That Old Feeling: Leni's Triumph

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Birthdays are an occasion for hail and farewell: celebrate the achievement, mourn the passing. In previous That Old Feeling columns we have noted the natal anniversaries of Marilyn Monroe (75), Jean Shepherd (80), Marlene Dietrich, Richard Rodgers and Ogden Nash (all 100) and "E.T." (20). But all those luminaries had long been in the earth, or the can. Now we commemorate someone who is still alive and kicking — kicking high, though not nearly so high as those who have hated her for nearly 70 years. Today, Leni Riefenstahl is 100.

Has any filmmaker lived to 100? How many artists in any field, in recorded history, survived that long? (Quick answers: Irving Berlin, 101; Georgia O'Keefe, 100; George Burns, 100.) Did Willard Scott wish her well? She's not in a nursing home, either. Riefenstahl has endured all manner of hexes and accidents — most recently a helicopter crash two years ago in Sudan — yet she keeps working and playing. This week, on Europe's Arte Channel, she is premiering her first film in a half-century, "Underwater Impressions," the fruit of 30 years of submerged cinematography. This March she went Scuba diving in the Maldives. With Riefenstahl was Horst Kettner, who has been her cameraman, and her boyfriend, since she was 60 and he was 20.

"Riefenstahl," as rendered from the German by Google's always amusing Instant Translator, means "scoring steel." To judge from her exploits, she must have been born with steel in her spine, her brain and, possibly, her heart. No question, Frau R. is indomitable, a chronic adventurer — adventuress, if you wish. "Ms. Riefenstahl has declared herself immortal," wrote John Kingston on amazon.com, "and God is taking her at her word."



"AN ACCURSED WITCH"

God or the Devil. Her legion of critics would pick the latter. To them, Riefenstahl is the Nazi's favorite filmmaker, the director of the infamous Nazi rally film "Triumph of the Will" (1935) and the Berlin Olympics documentary "Olympia" (1938), in which Der Führer plays a starring role. Over the years, Riefenstahl has been charged with everything from being Hitler's or Goebbels' mistress (maybe both at once; it's a better story) to being a Nazi party member (author Steven Bach claims he has the proof; she denies it, and says she received as much hindrance as help from the Third Reich). Budd Schulberg, in a 1946 Saturday Evening Post article, leeringly called her a "Nazi pinup girl." "Triumph," released a decade before the revelation of the Nazi death camps, was seen as an all-too-knowing preview of Treblinka. This one film cast a shadow on her career that she could never escape.

FRIEDRICH ROHRMANN/AFP
A newsreel raised to the level of dramatic myth: Riefenstahl directs 'Triumph of the Will'

In her directorial debut, "The Blue Light," a superstitious villager calls the mystic mountain girl Riefenstahl plays "an accursed witch." That calumny isn't far from what was the critical consensus for decades after World War II ended. When leftist historians weren't forcing cancellations of her lectures or smashing crockery at the very mention of her name, they were scorning "Triumph" as "sheer tedium" and seeing fascism within every muscular body in "Olympia" or in her later, luscious photographs of Nuba tribesmen. In the late 60s someone proposed a Riefenstahl retrospective — a chance finally to view all her films, so long shrouded in notoriety and ignorance — at a leading U.S. cultural institution. The head of the film department there replied that if he were to meet the director, he would "cut her nipples off."

That comment is as telling as it is vile. There's no question that "Triumph" glorified Hitler (just named Chancellor the year before the sixth Party Congress that Riefenstahl filmed), just as Sergei Eisenstein's silent Soviet masterpiece "October" glorified Stalin (who insisted, just before the film was released, that all sympathetic footage of Trotsky be removed). And America's old Lefties were as intolerant of the blinkered lapses of a right-wing, but not Nazi, filmmaker like Riefenstahl as they were indulgent of the homicidal excesses of the Soviet Union.

But to the film department head, Riefenstahl's other sin, I suspect, was being a woman — a woman who, uniquely, dared to play the man's game of filmmaking. Play and win, for, by any disinterested standard, "Triumph" and "Olympia" are towering artistic achievements. Critic Pauline Kael declared them to be "the two greatest films ever directed by a woman."

Riefenstahl has had her admirers (we usually have to say "defenders"), and I've been one of them. Partly because I admire her films, and partly because I'm impressed by her standing as a total auteur: producer, writer, director, editor and, in the fiction films, actress. But also because I've long been exasperated by the righteous venom of her sternest critics. The issues her films and her career raise are as complex and they are important, and her vilifiers tend to reduce the argument to one of a director's complicity in atrocity or her criminal ignorance. I first wrote about Riefenstahl in 1969, for Film Heritage. In 1993 I greeted the publication of her memoir and the release of a documentary about her with a two-page review in Time (from which some of this column is taken). Here I am again, tracing the brave and compromised triumph of Leni Riefenstahl's will.



"I CAN DO IT"

In 1925 a young woman walked up to Luis Trenker, star of German mountain movies, and said, "I'm going to be in your next picture." She was a dancer, not an actress — and, as the amused Trenker pointed out, she was no mountain climber. "I can do it if I make up my mind to," the young woman asserted. As soon as Trenker's director, Arnold Fanck, saw her photo, he wrote a starring role for her in his next film, "The Holy Mountain." Leni Riefenstahl was 23.

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