Legendary film maker, photographer, alleged Nazi sympathiser
September 9, 2003 4:31 AM   Subscribe

Leni Riefenstahl, dead at 101 In response to her film making for the Nazi regime, she said "It reflects the truth as it was then, in 1934. It is a documentary, not propaganda." (more inside)
posted by tomcosgrave (30 comments total)
I think some people would disagree with that, and there were race hate charges levelled against her (later dropped) to do with using Gypsy people as extras in one her films during the war, but she was also celebrated for her work on the disappearing Nuba tribe in the Sudan, which doesn't sound Nazi like.

She learned to scuba dive in her 70's and released a film a couple of years ago, compiled from footage of her 200 or so dives.

Whatever you may think of her Nazi related work, she was an interesting individual.
posted by tomcosgrave at 4:32 AM on September 9, 2003

Triumph of the Will is intensely, disturbingly moving even now. As an individual who grew up amongst former HitlerJugend - all of them furious at what the party had done to their Jewish friends, let alone their own families - I was worried by my own reaction to it. Here I was, someone who had grown up hearing countless curses against the Nazi party as a kid (we spent a lot of time at my grandparents house), and I for the briefest second felt a small stirring of Germanic pride when watching it. Immediately suppressed but undeniably there for an instant.

Riefenstahl couldn't have worked for worse people, but there is no question in my mind as to whether she was a master of her art. Far better than anyone ought to ever be.
posted by Ryvar at 4:42 AM on September 9, 2003

You can always put together a small list of those artists who made great art but sere in fact shits as people (that is, werved vile causes), so the question is: does good art justify an evil cause?L.R. here claims not that she was taking orders from above (she wasn't) but that that was then and this is now. One could say the same for child molesters who have behavior modified. Or murderers.
An interesting parallel: Birth of a Nation..anti-black film that too is grand art. Always begin at home, I say. And Ezra Pound?
posted by Postroad at 4:52 AM on September 9, 2003

I was thinking it must have been a mistake at imdb.com that they didn't give a date of death when I was looking up the spelling of her name to use as a snark.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:03 AM on September 9, 2003

Only the good die young.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:34 AM on September 9, 2003

One of Benito Mussolini's most famous slogans was "La cinematografia è l'arma più forte", "Cinema is the most effective weapon" (and the Italian fascist regime created the huge studios of Cinecittà -- the same studios later used by Fellini and all the other great Italian directors, still used today also by some Hollywood productions, Scorsese's Gangs Of New York for example -- the Venice Film Festival and the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia film school).

Lenin was convinced that "cinema is the most important art", and Hitler of course chose Riefenstahl as the right creative mind to show Germany and the rest of the world the greatness of the Thousand-year-Reich and the superiority of those tall, blond, clear-eyed Olympic athletes.

I also have a problem with the "alleged Nazi sympathiser" tag in this thread. Alleged? Rumored to be Hitler's lover, certainly the master propagandist behind the glorification of the Aryan race and the German Uebermensch, she shot a God-like Hitler descending from the heavens. If you called this stuff "alleged", well, maybe Goebbels was an allegend Nazi too.

The sorry, lame excuses in her postwar explanations (she was too smart not to know what was happening, Jesus, I'm so irked when a genius tries to play dumb)

A mixture of cunning, sheer chutzpah and probably -- I'm sorry to say this -- a kind of gentlemanly (and, with a nowadays sensibility, somewhat patronising) attitude of the 1940's on the part of the prosecutors -- avoided ms Riefenstahl her well-deserved place in Nuremberg.

After all, Speer was tried and he was an architect right?

Of course she is one of the greatest film directors of all time -- Olympia is a personal favorite of mine. Criminals can after all be great artists -- you know, for the sake of the argument let's assume that Hitler's painting didn't suck like they actually did. Imagine Hitler painted like Vermeer. What would have happened then, a nice pardon for the little guy because he was a genius?

and Postroad, there's a clear fallacy in your argument: Griffith made a pro-KKK film masterpiece, but there's this slight difference that America wasn't a KKK dictatorship ruled by a Grand Wizard. He made propaganda for a (terribly racist and evil) minority's point of view. Riefenstahl made propaganda for the guy who had absolute power and was planning to very soon fuck up a continent and make his Deutschland "judenfrei"

I'm not saying death by hanging, but Jesus Christ the genius of Nazi propaganda deserved at least a few years in the slammer

posted by matteo at 5:56 AM on September 9, 2003

Though it may be impossible to separate Riefenstahl from the regime she served, there's no questioning her amazing ability. She was a genius, pure and simple.

