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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Leni Riefenstahl

I stumbled into the remarkable life, art and career of somehow on the internet, and saw a remarkable biopic about her before I saw the full versions of any of the films she made. I write this blog entry with some trepidation, not having seen the films for which she is best known and most infamous - Triumph of the Will, her record of the 1934 Nazi party Congress in Nuremberg, widely known as the most powerful film ever made; and Olympia, her documentary of the 1936 Olympics (which, as you may or may not recall, were held in Berlin and featured the amazing Black American athlete Jesse Owens). I decided to go ahead and write this before seeing those films, based on The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993) and two of the films she directed which are, uh, less controversial, and try to reserve my judgment on those other works til I've seen them in their entirety.

I'm wondering if Leni is one of those artists whose biography ultimately overshadows her art. Her life story is in itself fascinating. The first link above is an excellent wiki bio, but to summarize: Leni was born in Berlin in 1902, and not only saw but was a part of, an amazing period in history. She started as a dancer, and attracted the attention of German director Arnold Fanck, who after he found her made her the star of most of his films. Most of early early acting career was in silents, of course. She specialized in a genre known as mountain films. It's fascinating to watch clips from those movies and realize that she did her own mountain-climbing and that all of those scenes are real!

What amazes me is how quickly Leni rose on her own; with Fanck's help and learning from his style, she begun to direct her own films - in the 1930's The first film she directed is the most beautiful black and white film I have seen to date, bar none. If she had done nothing else, Leni should be revered for The Blue Light (Das Bleu Licht), a 1932 film she directed and in which she plaid the lead role. The Blue Light is a fairy tale set of course in the mountains; based on an old German fairly tale which was later incorporated by the Brothers Grimm, it concerns a girl who is perceived as a witch by villagers, who lives high in the mountains in a cave of beautiful blue crystals. Her contact with the villagers leads to the ruin of all, and is seen by some as a foretelling of the then imminent future of Europe. Probably not, but it is truly gorgeous.

Like most Germans in the 1930's, Leni was enamored with emerging politician Adolph Hitler. This is not the place for a discussion of the historical and socio-economic inevitability of Hitler's rise; the parallels between 1930's Germany and the current world situation are way too much for this little article. The uncontroverted story goes that Hitler was also a fan of The Blue Light, and upon meeting Leni, he asked what her goal was. She replied that she wanted to make great films. Hitler replied, "I want you to make them for me." And to all indications, she did.

Leni is known by some as the Mother of Modern film. From what I've seen of Olympia, I can understand how it changed the filming of sports (and thus modern sport itself) forever. The reason I haven't seen Triumph of the Will is that it isn't available on Netflix. Amazing how we, in our supposedly free society, will censor a film on the basis that it was propaganda for a political party and a government that we see (justifiably, of course) as opposed to freedom! Are the folks at Netflix truly afraid that Hitler will rise again, based on this film? That must be some amazing propaganda! I understand that the entire 1934 Nuremberg rally was staged around the film itself - I can't wait to see it.

Leni herself denied that she was an active Nazi, the girlfriend or collaborator of Hitler. It's certainly true that if you were a German in that period, if Hitler wanted you to make films, you either made films or ran like hell. And if you're the true artist that Leni was, if you're going to have to make a propaganda film, you'll make the best damn propaganda film you can.

From her bio's (and I intend to read more, as I intend to see more, as my fascination is ongoing), history disputes Leni's lack of complicity. The reports indicate that she was starstruck by Hitler and continued to support him well into the war. On the other hand, her career as a war correspondent for the Nazis ended abruptly when she protested the abuse of some Polish peasants (if you weren't a favorite of Hitler, that kind of protest got you dead). Another interesting point: all Nazi propaganda including films was under the aegis of Goebbels, but Leni was responsible to Hitler only. Thus the massive budgets and films made carefully with time and care.

Leni was widely seen as a Nazi collaborator, though cleared as such by the tribunals after the War. She was banned by Hollywood and by film companies worldwide, and never released a film after the War until Tiefland, made during the War but not released until 1954. Tiefland is another very visually interesting film, made under the harshest and most bizarre of historical circumstances. Its filming moved from Spain where it was set back to Germany, for obvious reasons when War broke out. Leni herself plays the leading role -- remember that she was around 40 at the time -- which was obviously written for a much younger actress, because all the actresses she wanted were unavailable. It's a disappointing, although very interesting film, mostly for that reason of casting. Leni has also been reviled for this film because when she requested extras, she got concentration camp inmates, most of whom later died at Auschwitz. She denied this, and how much she knew at the time of course will always be unclear.

Despite the ultimate blacklisting, Leni lived on until she died of natural causes just after her 102nd birthday, in Germany. In her middle age, she had turned to still photography and produced a remarkable body of work on the Nuba, an African tribe she adopted. Her last film was of undersea creatures.

I really can't recommend the aforementioned biopic enough, for a portrait of a remarkable woman. Leni got her scuba-diving certification at the age of 70 by lying and saying she was 50. As an athlete and an artist, a strong person from a strong time who emerged as the strong female that even Camille Paglia probably never had the guts to praise as a ground-breaking feminist, Leni's place in my personal pantheon is ensured. I'll let you know more after I see some more films, read some more books.

Interesting, one of the works I keep running across in my research on Leni is a book called The Films of Leni Riefenstahl, by David Hinton, a professor (and I believe, Dean of Students) at the Watkins Film Institute (or whatever it's called now), here in Nashville. Mr. Hinton, whom I know somewhat, is also a leader of a Buddhist group here, and I intend to try to pursue a discussion on the subject with him when I eventually get further into my research on this fascinating artist. I'll let you know.


Anonymous said...

"The reason I haven't seen Triumph of the Will is that it isn't available on Netflix.

But it is available on youtube:
Triumph of the Will

Kozan Bob said...

Wow! Thanks, I had no idea that a full-length movie could be posted on YouTube. At this point, I'll probably wait and watch it on DVD since I've already ordered from Amazon, but that's great for everyone to know.

It's also available for rental from Amazon for $2.99, but I've never really gotten comfortable with watching movies on my desktop and don't have the software and equipment to watch it on my TV, so...