Documentary unveils talent, tyranny of Nazis' favorite filmmaker

July 08, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Time has not been kind to Leni Riefenstahl, but then Leni Riefenstahl was not kind to time.

Possibly the only world-class filmmaker ever born who earned the adjective "notorious," Riefenstahl at last has her say -- it isn't much -- and faces the music in this rather long (three hours and two minutes) but nearly comprehensive and always fascinating documentary, which opens today at the Charles.

Riefenstahl's notoriety rests entirely upon the pictorial legacy of her 1934 "documentary" of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, called "Triumph of the Will," and now regarded as one of the most blasphemous masterpieces ever done.

Almost nobody has seen the full three-hour thing (I have, years ago). But that's not really necessary; in archival form, in clips and snippets, it still issues its dark siren, its totalitarian melody. She turned the moronic voodoo, the bitter, nut-case screed of Nazism into pure theater.

Attacking the rally with more than a dozen cameras skillfully placed to locate angles into mass movements that had never been seen before (a camera mounted on an elevator that rose behind the podium, for example), then cutting a thousand miles of film together not for historical or journalistic clarity but for visual dynamism and drama, she subverted what Welles called a ribbon of dreams into a ribbon of nightmares. She gave Nazism a visual splendor that made it look like the rational next step to a more blissful world. In this way, she conferred upon it a cohesion that none of its arrested, debauched party intellectuals were ever to achieve in words.

To this day, Riefenstahl denies any culpability. Bearded by director Ray Muller, she reiterates the familiar line of all technocrats faced with the consequences of their energies: She had no ideological bent, she certainly was not a Nazi or an anti-Semite, the film was purely an exercise in organizational genius and artistic sensibility.

"I could have just as easily made it in Moscow," says the unrepentant, 90-year-old firecracker, who appears always on the brink of giving somebody hell.

She also makes the point that the film was made in 1934, years before it became clear what terrors the Third Reich was capable of, and that in the years before the war it won international prizes and was widely hailed as great moviemaking. When she recalls seeing footage of the death camps during her incarceration after the war by the Americans (Muller shows the still disturbing images of bulldozers ramming a floppy tide of corpses into a pit), she sounds like Major Renault in "Casablanca": she is shocked, shocked.

After a trial, Riefenstahl was found innocent of crimes but guilty of being a sympathizer, a charge she still denies. Yet it seems clear that her true crime wasn't that she served Nazism, but that she enjoyed it so much. A beautiful young actress who starred in a number of early '30s "mountaineering films" (a lost genre, thank God), she was talented, ambitious and narrow. She quickly became a member of the Nazi jet set, the cultural elite of Berlin who used their political connections to get plum deals.

What makes her so perplexing to film history is her genius. There's no doubt that she had a pictorial gift unrivaled in the canon. Want proof? Turn on ABC any Monday after 9 p.m. in the fall. In her film "Olympiad," another organizational and pictorial triumph, she photographed the 1936 Olympics and invented a form of penetrating, dramatizing sports coverage that predominates all these years later. There's no angle on "Monday Night Football," no insight into the portrayal of action on an athletic field, that we know now that she didn't know then.

To what end she agreed to "cooperate" with this production is ambiguous. Evidently she saw it as an opportunity to go on the record with her self-justifying version of events as part of an image retool; she's still playing to history. But the filmmakers refused to cooperate, to her considerable frustration: Muller keeps badgering her and frequently exposes the sloppy sentimentality of her responses and her selectivity of memory with documents or archival footage that give the lie to her version of herself.

As a historian, Muller's a great prosecuting attorney. He also eavesdrops on her in moments between the formal interview takes for this film, getting a far more vivid picture of her personality. She's revealed to be short-tempered, contemptuous, imperial and bossy. She is constantly lecturing him where to put the camera.

At the same time, he respects her as an artist and a genuine historical figure. Simply as a behind-the-scenes story of one of the most cataclysmic epochs in history, the film is fascinating. He unearths scenes from a pre-"Triumph" short film of another rally she photographed for Adolf Hitler, strictly as a learning exercise. It's a stunning piece of incompetence, awkwardness and utter incoherence. It illustrates how quickly she learned and what deep powers of persuasion lay at the heart of the medium she mastered so effortlessly. In an odd sense, that may be her deepest contribution to history. As a cautionary tale, her life is of great value.

"The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl"

Documentary

Directed by Ray Muller

Kino Films

Unrated

***

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