Leni Riefenstahl’s life, to whatever degree it was horrible or wonderful, will always be linked with her direction of two films for the Third Reich: Olympia and The Triumph of the Will. What makes the documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, worth watching is that it allows us to experience that life as both a tragedy and a deserved comeuppance.
Certainly, Leni Riefenstahl was a remarkable woman, an actress who learned to do her own mountain climbing for the “mountain films” of Arnold Fanck, who clashed with Marlene Dietrich on the set of The Blue Angel, and who, after learning from Fanck how to handle a camera, surpassed him with her use of light, shadow, and filter to give her images a haunting, mythic quality for her first feature, The Blue Light. As she said in her interview, if she’d accepted the invitation to go to Hollywood, her life and career might have gone in much more fortunate directions.
Riefenstahl describes Triumph as neither documentary nor propaganda, but rather as a film artist trying to turn a political event into artwork. She’s right in saying it’s not a documentary–even though its opening title card describes it as one. There’s no behind the scenes material, and there’s no commentary from a documentarian to put the event in context. The claim that Triumph wasn’t intended as propaganda is much more questionable.
Riefenstahl’s main defense seems to be that since she wan’t a Nazi, and that she wasn’t antisemitic, her film can’t function as propaganda. That’s not a claim that holds up to much scrutiny. The purpose of The Triumph of the Will was to replace the previous year’s Reichsparteitag documentary, Victory of Faith, which had become unacceptable because of its inclusion of Ernst Roehm, head of the brownshirts, whose death Hitler had ordered during the Night of the Long Knives. Because the Night of the Long Knives resulted in the murders of a large number of high level party functionaries, the Nazis needed their new documentary to emphasize order, unity, and calm. Hitler wanted to make Nazism look attractive, and that meant de-emphasizing harsh, antisemitic rhetoric (while at the same time signaling to hardcore members that antisemitism still mattered).
Riefenstahl’s construction of Triumph of the Will fit the Nazis’ aims perfectly. She admits no shots that would dispel a feeling of unity and order, and the only antisemitic statement she allows in the final cut is an implied one made by Julius Streicher, who is given a single line to call for racial purity. (It is probably the only time in Streicher’s life that his antisemitism was implied rather than violently stated.) At no point does Riefenstahl attempt to undermine the Nazis’ preferred narrative, or to place the message of the Reichsparteitag in the context of the kill-crazy rampage Hitler had orchestrated with the SS only three months earlier. Instead, all is order and beauty and unity, brought about by the presence of Adolf Hitler, whom she presents in the film as an angel descending from heaven to bring joy to the German people. Whether Leni Riefenstahl’s artistic aims merely coincided with the aims of Nazi propagandists, or whether she deliberately set out to glorify Hitler and the Nazis The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl leaves viewers to judge. I tend to think the latter, but given Riefenstahl’s demonstrated mania through the rest of her career about developing techniques to generate the most beautiful possible film images, I can imagine that she was so blinkered by the technical side of her work that she’d ignore, or at least be grossly naive about, her work’s political implications.
It’s interesting for me to look back on what I said earlier about artists’ going too far. Leni Riefenstahl’s work, both before and after the Third Reich, is in many ways extraordinary and beautiful, and her obvious dedication to her craft–she learned to scuba dive in her 70s so she could start documenting undersea life and was still doing gorgeous underwater photography in her 90s–is something I find both sympathetic and attractive. But Riefenstahl never escaped her association with Nazi propaganda, nor found words to properly explain her manufacturing its most enduring expression. At the end of The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, her interviewer asks if she’s sorry for having helped build the image of the Third Reich. She replies that sorry would be too small a word to cover what she’d done. I agree. If there is a word, in any language, that could express the proper degree of remorse for her legacy, I don’t know it. I also doubt, if such a word were found, that Riefenstahl could have been convinced to utter it.