Featured Image by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1988-106-29, used under license (Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY-SA 3.0).
When the topic of great female filmmakers arises (admittedly not often), the short list always includes Leni Riefenstahl. That her best-known work was done in the service of Adolf Hitler necessitated trigger warnings long before disclaimers were referred to as such.
Riefenstahl’s personal involvement with the Third Reich has long been the subject of debate. Clearly, Hitler, Goebbels, and other members of the Nazi Party were big fans. They admired her work and did all they could to facilitate it. Was she just an artist for hire or was she a player? Was she down with the Nazi agenda, or was she just going along because the party bosses controlled the purse strings?
Hitler notwithstanding, Riefenstahl’s work presents big problems for contemporary feminists. So let’s furl the swastika banners, stifle the Nazi salutes, park Hitler’s Mercedes-Benz touring car, and take a look at the woman behind the camera.
Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl was born in Berlin on August 22, 1902. As old photographs evince, she grew into a strikingly attractive young woman. Athletically as well as artistically inclined, her interests encompassed poetry, painting, swimming, gymnastics, and dancing, which was her first profession.
After 70 performances across Europe, her dancing career was derailed by a knee injury. Since she was 24 years old in 1926, she could still capitalize on her sexual market value, so she transitioned to film acting.
Her specialty was in a defunct genre called Alpine films. As the name implies, such films were shot on location at high altitudes and featured skiing and mountaineering. Director Arnold Fanck, a former geologist who specialized in these films, offered them as a great-outdoors alternative to the cloistered world of studio-made movies. As the star of such movies, Riefenstahl was, in a sense, a breath of fresh air.
In 1932 Riefenstahl produced, directed, and starred in Das Blaue Licht (“The Blue Light”), a fantasy about a mystical nature girl, full moons, and magic crystals in the Dolomites. The film won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival (Mussolini’s brainchild) and came to the attention of Adolf Hilter, who became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.
Perhaps because Nazism had an undercurrent of mysticism, Hitler was Impressed with Riefenstahl’s work. He hired her to film Der Sieg des Glaubens (“The Victory of Faith”), a documentary propaganda film about the Nazi Party’s 1933 rally at Nuremberg. This was her first documentary, but it received limited release because it had extensive footage of Ernst Röhm and Gregor Strasser, prominent Nazis who were executed during the famed Nazi purge known as the Night of the Long Knives (actually a three-night event from June 30 to July 2, 1934). Röhm and Strasser went down the memory hole, so prints of the movie had to follow suit. But a remake of sorts was just around the corner.
Another National Socialist rally was held in Nuremberg from September 4 through 10, 1934 and this time the cinematic results were long-lasting. The film of the event, known as Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”) was an immediate sensation, and not just in Germany. It has been in circulation ever since.
The film can be seen in its entirety on YouTube, so I won’t attempt to describe it except to say that it was much more than the mere documentation of an event. Riefenstahl worked with Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, to design and stage the rally for maximum cinematic effect. Overseeing a staff of 120 (30 cameras were employed), Riefenstahl had a lot to deal with logistically as well as aesthetically.
Given the contemporary icky-poo reaction to all things Nazi, it is a testament to Leni Riefenstahl’s skills that her film transcends politics. Even left-leaning academics grudgingly admit that Triumph of the Will is a masterpiece of world cinema – but with an asterisk!.
Riefenstahl crafted an alluring, sweeping cinematic experience that weaves a spell over viewers and pulls them into the pageantry. Political beliefs become superficial if not irrelevant. Hey, who doesn’t love a parade? In fact, by the end of the film, the viewer might feel the urge to peruse eBay in search of a good deal on a pair of jackboots. One wonders if Mel Brooks screened the movie before writing the lyrics “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party” for one of the musical numbers in The Producers.
National Socialism, however, is not why feminists, who often express admiration for totalitarianism, would object to the film. The film is problematic not because it glorifies National Socialism, but because it glorifies men, en masse and individually.
Watch the film and notice that almost all the footage is devoted to men. Women are occasionally seen cheering the men on or peering out windows, but they are relegated to the sidelines. The subject of this film is men, whether übermenschen like the Nazi leaders, or the seemingly endless parade of troops and workers, beta males as disposable as they are indispensable. Occasionally, the proceedings are punctuated by close-ups of men in the crowd.
So why did Riefenstahl focus almost exclusively on men? Well, the Nazi Party was a boys’ club, but there’s more to it than that.
Before the Great War, Germany was the strongest, most prosperous nation on the European mainland. By the early 1930s, the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic, and the Depression had taken their toll, and the German people were thoroughly demoralized.
