Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — White Shorts of Leni Riefenstahl |
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White Shorts of Leni Riefenstahl

A brazen shout from long trumpets held high at the angle of a Hitler salute. Cut to medium close-up of young Aryan faces with puffed cheeks. Dolly back as two new biographies of Leni Riefenstahl appear virtually at once. Jürgen Trimborn’s book, well translated out of the original German by Edna McCowan, has the better pictures. Steven Bach’s book, backed up by his deep personal experience as a high-echelon film executive handling dingbat directors, has the better text. Though neither book is precisely adulatory, put them together and they add up to an awful lot of attention. She might be dead, but she won’t lie down.

The same was true for much of the time she was still alive. Born in 1902, she lived for a hundred years. In less than half that time, she acquired a brilliant reputation. But she had to spend the rest of her life mounting a posthumous defence of it.

Some spectators thought even at the time that her cinematic gift had served to legitimize a murderous ideology, but almost nobody belittled her artistic talent. She was thus able, when the Nazis lost, to invoke the principle that art trumps politics. Photographed too often with her raised hand pointed in Hitler’s direction, quoted too often on the subject of his transformative vision, she was unable to deny that she had held her mentor in high regard, but she never stopped denying until her long-postponed last gasp that she had ever known much about what the Nazis were really up to. She had been too busy being a great artist.

To make this line stick, she had the help of her two big movies from the Nazi-dominated 1930s, Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Though the first now stands revealed as a gruesomely choreographed hymn to naked power and the second spends too much of its time weighing sport down with a neoclassic gravitas that feels like being hit over the head with the Parthenon, there were, even after the end of the Thousand Year Reich’s twelve year run, plenty of knowledgeable critics in the victorious democracies who called her portentous epics masterpieces. For her cineaste admirers, the aesthetics left the ethics nowhere. It seemed a fair guess that anyone so wrapped up in creating an imaginary world would be bound to miss the odd detail about what was going on in the real one. The Holocaust? Forget about it.

To assist in the forgetting, she also had the help of her histrionic abilities, which might never have been subtle, but were always in a good state of training, because there had rarely been a moment of her conscious life when she had not shown her emotions as the only way of having them. (In her early phase as a film star, she hammed it up even in the stills.) Leni would act indignant when she was asked an awkward question. If you asked it again, she would storm out, fall down, shriek, weep.

Above all, however, she had the help of time. After the trap-door stopped rattling and banging at Nuremberg, it got harder and harder to find a Nazi with a famous name. The ones in Argentina had unlisted telephone numbers. But Leni Riefenstahl’s new shyness was all a pose. She had a way of hiding only where she could be found, and she never ceased to assure the world that although she and Hitler had spent a lot of time talking in private, she never knew anything about what was happening to the Jews.

More than half a century went by and she was still there, popping up at film festivals to keep her cinematic legend in trim, conspicuously disappearing into Africa to build a new career as a photographer, steadily acquiring the validation that comes automatically with endurance. “Of what am I guilty?” The martyred look that went with that refrain made it seem as if the suffering had all happened to her. (The dogged Trimborn, a professor at the University of Cologne, is especially good at tracking her through a last phase that lasted longer than the Pleistocene.) She showed no remorse, saying that she had no reason to. Those who were all too well aware that she did have reason to died off faster than she did, so finally there were whole new generations to take her genius for granted.

We might as well do the same, because over the question of her talent it isn’t worth fighting a battle. Finally every geriatric artist is a genius, and especially if the artist is a woman. Among the people who run the movie business anywhere in the world, women are a minority even today, and still under pressure to exercise feminine wiles. When the lowly-born Leni was starting out, the minority, even in go-ahead Weimar Germany, was the merest handful. Luckily for her, she had feminine wiles to burn: until she was old and grey, she met few men who didn’t fall for her on the spot. It could be said that she had looks and energy but no real brain. The evidence was overwhelming that she didn’t need one.

