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Fascinating Fascism

Olympiad is actually two films, one called Festival of the People (Fest der Völker) and the other Festival of Beauty (Fest der Schönheit). Riefenstahl has been maintaining in interviews since the 1950s that both Olympics films were commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, produced by her own company, and made over Goebbels’s protests. The truth is that the films were commissioned and entirely financed by the Nazi government (a dummy company was set up in Riefenstahl’s name because it was thought “unwise for the government itself to appear as the producer”) and facilitated by Goebbels’s ministry at every stage of the shooting.2

Riefenstahl worked for two years on the editing, finishing in time so that the film could have its world premiere on April 29, 1938, in Berlin, as part of the festivities for Hitler’s forty-ninth birthday. And later in the year Olympiad was the principal German entry at the 1938 Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Gold Medal. (Riefenstahl had already gotten the Gold Medal at the government-sponsored Venice festival in 1932 for The Blue Light.) Even the plausible-sounding legend of Goebbels objecting to her footage of the triumphs of the black American track star Jesse Owens is untrue. For this film, like the previous ones, Riefenstahl had Goebbels’s full support.

More nonsense: to say that Riefenstahl “continued making films of her devising, unconnected with the rise of Nazi Germany, until 1941.” In 1938, as a present to Hitler, she made Berchtesgaden über Salzburg, a fifty-minute lyric portrait of the Führer against the rugged mountain scenery of his new retreat. In 1939, she accompanied the invading Wehrmacht into Poland as a uniformed army war correspondent with her own camera team; but there is no record of any of this material surviving the war. After Olympiad, Riefenstahl made exactly one more feature film, Tiefland, which she began in 1941 and, after an interruption, finished in 1944 (in the Barrandov Film Studios in Nazi-occupied Prague). Tiefland, already in preparation in 1934, has echoes of The Blue Light, and once again the protagonist (played by Riefenstahl) is a beautiful outcast; it was released in 1954 to resounding indifference. Clearly Riefenstahl would prefer to give the impression that there were only two documentaries in an otherwise long career as a director. The truth is that four of the six feature films she directed are documentaries, made for and financed by the Nazi government.

It is less than accurate to describe Riefenstahl’s professional relationship to and intimacy with Hitler and Goebbels as “her acquaintance with the Nazi leadership.” Far from being an actress-director whom Hitler happened to fancy and then gave an assignment to, Riefenstahl was a close friend and companion of Hitler’s—long before 1932. She was a friend, not just an acquaintance, of Goebbels, too. No evidence supports Riefenstahl’s persistent claim since the 1950s that Goebbels hated her. Moreover, any suggestion that Goebbels had the power to interfere with Riefenstahl’s work is unrealistic. With her unlimited personal access to Hitler, Riefenstahl was the only German film maker who was not responsible to Goebbels. (Normally she would have been under the “Short and Propaganda Production” section of the Reich Film Chamber of Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda.)

Last, it is misleading to say that Riefenstahl was “tried twice, and acquitted twice” after the war. What happened is that she was briefly arrested by the Allies in 1945 and two of her sumptuous houses (in Berlin and Munich) were seized. Examinations and court appearances started in 1948, continuing intermittently until 1952 when she was finally “de-Nazified” with the verdict: “No political activity in support of the Nazi regime which would warrant punishment.” Most important: whether or not Riefenstahl deserved punishment at the hands of the law, it was not her “acquaintance” with the Nazi leadership but her activities as a leading propagandist for the Third Reich that were at issue.

The jacket copy of The Last of the Nuba summarizes faithfully the main line of the self-vindication which Riefenstahl fabricated in the 1950s and which is most fully spelled out in the interview she gave to the prestigious French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma in September, 1965. There she denied that any of her work was propaganda, insisting it was cinema verité. “Not a single scene is staged,” Riefenstahl says of Triumph of the Will. “Everything is genuine. And there is no tendentious commentary for the simple reason that there is no commentary at all. It is historypure history.”

Although Triumph of the Will has no narrative voice it does open with a written text that heralds the rally as the redemptive culmination of German history. But this opening commentary is the least original of the ways in which the film is tendentious. Triumph of the Will represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater. In her book published in 1935, Riefenstahl had told the truth. The Nuremberg Rally “was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting—but as a spectacular propaganda film…. The ceremonies and precise plans of the parades, marches, processions, the architecture of the halls and stadium were designed for the convenience of the cameras.” How the Party convention was staged was determined by the decision to produce Triumph of the Will. The event, instead of being an end in itself, served as the set of a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary. Anyone who defends Riefenstahl’s films as documentaries, if documentary is to be distinguished from propaganda, is being ingenuous. In Triumph of the Will, the document (the image) is no longer simply the record of reality; “reality” has been constructed to serve the image.

