The Curse of Leni Riefenstahl

By Daniel Gawthrop | February 6, 2002

To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.
–filmmaker Akiro Kurosawa, receiving the lifetime achievement award at the 1990 Oscars.

I’m more attracted by an aesthetic subject than by an ugly one. I can’t be creative with a negative subject.
–filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, defending her legacy as a Nazi propagandist.

News Item: Leni Riefenstahl, the woman who acquired everlasting infamy as Adolf Hitler’s filmmaking stooge, is turning 100 years of age this year. According to a recent wire service report, the still-healthy Riefenstahl will mark her personal centenary on August 22 by releasing her first film in 48 years: Impressionen under Wasser (Impressions Under Water), a 45-minute documentary that celebrates the beauty of the atolls and coral reefs of the Indian Ocean and Maldives. It’s very likely the last shot at redemption for the disgraced Nazi propagandist, who tends to get savaged by the critics whenever she goes public—about every quarter of a century or so.

I have a personal interest in the Leni Riefenstahl story. The book I’m currently writing is a highly subjective, first-person account of why certain Western white males are strongly attracted to Far East Asian bodies (in my case, male bodies). Using my own experience, I discuss where I think this attraction comes from, how it is manifested and what some of the socio-cultural and political implications are. It’s primarily—though not completely—concerned with sex, which means that I can’t possibly complete it without in some places describing Asian male bodies and what makes them attractive.

This is where Riefenstahl comes in. Hers is the ultimate cautionary tale about the perils of objectification and fetishism. Nothing I do in my book is likely to be seen as approaching the degree of evil, power or notoriety the Nazi filmmaker achieved in such works as Triumph of the Will (1935) or Olympia (1938). But then, I’m not writing in the service of an ideology or totalitarian state, so that goes without saying. Still, the critical response to Riefenstahl is a useful reminder of just how powerful the discourse of the body can be, how far it can be taken in the public realm, and how easily Fascist aesthetics can creep into popular culture through the arts and advertising.

Today, on her official website, Riefenstahl’s name appears on the title page in red-and-white block capital letters against a background of black. The site gushes with praise for Triumph of the Will and Olympia. These films, it says, won prestigious awards shortly after their releases, including the Venice and Paris film festivals’ top prizes. The fact that they were dismissed after the war as Nazi propaganda—thus destroying their creator’s artistic and political reputation forever—is treated with pathos.

Leni Riefenstahl was one of the twentieth century’s ultimate sell-outs. Born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl, she began her rise to fame as a ballet and modern dancer in post-World War I Germany. In the mid-1920s she entered the German film world as the attractive and athletic blonde star of director Arnold Fanch’s "Mountain" films. It was her beach dancing performance in The Blue Light (1932) that first caught Adolf Hitler’s attention, and it wasn’t long before the two were introduced. Riefenstahl was put on the Nazi payroll, given a budget and assigned to follow Hitler and his henchmen around with a team of photographers. Her footage of the Nuremberg rally formed the bulk of Triumph of the Will, a deification of der Fuhrer described by film historian Ephram Katz as "the most powerful propaganda film ever made". In 1938, she released Olympia, which was promoted as a documentary account of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin but was really a thinly veiled ode to Aryan physical perfection and the "body beautiful".

Riefenstahl, a confirmed Nazi who bought into the Third Reich’s programme completely, spent four years in prison after the war. But prosecutors agreed she was more of a sympathiser, a blind adherent of the faith, than an activist. After the war she tried to distance herself from her Nazi superiors. But to this day, there is more than a hint of aggrieved protest in every public statement she makes. She seems to resent the fact of her eternal artistic and political pariahdom, as if her fall from grace was the greatest tragedy that resulted from the war. This makes her delightful fodder for satire. Imagine, for example, how she might shoot the film of her autobiography: See young Leni in The Blue Light just as the Fuehrer saw her—vivacious and beautiful, her auburn locks blowing in the wind as she raises her arms to the sky. See triumphant Leni in The Mountain Films as she conquers peak after peak, the strength of her blithely Aryan features the perfect complement to a backdrop of such majesty. See Leni’s compassion during the war as she weeps at the brutality of blitzkrieg while filming it on location with the Panzer division in Poland. See Leni as victim when—after her great success in Nazi filmmaking—she is accused (by starlet/harlot Marlene Dietrich) of being an opportunistic, Third Reich apologist. Watch as resilient Leni rises above such pettiness; how she struggles for aesthetic Aryan perfection while Marlene wallows decadently in the moral slimepit that is Hollywood. See Leni’s continuing dedication to art as she retreats to the Tyrol to work on Tiefland while the war rages on and her countrymen fall by the hundreds of thousands (and marvel at her compassion as she employs gypsy concentration camp members as extras in the film). Finally, weep for her sense of betrayal when she learns of the gas chambers [only after the war has ended], and praise her courage for condemning her Nazi employers [once they’re all dead or in prison and her Swiss bank accounts are secure]….