As a young actress, she was so beautiful that other women could find nothing bad to say about her except that her eyes were too close together. But her acting on screen was strictly frown, laugh, bubble and jump. She made it as a star because she was good at climbing rocks. There was a whole genre of German movies about clambering around daringly at high altitude. In a string of mountain pictures culminating in The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Leni proved that she could do that stuff without a double. There was no peak, however vertiginous, that she could not sprint to the top of wearing very few clothes. On the other hand there was no director, however illustrious, whom she could not hurl herself beneath wearing no clothes at all. Or at least she gave him the illusion that she might: a power of suggestion that we can usefully regard as her most persuasive thespian gift.

Fixed on becoming a director herself, she applied the same gift when bending producers and studio bigwigs to her triumphant will. Her real originality was in setting her sights high, up there where the men were making the decisions. All the right potentates duly succumbed to her allure. “I must meet that man” was an exhortation often on her lips. Before the Nazis came to power, some of the men she felt compelled to meet were Jews. Afterwards, none of them were. It could be said that she never came out as an anti-Semite, but it could also be said that there is a green cheese moon.

Made on the eve of the Weimar Republic’s final agony, her film The Blue Light — she was producer, director, writer, editor and star — drew less than universal acclaim. She blamed the Jewish critics. After the Nazis came to power, her co-writer on the movie, Bela Balazs, was too insistent about getting paid. Balazs was a Jew. She had his name removed from the credits to render the film judenfrei, and eventually found a sure-fire way to keep him out of the picture permanently. She turned his name over to Julius Streicher. To defuse the significance of an act like that, it wouldn’t be enough to call her ignorant. You would have to call her an idiot. Everybody knew what Streicher stood for. Gauleiter of Franconia, editor of the lethally scurrilous Der Stürmer, he was the most famous Jew-baiter in Germany.

But she had a bigger buddy than Streicher. Hitler had liked The Blue Light, so when she once again said “I must meet that man” her wish was easily answered. Coy for the rest of her endless life on the subject of whether she threw him one, she always wanted it to be thought that only his total dedication to the cause held him back. Given her track record with men, the mere fact that she spent time alone with him was enough to confer on her all the power of the Führer’s public darling. (Hardly anybody knew about Eva Braun. Everybody knew about Leni.) She was given full access to film the 1934 party rally. After six months of editing — possessing almost no sense of story, she invariably had to dig her movies out of a mountain of footage — the film appeared in 1935 as Triumph of the Will.

Hitler loved the movie. Critics who still feel the same way are apt to underrate the part played by Albert Speer, who came up with the lighting and décor all on his own. The camera had to look up at Hitler because Speer put him there. But Leni undoubtedly did a thorough job of making what was already frighteningly impressive look more frighteningly impressive still. If ten thousand men marching in lock-step turn you on, Leni could make them look like twenty thousand.

The top Nazis were delighted. They included Goebbels, whom Leni, after the war, found it expedient to characterise as a dangerous enemy jealous of his bailiwick as the supreme studio executive nominally in charge of Nazi movies. In fact Goebbels, generously overlooking her refusal to put out for him — and for the idea that he ever made a pounce, we have only her notoriously unreliable word — thought highly of her artistic prowess, blowing his top only when she went mad with the money. (Stephen Bach, who wrote Final Cut, the best-ever book about a film director on the rampage — Michael Cimino of Heaven’s Gate — is especially good on the subject of how Leni treated a budget as the merest letter of intent.)

After Triumph of the Will, the road was open for Leni to do what she wanted. What she wanted was to turn the 1936 Berlin Olympics into a celluloid masterpiece. By far her most palatable cinematic achievement, Olympia was, and remains, crucial to her later reputation. Even more crucial is that the film is not notably a Nazi one. Hitler the arch-nationalist didn’t enjoy being stuck with staging an international event, but while he was at it he had enough sense to go light on the ideology. Not many Jewish athletes were there to be filmed anyway, but there were black athletes present, and one of them was Jesse Owens, whom Leni didn’t hesitate to caress with her lenses as if he were a god-like figure.

