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Yeah, She Was Amazing and She Was Horrible: Leni Riefenstahl

November 10, 2010

I had seen Triumph of the Will  back around 1970 in the company of friends of mine who were film students at San Francisco State University.  Just recently I saw, courtesy of Netflix,  Ray Muller’s 3 1/2  hour-long 1994  documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.   That raised questions in my mind that sent me to the local public library to look at Steven Bach’s recent  biography entitled  Leni,  the life and work of Leni Riefenstahl (Knopf: New York, 2007).. Those three sources probably told me more than I needed or wanted to know about one of the most innovative film editors and directors  ever,  a creative genius by some accounts, who also created the slickest pieces of Nazi film propaganda ever made. She has been called the greatest female film maker of the 20th century.

In a nutshell, Riefenstahl became a  silent film star in Germany in the 1920s, then turned to directing.   She specialized in “Alpine films, ” a very popular genre  involving daredevil skiing and  mountain climbing. set in the dramatic, rugged but stunningly  beautiful  outdoor scenery of the German Alps.  She did all her own stunts, some of them quite dangerous.  Early in the Muller film there is a clip of her scrambling up a craggy, nearly vertical pinnacle without any equipment, clawing her way to the top, barefoot and wearing a dress!  Supreme self-confidence, ferocious ambition and determination characterized her entire life.  After reading  Mein Kampf and hearing him speak, she wrote  fan letter to Adolph Hitler, which  led to their meeting in May 1932,  many months  before he came to  power at the end of January 1933.  He charmed and flattered her,  telling her knew her work and he’d loved her in The Blue Light.   Soon he was telling her he had a special favor to  ask: film projects glorifying the Nazi Party which he would finance and she would direct. The most famous/notorious one was made of a six-day Nazi Party  Congress and rally held in Nuremberg in 1934.   Its title  translates as Triumph of the Will.

 It featured innovative camera angles, juxtapositions, and transitions, and editing techniques that film directors and film students still study. It was also blatant glorification of Hitler and of the Nazi cause, full of dramatic pomp and pageantry. Imagine a Super Bowl halftime show on steroids with a performing cast of 100,000, that goes on for six days. Very theatrical, very triumphant.  Excerpts  of speeches by Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and other Nazi leaders are woven into the film.  The other film she is remembered for is Olympia, which is based on the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin. It, too,  shows innovative camera angles, and remarkable editing techniques  that have influenced all sports films ever since. It was also financed by the Nazis.

The films that made her famous in the 1930s made her infamous after 1945. She claimed to be a  naive dupe, and  a photojournalist who was just recording history as it happened, not  creating propaganda.  She claimed to have no knowledge of  any anti-Semitism in the Third Reich, much less of the Holocaust or other Nazi war crimes and, when she was not believed, complained she was the “real victim” being unfairly persecuted and falsely accused.  Her battle with truth and attempts at self-vindication,  a sometimes half-convincing  but ultimately exasperating,  blend of  self-justifying  half-truths and lies,  continued until her death in 2003 at the age of 101.

So much has been written about her that there is no point in  repeating  it in greater detail here.  Interested  readers can see her films, Muller’s film and/or  read Bach’s  excellent book. Not up for that much effort? Just ‘google’ her name, then.

She is right when she says, in one of many interviews she gives in Muller’s film that there is no anti-Semitism in  Triumph of the Will.  The only group denounced  by name are the communists. ( traditionally, Americans like to ignore or downplay the role of anti-communism in the rise of Nazism).  Despite repudiating the Versailles Treaty and expanding the German army, there are no belligerent intentions expressed by any of the Nazi leaders  towards other countries. The theme is all very positive,  optimistic,  upbeat. In fact many themes have counterparts  now among some segments of   American society, such as:

*Huge emphasis on national unity, “Germans, finally united as one people!”  Big emphasis on uniformity. Citizens who don’t “get onboard”  and “get with the program” are contemptible scum, saboteurs of the nation.

*Bursting with national pride in being German and much– inf act, limitless– flag-waving, patriotic gestures, and oaths of  loyalty.

*Glorification of the military, of militarization, and of soldiers as the most important national heroes.

*”God Is  On Our Side!” the 18,200,000 Germans who served in the Wehrmacht between 1935 and 1945 each went into battle with a uniform belt buckle that proclaimed “Gott Mit Uns”, which means “God Is With Us”.

*German Exceptionalism: “Germany’s unique destiny must be fulfilled!” (we can’t be judged by the standards we use to judge  other nations  because we’re special, set apart,  different.)

*”It’s morning in Germany! ” The  nation, once defeated and humiliated, is now strong,confident and militarily ready to take her leading place among the nations.

Sound familiar? It should.

One interviewer, referring to her book on the Nuba, an African tribal people, and her film  Olympia suggest they embody a  “fascist aesthetic”: worship of athletic champions,  and making a fetish of the ideal perfect body, glorious in it perfection, and of  perfect health.

I thought, don’t we have that here and now? We make heroes  out of athletic champions. Our society worships youthful  physical beauty and has almost made a religious cult out of perfect  health. Just turn on the TV and you are assaulted with diet and exercise programs promising  you “the perfect body you’ve always dreamed of!” And if that’s not enough, there is always plastic surgery toc correct nature’s imperfections (“Why not have the face you want instead of the  one you were born with?” Now your dreams can come true!”). Then there’s the very popular breast enlargement for women and (ahem) “natural male enhancement” for men. These are not fringe phenomena. They are each multi-billion dollar industries now.

(As one psychologist has said, an individual that makes the claims nation-states make  for themselves, would be recognized as insane.)

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