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.
Yet there is no doubt that when she first heard Hitler speak in 1932, the earth moved for Leni: she had “an apocalyptic vision” of “an enormous jet of water so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth”. Her infatuation with the Führer was no mere youthful folly. Like all his favoured artists, she delighted in depicting the human form, but only as inhuman, animal or inanimate, objects. Olympia was a work of pioneering technique, both in filming and editing, but she had no interest in the athletes as individuals. Her work with the Nubian tribes in Africa shows the same obsession with superhuman bodies, devoid of personality.
Like Hitler himself, Riefenstahl used people as material, to be discarded as soon as they ceased to be useful. While making Tiefland (Lowlands) at Hitler’s behest (her fee was 7 million Reichsmarks), she used Sinti and Roma slaves from local concentration camps as unpaid extras before they were sent to Auschwitz. Late in life she was sued by a Roma group for denying that Gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust. In 1939 she witnessed the execution of 30 Jewish civilians while filming propaganda as the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. She later claimed that she was held at gunpoint to prevent her from intervening, but her claim lacked independent corroboration and was never tested in court. It seems unlikely that a junior officer would risk threatening a close personal friend of Hitler; indeed, photographs from the film shoot show her armed and issuing orders. A few days later she filmed Hitler’s entry into Warsaw, and sent him an ecstatic telegram when the Nazis marched into Paris. Like almost every leading Nazi, and equally implausibly, she claimed ignorance of the Shoah. Having been present at scenes of war crimes, however, she was fortunate to avoid Allied prosecution.
Riefenstahl is now grotesquely overrated — despite or perhaps because of her notoriety. The influence of her personality, art and ideas is ubiquitous, from directors such as Herzog to photographers such as Mapplethorpe. When Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s most revered film critic, pronounced Olympia and Triumph of the Will “the two greatest films ever directed by a woman”, criticism of Riefenstahl became uncritical. And when John Galliano declared his love for Hitler, aesthetics trumped politics. Among fascists and fashionistas alike, Leni Riefenstahl remains the high priestess of Nazi chic.