If you are an idealist, you'll see idealism in her films; if you are a classicist, you'll see in her films an ode to classicism; if you are a Nazi, you'll see in her films Nazism. -- Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice, October 31, 1974
There's an unavoidably smug contemptuousness in today's Times story on Leni Riefenstahl's 100th birthday, and I'll be the first to say the lady has only herself to blame. For most of her life, Riefenstahl has been parroting this idea that she was just a young naive girl, that she only wanted to get ahead, that she was an artist, not a politician -- and that's why she agreed to make Triumph of the Will,the record of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally that became the most famous propaganda film ever, and some kind of a very strange work of art. What kind is hard to say. Can art be evil? Can it be not just political but demagogic? Can you praise or condemn a film like this apart from its subject matter? Is it not somehow morally wrong to look at Riefenstahl's images and call them brilliant or masterful? It's the work of a cinematographic ace, but to defend it makes one feel like a moral idiot. This is the down side of Riefenstahl's bargan with the devil.
Okay, I am prepared to say, you were a stupid girl. The Nazis fed on stupidity. The Einsatzgruppen (more about them, later) were full of perfectly stupid people who were as talented at butchery as you were at film craft and salesmanship. You can say you weren't a Nazi until your last breath, old girl, but you stayed and prospered when peers like Lang and Sirk in your own country and Billy Wilder in Czechoslovakia were saying "Fuck this -- I'll just go to America and start over."
You were in it, Leni, and you were in it up to your eyeballs.
On the other hand...
... if Riefenstahl's film can never be seperated from its politics, it would be a shame to make the same assertion of her entire career. This is nowhere more true with Olympia her Nazi-financed account of the 1936 Olympics. What the Nazis saw in the Olympics was a chance to prove the superiority of the German master race; what Riefenstahl saw was the beauty of the athletic form, regardless of race. Quite against the designs of Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, for example, right near the beginning she zeroed in on Jesse Owens triumph.
With unlimited Third Reich funds at her disposal, Riefenstahl spared no production expense when it came to composing her images: scaffolds were built or pits were dug to keep these vaulters, divers and runners squarely within the frame as Riefenstahl's camera lingers lovingly on musculature in motion. It's a perfectly enthralling film to watch -- at times like the film equivalent of a sculpture by Michaelangelo or Rodin. It's a sports film like none you've ever seen, where the competition -- half the time, you don't even know who won -- takes second place to the glory of athletic form.
Politically-minded critics, however, reach for other reasons; starting with Susan Sontag's 1975 essay "Fascinating Fascism" -- whose p.o.v. is incorporated in the Times story -- Riefenstahl has been viewed almost entirely through the narrow lens of "fascist aesthetics."
Sontag, who calls Olympia "the richest visually of all [Riefenstahl's] films," finds that all the athletes seek "the ecstasy of victory, cheered on by ranks of compatriots in the stands, all under the still gaze of the benign Super-Spectsator, Hitler, whose presence, whose presence in the stadium consecrates this effort."
There are, actually, only a handful of shots of Hitler in the film, all near the beginning, but I think there she was just making a neccessary overture to her backer, along with the waving Nazi flag as the film opens.
It is a bit chilling to watch the film knowing its provenance, but just as there is a danger in failing to recognize the real intent of Triumph of the Will, there's a similar danger in looking at Riefenstahl's art in a wholly political way. The simple fact of the matter is that Riefenstahl was photographing athletes in top condition; she didn't make them beautiful, as she told Stephen Schiff in Vanity Fair some years ago -- they are beautiful.
The Nazis fetishized beauty, triumph, achievement, duty and it gave all those things a bad name; the Third Reich soiled everything it touched, and at some degree that goes for Olympia. What's remarkable is how the film soars beyond the ideology that gave it life.
It is a hymn to beauty -- sung by a stupid girl.