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Fascinating Fascism

SS Regalia

by Jack Pia
Ballantine Books, 158 pp., $2.95 (paper)

I

First Exhibit. Here is a book of 126 splendid color photographs by Leni Riefenstahl, certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years. In the intractable desert of the southern Sudan live about eight thousand aloof, godlike Nuba, emblems of physical perfection, with large, well-shaped, partly shaven heads, expressive faces, and muscular bodies which are depilated and decorated with scars; smeared with sacred gray-white ash, the men prance, squat, brood, wrestle in the arid sand. And here is a fascinating layout of twelve black-and-white photographs of Leni Riefenstahl on the back cover of the book, also ravishing, a chronological sequence of expressions (from sultry inwardness to the grin of a Texas matron on safari) vanquishing the intractable march of aging.

The first photograph was taken in 1927 when she was twenty-five and already a movie star, the most recent are dated 1969 (she is cuddling a naked African baby) and 1972 (she is holding a camera), and each of them shows some version of an ideal presence, a kind of imperishable beauty, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s, that only gets gayer and more metallic and healthier-looking with old age. And here is a biographical sketch of Riefenstahl on the dust jacket, and an introduction (unsigned) entitled “How Leni Riefenstahl came to study the Mesakin Nuba of Kordofan”—full of disquieting lies.

The introduction, which gives a detailed account of Riefenstahl’s pilgrimage to the Sudan (inspired, we are told, by reading Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa “one sleepless night in the mid-1950s”), laconically identifies the photographer as “something of a mythical figure as a film-maker before the war, half-forgotten by a nation which chose to wipe from its memory an era of its history.” Who but Riefenstahl herself could have thought up this fable about what is mistily referred to as “a nation” which for some unnamed reason “chose” to perform the deplorable act of cowardice of forgetting “an era”—tactfully left unspecified—“of its history”? Presumably, at least some readers will be startled by this coy allusion to Germany and to the Third Reich. (It does, however, dare more than the all-concealing brevity of Harper & Row’s ads for The Last of the Nuba, which identify Riefenstahl simply as “the renowned film maker.”)

Compared with the introduction, the jacket of the book is positively expansive on the subject of the photographer’s career, parroting the misinformation that Riefenstahl has been dispensing for the last twenty years.

It was during Germany’s blighted and momentous 1930s that Leni Riefenstahl sprang to international fame as a film director. She was born in 1902, and her first devotion was to creative dancing. This led to her participation in silent films, and soon she was herself making—and starring in—her own talkies, such as The Mountain (1929).

These tensely romantic productions were widely admired, not least by Adolf Hitler who, having attained power in 1933, commissioned Riefenstahl to make a documentary on the Nuremberg Rally in 1934.

It takes a certain originality to describe the Nazi era as “Germany’s blighted and momentous 1930s,” to summarize the events of 1933 as Hitler’s “having attained power,” and to assert that Riefenstahl, most of whose work was in its own decade correctly identified as Nazi propaganda, enjoyed “international fame as a film director,” ostensibly like her contemporaries Renoir, Lubitsch, and Flaherty. (Could the publishers have let LR write the jacket copy herself? One hesitates to entertain so unkind a thought, although “her first devotion was to dancing” is a phrase few native speakers of English would be capable of.)

The facts are, of course, inaccurate or invented. For starters, not only did Riefenstahl not make—or star in—a talkie called The Mountain (1929). No such film exists. More generally: Riefenstahl did not first simply participate in silent films, then, when sound came in, begin directing her own films, in which she took the starring role. From the first to the last of all nine films she ever acted in, Riefenstahl was the star; and seven of these she did not direct.

These seven films were: The Holy Mountain (Der Heilige Berg, 1926), The Big Jump (Der Gross Sprung, 1927), Fate of the House of Hapsburg (Das Schicksal derer von Hapsburg, 1929), The White Hell of Pitz Palü (Die Weisse Hölle von Piz Palü, 1929)—all silents—followed by Avalanche (Sturm über dem Montblanc, 1930), White Frenzy (Der Weisse Rausch, 1931), and SOS Iceberg (SOS Eisberg, 1932-1933). All but one were directed by Dr. Arnold Fanck, auteur of hugely successful Alpine epics since 1919, whose career, after Riefenstahl left him to strike out on her own as a director in 1932, petered out with a German-Japanese coproduction, The Daughter of the Samurai (Die Tochter des Samurai, 1937), and A Robinson Crusoe (Ein Robinson, 1938), both flops. (The film not directed by Fanck is Fate of the House of Hapsburg, a royalist weepie made in Austria in which Riefenstahl played Marie Vetsera, Crown Prince Rudolf’s co-suicidee at Mayerling. No print seems to have survived.)

