That Old Feeling: Leni's Triumph

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In 1971, Riefenstahl went scuba diving in some beautiful waters. Ambition and inspiration struck again, and she began preparing the film she finished as a 100th birthday present to herself. "Underwater films are either scientific, like Jacques Cousteau's," she told Time Correspondent Rhea Schoenthal in 1983, "or sensational, like the Hollywood shark films. But there are none like this one we plan." Then, her strong voice lowering, she says, "There will be no commentary" — as there was none in "Triumph." Guided below by Riefenstahl, like Dante by Beatrice, viewers will merely behold and be awed. They might also be awed by the charisma of this incorrigible, indefatigable picturemaker, now diving into her second century.

No one has had a life like Riefenstahl's. No one's films were so brilliant, yet achieved under such a cloud. And no one paid for political myopia with so long and rancorous an exile. In the 30s she won the tyrant trifecta. Stalin sent her a note praising her film Olympia. Mussolini asked her to make a documentary about the Pontine marshes. And Hitler was her patron for three documentaries about his party, especially "Triumph of the Will," which helped define Nazi swagger.

"Hitler did not play such an important role in my life," she told Schoenthal in discussing the documentary trilogy for the Fifth Nazi Congress ("Victory of Faith"), the Sixth ("Triumph") and the Seventh ("Day of Freedom"). "I made one film for him, which had three parts, and out of that the press wove a legend." Wove a horror story. Though she shot her last feature film, "Tiefland," in the early 40s, and released it in 1954, Riefenstahl is still the world's most controversial director; her name summons the conflicts of defiant artistry and compromised morality. For evidence, turn to a pair of fascinating, sometimes contradictory testaments: her autobiography "Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir" (published in Germany in 1988 and in its English translation five years later) and Ray Muller's bio-documentary "The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" (1993).

She starred in seven Fanck adventures, climbing mountains barefoot, enduring avalanches, crossing deep crevasses on a rickety ladder, radiating alpine glamour. She directed and starred in two innocent, ravishingly visualized fiction features, "The Blue Light" (1932) and "Tiefland." But it is her feature documentaries, and their antithetical leading players, that even today make her noted and notorious. "Triumph" starred Adolf Hitler in a charismatically spooky performance. The two-part "Olympia" (1938) starred Jesse Owens, the black American runner.

For "Triumph" and "Olympia," Riefenstahl deserves to be classed with Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, and Orson Welles as one of the cinema's great innovator artists. She did more than make epic movies; she created whole genres. "Triumph" was newsreel raised to romantic myth. The subject was hardly unique: totalitarian parades could be seen then in Moscow or today in Beijing. Granted, Hitler had star quality, and Albert Speer's architecture had a grandiosity worthy of a Busby Berkeley set. But the film's pulse, accelerating from stately to feverish, is in Riefenstahl's masterly editing. She needed no narration to tell you what to think or feel; her images and editing were persuasive enough.

All televised sport is indebted to "Olympia"; it pioneered such techniques as cameras in balloons, in ditches, on a track racing with the sprinters, underwater as divers slice into the Olympic pool. More important, the film personalized the athletes: the glint of confidence on Owens' face, the exhaustion of the marathoners as each painful step leads toward the stadium. In a way, Riefenstahl's achievements in "Triumph" and "Olympia" are more impressive than those of fiction-film directors. They had a script; she had only miles of footage (250 miles for "Olympia") to be scanned and scissored into art. She did it, controlling every frame of both films herself.


Can't we say that every film is propaganda? It peddles emotion, content, a romantic or pessimistic ideology. The relation of the camera to the actor, of one shot underlining or counterpointing another, represents a marshalling of forces to make the viewer feel, think, believe those cunning lies on the screen. Riefenstahl made heroes of a mountain girl, a dictator, an athlete, a Nuba tribesman, an underwater realm. To her, all were as true as any John Ford Western or Hitchcock thriller; they were true romances. "I just observed and tried to film it well," she said of the Nuremburg rally. "I'd have made exactly the same film in Moscow if the need arose — though I'd have preferred not."