And it should be noted that Triumph of the Will is far more influential than you might think.
posted by aladfar at 5:57 AM on September 9, 2003

Metteo - lots of what you say makes sense. But no Nazi would go and spend time with the Nubian people, right?

Hence my use of the word alleged - you can't really tell, and neither can I.
posted by tomcosgrave at 6:38 AM on September 9, 2003

"But no Nazi would go and spend time with the Nubian people, right? "

are you serious?
why not? it's not that she was, you know, joining the AFC (not that it would have changed her shameful past), she was hanging out with black people because they were (and are) great subjects for photography. especially if nobody in Europe or America wants to be near you ('cause you're Hitler's propagandist) it makes sense to hang out in the only place on earth so isolated that nobody even knows who Hitler was

isnit it funny how she either worked in the middle of Africa or underwater? literally, away from the world
posted by matteo at 6:57 AM on September 9, 2003

if you check out her later, post-dear-Adolf work, you cannot deny (especially in the Africa shots) that there's the same aesthetics at work, only she couldn't shoot anymore those Aryan Supermen, so she chose one of the most beautiful people on earth in a place so isolated where she could work in peace, and she shot them

there's no denying that even her Africa work has influenced many photographers (Ritts, Comte, et. al), and we can discuss until we're blue in the face if her kind of aestethics is de-humanizing (the Nubians shot like inanimate objects, or statues). but politically her hanging out with Africans does not mean a thing, not to mention that Nazis had certainly a greater problem with Jews and Gays and Gypsies than with Black people, but that's an entirely another topic -- their horrible disgusting contempt for "monkeys" (Goebbels elegant phrase) did not include the use of Zyklon-B to ethnic-cleanse the world of Black people, thank God

you know, if David Duke tells you "my best friends are black, I swear" are you going to believe him, and cut him some slack?

posted by matteo at 7:05 AM on September 9, 2003

Jacques Louis David was a key player in the Reign of Terror.

"War criminal" and "brilliant artist" are not mutual exclusive titles.
posted by pjdoland at 7:28 AM on September 9, 2003

I think, she was an aestheticist above all else, and I think she embraced the Nazi movement and their ideas of a superman from an aesthetic perspective. Nazism was incredibly symbolistic yet very modernistic movementm and thus it is easy to see it's superficial attractiveness. I think a lot of people, especially German, even the smart ones, didn't see the true and horrific face of Nazism until much later.

Superficial and stupid, yes. But not evil.
posted by cx at 7:35 AM on September 9, 2003

Imagine Hitler painted like Vermeer. What would have happened then, a nice pardon for the little guy because he was a genius?

Extreme notoriety doesn't precisley hurt the value of the art
posted by Fupped Duck at 7:46 AM on September 9, 2003

Ray Muller's 1993 documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" is well worth renting.
posted by muckster at 7:51 AM on September 9, 2003

A nice website about the life and work of Riefenstahl.
posted by dgaicun at 8:03 AM on September 9, 2003

what about the work of wagner? during his lifetime he associated himself with political organizations that we view as evil in this day and age...but his dangerous political associations don't prevent performances of the ring cycle, for example.
posted by pxe2000 at 8:17 AM on September 9, 2003

Ray Muller's 1993 documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" is well worth renting.

If you get The Sundance Channel, they'll be showing this Wednesday at 11:05 p.m.
posted by JanetLand at 8:26 AM on September 9, 2003

what about the work of wagner? during his lifetime he associated himself with political organizations that we view as evil in this day and age...but his dangerous political associations don't prevent performances of the ring cycle, for example.

They did in Israel, I believe. I think Wagner performances are still rather rare there. I seem to recall a news story when some famous conductor led a performance there; i.e., that was newsworthy.
posted by pmurray63 at 8:49 AM on September 9, 2003

Well, the other reason Riefenstahl was never put on trial was because the Nuremburg trials dealt with "war crimes", which she did not commit. Did she know the Holocaust was going on? Yes. Was she friends with the people who were doing it? Yes. Did she herself actually do anything illegal under German law? No. Was she a member of the German government in a position to be responsible for any of the four types of crimes the Nuremburg trials were investigating? No.

