Sunday, September 9, 2012

Leni: The Life of Leni Rifenstahl (Stephen Bach)

"Leni Riefenstahl symbolizes a German artist’s fate in the 20th Century both in her revolutionary artistic vision and in her political blindness and infatuation. No one would deny that with her talent she developed cinematic methods that have since become part of an aesthetic canon. Her career also shows that one cannot lead an honest life in service of the false, and that art is never apolitical."--Stephen Bach  (page 297)

 "" "Shortly after he came to power Hitler called me to see him and explained that he wanted a film about a Party Congress, and wanted me to make it. My first reaction was to say that I did not know anything about the way such a thing worked or the organization of the Party, so that I would obviously photograph all the wrong things and please nobody - even supposing that I could make a documentary, which I had never yet done. Hitler said that this was exactly why he wanted me to do it:."— Leni Riefenstahl, her own memoirs. (1992)

Stephen Bach (1938-1909) was an American film executive who wrote this extensive biography of one of the most talented and controversial film actor/director/documentarians of the 20th Century, Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003).
I remember seeing both "Triumph of the Will" (1935) and "Olympia" (1938) in the 1980's, the latter film--a documentary on the first great Nuremberg Rally of Hitler and his mass forces of "race and blood".   One senses the real ominous terror of those times and how aesthetics like this added so much to the Nazi mystique.   It is a chilling two hours to witness, especially on a big screen as I did in a college auditorium.   The film "Olympia" is over three hours long--depending on what print of the film you see--is not quite as ominous (at least in the English language versions) but still blends together Riefenstahl's ability to blend art in the motion of bodies and the adulation of  mass crowds.
Here's a famous scene from "Olympia" (1938): the diving competition:
<";hl=en_US"><param It is these two films (and a feature film see did in 1941 called "Tiefland") which were her most famous and notorious works on screen.  Gypsy extras used in the latter film were later taken to a death camp to be murdered.    I haven't that one in complete  but I would recommend anyone intersted in this subject should see a documentary called "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl", (1993) a film which she participated in and tried to obfuscate (as she does in the quote above)  her role in making The Third Reich look all polished and perfect on screen.   The film-makers did not thankfully give Leni the final cut or the final say in the film so it's worth seeing.    

