Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Reifenstahl

Many people do not know who Leni Reifennstahl was.  She was probably the most innovative film maker of the first half of the 20th century, and probably the most reviled (unjustly, I think) film maker of the second half of the 20th century.  Before she was a film maker, she was a dancer, an actress and an jaw droppingly brave mountain climber.  She acted in a very early movie climbing pinnacles in the Dolomites barefooted, wearing a dress, with no rope.  I find that unbelievable but it's on film. Today we would know it was  special effects; there were no special effects in the early 1930s.

I saw the 3-1/2 hour documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life...  Friday and I may never get over it.  She became interested in film making, and got a chance to show her stuff during the early Hitler years when 90% of Germany was falling in love with the man who would pull them out of the post-WWI economic slump and (said he) bring them peace.  She was asked to make a film about big gatherings at Nuremberg. She didn't want to but she was convinced to spend five days filming, and could use every kind of technique she could imagine.  She was challenged and she was inspired by hope for Germany.  She filmed for five days and edited for five months. SHE did all her own editing, making an art film, modeling it on the structure symphonic music. The film became Triumph of the Will which won many awards and is today still considered the unequal propaganda film of all time. I saw it ten days ago and was stunned by its power even though I found Hitler utterly hateful as he made his impassioned speeches. After that she was asked to film the 1938 Olympics in Berlin.  She trained a cadre of cameramen, she used techniques never before imagined. Again she edited it herself -- for two years. She concentrated on the perfection of athletic achievement as did the Greeks. Olympia (I saw it two years ago) has marvelously beautiful scenes of accomplishment.

Soon the war started, Reifenstahl tried to become an actress in Hollywood but her rival, Marlene Deitrich out did her.  So she escaped the war in Bavaria where she spent years trying to make an opera movie starring herself. The biographical film was made up of clips from her work and long, inteviews, mostly done when she was in her 80s.  By that time she had lived through the "horrible" part of the title: being questioned at the Nuremberg trials since she had certainly helped Hitler's rise.  In the interviews she talked with pride and much animation about her film making. It's clear she was an enormously talented creative person.  Perhaps she equivocated about her early involvement with Hitler and Goebbels, but she never joined the party, insulated herself against most of the war and did not become disillusioned until she finally discovered all that she had managed not to know. She could not work and was broadly vilified for many years.

At last she pulled herself together and went to Africa where she lived with two different Nubian tribes, took still photos and filmed. That lead to a book of amazing photographs but she never made her many films into one documentary. Then she met a man named Horst, 30 or 40 years her junior who became her companion and cameraman and they began to explore and film underwater. She was scuba diving (and petting a giant sting ray) in her 90s and glowing with excitement about it.

I have never heard a more articulate interviewee or seen a more amazing woman on film.  I do not think the people who insist she was evil for making "Triumph" have any conception of what it is to be  an artist given complete freedom to create. She truly believed in the German people and that Hitler would be their savior at that time. In retrospect we cannot fault her for that belief or for doing her very best to create a paeon to the idea she thought was being put forth -- that she did it so brilliantly is not evil, reprehensible or hellish -- it is amazing and beautiful no matter that it's use was perverted to an end she could foresee.  I have never seen a film about a woman who lived such a brilliantly creative life and seemed to enjoy it so very much despite the "horrible" portion and the pain it brought.


barbara cecelia said...

Your review of Triumph of the Will reveals a woman before her time. She sounds like she followed her passion and took ahold of her life even though she was hoodwinked by Hitler. We all make mistakes in our life time. thanks June -- barbara

June Calender said...

Thank you, Barbara. She hoodwinked like the majority of Germans.

Cindy said...

Thanks for this thorough review! I've never heard of Reifenstahl (until now). I get many reading and movie suggestions from you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. -Cindy