"Thus open the gates of paradise."

In this issue

Leni Riefenstahl

11 Sep 2003

Leni Riefenstahl, filmmaker at work
In the billboard, I described her as a filmmaker and photographer, but she was also a dancer, an actress. If you get a chance to see any of the films she was in, especially the high mountain adventures such as "Das Blaue Licht" or "Die Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü", do go see them. They're from a distant era in film, and well worth the effort. If you need further enticement, know that when you see her character hanging off the side of a mountain, Leni is really hanging off the side of a mountain. Jackie Chan, beware.

Unfortunately, the thing for which Riefenstahl is best known is for her association with Adolph Hitler. In 1934, she made "Triumph des Willens" (Triumph Of The Will"), a documentary about the 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. I say "documentary" and "propaganda", although it's hard for me to see it as either. It more closely resembles a very well-photographed travelogue -- it does for National Socialism what "Winged Migration" does for bird watching. But once you see past the flags and the salutes, you can begin to appreciate the elegance and the rhythm of the film. There are not a lot of wasted frames in this movie, and the ones that are there move and swirl with lucid grace.

The first time I saw this film, it had no subtitles. I hadn't realized that going in, and as I don't speak German, it was a bit of a struggle to make sense of what was going on. The film starts easily enough: Hitler arrives by plane, a descending Christ-figure, and is lauded the mobs of star-struck volk which line the streets. Scene of the Hitler Youth follow -- marching, roughhousing, and drilling with shovels in place of rifles.  Then there's the rally itself with thousands of the party faithful, in formation, attentive to Hitler's impassioned speeches. At the end, they turn on dozens of air-raid search lights and shine them into the night sky. (I understand they will do roughly the same tonight at the site of the former World Trade Center in New York City. )

Here's my favourite moment from "Triumph": 'Dolph is giving a speech, and is pumping the air with his fist as he drives his point home. The crowd erupts. He takes a breath, but the crowd is still roaring. And then, just for a moment, he comes out of character, tilts his head, and smiles to himself, as if to say, "That went over well, didn't it?" But then he continues with the usual Sturm und Drang. It's a rare peek at the man behind the curtain.

Obviously, this isn't to everyone's taste. If it's not yours, may I recommend "Olympia", her film of the 1936 Olympics. Less politically charged, but if you keep your eyes open, you can sometimes spot Hitler and his cronies in the crowd. Olympiad watchers who tire of the prattle that passes for commentary these days should check this out to see what Olympic coverage could be. No jock talk, just athletes shown doing their thing in interesting ways. Watch for Leni as one of the dancers in the film's prologue.

Riefenstahl died this Monday, September 8, 2003.