Leni Riefenstahl

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl

This film documents the life of Leni Riefenstahl. It was long–over 3 hours–but well worth it. I watched it in several installments because I got tired of reading the subtitles.

Riefenstahl was a controversial filmmaker because her most well-known works were about the Nazi party. Triumph of the Will documented the 1934 Nazi party Congress in Nuremberg and is considered the most powerful propaganda film ever made. In addition, the film won numerous awards outside of Germany for its revolutionary filmmaking techniques. Riefenstahl also made Olympia, the official film of the 1936 Olympics. Like her previous film, this one is recognized for its innovative techniques–she was the first filmmaker to set a camera on railroad tracks. But, it is also condemned for its portrait of the Nazis.

Throughout the documentary, Riefenstahl reminds us that she was never a member of the Nazi party. Indeed, the filmmakers point out that she was often out of the country when the worst events, like Kristallnacht, happened. Yet, she is often mentioned in Goebbel’s diary as being present at Nazi events, something Riefenstahl denies. She was acquitted at the end of the war of any war crimes (she was accused of using gypsies from a concentration camp in one of her movies), but she was also unable to continue her filmmaking work because of her association with Hitler.

Her life and work offer fertile ground for considering the moral role of the artist. Throughout the film, Riefenstahl, who lived to be 101 years old, focuses on her aesthetics, claiming she was fascinated by Hitler but not a Nazi. But at times, she seems to be in denial about her own actions. It is interesting that several reviewers in the Internet Movie Database seem to be apologists for her, suggesting that no one really understood Hitler’s plan in the late 1930s. Yet, excerpts from Mein Kampf seem to make it pretty clear. Riefenstahl claims she never read it. I have a copy of Triumph of the Will sitting by the television but I’m not sure I want to read it.

I can’t help but contrast her with Alice Lok Cahana, a visual artist featured in The Last Days, a film about five Hungarian Jews who survived the holocaust. Cahana’s work is focused on the Holocaust, endowing it with a moral purpose: “”I started to paint only about the Holocaust as a tribute and memorial to those who did not return, and I am still not finished.”

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