The rehabilitation of proscribed figures in liberal societies does not happen with the sweeping bureaucratic finality of the Soviet Encyclopedia, in which each new edition brings forward a dozen hitherto unmentionable figures and lowers an equal or greater number through the trap door of nonexistence. Our rehabilitations are softer, more insidious. It is not that Riefenstahl’s Nazi past has suddenly become acceptable. It is simply that, with the turn of the cultural wheel, it no longer matters. The purification of Leni Riefenstahl’s reputation of its Nazi dross has been gathering momentum for some time, but it reached some kind of climax this past year, with Riefenstahl the guest of honor at a new cinéphile-controlled film festival held in the summer in Colorado and the subject of a two-part interview program on CBS’s “Camera, Three,” and now with the publication of The Last of the Nuba.

Part of the impetus behind Riefenstahl’s recent promotion to the status of a cultural monument surely is owing to the fact that she is a woman. In the roll call that runs from Germaine Dulac and Dorothy Arzner to Vera Chytilova, Agnès Varda, Mai Zetterling, Shirley Clarke, et al., Riefenstahl stands out as the only woman director who has done work likely to turn up on lists of the Twenty Greatest Films Of All Time. The 1973 New York Film Festival poster, made by a well-known artist who is also a feminist, shows a blond doll-woman whose right breast is encircled by three names: Agnes Leni Shirley. Feminists would feel a pang at having to sacrifice the one woman who made films that everybody acknowledges to be firstrate.

But a stronger reason for the change in attitude toward Riefenstahl lies in a shift in taste which simply makes it impossible to reject art if it is “beautiful.” The line taken by Riefenstahl’s defenders, who now include the most influential voices in the avant-garde film establishment, is that she was always concerned with beauty. This, of course, has been Riefenstahl’s own contention for some years. Thus the Cahiers du Cinéma interviewer set Riefenstahl up by observing fatuously that what Triumph of the Will and Olympiad “have in common is that they both give form to a certain reality, itself based on a certain idea of form. Do you see anything peculiarly German about this concern for form?” To this Riefenstahl answered:

I can simply say that I feel spontaneously attracted by everything that is beautiful. Yes: beauty, harmony. And perhaps this care for composition, this aspiration to form is in effect something very German. But I don’t know these things myself, exactly. It comes from the unconscious and not from my knowledge…. What do you want me to add? Whatever is purely realistic, slice-of-life, what is average, quotidian, doesn’t interest me…. I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, what is living. I seek harmony. When harmony is produced I am happy. I believe, with this, that I have answered you.

This is why The Last of the Nuba is the final, necessary step in Riefenstahl’s rehabilitation. It is the final rewrite of the past; or, for her partisans, the definitive confirmation that she was always a beauty-freak rather than a horrid propagandist.3 Inside the beautifully produced book, photographs of the perfect, noble tribe. And on the jacket, photographs of “my perfect German woman” (as Hitler called Riefenstahl), vanquishing the slights of history, all smiles.

Admittedly, if The Last of the Nuba were not signed by Leni Riefenstahl one would not necessarily suspect that these photographs had been taken by the most interesting, talented, and effective artist of the Nazi regime. Most people who leaf through The Last of the Nuba will probably look at the pictures as one more lament for vanishing primitives, of which the greatest example is Lévi-Strauss on the Bororo Indians in Brazil in Tristes Tropiques. But if the photographs are examined carefully, in conjunction with the lengthy text written by Riefenstahl, it becomes clear that they are continuous with her Nazi work.

Riefenstahl’s choice of photographic subject—this tribe and not another—expresses a very particular slant. She interprets the Nuba as a mystical people with an extraordinarily developed artistic sense (one of the few possessions which everyone owns is a lyre). They are all beautiful (Nuba men, Riefenstahl notes, “have an athletic build rare in any other African tribe”); although they have to work hard to survive in the unhospitable desert (they are cattle herders and hunters), she insists that their principal activity is ceremonial. The Last of the Nuba is about a primitivist ideal: a portrait of a people subsisting untouched by “civilization,” in a pure harmony with their environment.

All four of Riefenstahl’s commissioned Nazi films—whether about Party congresses, the Wehrmacht, or athletes—celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader. They follow directly from the films of Fanck in which she acted and from her own The Blue Light. The fictional mountain films are tales of longing for high places, of the challenge and ordeal of the elemental, the primitive; the Nazi films are epics of achieved community, in which triumph over everyday reality is achieved by ecstatic self-control and submission. The Last of the Nuba, an elegy for the soon-to-be-extinguished beauty and mystic powers of primitives, can be seen as the third in Riefenstahl’s triptych of fascist visuals.

  1. 2

    See Hans Barkhausen, “Footnote to the History of Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympia,’ ” Film Quarterly, Fall, 1974—a rare act of informed dissent amid the large number of tributes to Riefenstahl that have appeared in American and Western European film magazines during the last few years.

  2. 3

    This is how Jonas Mekas (Village Voice, October 31, 1974) salutes the publication of The Last of the Nuba. “[Leni Riefenstahl] continues her celebration—or is it a search?—of the classical beauty of the human body, the search which she began in her films. She is interested in the ideal, in the monumental.” Mekas in the same paper on November 7, 1974: “And here is my own final statement on Riefenstahl’s films: If you are an idealist, you will see idealism; if you are a classicist, you will see in her films an ode to classicism; if you are a Nazi, you will see Nazism.”

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