The ‘Triumph’ of Time
"Actress Leni Riefenstahl, friend and favorite of Adolph Hitler, convinced a denazification court for the second time today that her career during the Third Reich was artistic rather than political."
Los Angeles Examiner — April 22, 1952
Fifty years later, this past Aug. 22, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl chose the occasion of her 100th birthday to advertise the release of her new documentary film, "Impressions Under Water." What for Riefenstahl represents the achievement of her body’s fight against time, for her critics it represents yet another effort to reinvent the legacy of the artist’s tainted past.
In regard to "Underwater Impressions," Riefenstahl recently commented: "My film shows the beauty of the underwater world. I hope it will touch the viewer’s conscience, as it illustrates just what the world will lose when nothing is done to stop the destruction of our oceans. I once said that I am fascinated by the beautiful and the living. I seek harmony, and under water, I have found it."
But how can an artist, whose life ethic was marked by her commitment to the Nazi regime, pretend to lecture the world about having a conscience, and then proceed to talk about her fascination with beauty and the living, when it was through the beauty of her visuals that Frau Riefenstahl immortalized the inhuman cult of the Third Reich?
Riefenstahl has always had a talent for showcasing beauty. At first, beauty was embodied in her dancing, which took her all over European stages, including performances for the prestigious Max Reinhard’s theater company.
Beauty followed her entrance in the world of mountain-climbing films, where she acted under the direction of Dr. Arnold Fanck. The mountain films were a mix of the Alps’ imposing beauty with that of Riefenstahl’s characters, exemplified in "The Blue Light" (1932), the actress’ directorial debut that centered on the story of a naïve girl named Junta (played by Riefenstahl) and her obsession for the blue light of Mount Cristallo.
Then, Riefenstahl chose a new career path, one that would place her talent at the service of politics — a career financed by the Führer’s admiration and interest in propagating the ideal of the Nazi state. The most notorious, "Triumph of the Will," a documentary film about Nuremberg’s 1934 Nazi rally, organized from Sept. 5-20, showed Riefenstahl’s capacity for beauty, earning her Germany’s Festival of the Nation Award and France’s Diplome du Grand Prix.
Ironically, in 1939, France created — through Philippe Erlanger, a member of the Association Française d’Action Artistique — the Cannes Film Festival in response to a decision by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s Venice Film Festival to award "The Olympiad" (1938), a Riefenstahl documentary about the German Olympic Games, the year’s best film award.
In November that same year, Riefenstahl arrived in Los Angeles with the intention of finding a distributor for "The Olympiad." The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, headed by screenwriters Donald Odgen Stewart and Dorothy Parker, organized a strong campaign to boycott the efforts of an artist whose ties with the Nazi regime were more than enough to discredit her talent for beauty.
At the same time, the outrage over Kristallnacht infuriated the exiled Jewish community that found in Riefenstahl a representative of the Third Reich in America. On Nov. 29, 1939, an advertisement was published in Daily Variety, which said:
"Today, Leni Riefenstahl, head of the Nazi film industry, has arrived in Hollywood. There is no room in Hollywood for Leni Riefenstahl. In this moment when hundreds of thousands of our brethren await certain death, close your doors to all Nazi agents.
"Let the world know there is no room in Hollywood for a Nazi agent. Sign the petition for an economic embargo against Germany."
When Riefenstahl departed Los Angeles, she said, " I hope next time it will be different when I come, yes?" And yes was the answer given to her in August 1997 by the Cinecom Society of Cinephiles in the form of a tribute ceremony organized in the secrecy of Glendale’s Red Lion Hotel. Kevin John Charbeneau, Cinecom’ s president, described the event as a tribute to "a dancer, a choreographer, an actress, a cinematographer and a director."
But not everybody shared Charbeneau’s view. In 1975, when Riefenstahl produced a pictorial book on Africa’s Nuba tribe, two major efforts were made in an effort to thwart her comeback. Susan Sontag wrote an essay, "Fascinating Fascism," that analyzed what the film critic considered the undertones of the Nazi ideology embodied in Riefenstahl’s "The Last of the Nuba."
In the essay, Sontag wrote, "In celebrating a society where the exhibition of physical skill and courage and the victory of the stronger man over the weaker are, as she sees it, the unifying symbols of the communal culture — where success in fighting is the ‘main’ aspiration of a man’s life — Riefenstahl seems hardly to have modified the ideas of her Nazi films."
The second major attack on her came from the investigative work of World War II B-17 pilot Glenn B. Infield’s "Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess," a well-documented book about Riefenstahl’s close ties with the Third Reich. The chapter, "The War Years," records the tragedies that befell artists such as Joachim Gottschalk and Kurt Gerron, whose decisions not to follow the Nazis caused their downfalls.
Jean Renoir’s "La Grande Illusion" (1937), Charles Chaplin’s "The Great Dictator" (1940), Manolo Alonso’s "I Am Hitler" (1942), George Pal’s "Tulips Shall Grow" (1942) and Alain Resnais’ "Night and Fog" (1955) are, what philosopher Albert Camus defined as the work of artists who, by definition, cannot put themselves at the service of those who make history, but at the service of those who suffer it.
No matter what Riefenstahl does in her remaining days, it will be impossible for the "artist" to erase the actions of the past. If her desire is that of being accepted, she should start by humbly disappearing from public life in respect for those that suffered the horror of the political machine that she helped promote and immortalize.
On the eve of the 68th anniversary of the making of "Triumph of the Will," it would be ideal, and necessary, for the sake of society and its future to reevaluate the roles of our often-overprotected "artists.’