Much has come out of the 20th Century — two world wars, rockets, speedy international communication, electricity, a rich and diverse panoply of international art and literature, Joseph Stalin, and of course, Adolph Hitler, who begat 1930’s German dancer, actress, producer and filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. Much has been written about Riefenstahl, who passed away at the age of 101 in 2003, and there is much more to write about and speculate. Her life in the arts has raised a myriad of moral, philosophical and ethical questions, as well as questions about the role of the artist in the political sphere.
In a time in America when the word fascist is bantered about on all sides, when facts and unbiased information are hard to come by, and propaganda seems to be the chief form of mass communication, it may be timely to take a look at the life of Leni Riefenstahl.
She was arrested after World War II, suspected of having been a member of Hitler’s Nazi party. Many German artists, like Marlene Dietrich, either fled because they disagreed with Hitler and Nazism, or being Jewish, they had much to fear by staying in Germany. But Riefenstahl chose to stay, and with full financial and political support from Goebbels and Hitler, she created what film critics have considered to be the most powerful propaganda films ever made, Triumph of the Will and Olympia.
There were other German artists who stayed and worked for the Nazis, like Mies van der Rohe, but Riefenstahl is probably the most talked about by writers and art critics alike. Riefenstahl was later exonerated of any associations with war crimes, and released as a sympathizer, but not before all of her films were confiscated by the French.
I first learned of Riefenstahl after reading an essay about her, featured in a book by writer, Susan Sontag. Looking at Riefenstahl’s work, I have to admit that, as a young photographer trying to find a voice, I was taken aback at the power of her artistic expression and the diabolical nature of her propaganda. In 1993, I read her memoir, Leni Riefenstahl, and quite frankly, had the same visceral reaction to her life. As I turned page after page, unable to put the book aside, I had to keep reminding myself of the context of her art and story. Many Germans were inspired to join the Nazi movement after watching her films, and hence, many more human beings died.
Prior to WW II, mountain climbing was a popular pastime in Germany among young people — as early as 1924, flags with swastika’s could be seen flying over some German climbing expeditions, and most clubs excluded Jews. The cult-like status of the sport carried over into German filmmaking with Riefenstahl starring in a series of alpine films directed by Arnold Fanck. You have to wonder if this aspect of German culture, at the time, wasn’t a precursor to the German self image at the start of WWII — the lofty Teuton atop the mountain, looking down at the inferior rabble below who could never attain the heights of Aryan culture.
In the opening sequence of Riefenstahl’s, Triumph of the Will, Hitler’s plane descends from among the clouds like a Greek god descending from Mt. Olympus, to oversee the Nazi rally in Nuremberg.
Although Riefenstahl claimed to be apolitical and that Hitler thought her naive and unable to understand his ideas, I think that she embraced the idea of German superiority early on. In order to make the powerful propaganda films that she did, she had to have a complete understanding of the ideas embodied in her films.
After her work with Fanck and before the war, Riefenstahl went on to direct her own film, The Blue Light. The main character is Junta, a young female village outcast who is able to reach heights on a mountain that no man is able to attain. Only Junta is able to reach a space on the mountain where a blue moon lights up a grotto of crystals. The space is eventually violated by those below the mountain who don’t understand the sacred nature of the grotto.
Riefenstahl identified with Junta, in fact, a larger than life-size portrait of her, as Junta, hung in her home in her senior years and graced the cover of her autobiography. Did she consider herself larger than life? Did she see herself as a goddess above, watching, creating, destined to become the Artist who is above the sordid affairs of humanity? Did she see all of the lies she has purported to tell, some of them proven to be so, as just a part of the artistic process? Is truth merely a concept fit only for humans? Hitler is supposed to have said that if you tell a lie long enough it will become the truth — perhaps she understood and absorbed more than she let on.
After the war, Riefenstahl never made another film. She spent some years living with her mother and later spent time in Africa photographing the Nuba and the Kai tribes, whose culture saw physical beauty as an important ideal, fueling suspicion among some critics, that Riefenstahl really was attracted to fascist ideas of beauty.
The life of Leni Riefenstahl has, if anything, raised some important questions about the role of the artist in a society. Is art higher than individual moral dilemma’s? Does art as a means take precedence over death and destruction if the end is a greater good, whether it be winning a war or winning a film prize? Is having an ideal of physical beauty a fascist concept? Is beauty a fascist idea? Can art be both evil and aesthetically pleasing? Is a lie justified if it is wrapped in the cloak of artistic propaganda?
The list of questions is endless, but there is one question that stands above all. Where does genius come from? Does it come from God? If so, can it also come from the devil, who is said to be equally powerful?
Whatever answers you may have to any of these questions, I think that it is highly probable that Leni Riefenstahl knew exactly what she was doing when she chose to hand over her soul to the fascist machine.
Sources and Further Reading:
Gunston, David. “Leni Riefenstahl.” Film Quarterly 14, no. 1 (1960): 4–19. doi:10.2307/1211058.
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, 1993, a film by Ray Muller, available on YouTube
Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir, by Leni Riefenstahl
Hitler’s Filmmaker: A Biography of Leni Riefenstahl, by Steven Bach