November 18, 2018

When Literary Heroes Are Anti-Semites

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot

In the middle of Hannah Gadsby’s provocative new Netflix stand-up comedy special, she launches into a diatribe against Pablo Picasso. To be clear: She really hates him. Not for his early figurative work, his temporary overreliance on the color blue or even his unapologetic appropriation of African art. No, she despises him because he treated women badly. Which he did. No argument there. But what Gadsby, who has a background in art history, argues is that her target’s considerable and universally acknowledged artistic accomplishments are entirely — not partially, mind you, but entirely — vitiated by what she takes to be his misogyny. The implication being that we should immediately rip down our Picassos and deposit them in the trash. 

This got me thinking about a problem I’ve had since I was 18 and read “The Great Gatsby” for the first time. I was luxuriating in Fitzgerald’s prose, in thrall to his storytelling ability, understanding as if for the first time what bracing heights the English language was capable of scaling, when the character of Meyer Wolfsheim slithered on to the page and a queasy feeling overcame me.

Wolfsheim was grotesque and Jewish. This was not good. Would a more appealing Jew soon appear to take some of the stink off Wolfsheim and let me get back to enjoying the novel? Perhaps the Buchanans would have a tennis date with the Feldmans from nearby Great Neck, Long Island. But the Feldmans never showed up. Wolfsheim remained the only Jew in the book and this made me apprehend Fitzgerald in a different, more complex way.

The issue soon arose again in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” when I encountered the character of Robert Cohn. Although not an oily gangster like Wolfsheim, the Princeton graduate Cohn is whiny, annoying and presented in pointed contrast to the gentile hero.

Soon after, upon discovering poet T.S. Eliot, my head began to hurt. “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar,” anyone? 

The rats are underneath the piles.

The jew is underneath the lot.

Wolfsheim, Cohn & Bleistein: The names scan like a law firm of literary anti-Semitism, created by writers whom the callow version of me hoped to emulate. And it got worse. Whereas the anti-Semitism of Hemingway and Fitzgerald was of the country club variety, and Eliot’s ontological (therefore more dangerous), I soon discovered that French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun of Norway not only were virulently anti-Semitic but embraced Nazism. In other words, there was a continuum, a spectrum of aesthetic jew-hating. What to make of the work generated by these flawed authors when the quality is unimpeachable but the creator’s morals of the gutter? 

Would that the problem be confined to literature. Consider painters. Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, 19th-century French masters I was taught in undergraduate art history classes to venerate, turned out to be anti-Dreyfusards. In their era, where a person stood on the Dreyfus case was an indication of their attitude about Jews in general. Emile Zola was a champion. The aforementioned Impressionists were not. Who would have thought that Renoir, painter of rosy-cheeked, Parisian bourgeois life, avatar of sunlight, leisure and beauty harbored hatred for his Jewish countrymen? How can I ever look at another one of his candy-colored canvases? But I do. That I don’t admire him the way I used to has to do with the development of my own taste, not his views of my co-religionists.

Wolfsheim, Cohn & Bleistein: The names scan like a law firm of literary anti-Semitism, created by writers whom the callow version of me hoped to emulate.

Which brings me to Mel Gibson. 

Gibson is appalling. I feel about him the way Gadsby feels about Picasso. This was not always so. I admired “Gallipoli,” “The Road Warrior” and “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Thought “Braveheart” deserved all the love it received. But after Gibson had a few drinks and revealed what he really felt about Jews (To refresh your memory: “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”)  — that was it for Mel and me.

Then there’s Leni Riefenstahl, an actual Nazi. I can watch her films and appreciate their artistry, but that is probably because while watching her films, I’m not looking at her smug Aryan face. Also, she’s dead. How can I watch the films of Hitler’s pal, but not those of Mel Gibson? The “Breathing the Same Air Theory” posits that once someone is no longer living, the moral opprobrium we heap upon them is allowed to lapse if we so choose. 

My friend Tom recently asked me why is it that we insist our artists be good neighbors. Indeed, the cultural conversation has been reframed in a way that forces us to examine our assumptions about artists we admire. And the verdicts are in: Roman Polanski, done. Kevin Spacey, don’t ask. Louis C.K.? Although the comedian has pockets of support, his attempted comeback has been greeted in mostly withering fashion. Some who have banished these men from their personal queues feel virtuous for taking a stand against the violation of agreed-upon mores; others just feel lingering revulsion. But at what cost? 

