Hitler's Eyes

Mountaineer, actress, beauty, photographer, film-maker. Leni Riefenstahl led many lives. But the 98-year-old, who is making a rare appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair today, will, 50 years after his death, still be seen as ...
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Today in Frankfurt, as part of the annual Book Fair, a 98-year-old woman will meet the press. You do not need to approve of her. It is a matter of fact that over the years she has been thought to be dangerous. Events that had promised her appearance were cancelled. Pressures were brought to bear. Old fears, old wounds, old losses proved too much for others to have the opportunity of seeing or hearing her.

Today in Frankfurt, as part of the annual Book Fair, a 98-year-old woman will meet the press. You do not need to approve of her. It is a matter of fact that over the years she has been thought to be dangerous. Events that had promised her appearance were cancelled. Pressures were brought to bear. Old fears, old wounds, old losses proved too much for others to have the opportunity of seeing or hearing her.

It's strange. Nazis with worse records than hers suffered punishment and then were passed back into German society. In some cases, they were not even punished. They, Germany and the rest of the world adjusted. This 98-year-old woman was investigated thoroughly on several occasions. She was detained, and effectively imprisoned. She was also cleared. Yet a few years ago, when I proposed her as a subject for tribute at a major American film festival, it was felt that she would be too notorious for comfort. And this month, the news that Jodie Foster, the American actress and director, was considering making a movie of her life was greeted with outrage in some quarters.

As someone who loves film and moves in its world, I was startled to find it taken so seriously. This woman made films herself. Her name is Leni Riefenstahl. She had a lot of luck in her life, and some bad luck, but nothing as bad as being a beautiful woman. Ugly men have got away with murder, and Leni Riefenstahl has been held up as a signal case of folly, and far worse, when maybe she committed no greater sin than taking art more seriously than life. Of course, that can be a large and perilous sin when fuelled by idealism and innocence.

She will be at Frankfurt this afternoon to mark the launch of a glossy new book, Leni Riefenstahl - Five Lives, published next week by Taschen. Described as a "pictorial biography", with 400 illustrations (including many of her own photographs), Five Lives is clearly nothing like her 1993 volume, A Memoir, a full-scale work in which Riefenstahl told her story and argued her case. Instead, the new book is a panorama of that life and a gathering of some of her spectacular photographs. But it should come with a warning: that photography is an art or a craft that can easily be spectacular without being good, searching or profound.

What I am trying to say is that I do not much like the photographs she has taken. But my feelings about her movies are a great deal more mixed. None of which has anything to do with the banning of either, or the blackballing of every mention of the name Leni Riefenstahl. More than half a century after the death of Adolf Hitler, the woman and her work may still be as controversial as ever, but they demand to be discussed - and who can try that without seeing them first?

So let's begin at the end. Since the mid-1950s, Riefenstahl has apparently given up movie-making for still photography. I cannot say that decision was cast in iron. She is plainly a great dreamer, and who knows the movie visions that still cross her mind? But she had learnt that she would have the utmost difficulty in funding, making or showing any more films. So she took cover. She started making journeys to Africa, and she came upon the Nuba people and was moved by their beauty. In the 1960s and 1970s, she took photographs of them, and published some of the pictures in book form.

There is a rhapsodic blaze of bright light and very dark skin in the photographs; the Africans are as handsome and nearly nude as ebony statues; the pictures have a remarkable sense of power and character as seen through the strength of forms. They are, in one sense, the work of someone who is saying "I love these people". At the same time, the pictures say hardly anything about what it is to be a Nuba, how they think and feel, what the social construct of their life is. They are forms in the desert, so close to perfect as to be awesome. As pictures, they manage to be very beautiful and quite empty at the same time - and that is what Riefenstahl did 40 years earlier to members of the SS.

