TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT February 2004

film

Leni Riefenstahl

NOW THAT SHE IS authentically dead—at 101, felled by a curse from the ghost of Ernst Jünger, who lived two years longer—Leni Riefenstahl has joined the shades she often conjured during a career of ardor, mystification, and, perhaps, subliminal expiation.

What good would it do to apologize? she asks in the 1993 Roy Müller documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Apologies don’t turn the clock back or raise the dead from dust. The sensible tactic, in the face of speeding time and mass amnesia, is to move on and hope that everybody forgets about it. But Leni knew they never would.

The extent, even the exact nature of Riefenstahl’s “guilt” is impossible to quantify. How many people actually joined the Nazi Party after watching Triumph of the Will (1934)? Possibly nobody, despite its reputation as the greatest propaganda film of all time.

Taking the devil’s side, Triumph is a slightly doctored record of a macabre coven-gathering at Nuremburg, opening with Adolf Hitler’s airborne arrival through gauzy clouds, the spiny spires and craggy gingerbread excrescences of the city below reflecting the medieval flavor of the impending toxic saturnalia. It proceeds to highlight revolting public statuary, squat dirndled moms holding chubby brats to gaze at the conquering Charlemagne, torch-lit marches of robotic thugs, and nocturnal serenades beneath the Führer’s hotel windows, all fairly shrieking that a power fully nasty dream is becoming wet and repugnant. Add the hoarse baying of lunatics at the Party Congress, and only a werewolf could overlook the grotesque hilarity of this festival of blustering moral imbeciles.

Riefenstahl’s postwar notoriety was disproportionate to what she actually did. A self-involved opportunist to the core, she grabbed the chances the age offered and ran with them. Her compulsive mythomania was a rote and slinking kind any competent researcher could easily deconstruct, though whether her embroideries veiled anything truly damning is an open question. Her critics claim to “know” Leni didn’t believe her own lies. But how exactly do they know? Chronic liars generally wind up believing themselves, and artists are the kinds of liars who protect their myths with feral conviction.

Over decades of having both her real past and richly invented allegations thrown in her face, Riefenstahl’s bilious reaction to unpalatable facts hardened into a grout of messily intersecting delusions. When Roy Müller gently contradicts some of her florid assertions, a savage defensiveness bursts from her costume of sagging flesh and winsome smiles. She never had dinner at Goebbels’s home. That can’t be in his diaries, even though it is. Vexed by questions about her first Party Congress documentary, a sloppier affair than the tautly orchestrated Triumph, she actually grabs the director on camera and shakes him. Such outbursts typify the bipolar instability of such Teutonic harridans as Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Winifred Wagner, with whom Riefenstahl shared a capricious cuntishness well into old age.

Some of the facts behind Leni’s fictions are hardly glorifying and leave a distinct mud spatter on her ever-grinning persona. What about those Gypsies she pulled out of Maxglan concentration camp to play extras in Tiefland? Riefenstahl’s detractors claim these bit players went directly to their end after filming; her memoirs assert that they all survived, and occasionally sent her affectionate greeting cards. (At the age of one hundred, while under judicial investigation for “denying the Holocaust,” Riefenstahl publicly recanted these claims and promised never to repeat them.)

Still, after fifty-some years, one can’t avoid the thought, “So what?” It wasn’t Riefenstahl pouring Zyklon B into the Auschwitz death chambers—it was I.G. Farben, a corporation that continues to flourish in today’s Germany. It wasn’t Riefenstahl who facilitated the Final Solution by supplying the Nazis with business machines and the magnetic punch cards whose numbers would be tattooed on death-camp victims’ forearms—it was Thomas Watson and IBM’s micromanaged European subsidiaries. The truly powerful, and monstrously culpable, are far more often the beneficiaries of public amnesia than the morally blinkered and mildly guilty public celebrity.

And there is a special odium reserved for the female celebrity of less than bleach white character. Consider the snowmelt once known as Martha Stewart, another indefatigable narcissist, reduced to a puddle of cake frosting for a mingy bit of insider trading while the gnomes of Enron have (so far) gone scot-free for the biggest robbery in US history. The impervious smugness of a Leni, a Martha, gooses scads of public glee when they slip off the trapeze. This merriment evaporates, for many of us, at the thought of the various sociopathic pirates who have been showered with favor for looting the world’s wealth and slaughtering its peasants.

What did Riefenstahl do, in the end, that is so unforgivable? Many directors of Reich-time racist melodramas went on working in the postwar film industry almost without interruption, including Veit Harlan of Jud Süß notoriety. Most were insignificant mediocrities; it’s the exceptional artist whose witless decisions hound him or her to the grave.

Nevertheless, time eventually pardons the exemplary artist’s stupidities. In the ’30s, Louis-Ferdinand Céline expectorated three surpassingly insane book-length tracts urging the extermination of the Jews; he is, quite justly, revered as the greatest French prose writer of the twentieth century besides Proust. Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, Curzio Malaparte, and even Gottfried Benn (whose “Answer to the Literary Emigrants” [1933] remains the most eloquent excuse for political blindness ever written) have long been embraced by the literary canon.

The question a Riefenstahl provokes can’t really be answered: What culpability attaches to the artist who lands on the wrong side of history? And how to regard those unlucky enough to long outlive their mistakes? Riefenstahl’s case is complicated by the fact that her filmic mastery is best displayed in her Nazi propaganda efforts and in Olympia (1938), a film unjustly deemed propagandistic. She could never entirely disown these corrupt masterpieces, since they also contained her most innovative work.