When we engage with a work of art, what is it we’re seeking? Insight, transcendence of our day-to-day lives, certainly, but perhaps, most of all, we’re seeking connection to the mind, the heart, the soul of another. This is why we who value artistic achievement revere those who create work that strongly affects us. Engaging with a work of art is to discard the protective carapace and open one’s being to that of the creator (lower-case c) so when we discover something reprehensible — misogyny, violence, anti-Semitism — it not only knocks the artist off the pedestal on which we’ve placed them but causes a sense of betrayal similar to that which can be felt at the hands of a lover. Then we re-assess.

What Polanski did, and what C.K. and Spacey are accused of doing, was reprehensible. But I’ll watch “Chinatown” again, watch C.K.’s comeback with interest, and continue to admire Spacey’s work in “L.A. Confidential” and the first season of “House of Cards.” But what of the anti-Semites? I’m still a fan of “The Sun Also Rises,” although if I had known Hemingway when he lived in Paris, I probably would have wanted to punch him in the nose. Fitzgerald? I re-read “Gatsby” every few years and only esteem it more. My admiration for “Four Quartets” even enables me to rise above Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which verges on the demented, although that didn’t stop him from participating in a fruitful correspondence with Groucho Marx, of whom he was a big fan. 

See, it’s personal. That’s how we relate to a painting, a poem, a movie, a pop song, a novel or an opera — I have to mention opera because it’s impossible to conclude a rumination like this without invoking Nazi avatar Richard Wagner, whose work has been performed by the Israel Philharmonic. Imagine the conversation those musicians had! If we conjure a socio-political prism through which every work of art must be viewed, rather than curators of our experience, we become the commissars of that experience and run the risk of a considerably blander world. 

That said, I can live without seeing “Lethal Weapon” again.


Seth Greenland is the author of five novels, including his most recent, “The Hazards of Good Fortune,” (Europa Editions, 2018). Greenland is also a playwright and screenwriter and has worked as a writer-producer for the Emmy-nominated HBO drama “Big Love.” Born in New York City, he currently lives in Los Angeles. sethgreenland.com 

Tending tolerance in ‘The Gardener’

Movies from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” have stirred political passions and ruffled international diplomatic feathers, and now comes “The Gardener.”

There are a number of ironies about this lyrical documentary. To start with, one of Iran’s greatest directors shot it in Israel, the Zionist bête noire of his country’s regime.

It is a movie about the common humanity and worth of men and women everywhere but has been met with emotional denunciations of the director in his native Tehran.

The director, writer, cinematographer and a main character of the movie is Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most prolific and honored auteurs, whose 2001 movie “Kandahar” — about an Afghan woman traveling through Taliban-ruled parts of her country — was named by Time magazine as one of the greatest 100 films of all time.

“Gardener” does not fit the common catchwords of today’s movie reviews. The film has been categorized as a surreal docudrama, but it is also a prolonged inquiry into the virtues and evils of organized religion and into the art of horticulture.

Not least, it offers an extended tour of one of the most beautiful spots in Israel, the Baha’i World Center and gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking the city and port of Haifa.

Working with the 57-year-old director is his son, Maysam Makhmalbaf (for simplicity’s sake, we will refer to father and son by their first names), who also serves as the irreverent voice of the younger generation and his father’s sparring partner in religious disputes.

The film’s title character is Ririva “Eona” Mabi, a middle-aged man from Papua New Guinea, who goes about tending the gardens’ magnificent flora not as a repetitive chore but as a form of prayer and worship.

In one slow, lovely scene, Eona carries some water in his cupped hands and then feeds it, drop by drop, into the leaves and stem of a single flower.

It speaks to the sometimes-odd symbolism of the movie to later see Mohsen imitate the gardener by planting the single leg to which his camera is attached into the ground, anointing the camera with water from his cupped hands.

While both Mohsen and Maysam persistently film one another in the process of filming their subjects, the father’s focus is on the gardener — working, napping, watching birds fly overhead — plumbing new depths of the man’s character.

The son is more restless and eclectic, in one passage interviewing three young Baha’i volunteers, all Americans, who had come to work at the center of their faith.

Maysam also leaves the gardens briefly and takes his camera to the Old City of Jerusalem to film three faiths at prayer — Jews at the Western Wall, Muslims at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

As he wanders, Maysam muses that all religions use the same rituals and similar interior architectures, the same candles and contrasts between dark and light, “everything to leave reality and enter a metaphysical world.”

The young Iranian also can’t help wondering what would happen if his native country went nuclear and bombed the Western Wall, which would leave the sacred Islamic Al-Aqsa in rubble.