Unlike contemporary feminists, Riefenstahl understood that Germany would not be revitalized if men were not revitalized. Male ennui furthered national decline; male energy would have to be channeled to turn the country around. In that sense, Triumph of the Will is almost a recruitment film for nation-building (or re-building). And women don’t build (or re-build) nations. They just live in them.
Riefenstahl, however, doesn’t go full tradcon. She doesn’t roll out the old kinder, küche, kirche (children, kitchen, church) prescription for women; she simply ignores her Teutonic sisters. The film emphasizes that the Third Reich is a man’s world. After all, didn’t Germans refer to their country as the fatherland (vaterland)? By promoting Nazism, Riefenstahl was simultaneously pushing patriarchy! Even without armbands, the latter is just as sinister as the former, at least in modern feminist circles.
Riefenstahl’s next project was much less political and patriarchal, but it too offers cold comfort to contemporary feminists. An ambitious two-part documentary (also available on YouTube) called Olympia, it chronicles the XI Olympiad held in Berlin in August 1936. Obviously, this event was another opportunity for pageantry, and Riefenstahl employed her $7 million budget to great effect. So why would Olympia be offensive to feminists?
To be sure, the film shows the opening ceremonies, the lighting of the Olympic flame (the 1936 Olympics were the first modern games to feature the torch relay starting from Athens), and plenty of footage of athletic competition. To a large degree, the film set the standard for the visuals we take for granted on Olympic telecasts today.
So how could any of this be offensive? Well, let’s begin at the beginning.
The film starts out with what one might call a visual overture, a series of tracking shots of mist-shrouded statutes of athletes in ancient Greece. Once the games begin, we get to see, in effect, statues come to life, and the ideal becomes real.
Olympia is a glorification of human bodies, male and female, trim, coordinated, and at the peak of their youthful powers. In other words, no obesity, no ugliness, no disabilities, no degeneration. It is straightforward objectification, as well as a backhanded sort of body-shaming since only a minuscule percentage of the audience could match the celluloid specimens flashing across the big screen in front of them.
Undeniably, based on what we see on the screen (no CGI in those days), some people are better-looking than others. Some are better-proportioned than others. Some are better coordinated than others. Some are faster than others. Some are stronger than others. These are the best of the best, and their feats are not just recorded newsreel-style but are frequently portrayed with elaborate camera movements and slow motion. Undeniably, some of the shots are staged – not to deceive the viewer but to enhance the aesthetic experience of watching the body beautiful in motion.
Olympia premiered in 1938 and was widely distributed and praised. Riefenstahl was feted around the world, but she became persona non grata on September 1, 1939, when Hitler kicked off World War II by invading Poland. From then on, her artistic life was largely one of projects that did not come to fruition. Germany during World War II was not a good place to secure funding for movies and foreign investment was out of the question.
The Allied occupation forces kept an eye on Riefenstahl after the war, but she didn’t do any serious time. Arguably, if she had been a man, she might have been in the dock with Göring, Hess, Ribbentrop, and the rest of the boys at the Nuremberg trials.
If Riefenstahl did get a pussy pass after the war, it might have been due to her sex appeal. During her heyday, Riefenstahl had a very active sex life – a heterosexual sex life, one hastens to add. She had affairs with any number of influential men (no, not Hitler), as well as assorted beta males who were in a position to help her. Even when she was well into middle age, men who met her commented on her sexual magnetism.
Men liked her because she liked men. She did not play the feminist card. She did play the victim card. Why would she have complained about the patriarchy when men had aided her career every step of the way? Women were largely irrelevant in her work and to her work. Of course, that would be another reason for feminists to hate her. She didn’t use her talents to promote the narrative. One suspects that had she been in the employ of Stalin, she would have been the darling of the intelligentsia during the 1930s.
After the war, Riefenstahl could have succumbed to self-pity and retired to obscurity. Instead, she reinvented herself, developed an interest in still photography and published a book of ethnographic photographs of the Nuba people of the Sudan.
At age 72, she was certified as a scuba diver. She was still practicing sub-aquatic photography in her 90s, and led an active life almost to the end. She died on September 8, 2003 at the age of 101.
As is the case with most remarkable people, she was difficult to classify. She’s in with Hitler, but does that means she was a fascist? She was about as emancipated as any woman in history, but does that mean she was a feminist?
For all the reasons outlined above, I certainly can’t put Riefenstahl in the feminist column, which doesn’t mean she belongs in the anti-feminist column. In truth, that duality is irrelevant to her work. Of course, in the feminist ideology, if you’re not with them, you’re against them.
The need to classify individuals according to an artificial dichotomy tells us more about the limitations of the human mind – and particularly the feminist mind – than it does about the person under consideration.
Limitations were definitely not part of Leni Riefenstahl’s mindset.