Many fine filmmakers have worked under dictatorships: Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti in fascist Italy; Douglas Sirk and G.W. Pabst in the Third Reich; Eisenstein (profitably, then pathetically) for Stalin. U.S. directors, with no official prodding, often made racist films. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" was rabidly anti-Negro, and many 30s and 40s films used horrendous ethnic stereotypes. In the past decade we have seen the heroic, compromised struggles of humanist directors in the People's Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

<--pagebreak--> Unquestionably, Riefenstahl confused cinema verite and cinema naivete. But her detractors are wrong in demanding that she have both an artist's vision and a prophet's precognition. The specter of her brief flourishing under Hitler was so long and dark that, as she said in 1993, "for 50 years I have not been able to do what I passionately want to do: make films." Veit Harlan, who directed the villainously Hebraiphobic "Jew Suss," was back making German films by 1950. Even Fritz Hippler, the Propaganda Ministry's film boss who produced the all-time odious documentary "The Eternal Jew," in which the inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto are compared to pestilential rats, lived a quiet life in Hitler's favorite vacation spot, Berchtesgaden, until his death this March. Yet through boycott and bad luck, Riefenstahl, never charged with anti-Semitism, could not complete a film for 50 years.

In one sense, it's astonishing that any film of a political convention could be called the most potent or venal documentary in movie history. We know why "Triumph" carried a charnel whiff: because it provided a glimpse of the Third Reich in its strutting infancy. But why, 67 years after its release, is the picture so powerful? Three reasons: because the event was spectacular theater, because Hitler was a mesmerizing orator, and because Riefenstahl was — is — a great filmmaker.

One trouble "Triumph" has is that it's just too good a movie, too potent and mesmerizing. It wouldn't sicken viewers if it didn't first seduce them with those bright, hopeful faces under that blond, cornfield hair, and with the grandiloquent showmanship of its main speaker. The film must be punished for the taboo thrill it engenders, and the people who see it must atone for any aesthetic pleasure or fascination by dismissing the film as heinous. Another problem is that Riefenstahl's visual style — heroic, sensuous, attuned to the mists and myths of nature — was never in critical fashion. Finally, Riefenstahl was a woman, a beautiful woman. When she was seen with Hitler, their photos made the world's front pages. And the image stuck.


To hear Riefenstahl talk, what counted was not the men in her past but the man in her. "I have a man's way of thinking but a woman's way of feeling," she told Schoenthal. "To my advantage, I have a great organizing talent. I can do a cost estimate, tell camera people what to do, organize film material. But this wish to be creative excludes many things. My view is very narrow," she explained, raising her hands in front of her face like the sides of the camera frame. Her vision was acute within that frame but myopic outside it, in the real Welt, where other Germans noticed things were going evil. If blinkered, though, she was not unique among artists in Germany, Japan or the Soviet Union.

If her book denies some things, it remembers all — helpful if you are forever on display and on trial. In vivid detail (Mussolini looks "like a Caruso in uniform"), the book unfolds with the archetypal figures and engorged emotions of silent films ("You must be my mistress," Goebbels implores; "I need you — without you my life is a torment!"). A fascinating political and personal history, the book could make an enthralling movie. No wonder two film eminences have been trying to bring the lady's life to the screen. As Jeff Chu noted in his Time Europe article on Riefenstahl, both Jodie Foster and Paul Verhoeven have planned Leni bio-pics. Ever the curator of her undying glamour, Riefenstahl told Verhoeven, "Jodie's not beautiful enough to play me." Instead, she suggested an actress who had come to stardom in a Verhoeven movie: "That," he told Chu, "was Leni's ultimate idea of herself: Sharon Stone in 'Basic Instinct'."

The true bio-pic must be Muller's documentary: a galloping, galvanizing three hours in the company of a beguiling, infuriating mythmaker. "Her enthusiasm is so intense," Muller told Time's Beth Bland in 1993. "It is a quality I wish more filmmakers of this generation shared." For his camera, Riefenstahl tirelessly revisited the sites of her triumphs and debacles, defended her life, argued with the first man in 60 years to try to direct her. "When the subject was art, diving, things she likes," he recalls, "she was charming, interesting, a wonderful person. But she is still a '30s diva, after all, and not accustomed to being crossed. By the second day, I was asking prickly questions, and she was having choleric fits."

Unsurprisingly, Riefenstahl refused to see this Wonderful Horrible Life. "I cried, and they filmed it," she said. "He was brutal." But perhaps this woman whose best hours were spent looking at film should finally look at this one. It adapts her supple camera style and keen editing eye to an amazing subject. I have hopes for "Underwater Impressions," but I know that "The Wonderful, Horrible Life" is the last great Leni Riefenstahl film.

Next week: Leni's Five Lives

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