Baha’ism was founded nearly 170 years ago in Persia and holds that every religion represents one facet of God, that divine revelation is a continuing process, that all humans, men and women, are equal and advocates universal education and world peace.

Its founder was promptly exiled to an Ottoman penal colony in Acre, another Baha’i holy site in Israel, and members of the faith have been intermittently persecuted in its founding country.

The film’s setting lends itself naturally to a running debate between father and son on the nature of religion.

“All wars have their roots in organized religion,” argues the younger man, to which the older man responds that the younger generation has substituted worship of technology for religion and points to the peaceful philosophy of their Baha’i hosts.

Young Maysam remains skeptical. “If the Baha’i were in power, they would start persecuting other faiths,” he maintains.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf knows something about the intolerance of those in power, whether religious or secular.

As a young filmmaker, he was imprisoned for four years by the shah’s regime, and was an ardent supporter of the clerical revolution that toppled the shah. Gradually, however, he became disillusioned with the new rulers, and after the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Makhmalbaf went into exile and now lives in London.

For the present Iranian authorities it was bad enough that Mohsen broke the taboo against shooting a film in the land of the Zionist Little Satan, but when he accepted a special jury prize last month at the Jerusalem Film Festival, the Iranian establishment went ballistic.

He was denounced as a traitor and as a man “with no roots,” while the head of the Film Museum of Iran ordered the “cleansing” of a special section at the museum devoted to the director’s works.

One group of Iranian artists and intellectuals expressed deep dismay that the director would visit a country with “apartheid” policies.

However, a smaller but still sizable group of artists lauded Mohsen in an open letter for his courage in breaking the taboo against visiting Israel. Speaking to the British newspaper The Guardian, the director himself described the taboo as a “cancer” infecting Iran’s intellectual community for more than 60 years.

In his acceptance speech at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Mohsen dedicated his prize to “all the artists, politicians and intellectuals and people in Iran and Israel who work toward peace between our two countries and believe peace is possible.”

“The Gardener” opens Aug. 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

7 Days in the Arts

Saturday, November 13

On the one-year anniversary of her death, the famous and infamous Leni Riefenstahl becomes the subject of discussion in multiple venues. The Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Fahey/Klein Gallery collaborate in presenting a retrospective of her films and photographs. Today, the UCLA Film and Television archive presents a panel discussion on the controversial artist who has been simultaneously celebrated for her innovations in filmmaking and condemned for years creating Nazi propaganda films. A screening of “Das Blaue Licht” (“The Blue Light”) follows.

4 p.m. Free (panel), $5-$7 (screening). UCLA James Bridges Theater, Westwood. (310) 206-3456.

Sunday, November 14

Wear out the kids today at Mount Sinai’s second annual Jewish Children’s Bookfest. They day’s offerings include book vendors, kosher food, celebrity book readings, kid-oriented entertainment, and workshops, including one on journalism, hosted by Jewish Family of the Conejo and West Valley. A tea party with Eloise, of the popular children’s book series, is also planned.

10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Free. The Triangle, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, 6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley. (866) 266-5731.

Monday, November 15

Israeli singer and pop culture phenomenon Aviv Geffen has yet to lose the make-up but he has gained a partner in Steven Wilson, formerly of the band Porcupine Tree. Together, they now make up the rock duo Blackfield, and have just released their debut eponymous album. It is Geffen’s first English-language recording project.

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Tuesday, November 16

Count the curse words today when the Skirball Cultural Center and the Writer’s Bloc present “George Carlin in Conversation with Harry Shearer.” Known for their ascerbic wit and smart aleckiness, respectively, the comedians will undoubtedly keep it entertaining, as they discuss Carlin’s latest book, “When WIll Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”

7:30 p.m. $20. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Wednesday, November 17

Rich colors move from background to foreground as shapes descend and disappear away in the 36 numbered abstract paintings that make up Ginette Mizraki’s “Illumination: Gold Series” at USC Hillel Foundation. She credits kabbalah and alchemy as the inspirations behind the series, which runs through Dec. 10.

3300 Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135.

Thursday, November 18

Dwora Fried’s boxed art draws the viewer into a little world, sometimes narrative, sometimes nonsensical, Fried has said. Her multimedia “boxes and collages by dwora fried” exhibition displays pieces that combine found art with watercolor and photographic elements. It is on view now at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Advocate & Gochis Galleries. Runs through Jan. 8.

L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. (323) 860-7337.

