Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Can't Help It

I finally got around this week to watching a Christmas gift - the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.

The film is far more than the story of Hitler's favorite filmmaker, the woman whose rollercoaster career took her from silent stardom in the now unwatchable genre of German Mountain Epics to scubadiving at 90+ in the Indian Ocean - heights and depths, indeed. What it really is, I think, is an almost continually frustrated attempt to answer one question: "What was she thinking?"

For decades she maintained one obdurate story: she was an apolitical artist, one who got caught up, all unawares, in the frenzy surrounding the rise of Nazism and who just happened to create its most enduring visual records. She was, in fact, a victim - of Goebbels, who repeatedly frustrated her perfectionist vision; of her postwar critics, who saw in Triumph of the Will the potent danger of a genuinely gifted eye meeting a poisonous message; and even of later writers, like Susan Sontag, who looked at Riefenstahl's '60s work photographing African tribesmen and saw a continuation of her Nazi-era celebration of what we know think of as body Fascism.

In the movie, she hews to this line, a nonagenarian vision of raddled UFA glamour as she tells her well-worn tales, dimpling guilelessly at the camera like the old pro she truly was. She compares herself, repeatedly, to Dietrich, whom she admires, it seems, not for her boldly anti-Hitler stance, but simply for having escaped and endured. She notes that she needed the same kind of lighting Marlene required - a high single spot to create the legendary shadows - and makes the dubious claim that she had been in the running to be Von Sternberg's Lola Lola in The Blue Angel.

Only once does the mask drop. Reunited in the stadium of the 1936 Olympics with two of the cameramen she had schooled to realize her almost demented glorification of athletic perfection in Olympia, she sits, during a break, chatting with them, apparently unaware her mic is live. Suddenly, briefly, her days as the toast of Berlin come to life. The three dispassionately move from talking about apertures and exposures to chitchat about the more routine assignments of who filmed who - "Ah, ja, you went to Moscow with Ribbentrop, no?" and for just that moment, you realize what an abyss she is, a vacancy, not apolitical but amoral, genuinely unable to fathom the bizarre experiences she has been through.

At the end of the film, she tries one last justification, another repetition of her tropes - I was not a party member, I never said anything anti-semitic, people lie so terribly about me, I was (looking very much intact) "shattered" to learn of all the atrocities, what could I have done ... and it occurred to me. Leni, in the end, really is a Lola Lola, a woman who, for film as the original was for sex, is so wholly self-absorbed, "von Kopf bis Fuß " made for nothing else, that she just ... can't help it.

For Marlene, Lola was just a role, the one that finally set her on the road to real stardom and out of the black orbit of National Socialism. Leni, though, was the real deal, Dietrich's dark shadow. It's a paradox, then, that she enjoyed a long, vigorous old age and, finally, a measure of renown apart from her vilification, even as her braver, more clear-eyed coeval languished in a geriatric haze of liquor and self-pity in Paris. Good choices don't always make for happy endings, but even so, while both women may have had "wonderful, horrible" lives, I have to think Dietrich's was the better path.


  1. Leo Lerman,in "The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman," Dec. 30, 1973:

    "She is old, spoiled, stupid, and quite frequently drunk. Such a topple from tipple--a result not a cause. She's to be pitied, for she lived by and from her beauty--not her true beauty, of which she had much, but the artifice which her fans saw, applauded, and paid for....Marlene's center was her insatiable narcissism--her "beauty"--and this is now gone, this center, although she can counterfeit it for huge audiences. I am almost always sad for one who has lost his kingdom--his domain....The possibility: Nothing exists save one's self."

  2. I might just have to add that to the NetFlix cue. It has always terrified me how watchable her Nazi era work was. What could happen if the Religious Right ever find a filmmaker like that?

  3. You mean Mel Gibson isn't it?

    Perhaps it's just the context, but in the film itself I mostly found myself surprised at how hokey many of Riefenstahl's famous innovations (the use of crowds, the moving camera, the angles from which she shot both Nazis and athletes) came off. She herself is fascinating but dreadful.

    Like most direct exposure to Third-Reichiana, it sends me back to the diaries of Marie Vassiltchikov for a reality check of what a genuinely intelligent person thought of the third-rateness of all things Nazi.

  4. great piece!

    in film school, i ran a 16MM print of "triumph of the will" for an audience of one, me. i was amazed. later, i saw "wonderful, horrible" and it told me all i needed to know.

  5. A very interesting film. I thoroughly enjoyed it!