In her native Germany, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is still a taboo topic for many, as witnessed by the number of German directors who not only turned down making this film, but refused to comment on her work onscreen. Documaker Ray Muller accepted the assignment, and though three hours long, the intriguing result has scarcely a dull moment and should be received with absorbed interest at fests and in specialized theatrical and TV slots.
One of the great filmmakers of the century, Riefenstahl made her most memorable films in the service of the Nazi cause, and this paradox between good art and bad politics remains a painful enigma for film theorists.
Part of the fascination of this docu lies in the way Muller puts the woman and her work before the audience, without imposing reassuring evaluations. The burden of judgment rests with the viewer, and it isn’t an easy task. The film leaves many questions unanswered.
Perhaps in the hope of filling this gap, Channel Four is adding further material about Riefenstahl’s childhood and youth before airing the film in the U.K., though one wonders if this will shed any light on the dark riddle of political responsibility she has always refused to address.
Riefenstahl — now a hyperactive 90-year-old — began her career as a dancer and actress; in 1932 she directed “The Blue Light.”
Fascinated by the atmosphere of a Nazi rally she attended, she was introduced to Hitler, who is supposed to have pegged the beautiful young Riefenstahl as the embodiment of his mythic ideal of a heroic German superwoman. Although she judged a film she made about him a failure, the Fuhrer was pleased enough to give her carte blanche on “Triumph of the Will,” lensed at the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally in 1934.
This film, like her subsequent “Olympia,” about the 1936 Berlin games, exmplifies an unbearable contradiction between powerfully moving filmmaking and the close way they aesthetically mirror Nazi ideology. Her masses of regimented soldiers and love for monumental theatricality have been much plundered by grandiose filmmakers in the years since.
Riefenstahl’s images of a triumphant Hitler create uncomfortably mixed emotions. Muller cleverly incorporates long excerpts from these docus, narrated by the 90-year-old Riefenstahl herself, as she explains how she argued with the organizers of the Nuremberg rally about planting her cameras onstage, or how she was the first to use multiple camera set-ups to capture the thrill of the Fuhrer’s arrival in the city.
Though she speaks a great deal about technical questions, Riefenstahl runs from touchy to livid when Muller poses questions about her political responsibility in making these films. She denies ever being a Nazi, or going out socially (as Goebbels’ diaries insist) with Nazi bosses.
She unconvincingly claims she was ignorant of the death camps. She protests her films reflect what everyone in Germany felt about Hitler at the time. “What blame do I have?” she queries, adding that she claims “not to know what the aesthetics of fascism means.”
After the war, Riefenstahl was briefly incarcerated and put on trial. Though acquitted of war crimes, she was barred from directing films, and her career came to an abrupt end. For that reason alone — being “boycotted”– she says she regrets having made “Triumph of the Will.” And as Muller points out, she was in some respects a victim of a nation’s bad conscience.