Friday, October 26, 2007

The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl

Last night was a full moon, so stargazing was not an option. I didn't feel much like firing up my ham radio station either (I'm W5HLH; look for me on the CW QRP frequencies). Instead I went channel surfing and discovered the Documentary Channel was showing a film I've wanted to see for some time, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. I caught it from the beginning, and it was one of the most profoundly disturbing things I've ever seen.

Leni Riefenstahl was a German director who made what is widely considered the best political propaganda film ever made, Triumph of the Will. It was a documentary on the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg which attracted over 100,000 persons. I saw it back in college in 1972, and went to see it again a couple of nights later. It had a very unsettling impact on me. Despite its subject matter, it was difficult not to feel the enthusiasm and excitement of the event; it was easy to understand how Germany----at that time, the most highly educated nation on earth----could get caught up in the controlled hysteria of Nazism. Triumph of the Will was supposedly a documentary, but it was far more. There was no narrator, but there was a powerful narrative flow to the film beginning with Hitler's airplane descending into Nuremberg as if it were descending from heaven. Camera angles, lighting, and pacing were cleverly used by Riefenstahl to evoke powerful emotions in the audience. Her post-war claims that she was merely recording an event are clearly nonsense. She was deliberately creating a mythology about the event, its participants, and Hitler, and it's obvious to anyone who has seen the film. She was no passive observer-----she definitely had cast her lot with the Nazis.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl was made when she was 93, and includes lengthy interviews with her. Her convoluted rationalizations about her involvement with the Nazis are something to behold. One very telling moment comes when she says she had a poor relationship with Josef Goebbels and only worked with him because she had no other choice. The interviewer then produces one of Goebbels's diaries and reads passages in which he recounts the wonderful meetings and social engagements (like evenings at the symphony) with Riefenstahl and Leni's great enthusiasm for various projects. Leni responds by saying Goebbels was lying. The interviewer responds incredulously, "He was lying to his own diary?" And Riefensthal immediately shoots back, "Yes!" I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this. As she describes how she made Triumph of the Will, and describes how wonderful Hitler was to work with and what a magnificent event the Nuremberg rally was, it becomes clear where her true sympathy lay while making the film. All the while, though, she maintains that she was merely an artist, a filmmaker without any political considerations. At times, she sounds like she really believed what she's saying. Maybe she did.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl looks a some of Leni's other projects, like her first film for the Nazis, Victory of Faith. A sort of prequel to Triumph of the Will, Victory of Faith was long considered lost; made when Ernst Rohm and Hitler shared power in the Nazi party, copies of it were ordered destroyed after Hitler had Rohm and other SA leaders killed in the "Night of Long Knives." However, a copy was eventually found (in the former East Germany, of all places) and The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl uses many clips from it. From them, you can see Triumph of the Will was no fluke but a logical progression for Leni.

After World War II, Riefenstahl was persona non grata in the film community because of films like Triumph of the Will. She became a wildlife filmmaker, became a certified scuba diver at age 70, and made several underwater wildlife films. She lived to be 101 and, from what I saw last night, apparently had no regrets whatsoever about the choices she made and the things she did.

I found Leni Riefenstahl to be both fascinating and repugnant. But people say the same about me, so maybe I should cut her some slack.

At any rate, I highly recommend
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. It has no car chase scenes, nor any steroid-abusing musclemen using superior firepower to defeat their adversaries, but it's still worth watching anyway.