Friday, July 28, 2006

LENI RIEFENSTAHL GOES TO TOWN: AN ESSAY

In early 1960, the British Film Institute chose to appease protesters by making a significant change to its scheduled line-up of lecturers. An invitation previously extended to Leni Riefenstahl was formally withdrawn, after a number of complaints emphasized issues surrounding the filmmaker’s potent Nazi propaganda films produced during the rise of the Third Reich. Riefenstahl had been slated to speak at the National Film Theatre in a lecture series that was to include a number of other accomplished artisans, but at least one of them was bothered by the deleterious connotations potentially carried by the filmmaker’s presence. Prior to the Institute’s decision, the British director Ivor Montagu refused to participate in a program that involved Riefenstahl, and consequently declined to make an appearance.

In a supposed letter to Peter Sellers, Montagu urged the prominent British actor, who was also slated to speak at the series, to join him in protest. Sellers refused, claiming that Riefenstahl’s artistic merits were of value and her appearance would be innocuous. “Alongisde her contributions to the art of filmmaking,” Sellers wrote back in response to the director, “our efforts, if I may say so, Mr. Montagu, appear very puny, indeed.”

[1]

Sellers continued by emphasizing a dichotomy between art and personal dogma: “Are you seriously proposing that, in a civilized society, the artist as an artist isn’t entitled to be heard because of popular objections to his (or her) political associations or personal morality?”[2]

The films Riefenstahl directed in Germany during the 1930s are fantastical constructs. She utilized film form by combining effective cinematography with strategic editing techniques to veer away from realism, even as her Nazi films purported to document actual events. Her ability to cull a sensationalist and expressionistic impact from footage that is now widely accepted as representative of an abominable dictatorship stands as a testament to her artistic competence.

That’s not to say, however, that the arguments of those protesting Riefenstahl’s lecture were comprised of baseless accusations. Over the past month, a number of instances suggested a nascent Nazi uprising in West Germany, including an internationally recognized incident on Christmas Day 1959, during which a synagogue in Cologne was defaced with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans.[3] If the Nazi party was attempting a comeback, then Riefenstahl’s films, especially Triumph of the Will (1935), her sprawling portrait of the 1934 Nuremberg party rallies, were still regarded as politically influential. Her presence at the National Film Theatre could have been misconstrued as encouragement for a second wave of Nazism.

But Riefenstahl was not the only filmmaker to serve the Third Reich who continued to produce work after its fall. As Sight and Sound pointed out in the magazine’s coverage of the debate surrounding the Institute’s decision, the lecture series coincided with the LondonGirl of Shame (1958), a film out of West Germany directed by Veit Harlan, whose The Eternal Jew (1939) is considered the most vicious anti-Semitic work produced by the Third Reich. There was no record of protests surrounding that film’s release.[4] If Harlan’s work could escape unscathed, then Riefenstahl, it could be argued, whose Nazi-era films focused on idealizing the party’s sense of superiority rather than its racial policies, was unfairly suppressed.

This was not the first time Riefenstahl had encountered problems with the British. During World War II, the country banned her two-part Olympia films (1938), which centered on the 1936 Olympic games held in Germany.[5] Although the filmmaker claimed that she had simply documented the event without involving any political slant, the British considered it a core contribution to Nazi propaganda. The British, however, had their own history of propaganda cinema purporting to be documentary work, most notably the films produced by the Grierson group for the Empire Marketing Board. Erik Barnouw points out that the Grierson film Conquest (1930) employs footage from an earlier fictional film as though it were fact, a tactic used to a great extent in The Eternal Jew.[6] The British were obviously more inclined to consider films that supported their homeland ideology as documentaries than they were to give credence to an enemy product. This general attitude was obviously still considered cogent at the time of the 1960 incident.

The record of this debate represents the ongoing dialogue surrounding Riefenstahl’s work. Sellers’ defense of Riefenstahl as an artist suggests that her propaganda achievements retain an aesthetic value separate from their ideological impact. Montagu and other who were opposed to her appearance could not accept this detached perspective, viewing the films and the ideology they captured as intrinsically linked. Riefenstahl’s films unquestionably demonstrate cinematic skill — but it is a skill, as the filmmaker’s detractors point out, which was used to fuel deleterious Nazi ideology.

