Leni Riefenstahl, heroine?

Adolf-Hitler-and-filmmaker-Leni-Riefenstahl-with-joyous-smiles
Springtime for Hitler and Riefenstahl

Yesterday we surveyed the career of Hitler’s “perfect German woman,” close friend, and personal filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, who lived to be 101 years old and to party with Mick Jagger. Hers was a fascinating life – so fascinating, indeed, that more than one major Hollywood player has made serious efforts to get a film about it off the ground.

In 2007, for example, it was reported that Jodie Foster, after spending seven years trying to put together a movie in which she would play Riefenstahl, had “settled on a script by British writer Rupert Walters” and was looking for a director. During Riefenstahl’s life, Foster had tried to persuade her to cooperate with the project, but Riefenstahl had refused – partly because Foster wouldn’t grant her script approval, and partly because Riefenstahl would have preferred to be played by Sharon Stone, not Foster.

jodie
Jodie Foster: Hitler’s “perfect German woman”?

By 2013, the project had passed into the hands of director Steven Soderbergh, who explained that he wanted “to see if we could make the audience root for her and treat Hitler and Goebbels as like the studio heads [!] and treat her as the aggrieved artist who is being held back by Philistines.” Soderbergh thought it “would be interesting if you could somehow over 90 minutes convince somebody to root for someone who probably on some level was pretty horrible.”

stone
Sharon Stone

Soderbergh (who has directed such films as Erin Brockovich and Contagion) emphasized that the Riefenstahl movie would “at no point leav[e] her point of view, or delv[e] into any of these moral questions,” because the moral questions would already be “there for the audience. They don’t need to be there for her.” At the same time, however, the goal of the picture would be to manipulate the audience into “rooting for her to win.” As Soderbergh imagined it, the film would end with Riefenstahl “onstage after the premier of ‘Triumph of the Will’ with people throwing roses at her.”

soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh

What to make of this?  Granted, there may be a legitimate concept for a motion picture somewhere in there: movies have been made, after all, about various monstrous personages, both historical and fictional, in which part of the filmmaker’s challenge has been to trick viewers into identifying with (if not necessarily sympathizing with or “rooting for”) them, so as to personalize and enrich and deepen the audience’s experience of evil. But this kind of approach requires immense moral discrimination, historical understanding, and aesthetic delicacy on the part of a director; somebody capable of drawing a glib equation between Hitler and a Hollywood studio czar is unlikely to fit that bill. 

jesseowensrace.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2
Stephen James as Jesse Owens in “Race”

So a movie centering on Leni Riefenstahl has yet to be made. But guess what? She’s now a character on the big screen, anyway – in a new biopic about Jesse Owens, the black American runner who collected four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. Those victories famously infuriated Hitler, who saw them (quite rightly) as undermining Nazi race ideology. The Owens film, Race, directed by Stephen Hopkins, reportedly depicts Riefenstahl as downright heroic. In one sequence, according to a June article by Will Lawrence for the Telegraph, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels orders Riefenstahl’s cinematographer not to film the 200-meter sprint. Why? Because Goebbels suspects Owens will win, and no Nazi film is going to show a black man emerging triumphant. The cinematographer complies, and covers the cameras. Riefenstahl, hearing of this interference by Goebbels, “storms into the stadium and pulls the covers off her cameras.” Writes Lawrence:

Nobody is going to tell her what she can and cannot film. She will film Owens. The Reich minister can go to hell. The implication could not be clearer: Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, had no truck with Nazi dogma, and documented Owens’s triumphant performance in the 200 metres against Goebbels’s wishes.

houten
Carice van Houten as Riefenstahl in “Race”

Portrayed in Race by Carice van Houten, an actress familiar from the TV series Game of Thrones, Riefenstahl is described by Lawrence as “a benign presence throughout the movie.” Tim Robey, the Telegraph‘s film critic, liked the movie but wondered aloud if the real-life Riefenstahl was really such a charmer. 

Stephen-hopkins-0
Stephen Hopkins

For her part, Van Houten drooled over Riefenstahl, telling Lawrence: “I have a huge fascination with, and admiration for, her work….If you see the footage from Olympia, it is unbelievable what she did.” Okay, we’ll give Van Houten a break: she’s young (and an actress). But Hopkins – a guy in his late fifties, old enough to know about World War II and to have given some thought to the subject of Nazism – was also quick to say unsettlingly positive things about Hitler’s “perfect German woman” (who, let’s recall, praised her beloved Führer for “achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind”). In an interview with Lawrence, Hopkins called Riefenstahl a “bohemian, café-society artist with lots of Jewish friends” who “wasn’t necessarily a political animal.” Oh, not a political animal! Yes, she knowingly worked with and glorified on celluloid a mass-murdering dictator; yes, she witnessed an execution of innocent Jews by soldiers under that dictator’s command; yes, she knew that when gypsy extras were through working on her movie Tiefland they’d be sent to gas chambers. But she “wasn’t necessarily a political animal.” So by all means, let’s applaud her memory.

