I recently reviewed a play called Amazons and Their Men for TC Daily Planet. You can check out the “official review” here.
After seeing the play, I immediately watched The Horrible/Wonderful Life of Leni Reifenstahl (see my 50 Word review, which hardly does the film justice) and became both enamored and repelled.
When she was fairly young, she broke out as a dancer. The movie includes some footage of her dancing and, well, let’s just say that things sure have changed. She would be laughed off of So You Think You Can Dance. She seemed clumsy; when she kicked her legs her knees were bent like some hobgoblin doing an evil dance. It was closer to something I may have done for one of my after dinner “shows” for my family when I was seven. Nevertheless, she caught the eye of the right people and was soon starring in movies that required her to climb mountains barefoot, cling to a mountainside while they made an avalanche cover her with snow, etc. Those wacky Germans.
At one point, she was hauled up a mountain side in a sling and a real avalanche started casscading down on her but they held her there anyway, filming. She was black and blue afterward.
And then, well, she made her own movie (a fairy tale called The Blue Light), which led to her making a documentary for the Nazi Party about one of their rallies, which led to her first big work, Triumph of the Will. It was just supposed to be a documentary (and propaganda film) but, oops, it was more a work of art. No one knew how to cut between images and get close-ups like Leni did. She used multiple cameras, had a camera mounted to the gigantic columns that rose up behind the podium and it could go up and down on a rail, creating great wide shots of all the Nazis lined up, filling the stadium.
Leni maintained that she did it because they asked her and, uhm, how could one say no without getting into a rather sticky situation? It was just a one-time thing; she never joined the Party.
But it did lead to more work for her. She filmed the 1936 Olympics and made another documentary called Olympia. The rumor was that the production money came from the Party, although she maintained that Hitler hated the Olympics. He didn’t want to see Black people beat out his precious Aryans, which happened when Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field.
Olympia became another victory. She and her team of cameramen, which she trained in her filming techniques, did things no one had ever done before. They dug pits in the field so they could film long jumpers flying through the air. They had cameramen stationed in the water so they could get underwater and air shots of divers. They ran a tight production, with Leni in charge of handing out the assignments for the next day at each evening’s production meeting. She was tough, smart, a genius with moving image and, I couldn’t help but noticing, quite beautiful.
So where does it all go wrong? In her denials, mostly. She is mentioned by name in Goebbels’ personal diary as being at several Party social events, hanging with the Nazis. She took Party money. And, perhaps most damning of all, she was not only on friendly terms with Hitler, she wrote him a congratulatory note when he invaded France. She says it was because they (the Germans) all thought the war was over. As if.
And then there is the fact that she went off to film her own art movie when things were heating up. As Germany plunged ahead with WWII, she took more Party money to go create art in Spain. When filming on location (another technique she was among the first to use) proved to be a problem, she came back to Germany to keep filming but needed people who looked Spanish. The Nazis came through with some gypsies straight from the camps. She denied knowing where they came from, but the documents with their names on them still exist. In fact, after filming, they were sent to Auschwitz.
After the war, she was held in American detention camps, tried twice as a Nazi but was eventually found to be a sympathizer. Shunned by other people (who were probably also sympathizers but kept a lower profile), she moved back in with her mother in an apartment in Berlin for something like 20 years. I’m sure that must have been a happy place. She never made another film except for some schmaltzy underwater documentary.
But she did spend quite a bit of time with the Nuba tribe in Africa, photographing them. She sold photographs to news agencies. And she started deep sea diving at 72, which she was still doing at age 90. All that athleticism and mountain climbing ensured that she lived a long life – she lived to 101. Long enough to see the error of her ways and to feel the collective cold shoulder.
I can’t help but wonder what other films she might have made had she been able, that is, if she hadn’t entangled herself with those Nazis. Triumph and Olympia are still considered some of the best documentaries of all time.