This danger was noted by Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin during the time that Riefenstahl was still employed by the Nazi party. In 1936, with his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin focused on “the aura of the work of art,” its spiritual or emotional significance, as “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction.”[7] He viewed the modern world, plagued by unanimous acceptance of ideology among the masses, as generally incapable of grasping true beauty. Riefenstahl was an exceptional case: Her ability to suggest grandeur with swirling camera movement, cutaways and bold mise-en-scéne that encompassed crowd gatherings numbering in the thousands was unquestionably a cinematic achievement. Benjamin considered this “co-opting [the aura] for an aesthetics of war.”[8] He did not deny the craft involved in its creation, but did condemn it as immoral.

In defense of the films she created during the height of the Third Reich, Riefenstahl claimed political naivete. On several occasions she said that all her films are primarily concerned with depicting beauty, and that in filming Nazi gatherings she was merely documenting events as they happened to unfolded. In her postwar interrogation by German Intelligence,[9][10] Riefenstahl claimed that she “worked on a film for years until I thought it artistically perfected.” She said that she refused Hitler’s insistence to make propaganda films, opting instead to create documentaries.

Even if her statements are taken as sincere, the five films that Riefenstahl directed under Hitler’s ruling, Victory of Faith (1933), Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces (1935), Triumph of the Will, Olympia Part 1 (1938) and Olympia Part 2 (1938), unquestionably glorify certain aspects of the Nazi party. Had Riefenstahl not harbored any urge to manipulate her audience, these films still managed to cast the Nazi party in a positive light, given the lack of contrast to other modes of thought and other powerful countries. In Propaganda and the German Cinema, David Welch describes this as “the triumph of self-realization over the hegemony imposed by foreigners.”[11]

Riefenstahl’s films are thus propaganda by nature of their content. Viewed in light of the relatively short life of the Third Reich, the confidence put forth in speeches delivered by Hitler and others come across as delusions of grandeur. That they are presented as sincere demonstrates that with her Nazi films Riefenstahl essentially created works of fantasy. Audrey Salked points out that all of Riefenstahl’s work, including both her films and her earlier work as a dancer and actress, are firmly rooted in fantastical creation. Her means of instilling imagery with a sense of euphoria offer “a stylized world, not anchored in everyday cares or ordinary mechanics.”[12]

Riefenstahl’s assertion that she was either unaware or ambivalent toward the deleterious aspects of the Nazi party does not serve to discredit the manipulative quality of her films. It has been argued that, by extension, Riefenstahl cannot be excluded from debate over the ideological weight of her oeuvre. During a discussion surrounding the ethics of Riefenstahl’s films aired on the Charlie Rose show, scholar Annette Insdorf addressed the logic behind viewing Riefenstahl as at least partly responsible for the propaganda elements in her work, with specific reference to the historical canonization of Triumph of the Will:

I’m very ambivalent about Leni Riefenstahl, because on the one hand, I do acknowledge that she’s an extraordinary craftswoman, somebody who did advance the medium. On the other hand, I believe that artists ought to be held accountable, whether they’ve making nonfiction or fiction. And the difficulty with Triumph of the Will is that it has always been termed a documentary, suggesting that there is something real, historical, perhaps objective. The fact is that Triumph of the Will, more than any documentary I can think of, was…a spectacle staged for the cameras, and one of the insidious ramifications of Triumph of the Will (perhaps one can’t hold Leni Riefenstahl completely to blame for this) is that anyone who after Triumph of the Will wants to make a film dealing with the rise of the Third Reich, dealing with Nazim, the Holocaust, uses Triumph of the Will as a visual reference point.[13]

Insdorff suggests that Riefenstahl may not be entirely at fault for the ongoing lifespan of Triumph of the Will as an integral element in studies surrounding the Nazi era, which doesn’t detract from her status as a propaganda filmmaker. Her ability to capture reality and use it to create fantasy is a propagandistic advantage. If indeed this was not her intention, then she, along with her films, was an instrument of propaganda.

