it is clumsily staged like a bad silent movie, with histrionic gestures (echoing Riefenstahl's expressionist dancing days) making up for plausible human emotions. It was as though nothing had changed since the 1920s.
Leni Riefenstahl: an awful, awful human being.


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