Now, cut back to a time when Riefenstahl was 31, a dancer and actress, a member of German artistic circles, and a very beautiful woman who was also skilled as a skier and a mountaineer. First as an actress and then increasingly as a director and visionary, she had been involved in what were known as "mountain films" - deeply romantic tributes to the spiritual purity of mountains and those who loved them. Especially with a film called The Blue Light, she won a high reputation in Germany as a film-maker. In a mechanical, physical way this was plainly deserved. She had a feeling of rapture for obvious forms and surface flawlessness; she became very skilled with a moving camera and montage.

She was then hired by Goebbels and Hitler to make two large documentaries: the one, on Nazi party rallies at Nuremberg, is called Triumph of the Will; the other is a film about the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin. No one interested in film, or concerned about how easily its skills can be put to meretricious and dangerous ends can afford not to see them. They are, in the fullest sense of the words, fascist pictures.

Riefenstahl has always said she was never a member of the Nazi party. I believe her. She did not need to be. She has ridiculed charges made by her enemies that she was mistress to Hitler or Goebbels, or both. I believe her. Yet no film made by a woman shows such love for a man. I do not mean a particular love for a human being so much as an idealised adoration for a figurehead.

She has said that she had no inkling of the propaganda value of Triumph of the Will, or of the significance it held for the Nazis. I do not believe her. It is clear from the film that she was granted exceptional liberty both in filming and staging events - and the staging, the mise-en-scÿne, is profoundly fascist in its attitudes to the strong male figure, the dynamism of crowds and assent, and the monumentality of physical forms - blocks of concrete and squares of men.

She was given lofty vantages and allowed to build towers; she had cranes and dollies that could join in the marching or the advance of the Führer. Yet she said she had merely recorded the events. Again, I do not believe her. No, she had found ways of endowing those events with the thrill of participation. As much as Albert Speer, the architect of the Nazi arenas, Riefenstahl had designed the events and seen them as film action meant to excite those crowds who had not been at Nuremberg.

The movie of the Olympic Games is nowhere near as coherent or powerful. For the rallies were dramas or rites meant to enact the fascist code, while the Olympics - whatever the design or the plan - were a series of contests open to all comers. There are early sections of Olympiad when Riefenstahl glorifies the perfect body, and these are surely Aryan bodies, just as she exults in the motion of diving or gymnastics.

But sport is a tricky subject: it easily derides simple-minded glorification of the body and insists on the suspense. Who will win? Riefenstahl does not film who will win very well. She was lessinterested in that outcome than she was ready to worship the triumphant body. But she did film the events and, against the urgings of Goebbels, she reported the victories of the black American athlete Jesse Owens, who, to the Führer's dismay, won four gold medals.

Fascistic excitement stimulated by movies is not the same as monstrous crimes against humanity. If it were, then all those film-makers from Soviet Russia, Britain and the US who glorified strength and arousal would be in danger of condemnation, too. I mean the films that glorified the Soviet state, the US cavalry, the Marines, the leaders. Anyone in love with film should be wary of how readily the medium is disposed to admire those things.

During the war itself, Riefenstahl did no more than shoot part of an operatic picture, Tiefland (not completed until 1954). I believe that in that process she shot some scenes in a concentration camp - that is ugly and speaks to her judgement. But what condemns her is her greatest work, Triumph of the Will, brilliant and terrible at the same time, but terrible because of its innocence and idealism.

She is 98 now. Earlier this year, she returned to visit the Nuba, and was in a helicopter crash. She recovered from broken ribs and lung injuries, and seems still a phenomenon of vitality and willpower commanding the body. But she has always believed in that.

And now Jodie Foster is said to be contemplating doing a film about Riefenstahl, and Hollywood figures, including the Academy-award-winning documentary-maker Arnold Schwartzman, have been quick to declare themselves "horrified", calling Riefenstahl "the best propaganda tool that Hitler had".

All of which does not mean that Foster is a fascist, just that she may be an artist searching enough to be fascinated with the way innocence can inspire evil. Whatever happens - whether or not Foster's film ever gets made - we owe it to history to pay attention to its subject and to attempt to understand the elderly woman who this afternoon will address a book fair in Germany.