In order to clarify Riefenstahl’s skill at assembling fabulosities, it is helpful to take note of her first directorial effort, The Blue Light (1932), the fictional film that supposedly brought her to Hitler’s attention. An entry into the German mountain genre that dominated the country’s cinema in the immediate pre-World War II years, The Blue Light stars Riefenstahl as a mysterious young woman named Junta, who lives alone on Mount Cristallo. The locals of Santa Maria, the small village at the foot of the mountain, consider Junta to be a witch, throwing stones at her as she walks their streets. The locals live in perpetual fear of the mountain, which glows blue at its peak during the night. The oddity lures young men to climb the mountain and fall to their deaths. Vigo, a young artist from Vienna visiting the village, hears this story and decides to investigate the blue light himself. He befriends Junta, although she is apparently mute, and eventually falls in love with her. Through her he discovers that the blue light is caused by moonlight reflecting on a valley of crystals. Vigo alerts the locals to this phenomena, which leads them to raid the valley of its contents. When Junta, whose life is centered around her visits to the valley, discovers that it has been emptied, she rushes to its center in shock. Hastily climbing the dangerous mountainside, she falls to her death. The film concludes with Vigo feeling distraught, having intended to help others and instead unleashed destructive forces.

The striking visuals that carry the narrative of The Blue Light both draw from the precedent of German mountain films and are a departure from them. Broad compositions displaying the breadth of the mountainside populate much of the film. Riefenstahl uses very little dialogue throughout the film, a technique she remained faithful to throughout her career. In one mesmerizing shot, Junta creeps up to the edge of a cliff in a long shot that shows her in silhouette against a clear sky. Such a composition, which draws stark contrast between Junta and the rest of the world, would be employed in numerous shots throughout Riefenstahl’s Nazi films.

But the fantastical visual components of The Blue Light do not situate Riefenstahl as the perfect propagandist for Nazi ideology. Eric Rentschler points out that although the film may have been the primary impetus for Hitler’s interest in her work, it also served a purpose in her post-war defense. Riefenstahl used The Blue Light as an example of how she “only served the cause of beauty, an artistry and authorship outside of time and beyond any political or religious persuasion.”[14] Her claim aims to portray all her films in terms of imagery that transcends ideology.

Intentional or otherwise, The Blue Light puts forth certain ideas via its plotting. A cursory investigation into the film’s thematic undertones give the impression that, if anything, they are decidedly anti-fascist. David Hinton, in his book on Riefenstahl’s films, points out that Vigo intends to help the village and ends up creating mass destruction of the valley, which serves as “a warning against Hitler, not a preparation for him.”[15]

But in exploring the way in which Riefenstahl departs from conventions of the mountain films as they were set by the genre’s pioneer Arnold Fank (who later also directed films for the Third Reich), Hinton points out that she “shifted from Fank’s realistic treatment of nature to a fantasized version.” Additionally, “she also introduced the evil nature of man as a counter-force to the purity of nature.”[16] These two statements are not, as Hinton seems to suggest, necessarily dichotomous. The notion of purity through nature in contrast to the evils of the world was central to Nazi theories of an Aryan nation as the only bloodline deserved of power. That myth may not obviate itself in The Blue Light, but seen by Hitler during the time that he was formulating the core concepts of his party, one can see how he might have extracted such ideals. Susan Sontag speaks to the film’s “dark themes of longing, purity and death,” which result in its “fascist visuals.” Sontag views Vigo’s attraction to Junta as the film’s transformation of “sexual energy into a ‘spiritual’ force,” which she considers a “fascist ideal,”[17] a criticism Walter Benjamin would have likely agreed with. Regardless of Riefenstahl’s intentions, her fantastical filmmaking clearly premeditates the glorification of Nazi gatherings in her later work.

Likewise, it may have been the lack of those fantastical elements that detracted from the popularity of other films commissioned by the Nazi party. David Culbert lists four reasons why The Eternal Jew was largely unsuccessful among many audiences: “Lack of viewer involvement,” “unrelieved grimness of subject,” “the wrong strategy” and “test screenings by uncritical colleagues.” The third reason is the most divergent from Riefenstahl’s techniques. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels imbued the film with numerous purported facts and figures to strengthen the notion that Jews were central to all of Germany’s problems. The film’s lack of aesthetic involvement became its detriment. “Had [The Eternal Jew] argued for the emotional integrative patriotism of Triumph of the Will,” Culbert writes, “its creative impulse might be recognized more easily…those seeking escapist fare simply refused to accept such litany of negativism.”[18]

A similar issue may have detracted from the original opening for Triumph of the Will designed by Riefenstahl’s colleague Walter Ruttman, who she initially wanted to complete the film. Ruttman constructed a timeline documenting the Nazi’s rise to power. [19] When Riefenstahl was persuaded by Hitler to replace Ruttman as the director of the film[20] (possibly due to Ruttman’s communist affiliations or the dictator’s warm feelings toward Riefenstahl), she chose to instead open with Hitler’s majestic arrival to Nuremberg by plane, with shots above the clouds that seemed to deify him. The film became a fantasy with its first frame.

