Hitler’s hired hand and master filmmaker Riefenstahl is indeed both wonderful and horrible in Ray Muller’s 1993 documentary.
Ray Müller’smonumental (3 hours-plus) The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993), a Kino video release being distributed in a sparkling DVD transfer by Image, opens with images from Reifenstahl’s underwater photography, some of the most gorgeous footage of its kind ever produced. This glittering, silent realm appears to be Riefenstahl’s final escape from her pariah status in social and artistic circles since her indictment as a Nazi sympathizer (and subsequent four years in prison) at the end of World War II.
Riefenstahl, born in 1902 and alive at this writing in fall 1999, presents an extremely problematic case – an artist of unparalleled gifts, a woman in an industry dominated by men, one of the great formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles whose two major works were funded by, and intended to glorify, the Nazis. Triumph of the Will (1935), a deification of Hitler, and Olympia (1938), a paean to the “body beautiful” in the guise of a record of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, are studied in film schools as supreme examples of the documentary form. Riefenstahl’s status as a filmmaker is unquestioned, even when her motives are obscured. She says she was never a Nazi party member, and never anti-Semitic. At Nuremberg, she was labeled a sympathizer but not an activist. On the other hand, her denial of using gypsy concentration camp members as extras in her film Tiefland is undermined by a requisition list, shown in close-up in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, that names these people and the purpose for their brief transfer from the camp to her sets.
Still, a case can be made for Riefenstahl as an artist so obsessed with the need to create something perfect and transcendent that she allowed herself to ignore, if not become complicit with, cataclysmic historical forces. She made her first reputation as a dancer, then as an actor in the “mountain films” of Arnold Fanck in 1920s Germany. The fearless Riefenstahl was photographed climbing sheer cliffs in her bare feet. When Hitler arrived on the scene, she had already directed a mountain film of her own, The Blue Light. Like many Germans living in economic despair at the time, she found der Fuhrer charismatic and lauded his efforts to build “national socialism,” by her own words unaware of his ultimate intentions. Granted the dream of every filmmaker – an unlimited budget – to photograph the annual Nazi Party rally of 1934, she created Triumph of the Will, an inestimable propaganda tool in building the myth of Hitler-as-savior.
Olympia represents in some ways a quantum leap, with Riefenstahl using unheard-of techniques to fix the reality of the moment onscreen. To photograph a footrace, she stretched supine in a wagon, holding a small camera, and was frenziedly pushed alongside the runners. For pole-vaulters, she hid in a hole and shot them from below. Some of her ideas were impossible to implement – for example, her desire to be catapulted through the air with a camera in her hand. She spent months editing Olympia and incorporated a variety of strategies including disguised reverse shots, forced perspectives, and rhythmic editing that breathe life into the film. Olympia, and later her series of photography books on African tribes like the Nuba, brought charges from Susan Sontag and other intellectuals that Riefenstahl’s cult of the (male) body beautiful represented an unmistakable fascist ideal. However, her portrayals of the physical beauty of black tribesmen (shown liberally in clips throughout this film) would appear to put her entirely at odds with Hitler’s pathological race theories.
Reviled for her political associations, and equally condemned for her decidedly apolitical, aestheticized treatment of the physical form, Riefenstahl retreated increasingly into less problematic realms where she could continue to quietly find her own ideal of perfection. At the age of 60 she made a series of visits to Africa, where she lived with and photographed several tribes, a process documented in a series of highly regarded coffee table photography books. Ten years later she became a scuba diver and underwater photographer, a phase that continued into her nineties.
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl tries to make sense of a complex figure, and in its three hours-plus running time, it succeeds as much as can be expected with the mysterious Riefenstahl. In spite of her extreme age, she is as articulate and powerful as ever, and the film provides a rare opportunity for an extended look at her, with fascinating if not unpredictable results.
Hints of a defensive, dictatorial personality emerge in her dealings with the filmmakers, particularly when she is asked about her political views, her feeling about a “fascist aesthetic.” She is also very domineering in her dealings with their shooting methods, arguing about set-ups and shots, complaining bitterly when they ask her to walk and talk at the same time (“I have never done this!” she objects). On the other hand, all directors are dictators – such behavior is often practically admired in men, as the popular image of auteurs like Stroheim or Sternberg in jodhpurs, perhaps carrying a whip along with their bullhorn, shows. And it’s surely unrealistic for director Müllerto expect a visualist like Riefenstahl not to comment on the visual aspects of a film about her life.
The filmmakers aim at an even-handed portrayal, probing but not pushing beyond where it seems safe to go. It pulls back from some areas of great interest, among them her statement that she lived for eight months among the Nuba. When she points to a photograph of her “little bed” in their village, and the “hundreds of wild dogs that surrounded me every night,” and shows us images of herself with the fantastically beautiful, rugged, naked Nuba wrestlers, we want to know more. Her personal relationships are scrutinized less than her historical standing, a reasonable but not altogether satisfying approach. We see her interactions with her companion, Horst, who is 40 years younger, but learn little about the forces that connect them.
Riefenstahl emerges as in some ways a timeless, almost supernaturally powerful character – also tragic and possibly self-deluded. Perhaps the same internal forces that made her create such powerful, lasting art render her incapable of admitting even decades after the fact that she was, at least for a while, a willing architect in the creation of Nazi mythology.
On the other hand, the inevitable question arises: Were Riefenstahl a man, would she have been treated as venomously as she has been or perhaps forgiven because men have to work? It isn’t as if we stop looking at movies with “charming” Maurice Chevalier because he was racist and pro-Nazi, or at actor Ward Bond because he supposedly enjoyed beating up suspected Communists in the 1950s. Elia Kazan has been forgiven by many for helping ruin the lives of numerous others during the 1950s HUAC hearings, and he, like Riefenstahl, has never remotely apologized for being complicit with fascist historical forces. The excuse for Kazan is that his films are treasurable works of popular art, and some no doubt felt that in such a situation, given the choice between adhering to principle and not working/eating or becoming a snitch and maintaining a career, they would do what he did. Riefenstahl’s art is by contrast almost too remote to cause such easy identification, and the fact that she was a woman working unquestionably as would a man of the time makes her achievement, in the eyes of many, practically blasphemous. Of course, her films will be remembered and studied long after Riefenstahl and her army of critics are gone.