Friday, November 19

In “Capture Now,” central character Elijah, together with his brother Ace, ponders the question of how one holds onto life’s perfect moments, or in other words, “How do you capture now?” The question is made all the more relevant when Ace develops a terminal brain tumor. The coming-of-age play about a boy growing up on Long Island opens today at Moving Arts.

8 p.m. $15. Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., fifth floor, Los Angeles. (213) 622-8906.

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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.’

Riefenstahl Ruckus

A small but vocal group of demonstrators rallied outside Paramount Pictures in Hollywood last week, wielding signs and chanting slogans like “Jodie Foster wants to glorify a Nazi” and “Stop Jodie’s project now.”

They were protesting a proposed biopic of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, planned by Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures, which is housed on the studio’s lot. Oscar-winning Foster is hoping to produce and star in the as-yet-unnamed movie, now being scripted by “Philadelphia” scribe Ron Nyswaner.

One would expect that a half-dozen demonstrators, most of them from the Jewish Defense League, wouldn’t capture a studio’s attention, much less elicit an in-person response from publicity chiefs. But as the participants picketed and shouted, not one but two top Paramount publicists emerged to make statements about the controversial movie.

Nancy Kirkpatrick, executive vice president of worldwide publicity, and Tim Webber, manager of corporate publicity, informed the ralliers the studio has nothing to do with the film. “Paramount is renting space to Ms. Foster, and she is doing her film here, but it’s not a Paramount picture,” Webber told The Journal. “Her production company is here on the lot, but we have many companies on the lot.”

Indeed, the movie is already drawing criticism from members of the Jewish community. “A lot of people in Hollywood are horrified at this,” Arnold Schwartzman, who won an Oscar for the Simon Wiesenthal Center documentary, “Genocide,” told the Daily News. “There will be many objections.”

Diane Jacobs, 79, said she attended the recent rally because “I’m a survivor, I lost my whole family in the camps, and I’m highly offended that Jodie Foster wants to make a movie about this woman.”

Foster has insisted that the German filmmaker needs to be portrayed. “Leni Riefenstahl’s story is something I have been dying to do for a long time,” she said in a written statement. “I see it as the acting challenge of a lifetime. There is no other woman in the 20th century who has been so admired and so vilified simultaneously. She was perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and yet her name and her work will forever be linked to the horror of Nazi Germany.”

Foster told the London Telegraph, as reported in The Forward, that Riefenstahl was “a tremendously gifted woman” who “made a lot of ugly choices at a terrible and horrible time in history.” She told the Daily News that she has met with Riefenstahl and regards her life as “a moral tale for us all. She is an extraordinary woman, sharp as a tack and as beautiful as she ever was, with a tremendous body.”

Now 98, Riefenstahl was born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin and first aspired to become a dancer. Switching to film, she starred in and co-directed several exquisitely shot German “mountain” films and fell in with the Nazis.

She remains best known for her brilliant Third Reich propaganda films: Her documentary, “Olympia,” shot during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, earned her a spot on Time magazine’s cover and is considered one of the best sports documentaries ever made. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels himself awarded Riefenstahl the German National Film Prize for “Triumph of the Will,” which depicts Hitler as God-like and is widely credited for selling National Socialism to the masses. Goebbels lauded Riefenstahl’s womanly charms in his diaries.

The filmmaker, who has insisted “I was not a Nazi, I was an artist,” was, according to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, interned by the Allies for three years after World War II but later cleared of any wrongdoing. While she never made any other movies, she’s published well-received books of photography on undersea life and Sudanese tribesmen in recent decades. At the age of 97, she survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan that left her with broken ribs.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, as reported in The Forward, Riefenstahl insists that she was naive about Hitler; that she’s “ashamed” she didn’t notice the persecution of the Jews; and that she never wanted to make “Triumph of the Will.” “And I say [to Hitler], ‘No, no, no, no,'” she recounts. “And he says, ‘Please, Leni, one film, one film of the rally in Nuremberg’… And journalists and people say that I have made the film because I am ambitious.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center believes just that. He cites the archival photographs he’s seen of Riefenstahl with Hitler: “She looks infatuated with him,” he asserts. “She’s basking in the glory and the attention.”

Hier, who refused to pay Riefenstahl for the use of “Triumph” footage in “Genocide,” is concerned about Foster’s perceived admiration for the filmmaker. “If you start on that basis, it’s hard to be truthful about her during the Hitler years,” he explains. “Anybody doing a film on Leni Riefenstahl needs to show that she was infatuated with the Fuhrer and was his chief propagandist. To have assisted a person responsible for the greatest genocide in human history and to have been at his arm is not very complimentary.”

