Both Wonderful & Horrible


9If you feel you need some inspiration to further your drive in life let me present you with Frau Leni Riefenstahl. Actress, filmmaker, convicted Nazi sympathizer. No, wait! Come back!

Quite seriously, though, she’s got the drive, determination and charm you wish you had. She was a successful dancer who saw an advertisement for a film that intrigued her. She wrote a letter to the lead actor telling him she wanted to work in his next movie. Soon after she was a film star on par with Marlene Dietrich. Someone pointed out that she had an affinity for directing and, voila, she was directing films and commissioning special lenses from the US for her effects. Hitler came into power and wham! she created the most exquisite propaganda film of all time. The war ended, she got convicted as a Nazi sympathizer and she skedaddled to Africa to escape the persecution. Suddenly she’s a world class anthropological photographer. And she wound up her life making undersea films with a “companion” forty years her junior!

I’m sure you’re an extremely motivated and successful human being but, like I said, you wish you could do what Leni Riefanstahl did. You know, minus the whole Nazi part.

I know all this not because I’ve gone back to school with a concentration in German History WWII to Present but because I just watched a documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. More than a year ago Flea recommended it on her blog. I remember her saying that it was kind of boring so she sat down just to watch a little chunk and got so sucked in her husband had to come looking for her. Then he got sucked in too. (Upon re-reading Flea’s entry, linked above, that’s not at all what she wrote but it is, honestly, how I remember it. Yikes.)


It’s fascinating because Riefenstahl is fascinating and the filmmakers mostly sit back and let her do the talking. Not that you could do much else with the woman. On more than one occasion she stops the interview to tell them how they should set up a shot, what lighting she requires or that they’re fucking the whole movie up. Quite early on she rails at the director for asking her to respond to questions while walking. “Move the camera!” she insists. “I’ve never talked while walking in my life!” she says, while advancing on him like an extremely disgusted puma. Near the end of the film we see one lengthy uncut answer to the question of her involvement with the Third Reich. Her clearly heartfelt answer begins with how awful the reign of the Nazis was and how truly wracked by guilt she remains then, suddenly, she turns a corner and starts throwing angry questions back at the interviewer. “Why do you think I should feel guilty? What are you implying I’m guilty of? I have nothing to be guilty about!”

Frau Riefenstahl is rife with this sort of contradiction. Perhaps my favorite car wreck of a moment is just after she’s reorganized that walking and talking segment for the documentary team. They cut to a different interview and ask her if she had a hand in choreographing and orchestrating the National Socialist Party rally she filmed to make her propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will. She giggles softly and replies, “Oh no, I wouldn’t know anything about how to do that.” Maybe she’s a damned liar (she was given gypsies out of concentration camps to use as extras in a film she was making as the war ended), maybe she’s a confused old woman (she is over 90-years old during the making of the film), maybe she’s simply a bundle of contradictions, as some of us are (too many examples to mention). I guarantee that in three hours and eight minutes of studying her life you’ll change your opinion a dozen times, if only slightly.

Yeah, three hours and eight minutes. Flea wasn’t wrong, it is boring but it’s also pin-you-to-your-sofa engaging. The documentarians somehow manage to mix together biographical details, technical film information, personal interview and 60 years of rarely-before-seen footage so that no one person is ever bored enough to leave. At least not for long. I admit I watched the film over two nights in four or five sessions. It’s daunting, I agree, but if you’ve ever thought you’d like to know about the first woman rock climber (barefoot, no less), or propaganda films or those cameras that catapult alongside the track in a sprint or the film that inspired the final scene of the original Star Wars movie (among others) or how someone who lived through it can blithely dismiss one of the greatest massacres of humanity of the last century you can learn it all in this one documentary. Three hours and eight minutes doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice then, does it?



10 Responses to “Both Wonderful & Horrible”

  1. mabnyc Says:

    I concur. I changed my mind at least a dozen times watching it. And the title is indeed appropriate. A fascinating person.

  2. Kizz Says:

    It was funny, I wrote this then, before I published, I re-read Flea’s post. She comes down loudly and definitively that Riefenstahl is evil. So I skimmed mine again and thought, wow, I’ve gone pretty easy on her. I might even be fawning a little. I don’t know what happened, I think it was the catapult camera. So I made a few changes to better reflect how mind boggling I think this lady way. It’s hard not to admire her and yet there’s proof that she was, at best, amoral and she probably wasn’t best, you know? So glad I watched it and yet so disturbed. I’m afraid to watch Triumph.

  3. Bee Says:

    I don’t need to judge Riefenstahl, and from an artist’s perspective, I rather cherish her book, “The people of Kau. ” Its the only of her two I have and got it at a great discount. I study it mainly for the native art and some, for the anthropologistic aspects. ~That said, I think she was a liar and always knew exactly what she was doing and why – I believe she was an intelligent OPPORTUNIST. And, yet, she did remarkable things in film that deserve to be recorded for history. I love my book but…..would not have ever wanted her to sign it for me! Eeeeeeeew.

  4. Kizz Says:

    That exactly encapsulates the feeling I had watching the movie. She’s clearly a very important cultural figure and, as such, I admire her on some level but I wouldn’t have wanted her autograph. I might be interested in her books, though. She’s complex as are my feelings about her.

  5. Kyle Says:

    You should really read a couple of articles about this, which you may find intriguing. One’s called “Reich Star” by Clive James, and the other’s Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism.” Both really great, though a little conflicting, thoughts on Leni and her, well, transfixing career.

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