Monday, September 27, 2004

Laughter is the Best Obituary: Leni Reifenstahl and the Cult of Shamelessness

“Alles was an etwas erinnert, ist Denkmal.”
(‘Everything that reminds us of something is a memorial.’)
- Rudolf Ulrich

I woke one morning last July here in Detroit to hear and NPR broadcaster announcing the death of Walter Frentz, “Hitler’s Cameraman,” and former Luftwaffe film technician. Frentz entered Hitler’s inner circle of associates during the final years of the Reich. He died at age 96 on July 6 in the south German town of Ueberlingen, the announcer specified. During his career with the Reich Frentz visually documented the Nazism’s most powerful and infamous figures; he directed at least one film on a commission he obtained directly from Herr Hitler.

Frentz’s early days as a student in the city of Berlin in the 30’s, were remarkable for the fortunate associations he enjoyed: he met and befriended Albert Speer, who would be “Hitler’s Architect”; He likewise befriended Leni Reifenstahl, who would be “Hitler’s Director” as well as being Frentz’s future mentor. Frentz later worked at Ufa Films, the German film company now famous for having housed and nurtured a cabal of future Nazi cinema’s intelligentsia.

NPR’s report of this unremarkable death caught my attention partly because those of us who have made a study of film history will recall Frentz having worked with the far more celebrated and infamous Reifenstahl on two of her most well-known films. He was her hand-held cameraman on Sieg Des Glaubens ("Victory of the Faith"—1933/34) and Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”—1934). Frentz worked with her again on one or both of the film pair, Olympia 1. Teil–Fest der Volker (1936/38) and Olympia 2. Teil-Fest der Schönheit (1936/38), a two-part documentary of the Berlin Olympics. He was commissioned on his own by Hitler to do the Nazi propaganda film, Haende am Werk ("Hands at Work"—1936).

Apropos of Rudolph Ulrich (who provided, posthumously, the epigram affixed above), the death of Frentz ‘reminded me of something’, and was therefore of course memorial. The announcement of the death of Frentz reminded me of a similar morning in Miami, on September 9, 2003 when I woke to the voice of an NPR correspondent announcing the death of "Hitler's film maker", Leni Riefenstahl, at age 101.

Hearing of Reifenstahl’s death, who had in her latter days transformed herself into an underwater photographer rather than a documentary artist framing Nazi armies, I had found myself laughing.

When one considers the absurdity, longevity and sheer celebrity of Leni Riefenstahl’s life, the life of a brilliant woman artist whose legacy was forever twisted and sullied by her intimate association with the Third Reich, who outlived Hitler and most of her fellow Nazi groupies, who for fifty years kept popping up in the world media declaring first her disagreement with the racial supremacy doctrines of Nazism, then her regret at having been a Nazi, and then quite shamelessly declaring her refusal to go on apologizing for her own 'youthful indiscretions', considering all of this, perhaps my rueful laughter was the most appropriate response to her long, wasted life, and her ignoble death.

Ignoble, precisely because it was not a death which found her the celebrated Aryan cine frau bestride an awed world under the boot of Nazism; because she was not, upon her death, an intimate of world conquerors, nor the dicumentarianatrix of masculine power, the role she might have imagined for herself as early as her days with Ufa. Rather, she was an old woman whose latter work had featured not grand, mythic mise en scene of endless jackbooted phalanxes storming the Champs Elysees, but underwater flowers against a backdrop of depthless murk.
The Associated Press published this account of Reifenstahl’s Nazi association:

Despite critical acclaim for her later photographs of the African Nuba people
and of undersea flora and fauna, she spent more than half her life trying to
live down the films she made for Hitler and…[live down] having admired the
tyrant who devastated Europe and all but eliminated its Jews. Even as late as
2002, she was investigated for Holocaust denial after she said she did not know
that Gypsies taken from concentration camps to be used as extras in one of her
wartime films died in the camps. (AP, Sept 10, 2003)

Riefenstahl, born in 1902 to an upper middleclass Berlin family, was an artistic dancer in Munich, Berlin, and Prague. But that was only the first of what biographers have called, 'the five lives' of Riefenstahl. After reportedly being thrown into a Nietzschean trance when she saw a German film on mountain climbing in the 1920's, she felt drawn to cinema art. She sought out the 'best' filmmakers in Germany, who happened also to be proto-Nazis (Nazis would be known soon being 'the best', notwithstanding the mediocrity of Goebbels), and so fell in with the German National Socialist Party.

