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An Exchange on Leni Riefenstahl

In response to:

Fascinating Fascism from the February 6, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

It is a pity that Susan Sontag’s attempt to deal critically with the work of Leni Riefenstahl [NYR, February 6] is so marred with factual and historical errors. But unfortunately, these errors are so great that they call into question her critical conclusions. Ms. Sontag presents her article as an attempt to establish “the facts of the case,” and disprove the “misinformation that Riefenstahl has been dispensing for the last twenty years.” In doing so, Ms. Sontag manages to discuss a film that Riefenstahl never made, and to quote a completely nonexistent statement from Riefenstahl’s 1935 book.

First, to discuss the film that Riefenstahl never made. This falsehood has been constantly surfacing ever since it was first printed in a 1965 issue of Film Comment. In that issue, James Manilla gave a brief review of a film that he claimed was made by Riefenstahl entitled Berchtesgaden über Salzburg. Before going to such lavish extremes to describe a film she could never have seen (“a fifty minute lyric portrait of the Führer against the rugged mountain scenery of his new retreat”), Ms. Sontag would have been better off using her time for a little scholarly research. If she had, she would have found that in the Summer 1972 issue of Film Library Quarterly, Manilla concedes his mistake in having identified Riefenstahl as the director of the film.

Even more astonishing, however, is Ms. Sontag’s use of a purported quote from Riefenstahl’s 1935 book, Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitag Films. Sontag uses the quote in an attempt to use Riefenstahl’s own words to disprove some of her later statements. The quote, as it appears on page 25 of the article, is “[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.” Although she cites the book as the source of the quote, Ms. Sontag gives no specific page reference. It is in fact impossible for Ms. Sontag to give a page reference, because the statement does not appear anywhere in the book. I can personally attest to having studied the book from cover to cover in a vain attempt to find this statement. The quote was familiar, however, and I finally did find it, though not in Riefenstahl’s book. In his famous book, From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer makes this statement (his own, quoting no one): “The Convention was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but as spectacular film propaganda” (Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, Princeton University Press, p. 301). From the similarity of these two phrasings, it is safe to conclude that rather than quoting Riefenstahl, Sontag is merely quoting the subjective criticism of Kracauer. For a person who accuses Riefenstahl of deliberately distorting facts, Ms. Sontag is herself walking on extremely thin ice.

But regardless of who made the above statement, the statement itself is open to serious question. First, a careful reading of the book, Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitag Films, gives the exact opposite impression of a Rally meticulously planned with the film in mind. The book is full of references to the difficulties in making the film, difficulties which would never have arisen with careful advance planning. For example, it was difficult for speeches in the hall to be recorded since only one row was made available for the sound equipment (p. 20). Other references are made to film towers that were not completed until halfway through the rally (p. 24). For overhead shots, cameramen had to balance themselves on the rooftops of the old houses of Nuremberg. Riefenstahl has stated in later interviews that planning for the film did not commence until she arrived in Nuremberg a week before the Rally started. The book’s description of the making of the film supports Riefenstahl’s later statements.

But a still further question must be asked: is it possible to presume that the Rally, and the architecture designed for it, would have been any different without the presence of Riefenstahl and her filming crew? A study of the history of the Nuremberg rallies indicates that, even though a filmic value was later appreciated, the rallies were the central event of the Nazi Party and were staged for the benefit of those hundreds of thousands actually in attendance. The film could only attempt to approximate the fanaticism that was evident at the Rally; that Riefenstahl was able to capture these feelings on film as effectively as she did is a credit to her abilities as a documentary filmmaker. (Riefenstahl’s innovative use of telescopic lenses to record unnoticed the reactions of members of the crowd is further testimony to the documentary, rather than staged, nature of the film.)

Nor is it logical to presume that the architect of the Rallies, Albert Speer, would have altered his architectural plans for the one-shot benefit of Riefenstahl and her film crew. Riefenstahl filmed just one Rally in entirety; the buildings were designed to stand for centuries. As can be seen in Speer’s memoirs or in any objective appraisal of Nazi art and architecture, the raison d’être of that architecture existed quite independently of its cinematic possibilities. Seen in this view, Kracauer’s damnation of the film seems to be based on trivial grounds. Obviously some concessions were made to facilitate the filming, as is true for any modern event since the invention of recording equipment. But these concessions were minor and unworthy of the importance Kracauer attaches to them.