However, Riefenstahl’s postwar projects, and arguably her pre-Nazi work as well, don’t neatly mesh with the notion that she was a consistent purveyor of “fascist aesthetics.” Slavoj Žižek has recently argued that The Blue Light (1932) can be read as a social pariah’s destruction by the mob, rather than an allegory of mystical Nazi strivings. Helma Sanders-Brahms, director of Germany, Pale Mother, interprets Tiefland (1954) as an anti-Nazi parable advocating tyrranicide. Laugh all you like, but if you actually watch these films they can, in fact, yield such heretical interpretations.

The primary feature of “fascist aesthetics” is the monumentalization of kitsch. Triumph of the Will observes a lot of bloody-minded histrionics, but the film itself is not kitsch. Nor is Olympia, where the mealy-faced, taxidermical Hitler falls into inescapable contrast to the splendid physique and luminous physiognomy of the black American track star Jesse Owens—adored by Leni’s camera in overt defiance of Nazi racism. Owens is the punctum of Olympia, the heroic racial Other despised by the Aryan claque in the bleachers. His prominence in the film may have been exploited by the Reich to project a sham internationalism, but the images themselves don’t suggest that Riefenstahl’s intentions were anything but earnest. While an adoring lens on the Führer was de rigueur in Triumph, Olympia more fairly reflects Riefenstahl’s understanding that a movie star is someone a great many people would like to fuck, and none but the blindfolded could possibly prefer Adolf to Jesse.

It might be a tonic exercise to suspend the usual verdict on Riefenstahl as an unregenerate Nazi, impelled by some tangle of mental wiring to produce dangerously seductive, authoritarian-minded visuals, and to disconnect the voluptuous, muscular bodies competing for Olympic medals from ash-coated Africans engaged in ritual wrestling matches whom she photographed extensively in her later years, producing miles of unedited film footage and two gorgeous coffee-table books, The Last of the Nuba (1973) and The People of Kau (1976). If the Nuba ash decoration can be polemically stretched into evidence of a “death cult,” it might also be a simple way to keep the wrestlers from slipping on each other’s sweat.

The demonization of Riefenstahl overlooks the fact that she was an obsessive, technocratic artist rather than a politician, and hardly a formidable intellectual or ideologist. She would have been thrilled to see her influence at work in Calvin Klein underwear billboards and the normative look of the average Chelsea gym queen. If her preoccupation with visual fireworks and eroticized bodies blinded her to the political implications of her films, it also immunized her against the ideological agenda of her sponsors. She never joined the Nazi Party and, as far as anyone knows, never uttered an anti-Semitic remark. The thrice-denazified Leni’s haunting sin was a common, hubristic one: the constitutional inability to admit that anything she did was wrongheaded, ill considered, harmful, deleterious, or stupid. For many reasons that are both legible and problematic, including a harsh integrity I can’t find despicable, it was impossible for her to repudiate the steps she took to get ahead, or to apologize for taking them.

It could be that Riefenstahl, who never completed a feature after Tiefland, spent half a century trying to dissipate, through artistry, the odium she’d acquired by backing the worst possible political horse when she was probably too naive and unscrupulously ambitious to know better. Her long sojourns in impoverished zones of rural Africa provided escape from a revised social order that held no respectable place for her. Photographing the Nuba, the Masai, and other tribes, she found equivocal salvation by winning the trust and affection of the most elemental and hermetic people she could find. They didn’t judge her harshly, because they had no idea who she was.

Her final completed movie, the forty-five-minute-long Underwater Impressions (2002), was filmed after Leni learned scuba diving in her eighth decade. The interview that precedes the film shows a Riefenstahl we have never seen: relaxed, genial, reflective in an undefensive way, and genuinely likable. The movie itself is an almost aleatory succession of mind-bending images, an unfolding of gorgeously bizarre, teeming life-forms inhabiting coral reefs. It’s a majestic testament to Riefenstahl’s insatiable visual curiosity, her eye for spectacular detail, her masterful editing, and her indomitable physical tenacity. Of course, some will see it as yet another fizzled attempt at denying the past, as if she were challenging Susan Sontag to find something fascist about a picture of a fish.

Underwater Impressions leads one to the disturbing speculation that the brilliant Leni Riefenstahl suffered from an aesthetic autism focused on the beautiful to the exclusion of any other artistic criteria, that beautification of whatever she beheld, whether it was Adolf Hitler and masses of Nazi banners, athletes swanning off diving boards, painted African bodies, or the lacy forms of a coral reef. (She even managed to make herself look remarkably like Rita Hayworth’s Gilda in several shots in Tiefland.) In this respect, Underwater Impressions can be considered Riefenstahl’s most revelatory film. Depressingly revelatory and ravishingly beautiful.

This final exile into the deep was Leni Riefenstahl’s last—and, as she well knew, futile—attempt to make peace with a world that was determined never to afford her any. Now that she is gone, perhaps we can honor her best work, her rejection of the quotidian, her steely focus on the task at hand, her willingness to abandon projects that didn’t meet her fanatically high standards. We don’t need to pretend the lady herself was someone we’d greatly like spending time with or wish to emulate. To slightly tweak Marlene’s famous line in Touch of Evil, she was some kind of woman; anyway, what does it matter what you say about people?

Gary Indiana, the New York–based novelist and critic, is the author, most recently, of Do Everything in the Dark (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).