For her 'second life' she became an actress in their films: she tracked down Herr Doktor Arnold Fanck, director of the film that had made her swoon, and presumably danced for him in private. Thus, she charmed her way first into Hitler's outer circles of artists, writers, and filmmakers, then, eventually, into the inner circles of Hitler's heart: he made her official documentarianatrix of the Nazi party.

By 1933, at age 31, she was living out her 'third life' filming the documentaries she is best known for, Triumph des Willens, her documentary film about the 1934 Nazi party congress (a testosteronic cine fantastique replete with fascist rallies, marches, and regimented spectacle), and then Olympia, the Third Reich glorifying documentary record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Her subsequent 1938 triumphal tour of America—particularly Hollywood—was marred only by the advent of Kristallnacht on November 9. When news of the burning of Jewish synagogues, beatings of Jews in the streets by gangs of SA thugs, the police, and other civic officials, and persecution of Jewish shopkeepers across Germany reached the adoring reporters gathered outside Reifenstahl’s bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, her plans to distribute her award winning films fell through. This of course put a damper on her thus far glorious third life.
It should be noted though, that prior to her sailing back to Germany in disgrace, Walt Disney did grant her a furtive and private interview, and that the LA Times gave her absolutely rave reviews. Disney, though a Nazi sympathizer himself, had backed out of promises to let her screen her films for him in private.

By the 40's of course, her fortunes fell even further, along with the fortunes (and heads) of a great many of 'the best'. The ordeal of going through the Nuremberg trials, an experience which necessitated her briefly having to share a cell block with some of the former big names of the Third Reich, may have been the result of American intelligence suggesting she had allowed her Reich buddies to force concentration camp prisoners to act as labor and as extras in her (it now seems ironically titled) film, Tiefland ("Low Country").

Riefenstahl escaped hanging when the American occupation forces (seemingly in contradiction to American Intelligence) decided that as an artist she should simply be 'de-Nazified' and released; but she soon found herself arrested by the French, who in their own Cartesian way were less forgiving of wayward artists who’d mingled with demons than were the Jeffersonian Americans. The French humiliated her by confiscating her film negatives, her property and possessions, and promptly re-trying her.

They eventually released her, marking her a 'fellow traveler' and Nazi sympathizer whose crimes did not quite rise to the level of earning her a hangman's noose, even if she had earned the distinction of being, ala Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, an artist of severely flawed taste in patrons.

Universally reviled and unable to continue her film career, she spent the 50’s and 60's developing her 'fourth life.' Having fallen into another Nietzschean swoon after reading Hemingway's "The Green Hills of Africa" in her 50's, Reifenstahl decided to go to Sudan to become a still photographer, and produced a series of photographic essays on her favorite African tribe, "The Nuba." Her work focused particularly on the nude bodies of the tall, muscular, and beautiful Nuba men. The overtly and somewhat oddly anthroeugenic tone of the gaze in her work has largely gone uncommented upon by critics, at least in English.

Her ‘fifth life’ was one in which she took to doing underwater photography, learning to scuba dive despite her advanced age (she was reportedly 71 years old by then, though some sources report that she was already in her 80’s). By the 1970's, a controversial discourse had arisen over Reifenstahl: was she an artist worthy of consideration simply by merit of her art, or was she a monstrously flawed woman who’d marred her own artistic contribution with her close association with a few of modern times’ most demonic political figures? As Stefen Steinberg reported on Sept 15, 2003:

To her last days, Riefenstahl…disputed the significance of her role
in promoting Nazi Germany. In memoirs and interviews, she constantly claimed she
was “naïve,” a non-political person who never joined the Nazi party and was only
interested in her art, someone who only did what many others did, and so on. In
interviews after the war, she asserted that the driving force in her life was
the search for “beauty and harmony”—“reality does not interest me.” [1] Her
career clearly shows, however, that far from being just an innocent victim of
Nazi political propaganda, she was instrumental in creating a charade of “beauty
and harmony” for the most barbaric and reactionary regime in modern history.
(World Socialist Website:

The last days of her fifth and final life were filled with her love of, and desire to protect, aquatic life (quite a sharp contrast, this irruption of caring, one must conclude, to her earlier disinterest in the preservation of Jewish, Slavic, Gay, Communist, Anarchist, genetically ‘undesirable’, Lesbian, and Armenian, human life). She joined Greenpeace, and spent her professional energies on the photography of underwater environments. Her fans, keen to reinforce this kinder, gentler ex Nazi, are fond of quoting a statement she made to Cahiers du Cinema shortly after the war, as evidence of her divine dis-involvement in the quotidian realities of a material world:

“I can simply say that I feel spontaneously attracted by everything
that is beautiful... It comes from the unconscious and not from my knowledge...
Whatever is purely realistic, slice of life, which is average, quotidian doesn’t
interest me... I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, what is
living. I seek harmony.”

A more telling quote, however, might be her statement, recounted by Matthias Schreiber and Susanne Weingarten in Die Spiegel in 1997 in their Realität interessiert mich nicht - Leni Riefenstahl über ihre Filme, ihr Schönheitsideal, ihre NS-Verstrickung und Hitler’s Wirkung auf die Menschen (Spiegel 18.08.1997):

Question: ‘When you photograph a Greek temple and at the side there
is a pile of rubbish, would you leave the rubbish out?’
Riefenstahl: ‘Definitely, I am not interested in reality.'

In considering the now global, still revolving debate over whether or not Reifenstahl sufficiently ‘apologized’ for associating with Nazism through her later, more gentle life and later more facile work, and when, if ever, she will be forgiven, it is clear that Reifenstahl still does occupy a peculiar historical position buttressed by a cult of shameless admirers. It is the very
same historical position that Herr Albert Speer had himself occupied for quite some time following Nuremberg. Speer has only recently been deposed from that position. It is, to name the thing, the position of sublime detachment. This peculiar detachment from past association with horror can accrue to certain figures even after death. It bestows unsullied freedom from the harsher judgments of history regarding the figure’s past support for or even participation in mass brutality.

That support and participation is minimized by fervent supporters as being mere indiscretion. It is a position enjoyed into posthumous perpetuity by Speer, Heidegger, Paul de Man, and lately Ronald Reagan, to name a few.

Yet, Somewhere in my wandering research after Reifenstahl’s death I stumbled across a bbs internet site devoted to holocaust survivors, which contained this (apparently anonymous) trenchant reply to the question of when her apology will be accepted:

"When the ashes of the Warsaw Ghetto rise again as flesh
and blood, she can apologize to them, and wait to hear their verdict."

On the morning I learned of her death I laughed. I laughed at a cold, brutal, sad truth occasioned by the death of one of the twentieth century's 'best' artists and filmmakers: that artists cannot, any more than politicians or generals can, escape taking responsibility for the things they do, the people they support, or the ideologies they devote their artworks to.
Now, some years later, with the death of the far less renowned, far less artistically gifted, and far less reviled cameraman, Walter Frentz, I am once again struck by the leveling force of evil; a force that is irresistible such that it can move even the immovable object of the cult of shamelessness. Evil can tear down not only lives and love, but can even tear down meaning, value, and significance that might have been garnered and wielded by artists such as Reifenstahl, and yes, Frentz. For, in death as in life, both were equally guilty of betraying their own talents, their own art, and by extension guilty of betraying art itself.

Perhaps the fact that Hitler was a frustrated visual artist ought to somehow illuminate the irony, tragedy, and deeper implications of all this.Yet, what I must conclude is that the ultimate tragedy, as always, is that of the victims of Nazism, and not with the venal, hapless, stupid, selfish, or mediocre fascists, artists or not, who enabled Nazism’s rampage.