Another astonishing example of Ms. Sontag’s undocumented “statement of facts” is her statement on page 24 that “there was never any struggle between the filmmaker and the German Minister of Propaganda.” She further states “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.” It would seem that the burden of proof in this instance is Sontag’s, although again, she prefers incorrect and unsupported statements to documented proof. First, the facts show that Leni did not know Hitler “long before 1932,” but rather met him for the first time in 1932 after Hitler had seen her film, Das Blaue Licht. For proof of this, Ms. Sontag can consult the memoirs of Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, an early Nazi and friend of Hitler. She will find in the memoirs (Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler—The Missing Years, London, 1956) a complete description of Riefenstahl’s first introduction to Hitler in 1932.

Furthermore, the evidence certainly does support Riefenstahl’s claim that Goebbels hated her. To cite just one source, there is the rather unequivocal statement by Henry Jaworsky, one of her cameramen for Olympia and for the past twenty years a resident of New York (and who hasn’t seen Riefenstahl since 1948), made in an interview in the Spring 1973 issue of Film Culture. “They hated each other, that’s a fact. Goebbels tried to get rid of her very hard. Goebbels hated her guts…. He tried hard, Goebbels, to sabotage her work, everybody knew that. She hated him and he hated her” (Film Culture, Spring 1973, p. 143).

Goebbels’s own statements give his feelings toward women and their place in society. Given his extremist sexist attitudes, it is not hard to imagine, nor should it be difficult for Ms. Sontag, why he would resent Riefenstahl, her access to Hitler, and her freedom to work outside the confines of Goebbels’s Reichsfilmkammer.

To close with one more, though hardly final, example of Ms. Sontag’s incorrect citing of history, there is her statement on page 23, referring to Riefenstahl’s documentary short, Tag der Freiheit. “Her third film, Day of Freedom: Our Army (Tag der Freiheit: Unser Wehrmacht, 1933, released in 1935) was made for the army, and depicts the beauty of soldiers and soldiering for the Führer.” The film was not made in 1933, but in 1935, a year after Triumph of the Will. It is a short film made to appease the Wehrmacht generals who were annoyed with the absence of footage showing the Wehrmacht in the 1934 Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl had shot a small amount of footage of the Wehrmacht for Triumph, but it rained and the footage was unusable. So Riefenstahl returned the following year and made the short, Tag der Freiheit, in one day with six cameramen. It is not an important work of Riefenstahl’s, and had been lost until two years ago. The statement that the film depicted the “beauty of soldiering for the Führer” is a purely subjective statement on Ms. Sontag’s part. Anyone who has seen what remains of the film today could legitimately argue with that assertion, since the bulk of the film is merely an uninspiring filming of some very monotonous war exercises.

I would like to write a criticism of Ms. Sontag’s criticism, but that attempt would require an article of the length of Ms. Sontag’s rather than a letter to the editors. The important thing at the moment is to correct Ms. Sontag’s grossly incorrect historical “statements of fact” before they are repeated as fact by others. I hope that in the future, Ms. Sontag will exercise far more responsibility in her research before she starts writing.

David B. Hinton

Lecturer in Film, Schiller College

Heidelberg, Germany

Susan Sontag replies:

Mr. Hinton’s concern about whether a film was made in 1933 or 1935 is not simply the professional zeal of a Lecturer in Film at Heidelberg. All Leni Riefenstahl’s partisans are interested in obfuscating the central issues raised by her films and by The Last of the Nuba. And those issues were the subject of my essay—not, as Mr. Hinton claims, the boldly re-edited version of her career and intentions that she has managed, with enormous success, to get into circulation. An altogether secondary and rather easy target, that. Several days of reading in the standard sources turned up dozens of lies and misstatements of fact dispensed by Riefenstahl and her defenders which Mr. Hinton does not contest. Three mistakes did creep in, however.

(1) My source for the description of Berchtesgaden über Salzburg was the Histoire du Cinéma Nazi by Francis Courtade and Pierre Cadars (Paris: Eric Losfeld, 1972). Checking back, I see that their source is indeed an article by James Manilla in Film Comment. Berchtesgaden über Salzburg is also described in David Stewart Hull’s Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969) and Richard D. Mandell’s The Nazi Olympics (New York: Macmillan, 1971)—the Manilla trap again.

