Don’t mention the war: The rehabilitation of a Nazi film-maker

In March 2004 Catherine Lyons gave this assessment of Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Issue 18.

On 8 September, the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl died, aged 101. The many obituaries that followed seemed to indicate a curious kind of ambivalence towards the only woman who played a significant role in the rise of National Socialism. Her stylistic flair and contribution to film form were widely acknowledged and celebrated among these epitaphs. However, for the most part, accounts of her political involvement were left vague or, worse still, overlooked. It is clear that Riefenstahl has become a member of a particular kind of dead poets’ society, one that includes many formerly objectionable artists who are now celebrated within contemporary culture, their rehabilitation made possible not merely because of their conspicuous talents, but also because of a willingness on the part of liberal society to dismiss the significance of their transgressions.

The whitewashing of Riefenstahl’s work started long before her death. During her lifetime she won over many high profile admirers. Figures such as Jean Cocteau, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger championed her cause. Even Jodie Foster recently considered developing a sympathetic film about her life. In the face of such selective amnesia, it is essential to re-establish where precisely her guilt lies, and to ask why this attitude towards her has prevailed in a world which was never supposed to forget.

Riefenstahl was a successful dancer before developing a career as a movie star in the 1920s. Her leading roles in Arnold Fanck’s German mountain films and later in the 1933 Hollywood epic SOS Iceberg made her a household name in Germany. While working with Fanck she learnt about film-making, and in 1932 released her first feature The Blue Light which she both directed and starred in. Later she claimed that the role she devised for herself was a premonition of her own fate. She played Junta, a wild girl who is seen as a witch by the villagers. She is lured by a mysterious blue light which radiates from the mountain on the night of the full moon. Junta dares to scale the peaks of the mountains that the valley pigs shrink from. Indeed, there was not much that Riefenstahl did shrink from.

Shortly after she finished this film, she wrote to Hitler and asked to meet him. He admired her skill as a film-maker, and she agreed to make a documentary film of the 1933 Nazi party congress. The result was Victory of Faith, and the film was an unmitigated disaster. At this point, both Hitler and Röhm shared joint leadership, and certain factions of the party refused to co-operate with her. Until recently it was believed that this film was destroyed, or even never existed. But in the 1980s it was recovered. Riefenstahl consistently distanced herself from this film, interestingly enough, not because of what it represents but because of its shoddy camera work. That same year she made Day of Freedom: Our Army which depicted the beauty of soldiers and soldering for the Führer.

In 1934, after Röhm was murdered, Hitler had full power to stage the party congress he wished for. Riefenstahl’s interpretation of this 1934 Nuremberg rally was to be her most infamous film, Triumph of the Will. The dramatic intensity of the event was pumped up by her creative compos­ition of shots and artistic editing. She managed to inject the sensibilities of dance and movement into film form, to spectacular effect. But throughout the film Riefenstahl constructed reality to serve the image. She claimed that not a single scene of the 1934 Nazi party congress was staged. However, it was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting but as a spectacular propaganda film. Everything was designed for the convenience of the cameras. The event, instead of being an end in itself, served as a set to a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary. Set to classical music, it had a balletic and monu­mental quality which glorified Hitler and Nazism. It is considered by film historians to be the best propaganda film of all time. The artistic depth of the film was recognised by its accumulation of many international awards.

After Triumph of the Will, she was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee to make the official film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics—although in reality she was funded by the Nazi ministry of propaganda and provided with unlimited resources to promote the image of a powerful, modern Germany. The result was Olympiad, which was released two years later. This film is considered by many critics to be one of the best films of all time. It demonstrates her creative techniques at their very best. The diving sequences are particularly beautiful, where athletes seem to glide through the air like swallows. During the making of Olympiad she pioneered many technical innovations which have become standard film and television practice. However, throughout the film she managed to transpose the ancient and the modern in much the same way as she did in Triumph of the Will. By doing so, she conferred the Nazi regime with the kudos of ancient Greek civilisation. This was achieved particularly with the help of an imaginative prologue which consisted of a classical Greek sculpture metamorphing into a German athlete. After the war she was reproached because of her preoccupation with strength and athletic perfection within the film.

