Leni Riefenstahl, heroine?

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Hitler’s “perfect German woman”

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Leni Riefenstahl and friend

Last week we began looking at several German cultural figures who served as useful stooges for the Third Reich. Better known than any of these stories of Nazi collaboration is that of Leni Riefenstahl, director of the films Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938). She may well have been the greatest female film director of all time, but to hear her name is to think, first and last, of Hitler – for unlike, say, Walter Gropius or Richard Strauss, she was actually an intimate friend of the Führer’s, and her famous Nazi-era films were the products of direct consultation with him and were produced under his government’s auspices. 

“My perfect German woman,” he called her. She socialized with him frequently. “At times,” writes Jonathan Petropoulos in Artists under Hitler, “they dined together several times a week.” Repeatedly, she articulated her passionate support for him in private notes and telegrams cheering his military victories. (In one of them, addressing him as “my Führer,” she gushed: “You exceed anything the human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind.”)

Riefenstahl was a demanding woman, and whenever one Nazi functionary or another rejected her demands, Hitler came through. Denied by Goebbels a request for additional funds to complete Olympia, she turned – successfully – to her beloved Führer. In 1939, he even approved of plans to build Riefenstahl her own massive film studio, a project that failed to come to fruition only because of the war. Riefenstahl wielded remarkable power: at her word, the Jewish wife of Olympia‘s production designer was saved from the death camps. Also at her word, a recalcitrant extra on her her film Tiefland was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. (Other extras on that film were gypsies who, after doing their job onscreen, were murdered at Auschwitz.)

Interrogated by Allied officials after the war, Riefenstahl repeatedly contradicted herself. She was tried by four different denazification courts; ultimately, in 1952, she was exonerated on charges of collaboration. She went on to make National Geographic-type films about the Nuba trime in Sudan and about undersea life, and, as Petropoulos puts it, “battled for respectability,” desperate to be seen not as a Nazi propagandist and former pal of Hitler’s but as a great cinematic artist. Many famous people obliged her. During the 1970s, she chummed around with such pop-culture heroes of the day as Mick and Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, and photographer Helmut Newton.

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Riefenstahl and Mick Jagger

Decades after the war, public curiosity about Riefenstahl remained so intense that her 1993 memoirs made the New York Times bestseller list; a 1994 documentary about her life, which challenged her own self-exculpating account of her relationship to the Nazi regime, also gained widespread attention. She finally died in 2003 at the age of 101. Petropoulos notes the influence of her two famous Nazi films on pop culture: George Lucas borrowed from her in Star Wars; Olympia became a model for TV sports coverage around the world; the impact of her production design can be observed in the staging of concerts by such artists as Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Jagger. In addition, Petropoulos might have pointed out that a great many music videos, by performers ranging from Madonna to the Pet Shop Boys, feature imagery right out of Triumph out of the Will. 

Nor does Petropoulos mention another development – namely, the decades-long effort by major Hollywood players to make a Riefenstahl bio. We’ll look at that effort tomorrow.