Monday, 7 March 2011

AFED #66: Olympia (Germany, 1938); Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Belgium/UK/Germany, 1993); Dir. Ray Müller

Leni Riefenstahl: evil Nazi film-maker or pioneering genius of pre-war cinema? Or perhaps both? Either way Riefenstahl remains probably the most influential woman film-maker ever.

That's perhaps all the more remarkable because her reputation is principally due to two films, both documentaries. The first, Triumph of the Will is an account of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg; a chilling work of propaganda that showcases Hitler's hypnotic genius and the spell he was casting upon the German people.

Although a certain mystique has built up around this film and its sinister subtext in truth it's not the most compelling viewing to a contemporary audience. The more innovative of Riefenstahl's techniques - such as the use of telescopic lenses and aerial photography - were assimilated by the wider film-making fraternity, but many scenes drag interminably and lack subtlety.

Her second, Olympia is generally viewed more sympathetically. An epic three and a half hour account (albeit split into two halves) of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Riefenstahl was given unprecedented resources to document the sporting festival and the result is a lavish if indulgent spectacle.


The first part of the film, Fest der Völker (The Festival of Nations), begins with a montage the ruins of the ancient Olympia in Greece, Riefenstahl then dissolves from a classical statue of a discuss thrower to a living, moving athlete doing the same. From there we move to the 'traditional' journey of the Olympic torch across Europe to the host city (in fact this innovation only began with the 1936 Games) and the pageantry of the opening ceremony at Berlin's majestic Olympiastadion.

Thereafter we're treated to an extensive document of the traditional track and field events. As with Triumph of the Will nowadays many of the techniques Riefenstahl's team deployed - tracking shots, close-ups and multiple angles - are so commonplace one can easily become blase, but it's surprising just how gripping the coverage is.

It's also worth observing that despite the film's Nazi patronage it makes no attempt to obscure the achievements of black athletes, in particular the magnificent Jesse Owens, who made a mockery of Hitler's notions of racial superiority. However, there's an amusing moment when, at the start of the 800m the German commentator observes it's "two black athletes against the best of the white race" only for one of those black runners (Woodruff) to grab victory.

Part two, Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty), is more uneven, presumably because logistics made it impossible for Riefenstahl to attend all the events taking place elsewhere and she had to work with whatever footage her camera crew had obtained. It becomes more of an abstract meditation on human endeavour and athleticism and the actual results of the competition are sometimes treated as immaterial. Some sequences, such as a montage of divers, are audacious technical exercises in editing. Others, such as an endless succession of three day eventers struggling with a water jump, are not so much comical as tedious.

The final film wasn't completed until 1938, whereupon Riefenstahl embarked on a worldwide promotional tour. While visiting the US the Kristallnacht attacks took place and, seemingly unable to countenance that Hitler could be the architect of such butchery, Riefenstahl denounced criticisms of him as "slander". The damage to her reputation would effectively end her film-making career after the war.


It reveals something about what a taboo figure Riefenstahl remained that when Ray Müller came to make his acclaimed 1993 profile of the director he had to find backing from outside Germany. Given that she was already 90 years old when The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl was made I was expecting to see a frail and bitter old woman, yet she remained uncannily youthful (she might easily be twenty years younger), very active and in full possession of her faculties.

Interviewing Riefenstahl extensively about her life from her early days as a (stunningly beautiful) young dancer and actress, through the years of the Third Reich and her later career photographing the Nuba tribes of Southern Sudan, Müller makes a good effort to get inside the head of a complex and highly intelligent woman.

Riefenstahl steadfastly maintains that she was not a Nazi sympathiser, pointing out that she was never a member of the party and sought to distance herself from Hitler and the rest of the Nazi top brass. At times this stretches credulity; culture minister Joseph Goebbels frequently referred to socialising with Riefenstahl in his diaries and her disavowals, however vehement, sound like someone in denial.

As do her protestations of ignorance about Nazi atrocities when one learns that gypsies interred at concentration camps had to be drafted in to substitute for Spaniards during the filming of her solitary wartime film (although not released until 1954), Tiefland. Riefenstahl may not have shared the Nazis' beliefs but she clearly wasn't one to let moral objections stand in the way of pursuing her art.

Above all else she appears to have been an aesthete, fascinated by the power of imagery, the imagery of power and particularly the athletic beauty of the human form. This led Susan Sontag, in writing about Riefenstahl's Nubian photography, to accuse her of fascist leanings; given Riefenstahl's track record it's a predictable and perhaps facile extrapolation. In later years Riefenstahl's fascination with underwater photography - which resulted in her final film, Impressionen unter Wasser, released on the occasion of her 100th birthday - suggests she ultimately discovered her muse capturing the shifting patterns of light, colour and texture of marine life.

We may not agree with all the choices she made, we can admonish her apparent amorality, but one can't dispute that Riefenstahl's was a long and remarkable life.

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