The escapist appeal in Triumph of the Will emerged as a result of her relative comfort with the physical process of documentary filmmaking. Her adjustment period, where she shifted from fictional to non-fictional narrative, is seen with her first Nazi film, Victory of Faith. An hour-long piece centered around the 1933 Nuremberg party rally (“The Party Day of Victory,” as it was called), the film apparently served as a filmmaking boot camp for the director, who no longer had a script prepared prior to rolling the camera. If the production of Victory of Faith is taken as Riefenstahl’s unintentional training session, there is reason to believe that the experience was intense: Riefenstahl joined the Reich Film Association on August 8, 1933;[21] the party rally ran from August 30 through September 3; the film was screened for the German Cabinet on December 1.[22]

As Salked points out, the film was “a useful dummy run”[23] in preparation for Riefenstahl’s later work. The narrative is structured around a number of speeches delivered by Hitler throughout the rally, similar to her next Nuremberg film. Editing Victory of Faith, Riefenstahl learned numerous new techniques of which she was previously unaware, specifically when dealing with large crowd sequences. The film features numerous cutaways to crowd members during speeches in order to enhance the power of Hitler’s words; Riefenstahl may have already learned the Kuleshov effect prior to shooting Victory of Faith, but here she demonstrated an understanding of its application.

Additionally, production of the film introduced Riefenstahl to her composer, Herbert Windt, whom she would continue to work with on her later films. She met Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, who helped her find a cameraman to film in Zeppelin Stadium, where the rally took place. Speer’s contributions to Riefenstahl’s work would be far more significant on her next film.

Victory of Faith features a number of actualité moments that show Germany’s leaders in less-than-perfect moments. In one scene featuring Hitler striding through a crowd, a young girl hands him a bouquet of flowers. Hitler accepts the gift, but the camera continues to follow him through an awkward moment as he struggles to find a place to put down the bouquet once he reaches his seat. Scenes like this are uncharacteristic of Riefenstahl; her later films demonstrate that she was not interested in exhibiting human fallacies.

In this sense, she was in luck: Victory of Faith disappeared after the war. Restored versions of the film have been circulated only very recently. Although Riefenstahl contests this theory,[24] it is generally agreed upon that Hitler ordered the destruction of the film after the execution of former SA chief of staff Ernest Röhm in 1934[25], who appears throughout Victory of Faith. Hitler rid himself of the power-hungry Röhm in order to easily relegate the SA to a secondary position below the regular German army.[26] In essence, one fantasy had become flawed, and Hitler decided that a new one had to be created to take its place.

The new fantasy was called Triumph of the Will. Prior to an American screening of the film in 1944, The Washington Post claimed that it revealed “something of the futility of Nazi propaganda, since their ‘master-racing’ at this point seems inevitably headed for the ashcan.”[27]

From the perspectives of German audiences viewing the film upon its release nearly a decade earlier, no such premonition could have been detected. Shot on roughly 35,000 feet of film[28] over the course of the six-day rally, Triumph of the Will captures the ultimate fantasy world of the Third Reich. In From Caligari to Hitler, which traces the first few decades of German cinema as a reflection of the country’s developing mindset, Siegfried Kracauer writes that the film “represents the complete transformation of reality, its complete absorption into the artificial mindset of the Party Convention.” The film is a “staged show, which channeled the psychic energies of hundreds of thousands of people,” and it “differed from the average monster spectacle only in that it pretended to be an expression of the people’s real existence.”[29]

The particular ferocity of Kracauer’s language may stem from the specifics of his socialist perspective, but the transformation he references is documented fact. The 1934 Party Congress took place in a stadium filled with 100,000 uniformed men, a gathering of epic proportions that has lead some scholars to attribute the film’s grandiose visuals primarily to the design work of Albert Speer.[30] Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg and transportation through the crowded streets of Germany had been anticipated and planned out by Speer before Riefenstahl and her camera crew arrived.[31]But the crew, which included a total of sixteen cameramen in addition to numerous drivers and other assistants,[32] were essential contributors to the creation of this contained world. Riefenstahl placed cameramen behind Hitler’s shoulder as he rode down the streets of Nuremberg saluting his followers; cameras rode alongside him at rapid speeds; they majestically circled the podium as he spoke, providing a striking visual to accompany his lengthy declarations; they peered down at the gathering from hundreds of feet above the stadium.

