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Leni Riefenstahl (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Leni Riefenstahl, revered by critics as the greatest of all female film directors, made her name by celebrating the triumph of the willy. No male film director has championed masculinity in such a crude, even obscene form. For the 12 years that it actually lasted, Hitler’s thousand-year Reich was a thoroughly masculine, if sadomasochistic, sexual fantasy. In Triumph of the Will, Olympia and other propaganda films, Riefenstahl depicted it as such, while enriching herself as its obedient servant, enjoying lavish budgets that her Anglo-American counterparts such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles could only envy.

That is why the new Hollywood biopic Race — about Jesse Owens, the African American star of the 1936 Olympic Games — gets Riefenstahl so very wrong. She is played by Carice van Houten as a pragmatic, highly professional filmmaker trying to do a good job for the athletes, including black ones such as Owens, in the teeth of violent opposition from the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It is true that Goebbels made one disparaging diary reference to Riefenstahl during the Olympics as “a hysterical woman”. But if the filmmakers had bothered to study the Goebbels Diaries in greater depth, they would know that such squabbles paled into insignificance compared to Riefenstahl’s heroic mythologising of Hitler on film — the Führer’s favourite art form. “She is the only one of the stars who really understands us,” Goebbels wrote.

Riefenstahl’s Nazi eroticism was mordantly evoked 40 years ago by the late Susan Sontag in “Fascinating Fascism”, one of her best essays: “Like Nietzsche and Wagner, Hitler regarded leadership as sexual mastery of the feminised masses, as rape. The expression of the crowds in Triumph of the Will is one of ecstasy. The leader makes the crowd come.” What Riefenstahl depicted was politics as pornography.  Sontag glimpsed something which today we recognise from the Islamist propaganda of Isis: “Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorises death.”

Sontag was right: Riefenstahl exemplified everything that was wrong with the aestheticising of politics in the 20th century — a century that coincided almost exactly with her lifespan. But when this ferociously self-mythologising and litigious centenarian made her final exit in 2003, the gushing tributes seemingly vindicated her decision to live in denial. For 12 years she was Hitler’s propagandist; for the next 60 she was her own. More than 50 successful lawsuits testify to her determination to suppress any suggestion that she knew exactly what and whom she was justifying. Since her death, a growing army of apologists have defended her as a genius of cinematography.

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July 10th, 2016
2:07 AM
I decided to watch "Triumph of the Will" after seeing the praise heaped on Riefenstahl at the Oscars. It was boring and I saw nothing to recommend it. Typical Fascist propaganda. Riefenstahl is definitely overrated.

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