(2) The quote from Hinter den Kulissen comes from Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 176, and Mr. Vogel has ruefully confirmed the inauthenticity of just those two sentences—part of a long, and otherwise correct, quotation from Hinter den Kulissen given in his book. Mr. Vogel has been kind enough to supply me with a photocopy of Hinter den Kulissen—published in Munich by the Nazi Party Press in 1935—and a translation into English. Following Mr. Hinton’s example, I too can now “personally attest to having studied the book from cover to cover”—all twenty-eight pages followed by seventy-four pages of photographs.

(3) I don’t recall where I picked up the misinformation that Tag der Freiheit, although released in 1935, was made in 1933, since all sources I have reconsulted confirm that it was made after, not before, Triumph of the Will. But, contrary to what Mr. Hinton alleges, the army appears throughout the second half of Triumph of the Will. Although inclement weather did prevent Riefenstahl from filming as much of a key military review as she had hoped, what footage she did shoot was usable—and used.

There is, indeed, a problem in getting the facts straight about Riefenstahl. My secondary sources may have been defective on three points but they’re still more reliable than Riefenstahl herself. And while I regret having perpetuated even the most trivial errors of current Riefenstahl scholarship, I deny that these errors in any way call into question my “critical conclusions” (as Mr. Hinton calls them) about Riefenstahl’s work and the general characteristics of fascist aesthetics.

Mr. Hinton prefers to rely on the primary sources: Riefenstahl and her friends. Hence, the numerous mistakes he makes in his strident letter; hence, his curious notion of “documented proof.” It will hardly do to say that something in Hinter den Kulissen “supports Riefenstahl’s later statements”—ostensibly quoting Riefenstahl from one place to support an assertion she has made elsewhere—when it is precisely Riefenstahl’s veracity that is in doubt. And I wonder why Mr. Hinton wields Hinter den Kulissen with such confidence. It is clear that he has read the interview with Riefenstahl in the August 1972 issue of the German magazine Filmkritik, since his version of how Tag der Freiheit was made (the rain, the trouble with the generals) is a close paraphrase of the account Riefenstahl gives there. But he has chosen not to mention Riefenstahl’s latest tactic (disclosed in that Filmkritik interview), which is to claim that she “didn’t write a single word” of Hinter den Kulissen—or even read it at the time.

Most of what Mr. Hinton says narrowly repeats Riefenstahl’s own recent claims. I stand by what he calls my “purely subjective statement” that the eighteen-minute Tag der Freiheit depicts the beauty of soldiering for the Führer. Does Mr. Hinton propose his assurances that it is “uninspired filming” and “not an important work of Riefenstahl’s” as objective testimony? His playing-down of this film follows the line that Riefenstahl has been obliged to adopt since 1971, when a print was found (it is available from Radim/Film Images, 17 W. 60th Street, New York City); during the 1950s and 1960s, when Riefenstahl (and everyone else) believed Tag der Freiheit to have been lost, she had dropped it from her filmography and brusquely refused to discuss it with interviewers.

Do “the facts show that Leni did not know Hitler long before 1932”? Although not on a first-name basis with Riefenstahl, I’d consider that allegation far from certain. And why does Mr. Hinton prefer the well-known account by “‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, an early Nazi and friend of Hitler,” to the one by Riefenstahl in an interview with Budd Schulberg (Saturday Evening Post, March 30, 1946)—same year, but very different circumstances? Both give a “complete description” (Mr. Hinton’s criterion), although neither “prove[s]” anything. David Gunston, who quotes the passage from Hanfstängl’s memoirs in his pioneering article on Riefenstahl in Film Quarterly (Vol. XIV, No. 1, Fall 1960), asserts that Hitler certainly knew her before 1932. One version is that they met at a Baltic coast resort in the late 1920s.