Along with the athletic feats of camera movement, the moments in Triumph of the Will where Riefenstahl exhibits her original approach emerge from her editing techniques. “The editing of the film plays an important role because it helps to bring the events to life for the viewer and convey them more directly,” she told one interviewer. “It’s true, I have a special gift when it comes to working at the cutting table. I’m a good editor.”[33] In light of her later films, it is seems clear that with this work Riefenstahl defines her particular panache for assembling footage. Dialogue is sparse in a Riefenstahl film; in her Nazi cinema, it is used as a prop, primarily during speeches. The opening of the rally is depicted through a montage of speeches—eleven in total. Each speech is shown as an excerpt, with moments glorifying Hitler and the Nazi party highlighted.

The montage leads into an address by Hitler, whose speech is empowered by the groundwork Riefenstahl has laid out with the previous speakers. Her effort gives Hitler an aura of confidence, as if to say that his pomposity is justified by the shower of praise he has received. “I didn’t express an opinion, I just showed what happened,” Riefenstahl told the same interviewer. “What can I do if other people use [Triumph of the Will] as propaganda? I can’t influence that.”[34]

Yet she did: The preceding montage, as Infield points out, was not in fact a series of excerpts from speeches delivered in chronological order. Several of the speeches were given at various times throughout the rally.[35] By creating the illusion that this collection of speakers lead directly to Hitler, Riefenstahl highlights the totalitarian single-mindedness of the dictatorship. If not for her use of the multiple cutaways to the crowd to show their enjoyment of Hitler’s speech, depicting his impact as a positive, beloved figure, Riefenstahl could have been delivering an indictment of the dictator rather than an idealization. The choice to avoid argumentation against Nazism is not by itself enough to claim Riefenstahl as one who sympathized with Hitler, but her efforts to introduce him with a long line of dedicated followers is unquestionably an example of emotional editorializing. This is the key component of the mechanism in Riefenstahl’s work that allows it to succeed as propaganda. It is the doorway to her fantasyland.

Just as Riefenstahl, chose with such specificity what moments to include in Triumph of the Will, so too did she make particular decisions regarding what she left out. One of the most notable exclusions from the film is the program of exercises involving the Wehrmacht, Germany’s armed forces, that took place during the rally. The absence of military focus, so integral to the Nazi tactics aimed at attaining global superiority, supposedly angered Hitler.[36]Triumph of the WillWehrmacht as its star. Hence the title: Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces. The “freedom” refers to that of Germany’s army, now content with violating the Versailles Treaty and upping the ante with their weapons of (fairly mass) destruction. Riefenstahl compromised by making a third Nazi film, a quasi-sequel to dedicated to the particular German aspirations of further mobilization by its army, with

Filmed around the Seventh Party Rally during the autumn of 1935, the film puts into use editing strategies Riefenstahl established with Triumph of the Will, assembling temporal continuity out of footage from a different events from several points in time[37]. Day of Freedom follows German troops through a fabricated day. It is startling for its blend of mundane daily duties and battlefield action.

As the film opens at sunrise, the men shave, line up for their superiors and ride horseback across a bridge in silhouette. Their activities are scored by German army melodies on the soundtrack.

The second half of the film[38] is centered on a staged battle sequence. The troops fire cannons, ride in tanks and swoop by in aircraft as Hitler watches with binoculars, appearing pleased. This sequence again showcases Riefenstahl’s penchant for using extensive camera movement (some credit goes to her five cameramen, all of whom she had worked with in the past). One particular shot surpasses anything the filmmaker attempted with Triumph of the Will. A tank approaches the camera, which appears to be lying static on the ground, looking up at the machine. The tank continues to approach without deviating from its path, and then appears to roll directly over the camera. The gigantic proportions and crushing strength of the German military are thus intensified. The film ends with a long shot of German warplanes flying in formation, shaping a swastika. This final image suggests further mobilization,[39] a Hitlerean dream that had less than a decade left in its overly ambitious life span.