Bach's book explores how   Leni went from being a provincial girl interested in art to great fame.  It was summarized  well by Simon Callow in his review of the book for The Guardian:
"Her background was perfectly ordinary. She was born in 1902 in a working-class suburb of Berlin (a city which Bach evokes, as he does everything else in the book, with vivid economy) to a severe father and a stage-struck mother. She and her mum were a team, secretly visiting cinemas and gate-crashing fancy-dress balls. By sheer willpower and the generosity of a lover who longed to marry her, she became a successful solo dancer in the avant-garde style of Mary Wigman, but, said a critic, "She lacks the highest, most important quality: soul." Her life found its focus when she saw Arnold Fanck's location-shot film The Mountain of Destiny. "I have to meet that man," she told her still adoring, still matrimonially hopeful lover. It was, he said, the refrain of her life. She uttered it for the last time when Hitler appeared on her horizon, with momentous consequences for them both.
"Struck by her vitality and beauty, Fanck wrote Holy Mountain for her, shooting it in Alpine locations over a gruelling two years. In what would become a familiar pattern, she took her co-star, Luis Trenker, into her bed, and then worked her way round the crew and cast, unleashing erotic mayhem in the isolated location. All her life, she changed men regularly, like the paintings on the wall. Many, if not most of them, were mountaineers, athletes and cameramen; quite a number were all three. Her essentially masculine sexual behaviour is almost exhilarating. When, for once, one left her - rather than her dismissing him - she slashed her arms, legs, hips.
"She became a director by default. After failing to secure the Marlene Dietrich role in The Blue Angel, she determined to direct a vehicle for herself: The Blue Light. The experienced scenarist Béla Balázs wrote and co-directed with her; one of her former lovers shot it. Unschooled in film technique, she invented and experimented, eagerly accepting suggestions from her partners. This was her Citizen Kane: she empowered her colleagues, who rose to greater heights for her than they had ever previously managed. Her rough cut, none the less, was a catastrophe; Fanck rapidly re-edited it, saving the movie, which was highly successful, despite poor reviews in the largely leftwing Berlin press. For these Riefenstahl blamed the Jews, even though her two chief collaborators were Jewish."
Later when Hitler was coming to power she read "Mein Kampf" and said "I have to meet this man."  How far she and he got together is a source of speculation, but it's clear that Riefenstahl is lying when she says she was coy about making "Triumph of the Will" or, later, that she didn't know about the atrocities committed by the Third Reich.  She knew about them sooner than most Germans in fact since she covered Hitler's victory parade in Warsaw in October of 1939 and photographic evidence shows her present at the slaughter of Jews in a near-by town.
 It's clear that Leni was more than a little attracted to power and a career and, despite her post-war obfuscation and attempts to soft-pedal herself as a naive camera operator, she was in the inner recesses of Hitler's enclave up to her collarbone.
After the war ended, Riefenstahl was detained  first by the Americans and then by the French.  Upon release she was found not culpable for any sentencing due in part to her ability to put on a good act--according to the book--and the fact that she never joined the Nazi Party.  (A hedging of bets?)  Most of the rest of her life she spent in her apartment in Munich--restored to her in 1953--where she managed to make several journeys to Africa to film and photograph a tribe of people called the Nuba, a group  of people who prided themselves in aesthetic glorification of the human body. In a way, Leni was right at home!
  She was still making films at age 99 in the Sudan region, and was also scuba diving into her 90's.   
The most interesting parts of the book for me were reading about how Leni went to Hollywood  intending to make a film.  She had garnered some interest by Universal Studios in her pre-Nazi days but her German "Alpine" films (one of which was shot in Greenland) generated less interest due to her limitations as an actress. Petitions by anti-Nazi artists and business-people   in Hollywood (some of whom were refugees of Hitler and almost all know friends who were) gave her cause to return to her fatherland.
She later visited America again as a guest of Andy Warhol, and was reportedly involved in a photo shoot of Mick and Bianca Jagger--a meeting of art and commerce that I would rather not have read about.  Bach's  book is very interesting in refuting a lot of lies this woman told and is extensively researched with hundreds of interviews and citations.

A clip from a 1926 film featuring Leni as a actress:  "The Holy Mountain".

   The book was published in 2007.       


  1. I have always admired Leni Riefenstahl's cinematography Doug. I think she is one of the most amazing collectors of images of the 20th century and desreves her place in the history of both cinema and propaganda (if these are indeed separate things).. she is simply an incredible film maker.

    As a matter of fact, I have a ticket to the premier of Michael Nyman's reinterpretation of that other great 20th century ideological film Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" later this month.

    I am attracted to these epic propaganda events, they make the ugly beautiful and the repugnant attractive....this is precisely what Hollywood is failing to do in my opinion.
    The absence of principles results in unprincipled products, but whatever we say about either Reifenstahl or Eisenstein we cannot accuse them of vacuous moneymaking and descending to the unprincipled attitude of today's cinematic neo fascistic, uncritical, sycophantic camp following...these early activists did it with a style..which is now so obviously lacking in the computerised graphic pap merchants of the global dream factory.

    Let's forget the fascism for a moment, here's to the taste and quality of the product that this extraordinary filmaker achieved, thanks for posting these great images from history Doug.

  2. Sounds like avery interesting idea, AA, the reinterpetation of Eisenstein's most famous film. I hope you'll do a review of that one.

    Yes, I agree that American films have fallen off so much in the last couple decades. The big films that are made have so few ideas behind them, other than merchandising a kind of expresionistic violence and mania for mayhem that does border on a kind of fascist love for obliterating real culture.

    Both she and Eisenstein, Pudovkin and few others ever achieved the amazing images--had she been from another nation and had more of artistic soul she might have been one of the greatest.

    1. greatest story-tellers that is. Of course many of the most reknown filmmakers in her era like Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and dozens of actors, writers (Bertol Brecht of course) and music composers fled Germany to establish careers in England and the USA.

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