Die Macht der Bilder (1993) is known in English as The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. When watching this film, it is hard to ignore even the sparkling eyes of a razor-sharp old lady often condemned as a witch of Nazi propaganda, especially for what she filmed at Nuremberg.
In this documentary, she insisted that Triumph of the Will had to be seen in the context of the time, which was 1934, not 1945. At that time in the Thirties, Robert Musil was living in Berlin. His diaries show that not quite everybody was blind to what was happening. It is seen as a spell of bad weather… a police car with swastika flags and singing officers, speeding down the Kurfürstendamm. It is alarming that Germans today possess so little sense of reality… the streets are full of people – “Life goes on” – even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up…
Riefenstahl nonetheless pointed out too that her film contained nothing about anti-Semitism or racial theory. Instead, she argued that in it she conveyed (through Hitler, you may splutter) the themes of work and peace. Her avowed goal had been artistic, once she had accepted the task on the condition that she would never have to make another film for the Nazi Party.
Riefenstahl was more than able for the unseen interviewer who asked her about the responsibility of the artist concerning those who will be affected by the work. On the issue of filming for Hitler, she pointed out that Sergei Eisenstein had worked for Stalin but her more general point was that artists cannot tell the future and that the likes of Michelangelo and Rodin had shown no grasp of politics.
The more she spoke, the harder it was not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for her position. She ridiculed Susan Sontag’s assertion that she had been attracted to photograph the Nuba people in Africa because their black skin reminded her of the SS. She pointed out that a Nazi wouldn’t think black people were even worth photographing.
In a fit of enthusiasm they later regretted, the French had given Triumph of the Will the gold medal at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 – a decision they vindictively balanced out after the war when they imprisoned its maker. This was after the Americans had decided that she had no case to answer, beyond being a fellow traveller (Mitläufer). This imprisonment also happened despite the fact that neither she nor any close family member had been a member of the Nazi Party.
Her true crime? Perhaps it was to be perceived to have done the impossible and actually produced a ‘fascist’ work of art. The Wagnerian comparisons commonly made in this case tie in with Louis Halle’s observation on Germany and Italy in The Ideological Imagination.
“What the fascist movements lacked in philosophy they made up for in theatre. It is surely no accident that the extreme of fascism was realized in the two countries most notable for their contributions to grand opera.”
– The Ideological Imagination, 1972, p.99
Though she denied she was proud of Triumph of the Will, given the trouble it had caused her, and she did not think fondly of the extended hard work, editing it and so on, there was evident glee on her part as she showed off certain camera effects she had achieved. She could even remember the geographical origins of specific contingents where they took part in particular shots.
Riefenstahl’s outlook was apolitical at the very least and the future was all there to see in Mein Kampf and so on, but the vast majority of Germans – of human beings – are not lights in the darkness like Sophie Scholl or Willy Brandt. As a boy, Leon Trotsky was suspended from school for a year for inciting his classmates to howl at a teacher who was tormenting a fellow pupil simply because he was of German descent. Trotsky saw that once the protest began the class was henceforth divided into three groups – the frank and courageous boys on the one side, the envious and the talebearers on the other and the neutral, vacillating mass in the middle. Writing about the incident from the perspective of suitably chastened adulthood, he added that these three groups never quite disappeared, even in later years.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi expresses anger and revulsion when evaluating a statement made by Liliana Cavani, director of The Night Porter, who said that we are all victims of murderers and that we accept these roles voluntarily. Levi says that to confuse murderers with their victims is a sign of moral disease or artistic affectation, or a sinister sign of complicity rendering a precious service to the negators of truth.
Today the cinematic glorification of serial killers earns vast amounts of money but, in that context, an important distinction can be made between The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, to take two key examples of the genre. In the former, Hannibal Lecter is a satanic figure in the artistic sense of the term, as a snaky embodiment of temptation. He gets all the best lines, his feats are superhuman and, at the end of his satirical quest, he ends up like a guardian angel.
In Seven, the Kevin Spacey character is a grudge-filled little vigilante who trots out his banal motives behind gruesome tortures and murders which have been carefully and cleverly rendered by those behind the camera. Which of these films is a sign of moral disease, a form of sinister complicity?
In the same real world where a gangster like John Gotti gets life without parole, despite never having ordered the carpet-bombing of a Third World country, which of the following pair of even more famous cinema examples answers the same question? Is it Apocalypse Now with its ending that echoes the way Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War makes Pericles sound like Hitler (“It is because your resolution is weak that my policy appears to be mistaken”)?
Contrast that now with a scene from one of the Rambo films, of all things, where Richard Crenna tells it like it is to a Russian in Afghanistan. It’s like us in Vietnam. You shouldn’t be here. In other words, get out. Does the latter example not express the true moral of colonial war?
The application of Leni Riefenstahl’s technical brilliance was ill-advised but one could say too that she was unlucky. Too many artists to mention have buried their heads in the sand or even joined in the madness prevalent at any given time and there was no honest reason for preventing her from ever making a film again. Few others whom we think should have known better actually grasped the destination. They were often simply content to admire the parade.