In the surprisingly crowded genre of documentaries about filmmakers, director Ray Mller's The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl is most likely the best I've ever seen, because it deals directly with subjects far more important than filmmaking. That grandly contradictory title is not wasted on Riefenstahl--her life really has been wonderful and horrible on an epic level.
Consider: Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl's film of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, Germany, was by far the most dazzling product of the Nazi propaganda machine, yet--as Riefenstahl repeatedly reminds us in Mller's film--she was never a member of the Nazi party (she is, however, a member of Greenpeace). Born in Berlin in 1902, she began a career as a dancer, then became a popular leading lady in the "mountain films"--man-versus-nature epics set on snowy peaks--of director Arnold Fanck, notably his 1929 The White Hell of Pitz Palu.
She made her directing debut in 1932 with The Blue Light, a visually exquisite fairy tale that she also wrote and starred in. Both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were fascinated by her talent and fresh-faced, innocent beauty, and when the Nazis came to power, she was employed to make several nonfiction films for them. These included the 1933 Victory of the Faith, a rather slapdash record of that year's Nazi Party Congress; 1934's chillingly masterful, not at all slapdash Triumph; 1935's Day of Freedom, a short about Wehrmacht exercises; and her masterpiece, 1938's Olympia, a massive, heartbreakingly beautiful film--and also a repellent piece of Third Reich PR--about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
She spent much of the war years directing and starring in a fiction film titled Tiefland (an adaptation of Eugene d'Albert's opera), in which she is reported to have used as extras Gypsy prisoners from a concentration camp. She does not otherwise appear to have been a racist. She left Poland, where she had been sent as a war reporter, in disgust over the Nazi mistreatment of civilian Poles; in Olympiad, she gloried in the beauty of nonwhite athletes like Jesse Owens; and she spent many of her postwar years lovingly filming the Nuba tribes of east Africa for an unrealized documentary (none of which, of course, remotely excuses her from Nazi guilt; if anything, it makes her more culpable).
After the war, she became a success as a still photographer, and shot miles of footage for various film projects that have yet to be completed. At the time The Wonderful Horrible Life was made, Riefenstahl, reputedly the world's oldest active scuba diver, was working to complete the editing of an undersea documentary about marine life. It's obviously an incredible story, but what makes Mller's film incredible in itself is Riefenstahl's vigorous participation in it. The project was initiated at her suggestion, but though Mller (who is also the interviewer) doesn't bait her, he doesn't handle her with kid gloves, either.
She frequently blows up at his lines of questioning, but he firmly presses on. She looks, speaks and acts at least 20 years younger than her age, and her interest in filmmaking is still intense--there are scenes of her wrangling with Mller and the cinematographer over the angles at which her interviews should be shot.
To be a brilliantly gifted artist is wonderful; to remain unshakably obtuse about an artist's even minimal level of responsibility for the political content of his or her work is rather horrible. Riefenstahl claims not to have known about the atrocities in the camps until after the war, and while she was aware of the Third Reich's initial anti-Semitism, she claims she thought it was "just electioneering" (she shows no reflection about the dangers of a party that runs this sort of campaign).
Again and again, she insists that her lack of interest in politics absolves her of aesthetic wrongdoing, and while she expresses strong regret for having made Triumph, the only reason she cites for that regret is the sufferings she had to endure from postwar castigation.
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Responding to critics who find all of this troubling, she says at one point, "I don't get it." She certainly seems not to get it--she doesn't seem aware of the case she's building against herself when she says that she would have filmed parades the same way "in Moscow or China or in America, if anything like that ever happened there." (In light of the recent elections, let's pray her opportunity doesn't arise.) Nor does her argument hold up that many great artists express ugly beliefs commonly held in their time. Sure, the art of any age is shaped by the prejudices of that age, and the prejudices of any age--including ours--are likely to be vile (of endless examples, one of the more obvious would be Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice). The difference is that Triumph was commissioned government propaganda, a single-minded commercial for a murderous fascist regime. Yet its creator has nothing but haughty indignation for those who can't see it merely as a simple exercise in cinematic technique.
It could be argued that Mller, in doggedly pursuing Riefenstahl's attitude toward her work, is thus playing her game--that whether she held her nose while making these films is immaterial. But The Wonderful Horrible Life is large enough in scope, and deals in unhurried depth with enough that is validly mysterious about the relationship of artist and society, to transcend this criticism.
As of now, the film is slated to play for only a week at Tempe's Valley Art Theatre; it can safely be considered a must-see. Along with its main subject, it contains many incidental passages of creepy relevance to contemporary debates. Not the least striking of these is a recording of the text for a show of paintings deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis, who, like many American conservatives, were much offended by the outr in art: "Pure German artistic sensibility means nothing to a rootless Jew. What he calls art must titillate his depraved senses; it must be cloaked in corruption and sickness; it must be unnatural, grotesque, perverse or pathological. These febrile fantasies of incurably sick minds were once flaunted before the public by Jewish art critics as the highest form of artistic expression." Remove the overt racial terms, and this might easily have been written this very day by Pat Robertson or Michael Medved.