Learning to Love Leni Riefenstahl

The life and work of Leni Riefenstahl, who died on Monday at age 101, seems to lend itself to a mapping of a devolution, progressing toward a dark conclusion. It began with the early “mountain films” of the 1920s that she starred in and later began directing as well, which celebrated heroism and bodily effort in the extreme conditions of mountain climbing. It went on to her notorious Nazi documentaries in the ‘30s, celebrating bodily discipline, concentration, and strength of will in sport as well as in politics. Then, after World War II, in her photo albums, she rediscovered her ideal of bodily beauty and graceful self-mastery in the Nuba African tribe. Finally, in her last decades, she learned the difficult art of deep sea diving and started shooting documentaries about the strange life in the dark depths of the sea.

We thus obtain a clear trajectory from the top to the bottom: We begin with rugged individuals struggling at the mountain tops and gradually descend, until we reach the amorphous teem of life at the bottom of the sea. Is not what she encountered down there her ultimate object, the obscene and irresistibly thriving eternal force of life itself, what she was searching for all along? And does this not apply also to her personality? It seems that the fear of those who are fascinated by Leni is no longer “When will she die?” but “Will sheever die?” Although rationally we know that she has just passed away, we somehow do not really believe it. She will go on forever.

This continuity of her career is usually given a fascist twist, as in the exemplary case of the famous Susan Sontag essay on Leni, “Fascinating Fascism.” The idea is that even her pre- and post-Nazi films articulate a fascist vision of life: Leni’s fascism is deeper than her direct celebration of Nazi politics; it resides already in her pre-political aesthetics of life, in her fascination with beautiful bodies displaying their disciplined movements. Perhaps it is time to problematize this topos. Let us take Leni’s 1932 film Das blaue Licht(“The Blue Light”), the story of a village woman who is hated for her unusual prowess at climbing a deadly mountain. Is it not possible to read the film in exactly the opposite way as it usually is interpreted? Is Junta, the lone and wild mountain girl, not an outcast who almost becomes the victim of a pogrom—there is no other appropriate word—by the villagers? (Perhaps it is not an accident that Béla Balázs, Leni’s lover at that time who co-wrote the scenario with her, was a Marxist.)

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on September 10th, 2003. (full text).]