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October / 2003

President’s report
Joan Hutton csc

Judging Leni Riefenstahl

Controversial filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is dead. She died in her sleep at her Bavarian home last month, after a remarkable 101 years of a brilliant life stained by choices she made for herself and her camera. She was both respected and despised, a woman of deep convictions and puzzling contradictions.

As a cinematographer, it is difficult for me to judge Leni Riefenstahl. I have always admired the almost hypnotic beauty of her black-and-white propaganda films, particularly Triumph Of The Will in 1934. This spectacular portrayal of Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg rally, painted in steely grey contrasts of light and dark, was both uplifting and menacing. It was emotional, jingoistic melodrama that fired up the patriotic pulse of a depressed German nation in the turbulent 1930s, and it gave Hitler his ultimate grasp on absolute power.

It was beautiful, and it did its job. What better definition of good cinematography can there be? Riefenstahl’s heroic, although “whitewashed,” story of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympia, was more of the same stark, seductive propaganda. Triumph Of The Will and Olympia have a surrealistic, almost science-fiction look, rather like Austrian Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic Metropolis — a scary preview of a future time gone wrong. Looking at those stylized Riefenstahl films today, it is difficult to comprehend that they are actual images of history and a prelude to some of the greatest horrors in the chronology of mankind.

Leni Riefenstahl never apologized for the masterful films she made for her friend Hitler and the Nazi party. She told her biographer she could not apologize because those works were the centrepieces of her career, and “all my films won prizes.” She was probably right not to apologize for her art, although I think she might have taken a less arrogant tack — perhaps that the Nuremberg rally would have taken place whether she had filmed it or not.

As a freedom-loving human being, cinematography aside, I don’t like Leni Riefenstahl. She was a Nazi, she admired Adolf Hitler, she helped shape the rise of the Third Reich, and she knew of and sanctioned the rampant anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, even if, as she claimed, she did not know of the extermination camps.

However, I like what Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival, told the Toronto Star:

“She was a truly great innovative filmmaker who should be remembered for that rather than for her politics. Triumph Of The Will and Olympia could be called propaganda, but they also happen to be two of the greatest films ever made.”

Leni Riefenstahl is dead, and she takes her many secrets with her. We are grateful for her film legacy, but what a price the world has paid for her gifts. Interviewed just before her 100th birthday, Riefenstahl said she has “apologized for ever being born,” but that she should not be criticized for her films.

Perhaps her unbending arrogance derived from 19th-century philosopher Victor Cousin, who wrote that “we need religion for religion’s sake, morality for morality’s sake and art for art’s sake.” History’s final judgment of Leni Riefenstahl may be that her greatest art betrayed morality and forsook humanity.

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