Leni Riefenstahl's Divided Legacy

by Sten Johnson

The great German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, best known as the director of "Triumph of the Will" (1935) and "Olympia" (1938), died on September 8 at the age of 101. The media response was widespread, but predictably complex. Like another iconic German artist tainted by association with the Third Reich, Richard Wagner, her work has been the subject of enduring, but qualified, admiration. Mirroring the experience of many Wagnerians, an expression of admiration for Riefenstahl's work usually requires an equally energetic defense. Few seem prepared to mount one, at least publicly; most of her obituaries refer to her as a "Nazi" filmmaker, a connection that has long overshadowed the numerous technical and aesthetic innovations of an improbably lengthy career.

Riefenstahl's professional career in film began in 1926 as an actress in a series of "Mountain Films" directed by Otto Fanck, alpine adventures featuring dramatic stunts, storms, and anachronistic touches such as lengthy, seemingly unedited ski races. She directed her own first feature "The Blue Light" in 1932, which attracted the admiration of Adolf Hitler, later applying the heroic imagery and technical sophistication of her early features to "The Triumph of the Will", a record of a 1935 Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Using multiple cameras and elaborately choreographed editing, Riefenstahl's film is unmistakable propaganda, yet one whose persuasive power is largely visual. In spite of its notoriety, "Triumph" today feels less like an ideological organ than an abstract visual poem; it offers an elegant, nearly ineffable sensation of monolithic power.

Likewise, "Olympia" (1938), her account of the Berlin Olympic games, is often criticized as a celebration of an abstract Aryan "cult of the body." Inevitably, the film does offer images of idealized German athleticism, but the famous opening montage of a Greek statue gradually transforming into a contemporary Mediterranean youth offers tribute to a distinctly non-Germanic tradition. The same complaints have been directed at her 1970s still photographs of Sudanese Nuba tribesmen, but the accusations are frequently too theoretical to be truly convincing. The exercise is, again, akin to seeking anti-semitic cues in Wagner's librettos. Specific evidence is elusive, but the acutely uncomfortable sensation that they exist remains.

Riefenstahl was questioned and cleared of any formal connection to the Nazi party after the war, but she was tainted by her most famous work as well as the accusation that gypsy extras used for her film "Tiefland, " filmed between 1942 and 1945, were later sent to their deaths in concentration camps. To many, her declaration of innocence remains uncomfortably technical.

The brilliance of Riefenstahl's visual accomplishments, combined with their political associations, makes an unbiased critique of her films complicated, and perhaps impossible. Unfortunately, many writers have felt required to introduce moral judgment, often alien to the methods of aesthetic criticism, into any discussion of her work. In 1994, Roger Ebert wrote in a review of the documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl": "The pyramids were constructed at the cost of the lives of uncounted thousands of slaves. Do we remember them today? Do their deaths diminish the monuments they built? …It would be so much easier to simply study the films without still having to deal with the unrepentant woman."

Can form and technique be separated from ideological content? It's a largely academic, and elegantly insoluble question that's been examined seriously by writers as diverse as Aristotle and Susan Sontag. In the more applied world of aesthetic appreciation, those boundaries are less divisible; aesthetic form usually frames content of some kind, however abstract, which is bound to spur associations in its audience. Watching "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia" today, we're inescapably aware of their social and political milieu. We see the concrete symbols of Nazism and hear Hitler's words. But in the end, the qualities that allow those films to endure subsist in the pure technique of filmmaking and manage to escape their political taint, however briefly.

© 2003 by Sten Johnson. All rights reserved.

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