Immoral and illegal are not synonymous. She almost certainly did some fairly bad things (the slave labour of Rom actors has already been mentioned, I believe) but not actually anything she could be put on trial for by anyone.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 9:15 AM on September 9, 2003

On the subject, flipping through a 20th century art history book of mine I just realized that I can identify an unfortunate number of prominent and influential artists involved with disreputable political movements, figures, and ideas. Dali had shameful flirtations with fascism and racism, Picasso volunteered his talents for Soviet propaganda, and Frida Kahlo worshipped Stalin to her death.
posted by dgaicun at 9:15 AM on September 9, 2003

In her 1965 essay On Style, Susan Sontag states that
In art, "content" is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes of transformation.

This is how we can, in good conscience, cherish works of art which, considered in terms of "content," are morally objectionable to us. (The difficulty is of the same order as that involved in appreciating works of art, such as The Divine Comedy, whose premises are intellectually alien.) To call Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will and The Olympiad masterpieces is not to gloss over Nazi propaganda with aesthetic lenience. The Nazi propaganda is there. But something else is there, too, which we reject at our loss. Because they project the complex movements of intelligence and grace and sensuousness, these two films of Riefenstahl (unique among works of Nazi artists) transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage. And we find ourselves - to be sure, rather uncomfortably - seeing "Hitler" and not Hitler, the "1936 Olympics" and not the 1936 Olympics. Through Riefenstahl's genius as a film-maker, the "content" has - let us even assume, against her intentions - come to play a purely formal role.
However, by 1975 she was taking Reifenstahl to task in Fascinating Fascism. Regarding The Last of the Nuba:
Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl's portrait of them evokes some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive corrupting "critical spirit."
Aiden Campell's article, Leni's legacy in Spiked Culture comments on Sontag's apparent turnaround and thinks that:
Sontag's beef against Riefenstahl had more to do with 1970s feminism than with 1930s fascism.
but surmises thus;
In many ways, Riefenstahl has only herself to blame for being framed as a fascist. She has consistently refused to apologise for any of her films or works of art. To many of her enemies, she is the living link that ties every splendid image of mankind from ancient Greece to the Renaissance to the atrocious Third Reich.

Art and politics are only indirectly related. We should be able to distinguish between Riefenstahl's brilliant artistry and her political naivety. And thanks to Riefenstahl's Olympiad, most of us are familiar with the pictures of black US athlete Jesse Owens cocking a snoot at Hitler at the Berlin Olympics by winning four gold medals.
So there you go...
posted by i_cola at 9:53 AM on September 9, 2003

dgaicun - De gustibus non disputandem est, eh?

Meanwhile, it's a good thing Leni Riefenstahl finally died - I hear the Bush administation's looking for some new talent to jazz things up for '04. "Triumph of the Rich"?

i_cola - wow. how'd you whip that one off so fast?
posted by troutfishing at 9:58 AM on September 9, 2003

pmurray63, I think this is the piece you're talking about, when Daniel Baenboim performed wager in Israel, still a highly contencious move.

And what pseudoephedrine said. Her political views may have been abhorrent, but it's hard to see what you're going to charge her with. What next, arrest everyone who's driving a beetle?

And Olympia is just one of the most outstanding films ever made. The diving sequence alone is truely outstanding, both in composition and editing.

On preview, nice work i-cola.
posted by ciderwoman at 10:03 AM on September 9, 2003

I'm not saying that Leni Riefenstahl should have been tried for anything, but the whole "she was just naive" approach is pretty simplistic. It is highly improbable that she worked for and with the Nazi's for years without knowing what kind of people they were. The Nazi's put millions in concentration camps- and she never wondered where they went? People who disagreed with Hitler disappeared in the middle of the night- and she never wondered what happened to them? Hitler's rhetoric made it perfectly clear what he was, and what he wanted to do. As to whether she was a true Nazi, who knows? The simple fact was that under the Reich Leni Riefenstahl was famous and successful, and that mattered more to her than the morality of what she was doing. Then, after the Nazi's could no longer help her career, she magically had nothing to do with them.
posted by unreason at 11:00 AM on September 9, 2003

tf: Y'know, the original version of that post went up the spout when my browser crashed as I was posting.