She wasn’t having a thing with Owens. She was having that with another American, the decathlete Glen Morris, whom she obliged to add an eleventh discipline to his event. But she filmed Owens with loving appreciation. It’s a shameful consideration that no Hollywood director would have been encouraged to do the same, at the time. Owens in repose looked lovely anyway, and on the move he was poetic, but it took a fine eye and a lot of knowledge to get the poetry on film, and Leni knew how to do that with him and with many another athlete. It was only logical for the camera to climb the tower with the diver, for example, but she figured out how to do it.

Knocking herself out to catch the unforgettable moment, this was the hard-driving, indomitable, manpower-manipulating Leni at her best, and Susan Sontag later made a serious mistake in arguing that Olympia was entirely steeped in fascist worship of the beautiful body. It’s nature that worships the beautiful body. Fascism is natural. That’s what’s wrong with it: it’s nothing else. Despite the too-often prevailing calisthenic mass manoeuvres, as if Busby Berkeley had met Praxiteles, much of Olympia’s reputation for beauty can thus safely be endorsed, but always with the proviso that a lot of the athletic events were beautiful anyway, and that her technical inventions for capturing them would eventually suffer the fate of all technical inventions and be superseded: everything she did in Berlin in 1936 was topped by what Kon Ichikawa did in Tokyo in 1964. Nevertheless, Leni, with her raw material handed to her on a plate, and unhampered by those requirements of invented narrative that she could never manage, had made quite a movie for its time. It was a huge hit all over Europe.

In November, 1938, Leni, who had probably always had one eye on Hollywood, flew the Nazi flag to America. In Los Angeles she was scheduled to walk the red carpet at the premiere of an entirely de-Hitlerised copy of Olympia. She had every reason to expect that she was heading for a big welcome, and she might still have had one, even though Kristallnacht happened in Germany only five days after her ship docked in New York. But she blew the scene with what she said. She said that nothing had happened, and that to suggest such a thing was a slander.

Walt Disney gave her a tour of his studios, but the rest of Hollywood gave her the freeze. Almost nobody else in America except Henry Ford even invited her for drinks. Back in Germany, she reported to Goebbels, who was suitably indignant on behalf of his thwarted artist. “The Jews,” he told his diary, “rule by terror and bribery.’ When the Nazi counterterror against the Jews went rolling into the East, Leni, in sole command of her own film unit, was along for the ride, but she saw something in Poland that stopped her in her tracks, even if it didn’t stop the Nazis. She was accidentally present at a mass shooting in the town square of Konskie. According to her later testimony — or, rather, according to the lack of it — she was the only eyewitness to the occasion who managed not to notice that all the victims were Jews. Nevertheless, she was photographed looking distraught.

As a general rule, any expression on Leni’s face when a camera was pointing in her direction was adopted at her own command, but in this case it might have been possible that her distress was genuine. Whatever the truth of this permanently controversial moment, however, it seems probable that Leni, when she next saw Hitler, asked permission to be excused from the war. She didn’t opt out of the Nazi party’s inexorable conquest of the world — she was there to film Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw, the only time he lent his presence to such an event — but she never again went near a battle. Instead, she asked and received permission to resume filming Tiefland, the dramatic blockbuster which she had abandoned when the Nazis came to power. Here was the chance for her to prove, to the full satisfaction of her post-war admirers, that she was indeed an artist who had no knowledge of what the Nazis were really doing.

Once again she blew it. Financed on a no-budget basis at Hitler’s personal orders, Tiefland had unlimited resources, including an infinitely flexible schedule. Bach, no doubt still haunted by memories of Michael Cimino’s plausible extravagance, is well set to evoke the consequences, one of which wasn’t funny at all. Her pet project needed some Spanish-looking extras, and all the children readily available looked too Aryan. So Leni shipped in some gypsy children from a holding camp where they were waiting for a train to Auschwitz. Long after the war, in 1982, the tirelessly litigious Leni sued a documentary maker who suggested that she had known about Auschwitz. She probably didn’t know. But she certainly did know that she was employing forced labour; and her claim that she met all of the extras after the war was a flat lie.