In 1938, as a present to Hitler, she made Berchtesgaden über Salzburg, a fifty-minute lyrical portrait of the Führer against rugged mountain scenery. In 1939 she accompanied the invading German army into Poland as a uniformed army war correspondent with her own camera team. She witness­ed the massacre of Polish civilians by German soldiers in the town of Konskie. But Riefenstahl did not have the stomach for the realities of war, so she returned to film-making.

In 1941 she began working on the feature film Tiefland, fully funded by Hitler. Riefenstahl needed ‘mediterranean types’ as extras for her film, and the nearby Salzburg concentration camp provided gypsies for this purpose. This was one of the main accusations levelled at her in Freiburg where she was tried after the war. Documentation and survivors’ accounts would seem to substantiate this crime. In 1945 two of her sumptuous homes were seized and she was placed under house arrest for three years. Riefenstahl never officially joined the Nazi party and was cleared of active involvement. However, she was declared a Mitläufer or fellow traveller, which barred her from ever seeking public office. After this she went through a lengthy denazification process. Many people at the time felt that she was dealt with too leniently, and that her leading role as a Nazi propagandist was not fully appreciated.

After the war and up until the time of her death, Riefenstahl insisted that she was a politically naive artist caught up in an impossible position. She maintained that she had to make Triumph of the Will because Hitler requested it: under pain of death, she made the film as best she could, only obeying orders as it were. Riefenstahl only ever refers to her three ‘apolit­ical’ films, The Blue Light, Tiefland and Olympiad, clearly attempting to give the impression that she was an independent film-maker keeping her head down in Nazi Germany. She says that she lived in fear of Goebbels and uses this to back up her claims.

In the 1930s Riefenstahl, by her own admission, enthusiastically attended Nazi meetings, and it was her who approached Hitler and offered to serve the Reich. But how naive could she have been? She worked in the famous UFA Studios in Berlin where all the great classical silent German films were made. A high proportion of the workforce was Jewish, and their subsequent mass exodus to Los Angeles would have been something she would have been fully aware of. Riefenstahl was a gifted artist with sophisticated tastes. She was an ardent follower of avant garde art. There is no doubt that she was well aware of the persecution of artists and intellec­tuals throughout the thirties.

There were some artists who lived through the regime and produced the obligatory kitsch paintings and sculptures that filled the public buildings and art galleries of the Third Reich—people who had not got the strength of their convictions and played it safe. But Riefenstahl was never one of these. Her creative work flourished within the regime. Far from being persecuted by Goebbels, his diaries reveal that he was a deep admirer and personal friend of hers. She not only socialised with leading Nazis, she worked with them to build the party. Leni Riefenstahl was part of the Nazi establishment, profiting from that regime both profess­ionally and materially. Her decision not to officially join the party was a calculated one. Both she and Hitler knew that the international art world would take her work more seriously if she abstained. Therefore she made films not through the auspices of the ministry of propaganda, but commissioned directly by Hitler. Five of her six films were fully funded by the Nazi party or by Hitler himself.

It seems that Riefenstahl was so talented that people are willing to make excuses for her and to believe the lies she pedalled for over fifty years. But perhaps there is another reason. She is the only female director who consis­tently appears on lists of what film critics consider the greatest films of all time. Who wants to hear that their feminist pioneer is really a Nazi?

In the 1960s she went to Africa and lived with the Nuba tribe of southern Sudan. For six months she learnt their language and photographed them. In 1973 she published a book of these photographs, The Last of the Nuba. Riefenstahl was ready for a comeback. Shortly after the book was published Susan Sontag, the American intellectual, wrote a negative article in the New York Review of Books which historically and aesthetically re-evaluated Riefenstahl’s work. She convincingly asserted that “although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them is consistent with some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology”. Sontag pointed out that, by her own admission, Riefenstahl was drawn to this particular African tribe because of its pugilistic culture. She considered the Nubas’ beauty and their strong athletic physique to be outstanding among African tribes. By focusing particularly on their fighting rituals, Riefenstahl celebrated this athletic beauty and masculine strength. This symbolised a correlation rather than a departure from her work under the Nazis. Funerals are also extremely significant events in Nuba life. Glorification of death was a consistent theme within Nazi culture. Sontag believed that choosing to portray a society whose most enthusiastic and lavish ceremony is the funeral was highly suspect. Furthermore, the tribe survived mainly by hunting, living an elemental existence. Throughout the book Riefenstahl laments what she sees as the imminent erosion of this existence by modernity. Sontag discussed how the Nazis believed that city life was degenerate and that the urban city dweller was corrupted by intellectualism. They aspired to bring the people back to the soil and their true spirit, albeit with modern technology playing its part.

