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.