In the allegations made about Goebbels, there is more consistency; but all “evidence” comes from Riefenstahl herself, or from loyal ex-members of her entourage, like Heinz von Jaworsky, who was the cameraman on many films made in Nazi Germany between 1936 and 1941. By mentioning that Mr. Jaworsky has lived in New York for the past twenty years and has not seen Riefenstahl since 1948, Mr. Hinton means to promote Jaworsky as an impartial witness—a position Jaworsky explicitly disclaims. He begins the interview cited by Mr. Hinton by declaring his gratitude to Riefenstahl for having given him his professional start, and for helping him. “Remembering the past,” Jaworsky cautions the interviewers, “I don’t want to do anything that would do her any harm” (Film Culture, Nos. 56-57, Spring 1973, p. 129).

There may have been some tension between Riefenstahl and Goebbels, but hardly the fierce enmity she and her friends now insist on. Mr. Hinton argues that Goebbels’s “extremist sexist attitudes” make it easy to “imagine” why he would resent Riefenstahl. I’m trying to use my imagination, as Mr. Hinton suggests. Then was it Hitler’s sexist attitudes that led him to back Riefenstahl all the way? (Or is he implying that Hitler was a closet feminist?) But what Riefenstahl now alleges is a good deal more than resentment on Goebbels’s part; it is his attempted sabotage of her projects, for which there is no evidence—either for Triumph of the Will or, two years later, for her greatest film, Olympia (barely mentioned by Mr. Hinton), which was lavishly but secretly financed by Goebbels’s ministry behind the façade of a dummy production company.

Mr. Hinton refuses to acknowledge the difference between a fact and an idea (vide his petulant dismissal of Kracauer). Nobody ever claimed that Speer, who is listed on Triumph of the Will‘s credits as architect of the film, built the Nuremberg site only as a film set, or that the 1934 rally was staged only to be a film. What Mr. Hinton does not understand—or is denying—is the extreme importance that the Nazi leadership attached to these films, and to film as a propaganda medium. (Cf., Hinter, p. 15.) The annual rallies held at Nuremberg were not “the central event of the Nazi Party,” as he says imprecisely, but the central spectacle (spectacle having an essential role in Nazi politics)—with “a filmic value” that those keen film-buffs, Hitler and Goebbels, were early rather than late in appreciating.

Following his attempt to argue that Riefenstahl’s filming of the rally was marginal to the event, Mr. Hinton contends that there was virtually no cooperation between her and the Party—as if Riefenstahl arrived in Nuremberg in September 1934 the way filmmakers turned up at Woodstock. But every page of the text of Hinter den Kulissen, and many of the photographs, assert exactly what Mr. Hinton says they do not: that rally and film were planned together. Example: the photograph on page 31 of Hitler and Riefenstahl bending over some plans, with the caption: “The preparations for the Party congress were made in concert [literally: hand in hand] with the preparations for the camera work.”

Indicating a less than thorough cover-to-cover study of Hinter den Kulissen, Mr. Hinton says that “the book’s description of the making of the film supports Riefenstahl’s later statements” that “planning for the film did not commence until she arrived in Nuremberg a week before the Rally started.” Even Riefenstahl, adept as she is in rewriting her history, wouldn’t dare make that preposterous claim. Only someone who knows nothing about film-making could think it possible to begin planning any complex film—least of all, one so complex logistically—a week in advance.

According to Hinter den Kulissen (p. 16), the preparations began in May. (The rally was held on September 4-10.) Between May and late August, Riefenstahl went back and forth between Berlin and Nuremberg accompanied by key members of her crew, planning the film sequence by sequence, supervising the construction of “bridges, towers, and tracks” which were being “built in the most munificent manner, with the support of the City of Nuremberg, in order to achieve novel cinematic effects.” In late August, “The Führer comes to Nuremberg with the Chief of Staff [Viktor Lutze, head of the SA] for an inspection and to give final instructions” (p.16). What happened a week before the rally started was that the major part of Riefenstahl’s crew, 120 people, moved to Nuremberg and set up their headquarters in “a large empty building next to the beautiful Adolf-Hitler-Haus” that Julius Streicher had “gladly” placed at her “disposal” (p. 17). Her total crew was 172 people; the thirty-two cameramen were dressed in SA uniforms throughout the shooting, “a suggestion of the Chief of Staff, so that no one will disturb the solemnity of the image with his civilian clothing” (p. 18).