She lied about everything. She just went on lying until people got tired, or old, or died. One of her most telling lies was the one she told about Streicher. She said that she had loathed him. But there is preserved correspondence to prove that she invited his company and treated him as a close friend until quite late in the war. The idea that Streicher would never mention to her what was happening to the Jews is preposterous. He was proud of it, and was eventually hanged for it.

Leni, although she never managed regret, had enough sense to feign ignorance. Playing dumb, she was deNazified in the second least noxious category, which meant that she could continue her career, if she could pick up the pieces. But one of her closer questioners got the admission out of her that really mattered. He was Budd Schulberg. His famous days as a screenwriter were still ahead of him, but he would never dream up a neater scene than the one he played out with Leni. After unrolling her usual impatient rigmarole about having known nothing about any Nazi atrocities, Leni made the mistake of saying that she sometimes, against her will, had to do what Goebbels wanted, because she was afraid of being sent to a concentration camp. Schulberg asked why she should have been afraid of that, if she didn’t know that concentration camps existed.

So there was the whole story. For anyone with a memory for recent events, the question of Leni’s moral status was settled. What came next, stretching on to the end of the millennium and now beyond, was the question of her artistic stature, supposedly a different thing. She built another career photographing tribesmen in Africa, and then another one, filming life below the waves in yet another new role as the oldest diver in the world. And as the people with a memory for the real world grew fewer, those who knew about nothing except the movies gradually redefined the issue.

At the end of the first Star Wars movie, George Lucas copied the ambience of Triumph of the Will with no apparent sense of how he was really proving that the cause in which Luke Skywalker and his friends had just triumphed could not have been worth fighting for. Lucas wasn’t alone: Trimborn does a useful job of rounding up the unusual suspects. Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, and Madonna all enrolled themselves on the growing list of Leni’s fans. So did Siegfried and Roy. Francis Ford Coppola said he admired her. Steven Spielberg said he wanted to meet her. If he had made Schindler’s List ten times, he could not have undone the portent of such a wish, because he was really saying that there can be art without a human framework, and that a movie can be made out of nothing but impressive images. Some of Leni’s images were indeed impressive. But the question is never about whether or not you are impressed. The question is about whether you can keep you head when you are. Leni Riefenstahl was impressed by the Nazis, and look what happened.

(New York Times Book Review, March 25, 2007)


Walter Benjamin, who said so much that was deliberately incomprehensible, spoke the simple truth when he said that all aesthetic politics lead to fascism. The connection is made especially clear in our memories of the top Nazis. Civilized people with a yen for Leni Riefenstahl are flirting with horror. She looked good in shorts, but her mind was a madhouse. Is there any stopping this tendency to sentimentalize the unspeakable? Probably not: and certainly not where the movies are involved. Even the best movies about the Nazi era, if we can bear to look at them at all, are performing cosmetic surgery on the past. Admirers of Downfall are right to be impressed by its narrative drive, but they ought to be aware that the glamour principle has done its debilitating work. The actor playing Albert Speer does a fine job of modelling a full-length leather coat, but his fastidious, concerned expression is the exact face that the post-war Speer so successfully presented to the world. Wouldn’t that have been us? we ask. No it wouldn’t, because there was no such man. Speer, one of the best-informed men in Germany, knew all about what was going on. ‘I should have known’, his post-war mantra suitable for all media, was just a classy way of saying, ‘I never knew.’ It was a lie, but people went along with it because they could imagine themselves sitting down with him to dinner. The beautiful young secretary who was stunned to learn that Hitler hated Jews is another fairytale. Interviewed in her old age, she regretfully said that she should have found out. But she had more to regret than that. She already knew when she applied for the job. Up on the screen, however, her lovely young worried eyes are pools for our doubts to drown in. Throughout the movie, our imagination rushes in to fill the gaps. But our imagination is benevolent. The Nazi imagination wasn’t. Similarly, when we look at Riefenstahl’s movies we imagine that such glamour must have had a brain behind it that was something like ours. But it was nothing like ours.