Riefenstahl rather cleverly explored a number of major Nazi themes through the medium of photography, and almost got away with it because her subjects were black. The popular notion that Nazi culture was nothing more than racial hatred made it possible for her to do this. But surely without the racial theory there is nothing obnoxious about Riefenstahl’s ideas? On the contrary, her portrayal of Nuban society is synonymous with Nazi art in that it glamorises death, exalts mindlessness and glorifies brutality and submission. However, it is not entirely true to suggest that Riefenstahl was not motivated by any racial consideration. The Nazis insisted that the Jews were bastardised and not of pure race. The Nuba are the indigenous and most ancient people of the Sudan. They retreated to the Nuba mountains several centuries ago in response to invasion, a remote community who have had little contact with the outside world. Anthropo­logists say they are a rare ethnically pure indigenous race—a fact which was not lost on Riefenstahl who considered them “an extraordinary pheno­menon” and one which took her six years to find. During her search she turned her nose up to many African tribes who did not suit her requirements.

Sontag’s influential essay damaged Riefenstahl’s attempted comeback. Unable to raise substantial backing to produce a film project, she continued to work as a photographer. In the 1980s she joined Greenpeace and devoted herself to photographing exotic plant and animal marine life. It was then that she affirmed: “I can simply say that I feel spontaneously attracted by everything that is beautiful.” However, her sense of beauty was dangerously irresponsible and ultimately cruel. During her Nuban project, many of the tribe had joined the Southern Sudanese Liberation Army to fight against the Arab North. The Nuban people were at that time suffering greatly, yet there is no reflection of this in her work, because it did not fit her fascist aesthetic. She was outraged that this guerilla warfare had begun to modern­ise the Nuba, who had begun to wear “sunglasses, ugly clothes and clumsy shoes”. Her treatment of the Nuba people is reminiscent of her use of gypsies from Salzburg concentration camp. In both cases her heartless insensitivity was astounding.

The idea that it is impossible for great art to be political is of course a myth. In film terms, the great masterpieces of Pudovkin and Eisenstein are as polemical as Riefenstahl’s work, but less problematic. This is because their political involvement was motivated by a sense of altruism. Admitted­ly her techniques were brilliant, but they should never be appreciated out of context. Celebrating her as a great artist, without entering any caveat, is to condone the immorality which underpins her work.

Nevertheless, Riefenstahl retains her high profile band of followers, people who wilfully misinterpret her work, who insist that art and politics are two completely different things. Her admirers can hardly deny the political intentions of Triumph of the Will, yet they manage to abstract Riefenstahl’s pioneering techniques from her unsavoury themes. They somehow manage to separate the dancer from the dance and celebrate her cinematic flare with impunity. Failing to grasp the complexities of her work, they merely see her as an aesthetician, a type of classical artist concerned with beauty and form. They see her as an artist who applied these sensibilities to a modern medium, with spectacular effect. Above all else, they recognise her as a great artist who, by a twist of fate, tragically and momentarily lost her way. However, one thing Riefenstahl never lost was her talent for befriending powerful leaders. In 1999 she was invited by Bill Clinton to Time magazine’s 75th birthday party in New York.

A few years before she died, she demanded that Germany recognise her contribution to cinema and photography, and blamed a cabal of “opinion formers” and “left wing intellectuals” for destroying her reputation. However, her work condemns itself. A close and honest examination of her films and photographs reveals that, throughout her career, she consistently aesthetised elements of life and politics that are fundamentally malevolent. However brilliantly she did this is inconsequential. In the end, Riefenstahl was wrong when she claimed that her role in The Blue Light was a premonition of her own fate. Junta was seen by the world as a witch, while Riefenstahl is more often than not recognised as a cine­matic genius. Junta fell to her death at a tragically young age. But as we all know, only the good die young. Leni Riefenstahl passed away peacefully in her bed at the grand old age of 101. The same can not be said for the gypsy men, women and children that she took from concentration camps in order to make one of her many twisted fairytales.