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August 24, 2002

Leni Riefenstahl

Friedrich --

A giant who's still with us

Leni Riefenstahl turned 100 on August 22nd. Amazing to think that she's still around. According to some accounts she's quite vital -- she was scuba-diving (and working on a collection of undersea photographs, as well as a movie) into her 90s. Talk about a link to the past.

In my view, she's a great figure not just for her awe-inspiring talent and accomplishments but because the Leni phenonenon poses such unresolvable quandaries. Did you attend Sontag's talk about Riefenstahl back at our Lousy Ivy College in the mid-'70s? Sontag showed "Triumph of the Will" and then argued (with all her audience-pleasing intensity and theatricality) that Leni was in fact a fascist -- I seem to recall that Sontag got a good year's worth of essays and talks out of that particular argument. (Hey, an intellectual has to have something to sell too.) I also recall sitting in the audience and thinking, duh, tell me something I didn't know.

There's no avoiding these facts: Leni was friendly with Hitler, Leni made propaganda for the Nazis. Leni was also an actress, a dancer, and a visual artist, and was as self-obsessed, and as intellectually, politically, and morally clueless as such people usually are. Leni is also an immense talent, and her films and photographs are works of enormous beauty.

All that is true, and is pleasingly hard to sum up in one tightly-wound intellectual or political ball.

I've seen most of the movies, and have read some of the books and the scholarship, including her own (huge) autobiography. For what it's worth, my take is: she was young, ambitious and opportunistic. As many such artists do, she cozied up to whoever could help her achieve her art and career goals. (If she were young and American today, she'd probably be cozying up to the academia/P.C./NEA world.)

Imagine television sports coverage without her influence

Her work was all about a very sexual ideal beauty -- that's what moved her and motivated her. (Heroic beauty gave her exalted feelings; it turned her on.) Her love of heroic beauty also made her attractive to, and susceptible to, Naziism. Things clicked, she made connections, she was happy that people liked her work and was therefore prone to think well of them. And she took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.

Was she as naive as she makes herself out to have been? Almost certainly not. Was she as consciously aware and conniving -- ie., as political -- as some make her out to have been? I think that's unlikely too. Does she deserve a reputation as bad as that of the truly evil Nazi monsters who were really behind the Reich? I can't see why.

It seems to me that it's a mistake to picture her as a thinking, reasoning, let alone morally astute being, and that it's more accurate to picture her as someone in the graphics department of your business, who might be an verbal idiot but who knows how to make things look good, or an actress who can't think logically but is a wizard at going with the moment. The size of her talent and achievement misleads many people. She was a silly, talented, ambitious young woman -- and not someone with a real intellect.

Does it have to be acknowledged that her notions of beauty, sex and art bear some relationship to the Aryan idealism of the Nazis? To my mind, sure. Does it have to be acknowledged that much of her work is supremely ravishing? To my mind, you bet. Is it distressing to be reminded so vividly that talented people are often nincompoops, and that there's no necessary connection between an artistic gift and and the ability to make admirable moral and political discriminations? Yup.

I rather enjoy watching the art-is-political crowd (have you noticed the way that alway finally means that they think an art work's politics are what determines whether it's a good or bad art work?) squirm when her name comes up. Gee, undoubtedly great movies and photographs! Yet her politics aren't quite what you'd want them to be...

It also makes me giggle that feminists, to my knowledge, have never wrestled with the Leni phenom. Here she is, one of the greatest and most influential of all filmmakers -- and a woman. Talk about a giant and a trailblazer. So: why not claim her as one of your own, gals?

Aidan Campbell relishes some of the awkwardnesses and difficulties in Spiked OnLine, here. And Leni has her own website -- what a dynamo! -- here.

How do you react to the Leni phenom? I confess that I haven't seen her late film "Tiefland." Have you?



posted by Michael at August 24, 2002


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