Leni’s legacy

What do people really object to in Leni Riefenstahl's 'fascist films'?

Aidan Campbell

Topics Culture

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Many cultural critics believe that bad politics produces bad art. So it follows that evil fascists must make the worst artists.

German film director Leni Riefenstahl, who celebrated her one-hundredth birthday on 22 August 2002, seems to contradict this assumption. She hung around with leading Nazis in the 1930s, but still managed to produce two of the best film documentaries ever made.

As a film actress in the 1920s, Riefenstahl caught the attention of one Adolf Hitler, who would be elected Chancellor of Germany a few years later in 1933. He commissioned her to make a documentary film of the 1934 Nazi Party convention at Nuremburg. The end result, Triumph of the Will, together with Olympiad, Riefenstahl’s account of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, received rapturous critical acclaim.

When the Second World War broke out, Riefenstahl was invited to make propaganda films for the Third Reich, but she refused. Instead, she worked on Tiefland, a romance about Spanish gypsies. This wasn’t released until 1954, as after the war Riefenstahl was accused of being a Nazi sympathiser and of using concentration camp inmates as extras for the film. In her defence, Riefenstahl points out that she never joined the Nazi Party.

In the 1960s Riefenstahl began making trips to Africa, and in 1973 she published a photographic essay about a tribe in the Sudan, The Last of the Nuba. To coincide with her one-hundredth birthday, she is due to release Impressions Under Water, a 45-minute documentary of the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean (Riefenstahl is the world’s oldest scuba diver). In 2003, Hollywood heavyweight Jodie Foster will release a film of Riefenstahl’s life, possibly starring Madonna.

For much of the postwar period, Riefenstahl was regarded as a bad artist best forgotten about. But in our politically correct times, the idea that bad politics make for bad art has been given a twist. Bad art is now believed to incite bad politics.

Many now claim that the impact of imagery on our apparently vulnerable minds heavily influences our political choices. So if we are allowed unfettered access to evil images, the argument goes, we might get sucked into some fundamentalist way of thinking. Consequently, it has become intolerable simply to ‘forget’ about bad art.

The scapegoating of Riefenstahl began in the mid-1970s, when prominent US commentator Susan Sontag denounced her as a nasty Nazi in her 1974 essay ‘Fascinating Fascism’. But Sontag wasn’t particularly interested in Riefenstahl’s political history. Sontag’s beef against Riefenstahl had more to do with 1970s feminism than with 1930s fascism.

‘Fascinating Fascism’ reversed Sontag’s previous stance on Riefenstahl’s films by 180 degrees. In her 1965 essay ‘On Style’, in which she laid out her famous definition of ‘camp’, Sontag expressed qualified admiration for Riefenstahl: ‘To call Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympiad masterpieces is not to gloss over Nazi propaganda with aesthetic lenience…. Because they project the complex movements of intelligence and grace and sensuousness, these two films of Riefenstahl’s transcend the categories of propaganda, or even reportage.’

By 1974, Sontag was judging Riefenstahl far more severely. But the chief target of ‘Fascinating Fascism’ wasn’t Riefenstahl’s films, but her newly published photographs of the muscular wrestlers of the Nuba tribe. ‘In celebrating a society where the exhibition of physical skill and courage and the victory of the stronger man over the weak are, as she sees it, the unifying symbols of the communal culture…Riefenstahl seems hardly to have modified the ideas of her Nazi films’, accused Sontag.

It wasn’t so much Riefenstahl’s past that offended Sontag as her portraits of masculine strength. This captured Sontag’s and the feminist movement’s concerns in the mid-1970s – not with a German film director’s past, but with the future of feminism. Was women’s equality with men to mean encouraging women to become more aggressive and assertive – traditionally masculine characteristics? Or did it mean getting men to become more docile and emotional – customarily held to be more the feminine qualities?

Riefenstahl’s aesthetics were being turned from a debate over the evils of racism into a litmus test for gender identity. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, those who championed sexual equality under the aegis of brawny heroism and manly dynamism risked being accused of being fascistic.

By the 1980s, sexual equality had become about the feminisation of men. The concept of the ‘new man’ had arrived. More recently, as the makers of adverts for Haagen Daaz ice-cream and Calvin Klein underwear have found out to their cost, images of strapping masculinity are often slated as fascistic. Why? Because they appear to reflect Riefenstahl’s continuing aesthetic influence – and Riefenstahl had become a by-word for Nazism.

In many ways, Riefenstahl has only herself to blame for being framed as a fascist. She has consistently refused to apologise for any of her films or works of art. To many of her enemies, she is the living link that ties every splendid image of mankind from ancient Greece to the Renaissance to the atrocious Third Reich.

Art and politics are only indirectly related. We should be able to distinguish between Riefenstahl’s brilliant artistry and her political naivety. And thanks to Riefenstahl’s Olympiad, most of us are familiar with the pictures of black US athlete Jesse Owens cocking a snoot at Hitler at the Berlin Olympics by winning four gold medals.

Nobody has credited Riefenstahl for bravely including these shots of Owens’ victories in her film. On the occasion of her one-hundredth birthday, it would be churlish not to give her that present.

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

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