Film: Learning To Love Leni Riefenstahl

In These Times, Sept. 10, 2003 (link)

By Slavoj Zizek
Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. Among other books, he is the author of The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?

The life and work of Leni Riefenstahl, who died on Monday at age 101, seems to lend itself to a mapping of a devolution, progressing toward a dark conclusion. It began with the early "mountain films" of the 1920s that she starred in and later began directing as well, which celebrated heroism and bodily effort in the extreme conditions of mountain climbing. It went on to her notorious Nazi documentaries in the '30s, celebrating bodily discipline, concentration, and strength of will in sport as well as in politics. Then, after World War II, in her photo albums, she rediscovered her ideal of bodily beauty and graceful self-mastery in the Nuba African tribe. Finally, in her last decades, she learned the difficult art of deep sea diving and started shooting documentaries about the strange life in the dark depths of the sea.

We thus obtain a clear trajectory from the top to the bottom: We begin with rugged individuals struggling at the mountain tops and gradually descend, until we reach the amorphous teem of life at the bottom of the sea. Is not what she encountered down there her ultimate object, the obscene and irresistibly thriving eternal force of life itself, what she was searching for all along? And does this not apply also to her personality? It seems that the fear of those who are fascinated by Leni is no longer "When will she die?" but "Will she ever die?" Although rationally we know that she has just passed away, we somehow do not really believe it. She will go on forever.

This continuity of her career is usually given a fascist twist, as in the exemplary case of the famous Susan Sontag essay on Leni, "Fascinating Fascism." The idea is that even her pre- and post-Nazi films articulate a fascist vision of life: Leni's fascism is deeper than her direct celebration of Nazi politics; it resides already in her pre-political aesthetics of life, in her fascination with beautiful bodies displaying their disciplined movements. Perhaps it is time to problematize this topos. Let us take Leni's 1932 film Das blaue Licht ("The Blue Light"), the story of a village woman who is hated for her unusual prowess at climbing a deadly mountain. Is it not possible to read the film in exactly the opposite way as it usually is interpreted? Is Junta, the lone and wild mountain girl, not an outcast who almost becomes the victim of a pogrom -- there is no other appropriate word -- by the villagers? (Perhaps it is not an accident that Béla Balázs, Leni's lover at that time who co-wrote the scenario with her, was a Marxist.)


The problem here is much more general; it goes far beyond Leni Riefenstahl. Let us take the very opposite of Leni, the composer Arnold Schönberg. In the second part of Harmonielehre, his major theoretical manifesto from 1911, he develops his opposition to tonal music in terms which, superficially, anticipate later Nazi anti- Semitic tracts. Tonal music has become a "diseased," "degenerated" world in need of a cleansing solution; the tonal system has given in to "inbreeding and incest"; romantic chords such as the diminished seventh are "hermaphroditic," "vagrant" and "cosmopolitan." It's easy and tempting to claim that such a messianic-apocalyptic attitude is part of the same "spiritual situation" that eventually gave birth to the Nazi final solution. This, however, is precisely the conclusion one should avoid: What makes Nazism repulsive is not the rhetoric of final solution as such, but the concrete twist it gives to it.

Another popular conclusion of this kind of analysis, closer to Leni, is the allegedly fascist character of the mass choreography of disciplined movements of thousands of bodies: parades, mass performances in stadia, etc. If one finds it also in communism, one immediately draws the conclusion about a "deeper solidarity" between the two "totalitarianisms." Such a formulation, the very prototype of ideological liberalism, misses the point. Not only are such mass performances not inherently fascist; they are not even "neutral," waiting to be appropriated by left or right. It was Nazism that stole them and appropriated them from the workers' movement, their original site of birth. None of these "proto-fascist" elements is per se fascist. What makes them "fascist" is only their specific articulation -- or, to put it in Stephen Jay Gould's terms, all these elements are "ex-apted" by fascism. There is no fascism avant la lettre, because it is the letter itself that composes the bundle (or, in Italian, fascio) of elements that is fascism proper.

Along the same lines, one should radically reject the notion that discipline, from self-control to bodily training, is inherently a proto-fascist feature. Indeed, the very term "proto-fascist" should be abandoned: It is a pseudo-concept whose function is to block conceptual analysis. When we say that the organized spectacle of thousands of bodies (or, say, the admiration of sports that demand high effort and self-control like mountain climbing) is "proto- fascist," we say strictly nothing, we just express a vague association that masks our ignorance.

So when, three decades ago, kung fu films became popular, was it not obvious that we were dealing with a genuine working-class ideology of youngsters whose only means of success was the disciplinary training of their bodies, their only possession? Spontaneity and the "let it go" attitude of indulgence belong to those who have the means to afford it -- those who have nothing have only their discipline. The "bad" bodily discipline, if there is one, is not the one of "collective training," but, rather, jogging and body-building as part of the New Age myth of the realization of the self's "inner potentials." (No wonder that the obsession with one's body is an almost obligatory part of the passage of ex- leftist radicals into the "maturity" of pragmatic politics: From Jane Fonda to Joschka Fischer, the "period of latency" between the two phases was marked by the focus on one's own body.)


So, back to Leni: What all this does not mean is that one should dismiss her Nazi engagement as a limited, unfortunate episode. The true problem is to sustain the tension that cuts through her work: the tension between the artistic perfection of her practice and the ideological project that "ex-apted" it. Why should her case be different from that of Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and other modernists with fascist tendencies who long ago became part of our artistic canon? Perhaps the search for the "true ideological identity" of Leni Reifenstahl is a misleading one. Perhaps there is no such identity: She was genuinely thrown around, inconsistent, caught in a cobweb of conflicting forces.