These films were not simply “tensely romantic.” Fanck’s pop-Wagnerian vehicles for Riefenstahl were no doubt thought of as apolitical when they were made but they can also be seen in retrospect, as Siegfried Kracauer has argued, as an anthology of proto-Nazi sentiments. The mountain climbing in Fanck’s pictures was a visually irresistible metaphor of unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führerworship. The character that Riefenstahl generally played was that of a wild girl who dares to scale the peak that others, the “valley pigs,” shrink from. Her first role, in the silent The Holy Mountain (1926), is that of a young dancer named Diotima being wooed by an ardent climber who converts her to the healthy ecstasies of Alpinism. This character underwent a progressive aggrandizement. In her first talkie, Avalanche (1930), Riefenstahl is a mountain-possessed girl in love with a young meteorologist, who saves him when he is stranded on his storm-wrecked observatory on the peak of Mont Blanc.

Riefenstahl herself directed six feature films. Her first, which was released in 1932, was another mountain film—The Blue Light (Das Blaue Licht). Riefenstahl starred in it as well, playing a role similar to the ones in Fanck’s films for which she had been “so widely admired, not least by Adolf Hitler,” but allegorizing the dark themes of longing, purity, and death that Fanck had treated rather scoutishly. As usual, the mountain is represented as both supremely beautiful and dangerous, that majestic force which invites the ultimate affirmation of and escape from the self—into the brotherhood of courage and into death. (On nights when the moon is full, a mysterious blue light radiates from the peak of Mount Cristallo, luring the young villagers to try to climb it. Parents try to keep their children home behind closed window shutters, but the young are drawn away like somnambulists and fall to their deaths on the rocks.)

The role Riefenstahl devised for herself is of “Junta,” a primitive creature who has a unique relation to a destructive power. (Only Junta, a ragclad outcast girl of the village, is able to reach the blue light safely.) She is brought to her death, not by the impossibility of the goal symbolized by the mountain but by the materialist, prosaic spirit of envious villagers and the blind rationalism of a well-meaning visitor from the city. (Junta knows that the blue light is emitted by precious stones; being a creature of pure spirit, she revels in the jewels’ beauty, indifferent to their material value. But she falls in love with a vacationing painter and naively confides in him the secret. He tells the villagers, who scale the mountain, remove the treasure, and sell it; when Junta starts her ascent at the next full moon, the blue light is no longer there to guide her, and she falls and dies.)

After The Blue Light, the next film Riefenstahl directed was not “a documentary on the Nuremberg Rally in 1934,” for Riefenstahl made five non-fiction films—not two, as she has claimed since the 1950s and as all current white-washing accounts of her dutifully repeat. It was Victory of Faith (Sieg des Glaubens, 1933), celebrating the first National Socialist Party Congress held after Hitler seized power. Her third film, Day of Freedom: Our Army (Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht, 1933; released in 1935), was made for the army, and depicts the beauty of soldiers and soldiering for the Führer. Then came the two films which did indeed make her internationally famous—the first of which is Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935), whose title is never mentioned on the jacket of The Last of the Nuba, lest it awaken lingering anti-Teutonic prejudices in the book-buyer of the 1970s perhaps.

The jacket copy continues:

Riefenstahl’s refusal to submit to Goebbels’ attempt to subject her visualisation of his strictly propagandistic requirements led to a battle of wills which came to a head when Riefenstahl made her film of the 1936 Olympic Games, Olympia. This, Goebbels attempted to destroy; and it was only saved by the personal intervention of Hitler.

With two of the most remarkable documentaries of the 1930s to her credit, Riefenstahl continued making films of her devising, unconnected with the rise of Nazi Germany, until 1941, when war conditions made it impossible to continue.

Her acquaintance with the Nazi leadership led to her arrest at the end of the Second World War: she was tried twice, and acquitted twice. Her reputation was in eclipse, and she was half forgotten—although to a whole generation of Germans her name had been a household word.

Except for the bit about her having once been a household word, in Nazi Germany, not one part of the above is true.

To cast Riefenstahl in the familiar role of the individualist-artist, defying philistine bureaucrats and censorship by the patron state, is a bold try. Nevertheless, the idea of her resisting “Goebbels’ attempt to subject her visualisation to his strictly propagandistic requirements” should seem like nonsense to anyone who has seen Triumph of the Will—the most successfully, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the film maker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.

Besides the evidence of the film itself, the facts (denied by Riefenstahl since the war) tell quite another story. There was never any struggle between the film maker and the German minister of propaganda. Triumph of the Will, after all her third film for the Nazis, was made with the fullest cooperation any film maker has ever had from any government. She had an unlimited budget, a crew of 120, and a huge number of cameras—estimated at between thirty and fifty—at her disposal. Far from being an artist who was conscripted for a political task and later ran into trouble, Riefenstahl was, as she relates in the book she published in 1935 about the making of Triumph of the Will,1 in on the planning of the rally—which was, from the beginning, conceived as the set of a film spectacle.

  1. 1

    Leni Riefenstahl, Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitag Films (Munich, 1935).

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