The Culture, Text & Society course at college introduced me to Susan Sontag and there's some stuff still stuck upstairs ;-)
posted by i_cola at 11:36 AM on September 9, 2003

> Susan Sontag, in a famous review ("Fascinating Fascism"
> --New York Review of Books, 6 February 1975) of Riefenstahl's
> first book on the Nuba (paradoxically titled The Last of the Nuba),
> argued that her photography of Nuba peoples emphasized
> purity, the lack of pollution, the authentic, the triumph of the strong
> over the weak, as did her documentary film work for the Third Reich.
> Sontag saw continuity in Riefenstahl's vision from her earlier
> work for the Third Reich to her later photography of Nuba, calling it
> "fascist aesthetics." Stung by this critique, Riefenstahl has challenged
> anyone to find "fascist" her photographic volumes on underwater
> coral formations. But the extent to which notions of purity, beauty,
> authenticity, and threat from pollution characterizes this underwater
> work, it too might easily be considered fascist.

-- James C. Faris, CounterPunch September 11, 2002

Be warned. Stuff that's pure, beautiful, authentic and under threat from pollution may easily be considered fascist. Guess I better embroider "Arbeit macht frei" on my tree-hugger hobbit cloak.
posted by jfuller at 12:03 PM on September 9, 2003

Good riddance.
posted by 111 at 2:07 PM on September 9, 2003

"I was only interested in how I could make a film that was not stupid like a crude propagandist newsreel, but more interesting"_Leni Riefenstahl
So indeed, she created the best propaganda piece ever. I seriously doubt her naive ignorance of the regime she had been documenting. There were meetings and drinks....how could hitler and his hierarchy not boast what he was doing, going to do, planning on doing to this blonde, blue eyed doyenne?

Given the times, a woman directing a piece for the most powerful man at the time, one can't help but thinking how in awe she must have been. Where else in that decade would she get the respect for her craft and have that kind of control?

The fact that hitler liked her in "The Blue Light", where she was an actor, you may imagine a mutual admiration society of two.

This shoudn't detract from her creative genius. Should we shoot the messenger? She only pointed a camera at people, not guns, unlike hitler and his "staff".

I only question her moral backbone. A seriously determined person, the hell with the rest. Someone absolutley in love with her job above all.

I'll add, that today we see how media can manipulate the mindset of a whole country.
posted by alicesshoe at 4:12 PM on September 9, 2003

I thought I should mention here that the Nuba tribe episode doesnt exactly reflect well on her. They were originally photographed by George Rodger, one of the co-founders of Magnum. Riefenstahl requested the location from him. Rodger did not trust her motives and was afraid that commercial exploitation may destroy their culture. When he demurred, she offered money. When he still refused, she decided to look them up himself. She managed to enlist the help of Sudanese military ( longer descriptions in Russel Miller's book on Magnum and Martin davidson's comments on this page)

By all accounts, Riefenstahl staged those narratives, used Western beauty products otherwise unavailable in there to dress Nuba, chased away older tribe members who did not fit her idea of the virile Nuba and paid younger men to pose.She also apparently consorted with unsavory charecters in Sudan (here) who she felt could help her.

Her photography, as Rodger suspected, brought tourism to Nuba and destroyed their lifestyle (a good description here). But of course the profits that she made from those books ensured that she lived well for the rest of her life.

George Rodger was a great photographer and a good human being. (here and here). He apparently regretted for the rest of his life for what happened to the Nubas thanks to him.

From what I can see, she was basically an user and would have fed anything or anyone for her material success. That by itself does not matter, what matters is that it harmed people. Why is it so hard to admit that talented artists can also be terrible people?
posted by justlooking at 1:35 AM on September 10, 2003

matteo: After all, Speer was tried and he was an architect right?

Well, yeah -- but he was tried at Nuremberg for his role as Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production, and his enthusiastic (or, at least, unquestioning) use of slave and concentration camp labour. The Allies didn't haul him before the Tribunal just because he designed mediocre buildings.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:14 AM on September 10, 2003

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