Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Other: Art As War Crime

Michael Bay gets to keep making movies and Cartman gets his own theme park; there is no God.
-Kyle Broflofski
While I can only hope that someday Michael Bay will pay for his cinematic crimes against humanity, there is another filmmaker whose punishment for more artistic but less ambiguously vile films received a less direct and arguably incomplete punishment.

Leni Riefenstahl certainly received the fame she felt she so richly deserved, but not in the way she would have wanted. She is venerated in some circles as an innovative film artiste by some, and certainly she was influential. Others celebrate her as a feminist icon, a judgment I find not only questionable on its face as she didn't give a rat's ass about anyone but herself and did nothing to advance the rights of women as a whole, but also very distasteful.

Who was she? She is best remembered today as "Hitler's filmmaker." She may have steadfastly denied being a propagandist, but Triumph of the Will, the "documentary" of one of Hitler's Nazi rallies of Nuremberg, stands over 70 years later as perhaps the most effective use of film as political tool. She also directed Olympia, the Reich-produced documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. While many people didn't see how it could be seen as Nazi propaganda, they may not have realized that several minutes of footage of Hitler had been excised for the international release.

Steven Bach clearly wrote the biography Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl with an agenda: systematically and definitively to uncover almost 60 years (she died at the age of 101 in 2003, perhaps cardinal proof that sometimes really only the good die young) of lies, chiefly about her involvement and active collaboration with the Nazi party and particularly Hitler himself. While it is true that she never actually joined the Nazi party, her father did and received many favors because of his daughter's connections. Bach's exhaustive research, which includes personal papers of both the subject and people who worked with her and knew her well, official government documents (oh, yes, the Nazis kept meticulous records), press articles spanning nearly a century, and even taped interviews from the 1970s of many prominent Germans and Nazi officials, now long dead, made by then-PhD candidate Peggy Wallace, form an impressive bibliography. More importantly, they provide an inescapable indictment. Such a work should not have been necessary to cement Riefenstahl's culpability, but there are still those who would believe her innocent of collaboration and who claimed her role of artist absolved her of whatever use the Nazis had for her film.
After the war, [Riefenstahl] and [then-husband Peter] Jacob visited what was left of Hitler's mountaintop hideaway at the Berghof with Friedrich Mainz, the Tobis executive who had distributed Olympia and facilitated Tiefland. He thought Leni "a foolish Nazi: a Nazi for Hitler, not for the Party," but when he remarked in Berchtesgaden that Hitler had been "an idiot," Leni was so incensed she stormed off into the cold and snow. "After about two hours she came back frozen," Mainz recalled, "and said quietly, 'Excuse me, but you must accept that he was a very powerful man. He ruined all Europe!'" Mainz deadpanned, "I accept that," but she failed to appreciate his irony.
From Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl
Riefenstahl was placed under house arrest for a time after the war but was not tried for war crimes, instead being officially labeled a "fellow traveler," which did not carry any legal consequences. She used that fact to show herself as a martyr and to proclaim her complete innocence of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

Even if you buy the absolution of art from any political consequences, perhaps the most stunning indictment of Riefenstahl comes from the production of her film Tiefland. The movie, which she directed, produced, wrote, and starred in (she wanted more than anything to be a successful actress) was her final feature, made during the war, and was funded by the Reich, a fact which Riefenstahl long got away with denying as the paperwork was somewhat convoluted. The government provided her, for a fee, with interned Gypsies to use as unpaid extras in the film. After the war, she claimed on the record that "we saw nearly all of them after the war. Nothing happened to a single one of them." In fact, they had been shipped off to concentration camps shortly after filming, where many of them perished. A few weeks before her centennial, certainly not by coincidence, a group of Gypsies filed a complaint against her of Holocaust denial, a serious charge in Germany. In the face of overwhelming evidence, Riefenstahl agreed to a court injunction of her claim in order to avoid a trial. Unfortunately, it was only one lie of many that was exposed, although the timing ensured it got the press coverage it deserved.

Riefenstahl was effectively blacklisted by the international film community after the war. Her name was poison. Tiefland was not released until 1954, 9 years after production had ended, and was an artistic, critical, and financial failure. She was innovative with her cinematographic technique, but somehow she was always a much more successful actress and writer in "real" life than on-screen. She did manage to sell some controversial "documentary" footage of primitive tribes she made in Africa, but her main source of income for several decades came from the film that had been her undoing. The West German government ended up with the rights to the Nazi films, including Triumph of the Will, after the war. Although it is still illegal to show the film publicly in Germany, after the war curiosity about the film, both for its political implications and its technical innovations, increased international interest. The West German government, embarrassed to make money off of the film, assented to Riefenstahl's strident demands for the royalties she felt were due her for the film. While anyone with any sense or even a small amount of distaste for her past association with the Nazis would have done everything they could to distance themselves from the film, she still wanted to squeeze it for every bloody mark she could.

One might be tempted to see the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, filmed, if not edited, with the subject's cooperation a few years before her long-overdue death. I have no interest in watching the woman spew her self-serving fiction for three hours. By all reports, the film-maker didn't soft-focus her narcissism but did leave her precise culpability ambiguous enough that those who never dig deeper into her life are likely to come away with too much sympathy for a woman who doesn't deserve it.

Bach quite effectively dismantles her lies and shows her for the opportunistic, mendacious, anti-Semitic (oh, but she had so many Jewish friends!) narcissist, unwavering in her admiration of Hitler, that she truly was.

1 comment:

spajadigit said...

She's still not as bad as Uwe Boll. Sure, she was a self serving Nazi propagandist, but she never challenged her critics to a boxing match.