Is then the best way to mark her death not to take the risk of fully enjoying a film like Das blaue Licht, which contains the possibility of a political reading of her work totally different from the prevailing view?

The Peril of Narcissism: Reflections on the Death of Leni Riefenstahl

by Jana Bruns <>, Department of History, C. W. Post campus of Long Island University.
posted to H-German on Sept. 15, 2003 (link)

In his 1992 documentary _The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl_, the director Ray Mueller accompanied Riefenstahl, who died on September 9, 2003 aged 101, to some of her old film locations in order to record her reflections as she strolled across her former haunts. Among the places they visited was the former site of the Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg, immortalized in Riefenstahl's 1934 film _Triumph of the Will_. The visit, however, did not pan out as planned. Rather than acting the part of the gracious genius-artist on her pensive walk down memory lane, Riefenstahl made a mockery of herself by inadvertently exposing her utter narcissism and intransigence. When Mueller asked her about the origins of _Victory of the Faith_, her film of the 1933 Nazi party rally, which is less innovative than _Triumph of the Will_ and whose existence Riefenstahl often tried to deny, she lost her composure and physically assaulted him, grabbing his arms and violently shaking him. Her fury intensified despite Mueller's attempt to calm her down and she finally refused to continue the conversation, cursing at him for distorting the truth and making her look old on camera by using natural instead of artificial light.

What is remarkable about this scene is that Riefenstahl's ugly behavior, ensuing from her utter discomfort with not being in control and not looking her best, is caught on film. In other interviews, her performance is perfectly poised and the impression of the innocent avant-garde artist and pleasant old lady remains intact even when she is criticized. A roundtable discussion broadcast on German television in 1976 shows how cleverly she managed her public image. She won the audience's sympathy and deflected attention from refusing to engage in a serious debate about her films by bursting into tears when one of her critics (the anti-fascist songwriter Knut Kiesewetter) sang a touching ballad. During the commercial breaks, however, she verbally assaulted the host and threatened to leave if she were exposed to more "unpleasant" comments. She subsequently laid down stricter conditions for interviews, agreeing to talk only if she could choose the discussion topics and edit the tape before it was aired.

In _The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl_, Riefenstahl's obsession with appearances, relentless desire to create images of perfection, and need to be in control make her look spiteful, pompous, and pathetic. On the other hand, these attributes were the source of her remarkable ingenuity as a filmmaker. In addition, they made her receptive to the Nazis' offer of unlimited resources and creative autonomy and, on the level of aesthetics, a perfect match for their political agenda. The Nazi regime nurtured her vanity and ambition by admitting her to its inner circle, showering her with honors, and accommodating her demands for vast amounts of money, personnel, and equipment. In the early 1940s, foundations were laid for a gigantic "Riefenstahl studio" financed entirely by the state, which included a full-scale cinema, an archive, a gym, and a restaurant. In return for this benevolence, the filmmaker delivered dazzling works of perfectly regimented beauty and surface splendor celebrating the values of the National Socialist _Volksgemeinschaft_: discipline, obedience, uniformity, and male valor. In _Triumph of the Will_, innovative camera work and editing techniques transformed Hitler into a hypnotic, quasi-divine symbol of authority. While Riefenstahl's feature films _The Blue Light_ and _Lowlands_ centered on female characters (played by Riefenstahl herself) and constructed ethereal images of female beauty, in _Triumph of the Will_ and _Olympia_ the role of the otherworldly star is reserved for the Fuehrer. That Riefenstahl felt a strong bond with Hitler, a narcissistic performer who capitalized on the suggestive power of appearances, is not surprising and her Nuremberg films can indeed be seen as adulations of one narcissist by another.

What makes Riefenstahl important, whether or not one considers her films artistic and technical milestones, is that she personifies the ambiguities and paradoxes of twentieth-century German history-- Weimar democracy's climate of openness and conflicted ingenuity, the tragic moral amnesia that befell Germany in 1933 and National Socialism's peculiar fusion of reactionary values with avant-garde forms, the difficult process of acknowledging, understanding, and remembering Nazi crimes and rebuilding German identity after 1945, and the absorption of styles associated with the Nazis by postwar commercial culture. Riefenstahl's career and films pose difficult questions about the ruptures and continuities marking the transition from democracy to authoritarian rule and allied occupation, the relationship of art to politics and commerce, the public role of artists, and the changing status of women in twentieth-century German society and culture.

Why did an emancipated, educated, and enterprising young woman like Riefenstahl--the epitome of Weimar's New Woman--support a regime that reversed many of the freedoms women had gained during the 1920s and whose idea of a woman's place stood in stark contrast to her own? What does the regime's promotion of a woman to the position of official filmmaker of the Party and first artist of the Reich reveal about gender politics in Nazi Germany? Do Riefenstahl's postwar photographs of the African Nuba advance the same flawed values as _Triumph of the Will_ and _Olympia_ because they bear many stylistic similarities and depict tall, athletic male bodies engaged in violent skirmishes? Do artists like Helmut Newton or Herb Ritts, whose portraits explore themes like domination, submission, and conquest and construct highly staged images of muscular beauty, automatically partake in the same murky ideological discourse as Riefenstahl? And how can Riefenstahl's films, which pioneered many techniques that have become standard features of TV advertising, help us understand manipulation and control in the mass media?

Riefenstahl's death closes an important chapter in German history and will hopefully inspire new assessments of her career. While we may dislike her work and condemn the choices she made, she fundamentally changed the relationship between art and politics.

[For those with access to German television: "Leni Riefenstahl: Die Macht der Bilder" airs in two parts, tonight and tomorrow night. (September 15 and 16, 2003) at midnight CET on NDR. --Ed.]

prepared for web by H. Marcuse, 9/22/03
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