Day of Freedom is, as Culbert and Loiperdinger astutely note, “the first Nazi official film to aestheticize the battlefield.” The effort on behalf of Riefenstahl to do so results from her need to fill the Wehrmacht gap in Triumph of the Will that troubled her Führer (she may not have been a member of the Nazi party but she certainly listened to the majority of orders from Hitler). It further demonstrates Riefenstahl’s skill by showing her capability to romanticize every aspect of the Nazi party’s self-centered ideology. Such a feat directly acknowledges Walter Benjamin’s fear of a co-opting of art “for an aesthetics of war.” In giving artistic value to such innately damaging activities, Riefenstahl created a fantasy world in Day of Freedom that is even further from reality and more ambitious than her last film.

Firmly established as an aesthetic chronicler of the Third Reich, Riefenstahl was now situated to create her ode to the sheer beauty of the pure human body. At once an appraisal of nature and an embracing of Nazi physical ideals, the two-part Olympia took the appreciation for nature embodied by the mountains in The Blue Light and applied it to the talented athletes participating in the 1936 Olympics held in Germany. The films were shot together with approximately 1.3 million feet of film[40] through the efforts of sixteen cameramen.[41] The detailed effort is shown throughout both films, which are mainly comprised of a variety of competitions, documenting the subtlety of movement with the frequent use of slow motion and montages that speed up the rate of the competitions.

Olympia Part 1 opens with an abstract celebration of human form. Dramatic shots of an empty arena and canted angles of pillars fade to close-ups of ancient statues. One supposed statue begins to move, and it becomes clear that we are watching a discus thrower in slow motion. The introduction of movement leads to shots of arms in silhouette, moving through the air in silent expressions of physical finesse. Naked female bodies appear liberated as they participate in this dance of perfection. The arms in motion fade into a close-up of a flame. We then see the Olympics torch bearer run to light the flame and the competition begins. This surrealistic sequence speaks to a state of perfection similar to Nazi notions of Aryan superiority. Riefenstahl has propagated a Nazi myth before a single swastika is shown. The propaganda content of her filmmaking had become sublimated into her technique to the extent that it was no longer as blatant as in her previous works.

Hitler is shown throughout Olympia Part 1. He introduces the gathering and is seen throughout the film in cutaways, enjoying the action and often literally on the edge of his seat during intense moments. There are numerous other cutaways throughout the film that show other spectators. This misleadingly suggests that Riefenstahl did not intend Hitler to stand out in the audience, opting instead to have him blend with it. Records of the event show that this was far from the case. One American reporter attending the Olympics wrote that Riefenstahl “directs everything. She walks around the official box and tells Hitler to ‘Look, please.’”[42] There is no doubt that the filmmaker had a role for Hitler to play during the Olympics. An overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that Riefenstahl’s work on these two films was funded by the Nazi party, which went to great lengths to make it seem as though this was not the case.[43]

Hitler’s presence is less overt in Olympia Part 2, which opens with shots of nude swimmers and slow motion exhibitions of the human body similar to those in the previous film. The propaganda elements of the film — Riefenstahl’s constructed reality, as it were — function here in what the filmmaker chooses to omit. A fierce track and field victory by black athlete Jesse Owens reportedly led Hitler to exit the stadium so that he would not bear witness to a small triumph by a race his philosophy overtly found abhorrent.[44] Although including this exit would “surely have damned [Riefenstahl] on similar grounds”, and Eric Barnouw asserts,[45] its inclusion would have exhibited the sort of negativism that audiences disliked in The Eternal Jew. By simply allowing Owen’s win to become a part of the film sans Hitler’s protest, the theme of human beauty triumphs as the Nazi contradiction surrounding its notions of racial purity remains in the shadows.

Olympia Part 2 concludes with a gripping diving sequence. A montage of divers passes by in rapid succession, with each dive displayed grandly in slow motion. Riefenstahl shows divers gracefully moving through the air without showing their splashes into the water. In this fantasy world of perfected athleticism, the sky is the limit. Such were the haughty ideals of Hitler’s Aryan nation, which Riefenstahl so eloquently managed to embody with her cinematic techniques.

