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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Triumph of the will (1902-2003)

Two years ago this week, all I managed to write in this space were a few brief words about the atrocities of September 11. A year later, I foisted more of my rambling thoughts about the event on my readership.

I had decided that this was probably enough. I wasn’t going to make the 9/11 anniversary a regular annual event for this column, the way my capsule obituaries in January are. This is, after all, supposed to be about movies. Besides, I’ve got a bunch of columns that are dying to get out of my head, but which have been queued up, to a large extent because of important film people who keep dying.

So, I suppose it is altogether fitting that, on this date of all dates, I find myself once again writing about world events and politics because of the passing of someone who has to be considered a giant in the history of cinema.

Leni Riefenstahl has died at the age of 101. It is strange to think that her life span roughly paralleled that of Bob Hope. The two would hardly be mentioned in the same breath by anyone. Still, they do make a striking dichotomy. Hope was all-American right down to his immigrant status, rags-to-riches career, the good life on the golf course, and devotion to the American soldiers in the trenches. Riefenstahl, like Hope, was an artist, but a quintessentially European one. And she too stepped up to use her talents very visibly in her country’s public life, but it didn’t quite result in the same loving tributes during her latter years.

I would be largely ignorant of Riefenstahl’s life and career if I had not gotten the chance to see Ray Muller’s fascinating 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. The film gives us many glimpses of Riefenstahl’s work, which are not easily seen otherwise. In 1932 her first movie, The Blue Light, featured the director as an innocent young mountain girl, who is exploited by greedy businessmen, who covet her idyllic home. The photography is stunning and the location shots seem well ahead of their time. In hindsight, the story could be seen as an allegory for what happened to Liefenstahl’s art when The Blue Light caught the attention of Adolf Hitler. He chose her to film the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg in 1934. The result was a technically magnificent documentary called Triumph of the Will. She followed this up with Olympia, a documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. After World War II, she spent four years in a French detention camp and then was released. With one or two odd exceptions, she was never allowed to make another film.

In his film, Muller interviewed Liefenstahl at length. At that point she was in her 90s and was an active scuba diver, in the process of making an underwater documentary. She portrayed herself as a naïve victim of circumstances, who had only wanted to make art and was ignorant of Hitler’s atrocities. Her story evokes all sorts of questions about the relationship between art and politics, the tension between media and responsibility.

To see Triumph of the Will today arouses all sorts of emotions. We are surprised and impressed at how good it is technically and visually. But we are repulsed because of what we know about Hitler and his Nazi party. But this repulsion comes with the benefit of hindsight. The film was made a year before the promulgation of Nazi racial laws, four years before the Kristallnacht pogrom, and five years before the invasion of Poland. Still, while Liefenstahl may not have directly committed any crime against humanity, there is a nagging feeling that she provided a powerful boost of propaganda to enable those who did. On the other hand, there is a sense of loss for all the marvelous films she likely would have made during the half-century after World War II but was not able to.

The main lesson of Liefenstahl’s life, that artists ultimately bear a moral responsibility for their work even when they themselves may be unwitting of its full implication, is worth remembering. It’s a point sometimes forgotten when artists invoke America’s First Amendment. Freedom of speech may be an absolute right, but it’s not a free pass from consequences of your work.

Another reminder that Liefenstahl’s passing gives us (and here’s the political part) is that the Nazi era demonstrates there are some things that most people can agree are either good or evil. It is fashionable for many commentators (especially European ones, who more than anyone should know better) to sneer at George W. Bush’s habit of talking about good and evil. What they are actually sneering at is his personal set of religious beliefs and what may be an overly simplified view of geopolitics. These may well be cause for concern. But to dismiss the idea of good and evil in the world entirely, no matter how intelligent and intellectual it sounds, is naïve. (And they don’t really believe it anyway, since they clearly have their own set of entrenched doctrinaire beliefs, complete with heroes and villains.)

On this anniversary and on all the anniversaries of atrocities that have been committed throughout time and around the world, it is worth remembering that some people really are evil. And we shouldn’t hesitate to say so.

-S.L., 11 September 2003

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