The force of circumstance

Leni, actressLENI RIEFENSTAHL (1902-2003) was a multi-talented artist who was successful in many art forms. She began as a dancer, training under Mary Wigman and working for Max Reinhardt. By the age of 18 she was one of the most famous and popular dancers in Europe, but in the early 20s she damaged her leg in a fall and left the stage. She became an actress for Arnold Fanck in a popular genre series called ‘mountain films’ where she learned to act, and also to ski, climb, and do her own stunts in freezing temperatures. By 1932 she was one of Germany’s most popular film stars. She almost became Lola in von Sternberg’s Blue Angel but lost out to Marlene Dietrich. She tried to get away from the melodrama of the mountain films but when a historical epic failed at the box office Leni turned to film directing. Her first effort, The Blue Light, which she wrote, directed, produced and starred in, was outstandingly innovative and won many awards, including the Silver Medal at Venice. Between 1934 and 1938 Leni made three films for the German Government, formed by members of the Nazi Party under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Most film historians rate these films as among the greatest and the most influential films ever made. Despite the success of the films both in Germany and in Europe Leni was tarred with the Nazi brush and when Hitler fell, she was not allowed to make another film. She had dozens of unfulfilled projects. Leni turned to still photography. In the 70s (and her 70s) she lived with and photographed the Nuba and in the 90s she became an enthusiastic scuba diver and produced a book and film of underwater photography. She is generally considered one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. At age 100 she designed her own website.

Leni lived for 101 years but the period most people focus on is the four year period in her early thirties (1934-8) when she was associated with Hitler. As most people think it safe to say they hate Hitler, the debate on Leni is whether she should be hated as a Nazi or excused as ‘just an artist’. My view is this:

• this is a stupidly simplistic way to approach a complicated question

• the holocaust happened 80 years ago and is only real to victims’ grandchildren

• focusing on the holocaust prevents people from objecting to other atrocities

• those who focus on this period miss great art from other periods of Leni’s life

• the ‘Nazi’ films were made despite strong objections from Hitler and the Party

• Leni was not a Party member and was exonerated by the Nuremburg Commission

• Leni won 50 libel suits against people claiming she was a Nazi

• Leni admired Hitler – but so did Winston Churchill at that time

• the films are a lot more than propaganda for the Nazis and should be so viewed

The question is: if you were a German of that time would you have supported Hitler? If you wouldn’t make a martyr of yourself why blame Leni? What if discussion about Shakespeare’s plays was restricted to the consideration whether he was an anti-Semite, based on a reading of The Merchant of Venice? More tellingly, people who repeat statements about Leni being ‘Hitler’s personal film maker’ (she wasn’t, there was no such thing) or that she made ‘propaganda films for the Nazis’ (only kind you could make, the Nazis were pretty one-eyed about who could do what) are ignoring the fact that in 1934 the Nazi Party was actually good. It became bad in 1939, and there’s been a lot of propaganda since made to vilify it (justifiably so). What’s going on with these statements is the creation of a little concentration camp where we send Leni and then we ‘fix’ the facts to make her look bad and us good (that’s propaganda). There’s a little Nazi inside each of us and we shouldn’t indulge it.

With hindsight one can see that many film makers left Nazi Germany and became influential in Hollywood. By tarring Leni as a Nazi, refugee Jews could strike back at Hitler retrospectively while muzzling a formidable talent competing with their own business. And does some of the hate mail come from the fact that Leni was a successful woman?

Although we can’t admire her dance, and may find her acting style archaic, Leni Riefenstahl has made films that affect everyone who watches a film today. She has created images that define what an African from the Sudan is and what the world of coral is like. We can judge images and moving images because we are giving our own responses. It’s when we attempt to judge other people’s motivations we come unstuck, because it involves things we can never know, and our judgments must be unjust. Both Leni and the rest of us deserve better than that. Look at the images. Say, ‘it works’ or, ‘it doesn’t work’. She’ll be satisfied with that.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “The force of circumstance

  1. My comments in the essay above came from reading a scurrilous biography of Leni which vilified her in less than objective terms while claiming to be a researched and objective work of history and biography: in other words a dishonest attempt to mislead the public. Then I saw the film by Ray Müller and there in front of me was incontrovertible evidence of someone who had a far wider perspective than her critics and seemed pretty obviously a genius. It’s only a blog, but I object to those too lazy to distinguish between acts of cruelty and the skill and emotional commitment needed to make a work of art. When we criticize another we often commit the fault ourself we are objecting to in them. There’s no difference in my opinion between expressing hatred of an anti-Semite, and being anti-Semitic.

  2. Absolutely brilliant analysis and right on the mark.
    Read the bio some yrs ago, saw somewhat slanted documentary as well.
    Thanks for an objective well written piece. Sadly, so far can’t find too many pix of the early years. The movie years in 20s.

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