(Herr Rothel) turned to Keller. “Do you remember, in Berlin, the lady documentarian — Leni — who was filming the Games?” P. 142, The Detour
Several minutes into the dramatic opening of Leni Reifenstahl’s film Olympia, an epic depiction of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the classical Discus Thrower statue turns and turns—becoming a living man, Nordic muscles bulging as he demonstrates bodily perfection against a stormy landscape*. The imagery links the Greek classical legacy to modern athleticism and the strivings of the Third Reich, a linkage that Nazi leaders worked hard to make, in support of their Aryan ambitions for genetic purity and political domination.
In the Detour, young curator Ernst Vogler is sent to Rome to escort home the purchased statue, an object that had captured German interest since before the Olympia premiere. (In fact, efforts to acquire to the Discus Thrower statue date back to the reign of King Ludwig I, and Hitler sealed the deal in 1937.) Art was an essential tool in the Nazi propagandist toolbox, and film—still a young medium in those Third Reich days—proved exceptionally powerful in spreading images and ideas, often wordlessly.
Few filmmakers succeeded at pleasing their fascist funders while collecting international accolades as handily as Leni Riefenstahl. A close friend of Hitler, who became smitten with her as an actress in early alpinist films, Riefenstahl’s first big break behind the lens came with the filming of Triumph of the Will, a “documentary” (with Hitler as executive producer) of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, attended by 700,000 Nazi supporters.
Film buffs point out the use of pioneering cinematography techniques in both Olympia and Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl herself claimed she was only participating in cinema verite, recording major political events and cultural moments as they happened. Skeptics point out that Riefenstahl helped plan and stage the rally—far exceeding her neutral role as mere observer. In an amazing 1975 essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag penned an exceptionally thorough critique of Riefenstahl as both an artist fascinated with physical beauty well beyond her German film years, and as a “Fellow Traveler,” the label given in denazification trials to those who were friendly to and benefited from the Nazi regime.
Even recently, film critics continue to debate and reappraise their views on Riefenstahl’s artistic legacy. According to Wikipedia: (Film critic Roger) “Ebert states that Triumph is ‘by general consent [one] of the best documentaries ever made’, but added that because it reflects the ideology of a movement regarded by many as evil, it poses ‘a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?’ When reviewing the film for his “Great Movies” collection, Ebert reversed his opinion, characterizing his earlier conclusion as ‘the received opinion that the film is great but evil’ and calling it ‘a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.’
But the most damning statements against Riefenstahl have been made in association with one her most forgotten films—Tiefland, a universally panned film about Spaniards, using gypsies as extras. As it turns out, those gypsies were collected from a concentration camp near Berlin, and sent back after filming. Many of them died at Auschwitz. To the end of her days, Riefenstahl tried to cover up this episode from her glamorous past, claiming she’d met many of the gypsies after the war, still alive; that she had not realized what their fates would be; and that she’d had no direct hand in selecting them from camps as forced film-extra labor. Riefenstahl took a young German filmmaker, Nina Gladitz, to court for her own documentary about the scandal, and effectively shut down the film, even though a German court found for Gladitz on all but one count, agreeing that Riefenstahl had known the extras were from a camp. In 2002, a Roma group took Riefenstahl to court for denying that gypsies were exterminated in the Holocaust, and she was forced to make a statement clarifying the historical truth of the matter.
Leni died in 2003 at the age of 101, at the end of a long life spent trying to reinvigorate and defend her reputation. Obituaries recorded her mixed legacy. Some called her the most talented female director of the 20th century, on par with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, and a dancing, acting “femme fatale” besides. Others called her a cold opportunist, claiming to be apolitical at one moment, and gushing with Nazi pride the next. As she wrote to Hitler in a telegram, after the Nazis captured Paris in 1940, “With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany’s greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?”
*I’ve chosen not to embed the opening of Olympia (Part I), because copyright issues are fuzzy, but it’s available on Youtube. Depending on how the introduction has been edited, the Discus Thrower is usually shown around minute six, following a dramatic opening featuring many classical statues, including the Barberini Faun, another German classical-art acquisition that is still on display at Munich’s Glyptothek.