The reputation of Nazi über-babe and camera-fondler Leni Riefenstahl is one of those ineffable mysteries, like the careers of Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme. The last two, while baffling, are not particularly disturbing. They didn’t, after all, suck up to and glorify mass murderers.
Leni Riefenstahl is another matter. For decades, the orthodox view of Riefenstahl and her two alleged meisterwerkes, The Triumph of the Will and Olympiad, has been that she was a film-maker of genius whose work was tainted by her unfortunate association with an unsavoury political movement.
That Riefenstahl was no Nazi but an ambitious and brilliant woman whose romantic naiveté led her into the arms of more sophisticated and cynical people who manipulated her and her talent for their own ends.
That Riefenstahl had no idea what Hitler and the Nazis were really about. She was just an arty young woman taken in by plausible scoundrels.
This is a view much promoted by Riefenstahl herself. Sadly for her and her enthusiasts, the most cursory examination of the facts quickly explodes this nonsense.
Let’s dispense with the ‘Riefenstahl the Political Innocent’ trope first. Here’s Riefenstahl describing her first experience of hearing Hitler, then a Presidential candidate, speaking in 1932:
“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.”
Here’s what Riefenstahl told the London’s Daily Express in 1934:
“The book (Mein Kampf) made a tremendous impression on me. I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page. I felt a man who could write such a book would undoubtedly lead Germany. I felt very happy that such a man had come.”
In 1937, Riefenstahl told a reporter for the Detroit News:
“To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”
Keep in mind that by 1937, nobody but an imbecile could have been in any doubt about what the Nazi’s policies were and whatever else Riefenstahl was, she was not an imbecile.
On June 14, 1940, the day Paris was declared an open city by the French and occupied by German troops, Riefenstahl wrote to Hitler in a telegram:
“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. How can we ever thank you?”
So much for Riefenstahl the apolitical naif.
And what of The Triumph of the Will, so often hailed as the greatest work of film propaganda ever made that even people who’ve never seen it lazily accept that it must be true?
I attended a screening of the film recently. It was an eye-opener. We are asked to believe that it’s a great film despite its subject matter. In fact, I quickly realized, it’s a very bad film that’s of enduring interest precisely because of its subject matter. Riefenstahl is a beneficiary of what Susan Sontag called Fascinating Fascism. That compelling, evil gloss that coats everything associated with the Nazis.
The film that unfolded was, by any standard of cinematic rigour, as torpid and absurd as the Nuremberg rallies themselves must have been to anyone but the most fanatical and bone-headed Nazi. It was Wagner as envisioned by a dim adolescent bully: a puppet-show for pinheads.
It’s not just the endless parade of Nazi grotesques–Streicher, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, etc., that sends ones heart into ones boots; it’s not just the tedious drooling speeches of spectacular banality, enlivened by paroxysms of mechanical applause; it’s not just the never-ending robotic marching, the mindless torchlit uniformity, the risible Nazi regalia of eagles and swastikas that appear to have been torn wholesale from some corny MGM Roman sword-and-sandals flick; nor is it the ear-grinding tedium of oom-pah marching bands making the air hideous with their cacophony.
No, what really grate are Riefenstahl’s attempts at pregnant, metaphorical High Style. The opening scenes of Hitler’s plane flying above a sunlit cloudscape before descending to earth and his awaiting acolytes would have made D.W Griffith, no mean hand with a ham-fisted visual metaphor, cringe with shame. It is the worst kind of kitsch–obvious, leaden and utterly laughable. That such guff had a powerful effect on German audiences of the period is of some interest to historians and psychologists. That it’s cited as evidence of Riefenstahl’s filmic ‘genius’ is beyond belief.
The most straight-forward newsreel footage of the period is more powerful, more disturbing, more unsettling than anything Riefenstahl or Goebbels’ stable of tame film-makers ever produced. If Riefenstahl had not been “tainted” by the dark glamour of the Nazis, she would be utterly forgotten.
In interviews for the 1993 film The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl adamantly denied any deliberate attempt to create pro-Nazi propaganda and said she was disgusted that Triumph of the Will was used in such a way.
Dishonest to the last, Riefenstahl either refused to accept or failed to grasp that her association with Fascinating Fascism was the only interesting thing about her.