Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl and the esthetics of fascism

The Feb. 17, 1936 cover of TIME magazine, captioned "Hitler's Leni Riefenstahl," is an over-the-top example of what might be called fascist kitsch. This is how Henry Luce's flagship publication portrayed Hitler's athletic mountain maiden and favorite filmmaker, the woman who had just made the notorious propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will," the year before. Hard to believe now, but then, so were Riefenstahl's career and her long, litigious life.

Not everyone was taken in, of course. Walter Winchell was not nearly as susceptible to her charms as Henry Luce. As noted by Judith Thurman in the New Yorker, Winchell memorably called her "pretty as a swastika" -- a phrase that tellingly encapsulated both her youthful beauty and her fascist esthetics.

Aggressive legal action was one way she tried to keep biographers at bay and control her image (lying was another), but her death in 2003 at the age of 101 opened the door, and two biographies have already been published this year: Leni Riefenstahl: A Life by Jurgen Trimborn and Edna McCown and Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach. Thurman reviews both books in a thoughtful essay in the current New Yorker.

And what's with that goofy cover shot of Riefenstahl on the slopes by pioneering photojournalist and fashion photographer Martin Munkacsi? Richard Schickel, a film critic for a very different TIME magazine than the one that ran the Riefenstahl cover, gives some context in his LA Times review of Bach's biography.
She achieved eminence first as a star, then as a director, of "mountain films," a popular, peculiarly Germanic genre in which wild, primitive people dare to scale beautiful yet menacing Alpine peaks, achieving death and transfiguration at the end of their exertions. At the time, most people viewed these movies as escapist, though Siegfried Kracauer (a mere critic at the time, not yet the eminent historian of German film he would become) saw in these films something "symptomatic of an antirationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize."

There was perhaps more to it than that. As Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal essay "Fascinating Fascism," the mountain films offered "a visually irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führer-worship." The would-be Führer saw this. And Riefenstahl, his would-be acolyte, was paying attention too. She read "Mein Kampf" and, typically, pressed that noxious rant upon a Jewish lover, saying, "Harry, you must read this book. This is the coming man."
Thurman begins her review by discussing the TIME cover and notes that Munkacsi was a Hungarian Jew who fled Germany in 1934.
The Nazi superstar and the Jewish émigré met at least once before the race laws precipitated his departure for New York, in 1934, and they had much in common, including international prestige and a penchant for self-mythologizing. But the source of rapture in Munkacsi’s pictures is freedom. In Riefenstahl’s, it is idol worship.

One of Riefenstahl’s most cherished ambitions, ironically, was a Hollywood career like that of Munkacsi’s fellow-émigrée Marlene Dietrich, and she clung to this fantasy tenaciously even after the Kristallnacht pogrom, in November, 1938, which derailed what was supposed to have been a triumphal cross-country American publicity tour with “Olympia.” Upon docking in New York and hearing the news, she refused to believe it, and dismissed the hostility that greeted her at nearly every stop as a plot fomented, she told an interviewer on her return, “by the Jewish moneymen.”
If you only know Riefenstahl through snippets of her films or the writing of film scholars who hail her genius as a filmmaker and pass lightly over her Nazi associations while taking her legend at face value, these books will come as real eye-openers. (Bach's seems the better researched and written, according to both reviewers.) Schickel sums it up this way:
It is difficult to overpraise Bach's efforts: Living the biographer's nightmare, trapped for a decade with a loathsome subject, Bach is determined to present her coolly, ironically, without loss of his own moral vector. What emerges is a compulsively readable and scrupulously crafted work, not unlike Klaus Mann's "Mephisto," that devastating novel about the actor Gustav Gründgens, another of Hitler's several semiconscious cultural ornaments-apologists. I do not believe this fundamentally ignorant woman ever perceived the inherent evil in Nazism. Her anti-Semitism was less virulent than reflexive — the common coin of many realms (including the United States) at the time. The disguise she wrapped around her ambition was that absurd, often unpleasant and peculiarly European one of the Grand Maestro, all art for art's sake — hysteria and narcissism mixed with contempt for her collaborators, grandiose graciousness to her groveling fans and patrons, and a talent that was all technique, no soul. She stood deluded at the center of evil and saw it only as a source of funding.

Bach ends his book with a quotation from Simone Weil: "The only people who can give the impression of having risen to a higher plane, who seem superior to ordinary human misery, are people who resort to the aids of illusion, exaltation, fanaticism, to conceal the harshness of destiny from their own eyes. The man who does not wear the armor of the lie cannot experience force without being touched by it to his very soul."
Leni Riefenstahl and the murderous regime to which she sold her soul are gone, but the fascist esthetics of trivializing suffering and romanticizing the beauty of violence (for a good cause, of course) are still with us, ensuring that Riefenstahl's name lives on.

A current case in point: It's striking how often Riefenstahl ("As a tribute to a particular world view, 300 could play on a double bill with Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will") and her sinister patron ("... it isn't a stretch to imagine Adolf's boys at a "300" screening, heil-fiving each other throughout and then lining up to see it again") are mentioned in reviews of "300," the movie epic about the Battle of Thermopylae that has been widely hailed for the visual beauty of its comic book violence.

1 comment:

Blue Wren said...

Fascinating post. I'd heard Leni Riefenstahl's name in context with Hitler, but didn't know what her significance was. After living in Germany for as long as I did, I'd thought I'd learned a lot about that era, but one can never really learn enough. Thanks for the history lesson.

The parallel you've drawn of her mountain movies to "300" is almost too chilling to contemplate.