Jewels in the Nazi crown

Last week we explored the disquieting lives of four men – Walter Gropius, Paul Hildemith, Gottfried Benn, and Ernst Barlach – all of them giants of the imaginative arts who, when Hitler came to power, readily bowed and scraped to the moral pygmies of the new regime. Historian Jonathan Petropoulos’s accounts, in a recent book, of how these and other prominent artists chose to be collaborators rather than émigrés make for a remarkable document in the modern history of useful stoogery. Today we’ll look at a couple more of these stooges.

nolde
Emil Nolde

None of the cultural figures we’ve examined so far were card-carrying Nazis. Emil Nolde was. He joined the Danish Nazi Party way back in 1920, after his native southern Schleswig, formerly part of Prussia, was ceded to Denmark in a post-armistice plebiscite. He was an outspoken anti-Semite from early on, but his prejudice against Jews grew even stronger over the years. He also sincerely admired Hitler. “The Führer,” he told a friend in a 1933 letter, “is great and noble in his aspirations and a genial man of deeds.” In 1938, he wrote to Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, that he was “convinced of the world importance of National Socialism.” In short, he was no hypocritical suck-up – he was a true believer.

Vierwaldstätter See. Um 1930
Nolde’s The Sea (1930)

Even so, like many of the other figures profiled in Petropoulos’s book, he had to struggle to win the Nazis’ hearts. In a 1934 autobiographical volume he proclaimed his belief in Nordic superiority; in the same year he signed a declaration of loyalty to Hitler. Still, the regime couldn’t figure out whether to give him the official seal of approval or not. Goebbels wondered in his diary: “Is Nolde a Bolshevik or a painter?” Nolde sent Goebbels several letters pleading for recognition, assuring him: “My art is German, powerful, austere, and profound.” Yet until the very last days of the Nazi era, he continued to received mixed signals from officials. (A major blow came in 1937 when his work was included in the “Degenerate Art Exhibition.”) Unlike Barlach, however, he at least survived the war, and, like many other artists who’d been unrepentant Nazis and Nazi collaborators, was quickly rehabilitated afterwards. He even won a major prize at the 1952 Venice Biennale – a remarkable achievement so soon after the Nazi nightmare. 

strauss
Richard Strauss

On to Richard Strauss, the composer of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), famously used on the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and of the operas Der Rosenkavalier (1910) and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912). By the time Hitler came along, Strauss was pushing seventy, was one of the most respected composers on earth, and was a cultural treasure whom the Nazis wanted to identify with their regime (even though Hitler personally considered him second-rate). When Goebbels named Strauss president of the Reich Chamber of Music in 1933, Strauss accepted without hesitation, having earlier described Goebbels in a letter as “very art-inspired and sensitive.” Within a few months he’d dedicated a song, “Das Bächlein,” to Goebbels.

Stefan-644x362
Stefan Zweig

Trouble came, however, in 1935, when a letter Strauss had dispatched to Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, then living in Switzerland, was intercepted by the Nazis. In it, Strauss repudiated anti-Semitism and, although the Nazis had forbidden such a collaboration, expressed a wish to continue working with Zweig, who’d written the libretto of his opera Die schweigsame Frau. The letter found its way to Hitler himself, who forced Strauss to resign from his position at the Reich Chamber of Music – in response to which Strauss sent the Führer the most sycophantic of missives, which closed with an assurance of his “deepest veneration.” 

Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, during a speach in September 1934.
Joseph Goebbels, 1934

Though he lost his official post, Strauss kept his career. He was even commissioned to compose the Olympic hymn for the 1936 Berlin games; its performance at the opening ceremonies by the Berlin Philharmonic, the National Socialist Symphony Orchestra, and a 1000-voice chorus, all under the direction of Strauss himself, was featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia. On his eightieth birthday, Strauss received congratulatory telegrams from both Hitler and Goebbels, and Ariadne auf Naxos was specially staged in Vienna.

To the end, then, Richard Strauss continued to be a jewel in the Nazi crown – a distinction that kept his Jewish daughter-in-law from being swept up in the Holocaust, but that was insufficient to enable him to save her grandmother and two dozen other relatives, all of whom were murdered in the death camps. The American troops who arrested Strauss at the end of the war treated him with “utmost respect,” writes Petropoulos, and his rehabilitation was even swifter than that of many others: only two years after V-E Day, he was fêted at a Strauss Festival at Royal Albert Hall in London, where he received a standing ovation.