There are two schools of thought on Leni Riefenstahl--the dominant one, following Siegfried Kracauer and Susan Sontag, sees her as a committed Nazi propagandist whose "fascist aesthetic" pervades all her work; the other, assiduously promoted by Riefenstahl herself, wants to redeem her as
"pure" filmmaker, victim of circumstances, and feminist pioneer. The truth, at least as it emerges from Ray Mueller's three-hour documentary, lies somewhere in between, although Riefenstahl's egotism, studied political naivete, and relentless reinvention of history are amply on display.
Through interviews with the 91-year old director, along with well-chosen archival footage and clips from her films, Mueller tells the story of a wonderful, horrible career. Berta Helene Amalia Riefenstahl found some fame as a dancer in Weimar Berlin, but a leg injury and a movie poster led her
into the film world of Arnold Fanck, who specialized in movies about mountaineering. During six years as Fanck's protege, Riefenstahl became an accomplished climber and learned the basics of film editing and direction. She was soon working on her own films, just in time to catch the eye of Adolph
Hitler, who was particularly taken with the Teutonic mythos of her allegorical feature THE BLUE LIGHT (1932). At his invitation, she made a short film of a Nazi Party gathering in 1933, which today looks like a trial run for her notorious masterpiece, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1934). In this
documentary of a 1934 mass rally in Nuremberg, staged by propaganda genius Joseph Goebbels as a way of consolidating Nazi support in the wake of the Roehm putsch, Riefenstahl pioneered the filming of live media spectacles, laying aesthetic ground rules that still govern everything from rock
concert films to TV coverage of political conventions.
While Riefenstahl claims that TRIUMPH OF THE WILL is merely a filmed record of an important event, the record shows that she was intimately involved in designing the rally so as to heighten its cinematic qualities. And although she tells Mueller that she knew nothing of Nazi crimes, atrocities,
or war plans (she was never a party member), her memory is revealed as conveniently selective--she was on a distant film shoot when Goebbels staged the burning of books in Berlin, and seems to have missed Kristallnacht as well. Her documentary of the 1936 Olympics, OLYMPIA, remains a stunning
achievement, a veritable guidebook for camera tricks and editing techniques, as well as a paean to physical beauty and athleticism that many see as a fascistic celebration of the Aryan body. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, during which she briefly served as a war correspondent,
Riefenstahl returned to narrative film, directing the operatically-styled fable, TIEFLAND (Riefenstahl claims not to have known that gypsies used as extras in this film were recruited from concentration camps).
Riefenstahl concedes that her idealistic attachment to Hitler lasted until the Nazi defeat, but she was cleared of any serious crime after the war. Shunned by the post-war German film industry, she eventually finished TIEFLAND in 1952. Two decades later, she won renewed fame (and rekindled old
debates) when her photographic essay on the African Nuba tribe, underwritten by one of the founders of the Arriflex camera company, became a best-seller. More recently, she has learned scuba-diving and has done some visually arresting underwater filming.
At the age of 91, Riefenstahl is feisty, charismatic, and remarkably well-preserved. Indeed, her compelling screen presence and sheer force of personality sometimes threaten to overwhelm Mueller--at one point, she tries to tell him how to set up a shot--and his questioning of her is not nearly as
tough as it might have been. Still, Mueller's dialectical approach allows him to expose many half-truths (and a few outright lies) by adducing contrary evidence; by the film's end, Riefenstahl's apologia emerges clearly as an elaborate mythification of self and history--one that is arguably as
finely crafted as any of her own movies. (Nudity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: NR
- Review: There are two schools of thought on Leni Riefenstahl--the dominant one, following Siegfried Kracauer and Susan Sontag, sees her as a committed Nazi propagandist whose "fascist aesthetic" pervades all her work; the other, assiduously promoted by Riefenstahl… (more)