Riefenstahl herself may have lived in the fantasy world she created. She claimed throughout her life that Joseph Goebbels frequently attempted to place obstacles to prevent her from completing her work out of jealousy for her special place in Hitler’s perspective. In her memoirs, she even claims that the Propaganda Minister sexually assaulted her, bearing a grudge against Riefenstahl for rejecting his romantic advances.[46] Goebbels’ revealing diaries, released to the public several decades after the war, suggest that Riefenstahl has embellished greatly on this story. The diaries illustrate the possibility that Riefenstahl left a lasting impression on Goebbels, but at no point does he seem to develop affection, jealousy or hatred for her.[47]Germany lost the war in order to detract negative sentiments away from her and onto a dead man incapable of defending himself. If true, then Riefenstahl’s attempts to create fantasy out of fragments of reality extended beyond her extensive command of film form. It is possible that Riefenstahl developed this myth in the countless testimonies she delivered after

But such ostensible efforts would have been mostly in vain. General historiography on Riefenstahl and her work has tended, for the most part, to adopt a consistently negative tone for nearly half a century. David Thompson calls Riefenstahl’s supposedly baseless penchant toward beauty in Triumph of the Will “trite, vulgar and stupid.”[48] David Culbert writes that “no serious film scholar will continue to depend on Riefenstahl interviews as a factual source,”[49] and Sontag is often cited for her condemnation of Riefenstahl’s films as “fascist visuals.”[50]

Those who jump to Riefenstahl’s defense do so by pointing out her apparent primary interest in beauty as they are exhibited in the films that do not include any Nazi imagery: The Blue Light, the gypsy portrait Tiefland (1954)[51] and Riefenstahl’s final film, Impressions Under Water (2002), her cinematic love letter to coral reefs. These films speak to a beauty inherent in nature, straying from the materialistic desires of human inclinations. But even these films, as a part of Riefenstahl’s overall directorial career, serve as Nazi representation. Rather than undoing the constructs that led to a mass attempt at genocide (such a film might have helped rescue Riefenstahl from moral purgatory), these works illustrate the fantastical proclivities necessary for such constructs to be built.

In Riefenstahl’s autobiography, she recounts a conversation with Hitler that seems to argue for her disagreement with Nazi concepts of racial purity:

I felt perplexed, for it was impossible to talk about the things that were most on my mind, for instance, his anti-Semitism. ..

“Do you believe in God?” I asked, gazing at him directly. Hitler looked at me in surprise, then smiled and said: “Yes, I believe in a divine power…and when the time is ripe, a new Messiah will come…”

“Only if he loves all human beings,” I said, “and not the just the Germans.”[52]

Riefenstahl’s reported argument here seems to substantiate her naiveté. If it is a sincere plea, it doesn’t detract from her culpability, but instead carves her place in history as a puppet of larger concerns.

It is not the purpose here to decide if Riefenstahl can be justifiably separated from the artistic merits of her work. Rather, her achievements during the Third Reich’s strongest decade emerge as a practical result of her distinct inclination toward a realm of fantastical creation. She exhibited her proclivity toward fictional storytelling with The Blue Light. Her subsequent work continued to draw from the same methodology, which continues to provide a framework for understanding their potency as Nazi propaganda.



[1] Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, in little more than four years Sellers would bring to life the eponymous Nazi scientist in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Stanley Kubrick’s satiric take on Cold War-era apocalyptic paranoia. In the film, Sellers portrays a leading member of a fictional United States government think-tank hardly capable of concealing his Third Reich roots. In his brief scenes, the wheelchair-bound character vainly struggles to prevent himself from raising his arm in Hitlerian salute. All the while, his scientific theories are treated as the only possible hope for human salvation in face of a global catastrophe. The satire was especially relevant during the post-World War II era of its release, when rumors of former Nazi researchers resettling with positions in the American government were widely circulated. Dr. Strangelove’s dual nature as both a remnant of fascist ideology and an invaluable mind seemed to suggest a necessary separation between personal dogma and objective capability, a notion that, as his exchange with Montagu suggests, Sellers had begun to consider long before the production of the film.

