Ironic juxtaposition is often the order of the day in the movie-watching business. When we critics see movies in advance, and not on their release dates, some imp of the cinema must plan the double features. I just saw Quiz Show, the Robert Redford-directed film (which will open in mid-September) that tells the story of Charles van Doren -- an American golden boy who in the 1950s was seduced by that young devil, television, into selling his soul by pretending to win rigged quiz shows. In this faux-intellectual version of professional wrestling, he dethroned the show's long-standing champ, a too-obviously ethnic Jew of whom the show's sponsors and producers had tired.
Then in the afternoon I saw The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, which, in its mind-boggling tale of a fantastically talented but blindly self-absorbed film artist's co-option by the Nazis, tells virtually the same true story, though on a Teutonic, Wagnerian scale. Comparing the two, I'm reminded of Gore Vidal's warning, itself issued in the '50s, that when the American Hitler comes he'll look like Arthur Godfrey.
This German documentary, written and directed by Ray Muller, clocks in at three hours, but Riefenstahl's outsized life can easily carry the burden of that much time. She's 90 at the movie's end, and still scuba diving and filming and manipulating as if she'll see 120, as if she could still direct a feature film. See her as she is now and you'll understand why Hitler idealized her, and gave her power undreamed of by any other Nazi-era artist. Such stock as hers could well produce a 1,000-year something, maybe even a Reich.
The Wonderful Horrible Life opens by showing programs that announce Riefenstahl's dance performances of the early 1920s. In the first of her own triumphs of the will, she then decided to become a movie star after seeing a "mountain film" (imagine a more self-consciously "artistic," and Stallone-less Cliffhanger). She presented herself to the film's star, demanded to appear in his next project, and did, quickly becoming one of the German cinema's most recognizable stars -- a rival to Marlene Dietrich, though Riefenstahl was driven by nature and instinct as opposed to Dietrich's shadows and artifice.
Riefenstahl's tutorial continued under the great G.W. Pabst, and then she decided she wanted to get behind the camera. Possessed of a piercingly acute eye for images and a quickness and flexibility of mind (when it came to technical, as opposed to moral, issues, at least), Riefenstahl developed exponentially as a filmmaker, and, by 1932, she had directed her first feature, The Blue Light. But it was as an actress and on-screen dancer that she initially caught Hitler's attention.
Offered the keys to the Reichdom, Riefenstahl wanted to direct. Fine, said the devil, I've got just the property for you. That property, of course, was the chillingly and hellishly beautiful Triumph of the Will, a documentary of a mammoth Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. We watch along with Riefenstahl as she critiques the film that made her name and ruined her life. It's a deeply fascinating exercise. With an astonishing recall of detail, she explains how the film was shot, then goes into a paroxysm of denial and apparently willed ignorance when asked about the moral implications of her technical artistry.
The still-potent old woman has yet to decide how to respond to her work. She says she wishes she had never made Triumph of the Will, then grows visibly excited, childlike really, when she sees an overhead shot and remembers how she set up her cameras.
This, in a nutshell, is how Riefenstahl's Nazi years are depicted, and why they are so compelling. She is still completely torn between obsessively loving her work and trying to defend its circumstances. This is as clear and powerful a depiction of what we now call "denial," as you'll ever see. Paradoxically, Riefenstahl's self-defense is so intense, so iron-willed, that you find yourself begrudgingly pulling for her. That's my story and I'm sticking to it is
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the contemporary battle cry, and for good reason.
The film's dissection of her work in Olympia is also of great interest, but it covers essentially the same ground as the earlier sequence. Later, when a 60-year-old Riefenstahl, accompanied by a silent (here, at least) male companion 40 years her junior, goes to live among and photograph the African Nuda people, and follows this a year later with her current project as an underwater photographer (Leni the environmentalist!), the film shows how her various wills to power and denial reach hallucinatory levels. Her glorification of the astounding Nuda body brings fresh charges of "fascist" her way. But what would Hitler have made of his ideal mountain maid living and cavorting amongst the Africans? And now, literally underwater, Riefenstahl escapes. As a beautiful but icy young actress she looked a little like Garbo, and now Riefenstahl simply wants to be left alone.
There is no question that Riefenstahl is a fascinating study. She admits just enough of what we want to hear to keep her from being seen as an outright cold-blooded monster, à la Goebbels, but then denies so much that we feel we can almost see right through her. I was a little frustrated that MYller didn't ask more about her personal life, about her wartime husband and about her quiet contemporary companion, who is never interviewed. And since Riefenstahl was so consumed, and finally burned, by the idea of filming and even creating the illusion of physical perfection, I wanted to know how she felt about getting old. In one of the underwater sequences she seems to be courting death. Is she?
Not that she would have given us a straight answer, but I wanted to at leasthear the question.
The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.
Written and directed by Ray Muller.