Further inventions by Mr. Hinton to support his cover-up of the nature of the help Riefenstahl got in preparing and shooting Triumph of the Will are those “difficulties in making the film” which “the book is full of”—“difficulties which would never have arisen with careful advance planning.” What Hinter den Kulissen recounts is a series of creative challenges, heroically met—with unstinting cooperation from the highest Party officials, the SA and the SS (who supplied a team of guards), and the city of Nuremberg. That some cameramen “had to balance themselves on the rooftops of the old houses of Nuremberg” is not called lack of “careful advance planning.” That’s called making a movie. Riefenstahl did put a few cameramen on rooftops to film Hitler’s triumphal motorcade through the city and arrival at the hotel (the second and third sequences), while other cameramen were shooting the same material from the sturdy film tower which had been built on a main thoroughfare. And Mr. Hinton’s “film towers that were not completed until halfway through the rally (p. 24)” seem to be one tower (mentioned on p. 23) put up at the SA camp at Langwasser—a tower not scheduled to be used until September 8, more than halfway through the rally.

There is nothing in Hinter den Kulissen about rally-long difficulties in recording “speeches in the hall”—presumably, the Speer-designed Luitpold Hall—because “only one row was made available for the sound equipment” (p. 20). What is mentioned on page 20 concerns one speech (Hitler’s “great speech on culture”), delivered on the afternoon of September 5 in Nuremberg at the Apollo Theater, where a box (not a row) had been reserved for the sound engineers, leaving “little possibility for us to record from a variety of points in the theater.” Hardly a difficulty—and hardly evidence of the Party’s lack of cooperation. And Mr. Hinton’s non sequitur about “Riefenstahl’s innovative use of telescopic lenses” is hardly “further testimony to the documentary, rather than staged, nature of the film.” To have photographed people who were not aware of being photographed (one of the many uses of telescopic lenses) doesn’t make Riefenstahl’s film less of a work of propaganda and of artifice, any more than it would make the events for which those people were mobilized less “staged.” Indeed, when some of the footage of Party leaders at the speaker’s rostrum was spoiled, Hitler gave orders for the shots to be refilmed; and Streicher, Rosenberg, Hess, and Frank histrionically repledged their fealty to the Führer weeks later, without Hitler and without an audience, on a studio set built by Speer (Speer, Inside the Third Reich, pp. 100-101).

Following the formula used by Riefenstahl in her 1965 interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, Mr. Hinton would make Triumph of the Will into a “purely historical” film. We are a long way from that vehement disdain for “the chronicle-film,” for mere “reportage” or “filmed facts,” as being unworthy of “the heroic style…of the actual happening,” which is expressed in Hinter den Kulissen (pp. 11-12, 15). If a source other than Hinter den Kulissen is wanted—since Riefenstahl now claims not to have written the book—there is an interview in the Völkischer Beobachter, August 26, 1933, about her filming of the 1933 Nuremberg rally, where she makes similar declarations.

Riefenstahl’s apologists all use the same tactics: assert that she had enemies among the Party leadership (Goebbels’s hatred); talk about Triumph of the Will as if it were an independent “documentary”; cite difficulties she encountered in shooting as if they proved she had opposition, instead of being a normal part of film-making. This year’s most dutiful rerun of the myth of Riefenstahl as mere documentarist—and political innocent—is the recently issued Filmguide to “Triumph of the Will” published in the Indiana University Press Filmguide Series, whose author, Richard Meran Barsam, concludes his preface by expressing his “gratitude to Leni Riefenstahl herself, who cooperated in many hours of interviews, opened her archive to my research, and took a genuine interest in this book.” Well she might take an interest in a book whose opening chapter is entitled “Leni Riefenstahl and the Burden of Independence,” and whose theme is “Riefenstahl’s belief that the artist must, at all costs, remain independent of the material world. In her own life, she has achieved artistic freedom, but at a great cost.” Etc. Barsam is a better scholar than Mr. Hinton; but the line is essentially the same—Riefenstahl’s—and we shall undoubtedly have more of it in Barsam’s forthcoming biography of Riefenstahl.

As an antidote, let me quote an unimpeachable source (at least he’s not here to say he didn’t write it)—Adolf Hitler. In his brief preface to Hinter den Kulissen, Hitler describes Triumph of the Will as “a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement.” And it is.

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