[2] Waggoners, Walter H. “British Film Group Withdraws Its Invitation to Friend of Hitler.” The New York Times. Jan. 9, 1960; pg. 2

[3] Grusons, Sydney. “Anti-Semitic Incidents Point Up Weaknesses in the New Germany.” The New York Times. January 3, 1960. pg. E5

[4] “The Case of Leni Riefenstahl.” Sight and Sound. Spring, 1960. pg. 68

[5] Barnouw, Erik.

[6] Barnouw, pg. 142.

[7] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

[8] Benjamin cited in Brief, Peter. “Walter Benjamin’s Sparks of Holiness.” Southwest Review. Dallas: 2003. Vol. 88, Iss. 1, pg. 79-94, 172.

[9] Available on microform in Bobst Library, among other locations.

[10] Riefenstahl made this claim for several decades after the end of World War II, but one of the final times that she did so publicly was in an interview with Die Welt in 2002, after the release of her final film, Underwater Impressions.

[11] Welch, David. Propaganda and the German Cinema: 1933-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 128

[12] Salked, Audrey. A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl. London: Random House, 1996. pg. 151.

[13] Transcript reprinted as “Film Scholars Debate Riefenstahl.” Film Culture. January 1, 1996, Iss. 79.

[14] Rentschler, Eric. The Ministry of Illustion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996. pg. 51.

[15] Hinton, David B. The Films of Leni Riefenstahl. London: Scarecrow Press, 1978. pg. 23

[16] Hinton, David B. pg. 23.

[17] Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism,” New York Review of Books, 6 February 1975; reprinted in Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Vintage, 1981. pg. 97

[18] Culbert, David. “’Der ewige Judge’ (1940): Joseph Goebbel’s unequaled monument to anti-Semitism.” in Historical Journal of Film and Television, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1992.

[19] Interestingly, a similar timeline with obviously more negative undertones serves as the introductory sequence to The Nazi Strike (1943), the second entry in Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, the essential U.S. military propaganda tool during World War II. The Nazi Strike also uses a number of clips taken directly from Triumph of the Will.

[20] Ruttman, pg. 74

[21] Infield, pg. 61

[22] Salked, pg. 125

[23] Salked,131.

[24] Riefenstahl, Leni. A Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. pg. 150

[25] Infield, pg. 69

[26] Infield, pg. 68

[27] Laughton, Chalres. “Workshop is Astute in October Pickings; Notes of the Theater.” The Washington Post. October 2, 1944, pg. 6

[28] Martin Loiperdinger and David Culbert. “Leni Riefenstahl, the SA and the Nazi Party rally films, Nuremberg 1933-34: ‘Sieg Des Glaubens’ and ‘Triumph des Willens.’” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. Vol. 8, No. 1, 1988. pg. 4

[29] Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton University Press, 1974. pg. 300

[30] Winton, Brian. “Triumph of the Will.” History Today. London: January 1997. Vol. 47, Iss. 1, pg. 24-28

[31] Liebman, Stuart. “Triumph of the Will.” Cineaste. New York: Fall 2002. Volume 27, Issue 4, pg. 46-47

[32] Ibid.

[33] Interview with Riefenstahl: Marcus, Alan. “Reappraising Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will.’ Film Studies, Summer 2004, Issue 4, pg. 81

[34] Marcus, pg. 84

[35] Infield, pg. 90

[36] Infield, pg. 104

[37] Culbert and Loiperdinger, pg. 4

[38] The original version of the film apparently features a speech delivered by Hitler addressing the troops, but this print is very rare.

[39] Culbert and Loiperdinger, pg. 16

[40] Hinton, pg. 74

[41] Hinton, pg. 64

[42] Weaver, Sylvia. “Filming of Olypic Games Directed By German Actress.” Los Angeles Times. August 16, 1936. pg. C1

[43] Infield, pg. 118

[44] Barnouw, pg. 110

[45] Ibid.

[46] Riefenstahl, pg. 130.

[47] Culbert, David. “Leni Riefenstahl and the Diaries of Joseph Goebbels.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. March 1, 1993. Volume 13, Issue 1

[48] Thompson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2002. pg. 514

[49] Culbert, see above.

[50] See previous Sontag citation.

[51] It should be noted that several of the gypsies featured in this film, which was shot during the war, were shipped off to Auschwitz and killed after shooting was completing.

[52] Riefenstahl, pg. 211

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