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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2003
Separating Leni from her lens
Is it possible to separate aesthetics from life at large? To appreciate images for their beauty alone, removed from any wider social context? This is the unavoidable question one must wrestle with every time the discussion turns to the films of Leni Riefenstahl.
Riefenstahl turned 101 last Saturday, and the occasion of her birthday was marked by the opening of two short films in Japan, where the German director/photographer/actress has enjoyed a renewed surge of interest over the past two decades. "Wonder Underwater" is a wordless, immaculately crafted piece of aquatic art-cinema, shot by Riefenstahl -- who took up diving at age 71 -- and her partner, Horst Kettner; "Her Dream Of Africa" is a rather straightforward documentary, recording her travels in Sudan in 2001.
"Wonder Underwater" is the first film with Riefenstahl's name attached to it to appear in 48 years, and there's a reason for that: Riefenstahl has never been able to live down her friendship with Adolf Hitler, nor the awesomely horrific piece of cinematic agit-prop she made for the Nazi party, "Triumph Of The Will" (1934). This film, and its followup, "Olympia," -- a documentary of the Munich Olympic Games of 1936 -- are what made Riefenstahl and what ruined her. Both are so brilliantly, powerfully shot and conceived that they remain landmarks, films that forever revolutionized the potential of the medium.
Along with Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein, Riefenstahl must be recognized as one of the visionaries of her era. And yet it's the breathtaking sense of unstoppable force, the magnificence with which she created this illusion of power for the goose-stepping Nazi stormtroopers marching to demonstrate Hitler's saviorlike power, that ensures Riefenstahl remains blacklisted while other Nazi sympathizers (and Nazis themselves) have quietly returned to business and politics. (Although perhaps we should give the art world credit for holding higher ideals, refusing to forgive and forget . . . )
Riefenstahl's film career was essentially terminated after the end of World War II, when she was briefly incarcerated by the Allies for her support of Hitler's regime. For nearly three decades her career languished until she re-emerged as a photographer with a brilliant photo collection of the Nuba tribespeople of Sudan. This celebration of gleaming, muscled, ebony bodies and natural nudity couldn't seem any further from Hitler's demented racial theories, but Riefenstahl couldn't escape her past. People like Susan Sontag attacked her African photos as "aesthetic fascism," as obsessed with martial strength, physical perfection, and warlike ritual as any of Adolf's Aryan "ubermensch" dreams.
In Japan, however, people tend to -- ahem -- have less clear-cut memories of fascism, and hence this has been less of an issue for Riefenstahl here, landing her exhibits in Bunkamura and cover interviews with Aera; "Elle Japon" even included her in their shortlist of "women who transcended the 20th century."
It's easy to see how she can be viewed as a feminist icon: As an actress, she scaled sheer mountain faces barefoot, dodging landslides with an Amazonian fearlessness that was matched by an intense beauty. Both these qualities helped her succeed as a director; Hitler was so taken by her that he even placed her filmmaking unit outside the control of Nazi Cultural Minister Josef Goebbels. (Much to the latter's chagrin, particularly when Riefenstahl included some majestic shots of black American Jesse Owens' triumph at the 1936 Olympics.) And despite the approbation she received, Riefenstahl never gave up, continuing to dedicate herself to art at an age when most people are considering retirement.
Yet even though Riefenstahl is your prototypical "strong female" role model, she also makes for a good cautionary example of valuing strength over all other qualities. The fascists had no room for weakness -- the mentally and physically handicapped were sent to the gas chambers -- and neither did Riefenstahl's art. And her narrow-minded dedication to the pursuit of her own goals made her oblivious -- or like so many Germans, wilfully ignorant -- of what was going on around her.
It's in this context that one must view "Wonder Underwater," a very pretty film full of nothing but exotic marine life and clear blue water. Riefenstahl herself has chided her critics, daring them to say what is "fascist" about this film. And she's right: This is merely an exercise in beauty, full of pristine, detailed shots of fantastically colored fish. Relax to the rather New-Agey score by Giorgio Moroder, turn off your mind, and float down deep.
But wait a minute: In the prologue to the film, Riefenstahl includes a brief plea that these "natural paradises" be preserved from the onrushing pressures of pollution and industrial fishing practices. For Riefenstahl, this is the larger context that we must consider beyond just admiring the imagery. This is a big change from the tack she usually takes when asked about "Triumph Of The Will," saying it is "just images," merely a recording of an event, as if the consumption of those images had no effect on the public's perception of the Nazis. As if art did not have the power to move, to persuade, to convince.
You could call this hypocritical, but I prefer to think that Riefenstahl has learned something from her experiences, that her artistic naivete -- or perhaps self-preservation; her brother was sent to the Russian front, where he died, for criticizing the Nazi regime -- has given way to the realization that art does not exist in a vacuum. Certainly, the concern she shows in "Her Dream Of Africa" for the tragedy that has befallen the Nuba tribe, caught in the crossfire of Sudan's civil war, is real enough. She even cries, which may be a first in a Riefenstahl film -- an intimation of human frailty.
Viewers interested in learning more about Riefenstahl should track down "The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl," a documentary by Ray Muller that, while acknowledging its subject's talent, isn't afraid to ask the tough questions. Out on video and DVD.