21 Years Ago: Jewish Leaders Condemn Tribute to Riefenstahl

An award bestowed on German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl by a little-known national film group has been sharply criticized and has revived the debate over her role as a Nazi propagandist. In a larger sense, the appearance of the 95-year-old Riefenstahl at the Cinecon organization’s awards ceremony in Glendale bears on the question of whether art can be separated from politics and morality.

Riefenstahl’s long career ranges from silent-screen actress to recent underwater photographer, but her name is invariably linked to her 1934 film, “Triumph of the Will.” Shot at a Nuremberg party rally, it is considered one of the world’s most notorious propaganda documentaries, in which she used brilliant cinematic techniques to glorify Hitler and the Aryan ideal.

The achievement award was given to Riefenstahl on Saturday evening (Aug. 31) by the Hollywood-based Cinecon, an obscure but well-respected national group of movie buffs devoted to restoring and screening old films. The event at the Red Lion Hotel drew 1,000 enthusiastic guests and “was kept under wraps until the last minute in an effort to circumvent some of the anti-Nazi protests that usually occur at her appearances,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The ploy succeeded, but Riefenstahl’s presence did generate strong reaction among Los Angeles’ Jewish community. That outrage was expressed at the award ceremony by cinephile Bob Gelfand. Raising his voice above the applause for the honoree, Gelfand shouted, “Shame, shame on you.” He later told a reporter: “If I had known this festival was going to honor the Nazi war machine, I would not have come. When I bought my ticket, I didn’t know she would be here. She was a propagandist for the war machine.”

The following day, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, strongly criticized the award. “Hitler personally picked Riefenstahl to produce ‘Triumph of the Will,’ and we actually use segments of the film at our Museum of Tolerance to illustrate how the German people were sold on the Nazi regime,” he said in a phone interview. “Without the Riefenstahls of the world in the 1930s, the Shoah might not have happened. I would consider her an unindicted co-conspirator.”

Attempts to rehabilitate Riefenstahl fit into a larger pattern emerging in Europe to whitewash the past and recast history, said Cooper. As an example, he pointed to the recent book by Italian historian Fabio Andriola, “Mussolini: Hitler’s Secret Enemy,” which seeks to recast the Italian dictator as an opponent of the Führer and Germany. Cooper also noted that a Hamburg art gallery opened a retrospective of Riefenstahl’s work on Aug. 19. In a story on the exhibit (under the subhead “Her Camera Adored Swastikas”), The New York Times reported that German officials absented themselves from the opening. In addition, protesters picketed the exhibit.

“Despite Riefenstahl’s proclamations that she was merely an artist, the Germans know exactly what the implications of this award are,” said Cooper. “This is not just a Jewish issue.”

British producer Arnold Schwartzman, who has won an Oscar for his documentary “Genocide” and lives in Los Angeles, said that he was “rather saddened about what took place. It seems rather sneaky the way they did it, knowing there’ll be protests. Obviously, there was some hidden agenda here.” He added that Riefenstahl’s films “were probably the most important propaganda tool that Hitler ever had. To base an award on [these films] is poor judgment, in the same way she showed poor judgment in making the films.”

Osias Goren, chairman of the Jewish Federation Council’s Martyr’s Memorial Museum of the Holocaust, said: “This person may have been…a genius. But so were some of the doctors who conducted experiments on Jewish women….”

Kevin John Charbeneau, Cinecon’s president, said that his group was not honoring Riefenstahl for political reasons. “She is an artist first and foremost. That is what we are celebrating. I can understand people are going to be upset, but she was not the head of Germany. She was not Hitler.”

The German filmmaker declined to speak to reporters.

According to wire service reports, Charbeneau stepped down from his post this week, but it was unclear whether the move was a result of the Riefenstahl flap. Charveneau denied it was, saying he decided not to run for re-election because he had no time. But another former president, Mike Schlesinger, was quoted as saying that Charbeneau had “fallen on his sword.”

Riefenstahl spent three years after World War II in American and French detention camps as a Nazi sympathizer and underwent a denazification process. In interviews, she has consistently cast herself as a dedicated artist, too wrapped up in her work to realize the crimes of the Nazi regime. Despite her proximity to Hitler and top Nazis, she has claimed absolute ignorance of the Holocaust, saying: “I did not know what was going on. I did not know anything about these things.”

In other interviews, according to The New York Times, Riefenstahl insisted that she had “never uttered an anti-Semitic phrase and was never a racist.” And, reflecting on her career, she said: “I absolutely cannot imagine that I did something unjust. What crime did I commit?”