From Tue Oct 15 12:30:11 2002
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: The Nazi siren's call
Date: Tue, 15 Oct 2002 17:34:15 +0200 (CEST)

The Nazi siren's call

By Lionel Richard, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2002

LENI RIEFENSTAHL celebrated her hundredth birthday on 22 August, and the event was given worldwide coverage, coinciding with the release of her latest film, Underwater Impressions. We read and heard all the cliches: ageless, a mythic figure, a living legend, a great explorer.

The woman who had Hitler's ear has tried to justify herself in the many interviews she gave after the second world war and in her memoirs in 1987. Yes, she was fascinated by the Führer in 1932 and believed in Nazi policy. But she was never a racist, never worked for propaganda, never knew anything about the persecution of anti-fascists, Jews and Gypsies. She was only interested in beauty. So she always said.

Celebrations can be salutary. Her birthday was marked by the publication in Germany of books about her by two young authors, Lutz Kinkel and Jürgen Trimborn (1) who provide documentary evidence to refute the claim that she was apolitical and that her ambitions were purely artistic. She openly congratulated Hitler and applied to Goebbels for funding.

The authors mention two episodes that reveal her at the very least as a ruthless social climber. When she was making her film The Blue Light in 1931, she invited Béla Balász, a Hungarian writer and cinema expert living in Germany, to help with the script. At the beginning of 1933, as he was moving to Moscow and had not yet been paid, he asked for the money he was owed. Riefenstahl had been shooting Victory Of Faith in Nuremberg and had become friendly with Julius Streicher, the most aggressively antisemitic of the Nazi leaders. Her response to Balász's request was to give Streicher power of attorney on to deal with the demands made upon me by the Jew, Belá Balacs.

The case was in good hands. When Riefenstahl decided to reissue The Blue Light in 1938, she ignored Balász's collaboration on the script and removed his name from the credits. The name of the producer, Harry Sokal, who was also Jewish, was also deleted. Until a third copy was released in 1953, the film was described as a legend of the mountain, with words and pictures by Leni Riefenstahl.

The script of Lowland, made during the war, needed people to play the parts of Spaniards and in 1940, and again in 1941, she used Gypsies from Maxglan concentration camp near Salzburg for these roles. She has always denied going to Maxglan and she brought and won two cases for libel about this. But she is still under suspicion.

On her centenary, the Frankfurt judiciary announced that the Cologne Gypsies' association had lodged a complaint against her for impugning the memory of victims of Nazism. In an interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau this year, she claimed that no Gypsy in Lowland had been lost. But, according to the complainants, the Gypsies had been condemned to forced labour and were deported to Auschwitz, where many died.

The question is whether Riefenstahl should be allowed to be at peace. To celebrate her birthday as the climax of her rehabilitation certainly seems excessive. In 1966, despite protests from Jewish associations, a retrospective of her films was organised at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1973 she was guest of honour at the first feminist film festival at Telluride, Colorado—as a tribute to her as an artist, not as a person who might have held political views. Recognition of her genius as a filmmaker followed. Her book of photographs of Nuba tribes in Sudan was a great success. The American writer, Susan Sontag, exasperated by the many newspaper articles and television interviews, denounced her aesthetic approach as fascist.

The Franco-German TV channel, Arte, had already broadcast a three-hour tribute by Ray Müller to mark her 90th birthday. The channel's sales catalogue includes six videos, almost 12 hours of film, to introduce the work of one of the most important and controversial figures in the history of cinema. In August viewers in France were offered a special programme put together by Alexander Bohr for the German channel ZDF.

Seeing that Riefenstahl's records had a file on the Gypsies in Lowland, the interviewer, Sandra Maischberger, asked why she kept all these papers, and was told because there have also been bad things in my life. Was this a confession of guilt? No. She was simply referring to the inconvenience of being obliged to fight a lawsuit against people she considered had slandered her. That was all the viewers heard on the subject, amounting to 20 seconds all told. She also had very little to say about Nazism or the films she made after 1933. There was nothing political about Triumph Of The Will, she said. Like Olympia, her two-part film of the 1936 Olympic games, she had only consented to work on it because Hitler had given her his word that she would then be free to pursue her own projects. She felt she should really be regarded as a victim of Nazism.

The worst aspect of the Arte programme was that it had nothing to say about the historical background to her career. Contrary to what she maintains, all the films she made under the Nazis were publicly funded and all except Lowland, still unfinished in 1945, were approved by the propaganda ministry. To label these films artistic masterpieces is an insult to the great pioneers of cinema. There is almost no mention of the resources at her disposal and the earlier achievements of German cinema that she incorporated in her Nazi propaganda.

Her own contribution was an aesthetic approach based on rhetorical devices: the sublimation of classical standards of beauty, the exaltation of strength and energy, exceptional powers of suggestion and seduction. Arte showed only two films, neither made under the Third Reich, but the limits of Riefenstahl's talent were clear. The Blue Light, which was not as successful as her fans claim, is mostly neo-romantic kitsch. Underwater Impressions, her latest production, based on a fascination with the supposed beauty of fish, is a ceaseless flow of images that should make an effective lullaby.

Recognition of cultural values is incompatible with forgetting. It is vain for Riefenstahl to claim that she sent her cameramen to film underwater to help protect nature. She failed too far in protecting people to be credited, even in old age, with a humanist conscience.

She does deserve admiration for her vitality, her willpower, her strong physique and her good fortune in reaching 100 in full possession of her mental and physical faculties. But is that enough for adulation?


(1) Jürgen Trimborn, Riefenstahl. Eine deutsche Karriere. Biographie, Aufbau Verlag, Berlin, 2002; Lutz Kinkel, Die Scheinwerferin Leni Riefenstahl und das Dritte Reich, Europa Verlag, Hamburg, 2002.