Riefenstahl might have faded into peaceful oblivion if not for her tireless pursuit of aesthetics. She was always attracted to primitive societies and their rituals, hierarchies, male figureheads and physical beauty. But once she was blacklisted after the war, glorifying white bodies would have been a no-no. She must have thought she was making amends in the mid-1970s by plotting her next documentary on the Nuba, an ancient tribe of indigenous hunter-gatherers from the Sudan, with whom she claims to have lived for eight months during her visits to Africa in the late 1960s and early 70s. The result—The Last of the Nuba, a sumptuous coffee table book of colour and black-and-white photos—was intended to be seen as a loving and beautifully rendered account of the aesthetic grace of an African people. It was a calculated public relations move—a powerful statement designed not only to renounce the pathological race theories of Adolf Hitler but prove, once and for all, that Riefenstahl could never have been capable of racism if she could produce such inspired art.

The book was intended to precede a film she was planning to make on the Nuba. But despite all her years in Africa, capturing the essence of her subject in moving pictures—with only her own camera, and insufficient language skills to direct the action—proved to be a task beyond the
abilities of Hitler’s great propagandist, and the documentary was never completed. "Working without professional cameramen, and unable to dictate and influence all the action," concludes the narrator of Ray Muller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993), "the obsessive perfectionist could not be in total control of the material and could not reach the aesthetic heights to which she aspired."

That should have been the end of it. Riefenstahl’s fascination with the Nuba would have faded from the public memory were it not for her legendary infamy. But The Last of the Nuba was out in the book stores and a young social critic, just hitting her stride, happened to come across it. On February 6, 1975, The New York Review of Books published an essay by Susan Sontag titled "Fascinating Fascism". In it, Sontag argued that The Last of the Nuba could be passed off as just "one more lament for vanishing primitives" if not for Riefenstahl’s obsession with aesthetics and portrait of the Nuba as artistic, athletic and ceremonial.

"All four of Riefenstahl’s commissioned Nazi films celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader…. The Nazi films are epics of achieved community," Sontag wrote. "What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical and pluralistic. In Riefenstahl’s casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organization or thinking that is being extolled." No, Sontag said: it was Dominance and Submission that were being extolled. A wrestling match, for example, in which one man proves his physical superiority over another, perfectly embodied the acceptance of death as Darwinian predestination.

Fascist aesthetics "flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behaviour, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of dominance and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massings of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force…Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death," Sontag wrote.

The Nuba photos—at least, the ones taken from Riefenstahl’s coffee table book and posted on her website—are a mixed bag of village scenes and individual portraits. Several photos of handsome young warriors are shot from angles eerily similar to those of Hitler youth captured in the 1930s.

Looking at them, I can see where Sontag’s critical eye would recognise the pattern in Riefenstahl’s camera eye. Obviously, an expensive coffee table book glorifying an African tribe of self-sufficient primitives with no pretensions to world domination was never going to achieve the same degree of widespread social influence as Triumph of the Will or Olympia, which were funded by and intended to promote a monolithic totalitarian state. But that wasn’t Sontag’s point.

Her point was that Nazi cultural aesthetics, like most artistic ideals based on a coherent ideology, travel well. Riefenstahl’s classical romanticism and exaltation of the heroic figure—key components of Nazi chic—simply transported themselves to the Sudan for her Nuba project. The result in the photos was an elaborate and uniquely African embodiment of Fascist nostalgia and cultural myth that cast Nuban society according to a strictly coded, hierarchical vision. The effect was subtle, to be sure. But some would argue that that made the book all the more insidious because it reduced the fascist ideas to a subliminal level. Calvin Klein has been accused of employing much the same effect in some of his advertising.

While her legacy continues to inspire debate, Riefenstahl herself continues to live another day. It’s hard to tell whether her longevity and good health are a curse—what a punishment, having so many decades to ponder your horrible place in history, knowing that nothing you do will ever be trusted again—or a willful and conscious decision not to die until she restores her reputation. She appears indestructible: not even a helicopter crash on a return trip to Africa two years ago was enough to kill her. (What’s a few broken ribs at age 97?) Between 1974 and 2000, the still-athletic filmmaker is said to have made more than 2,000 scuba dives from the deck of her yacht, operating from her base in Papua, New Guinea, while shooting hundreds of hours of underwater footage.

It’s a sadly comic image, this diving repeatedly into the ocean—staying healthy and living many more years as a result—in a seemingly endless Freudian loop. "Poor Leni" has been forced to retreat to an aquamarine world that offers more comfort and solace than human society is prepared to. In a sense, her new documentary, Impressionen under Wasser, might be regarded as a fitting coda to her long and tainted existence. Having exhausted the human form as subject matter in her quest for aesthetic perfection (or, as Sontag would argue, having given up trying to sell her Fascist beauty myth through it), she has turned to the world of tropical marine life—her final frontier—to complete the quest before she dies.

2,025 words, February 7, 2002


  • Daniel Gawthrop

    Daniel Gawthrop is a Vancouver writer, the author of the novel "Double Karma," published this spring by Cormorant Books, and five non-fiction titles, including "The Rice Queen Diaries" (2005) and "The Trial of Pope Benedict: Joseph Ratzinger and the Vatican's Assault on Reason, Compassion and Human Dignity" (Arsenal Pulp, 2013). He still plays left wing for the Cutting Edges, the Vancouver-based 2SLGBTQ+ hockey club he co-founded in 1993.

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