Film Studies: Beautiful, magnificent... and dangerous

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The Independent Culture

Leni Riefenstahl lived so long that few people could claim they had no chance to have their say on her very brief career. Still, some strange observations emerged from her Germany. The Culture Minister, Christina Weiss, said that "Art is never political", while Hilmar Hoffman, a former president of the Goethe Institute, said that, "Now she is dead, we can distinguish between the aesthetic Leni Riefenstahl and her political entanglements." The full outrage of those two observations can be rendered quite simply: they are the defences Ms Riefenstahl offered throughout her long life. When it came to Triumph of the Will, her "documentary" film of the Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg, she said she had been making art - without any sense of politics.

This is far too important to be ignored out of respect for a very old lady of great talent, and huge zest for life. But the lies are crucial, and they need to be remembered for one reason alone - they could be offered again.

Let me be clear: I do not think that Riefenstahl slept with Hitler or Goebbels; I do not believe that she committed anything as decisive as war crimes. If she had, I think she'd have been convicted and imprisoned, for there was a great urge to rebuke her. Nor do I think Triumph of the Will should be banned or destroyed. Better to show it regularly, with the proper commentary. It is quite possible that Riefenstahl took no interest in politics - that she was, if you like, "just a helpless woman" in such matters. Never mind, the spirit of fascism is there, vibrant, beautiful and arousing, in every frame and beat of her picture. It's precisely because she was so good that she is such a problem.

What do I mean by the fascistic nature of film? Well, I mean the use of the camera, sound and editing to make the mass thrilling, to make order, strength and conformity persuasive, to set up a leader as a god-like figure. If you've not actually seen Triumph of the Will (it is a foreign-language picture, in black and white), let me suggest that you look at such things as the recent Pearl Harbor, at Starship Troopers, at some Rambo pictures, and so on. My point is quite simply that the cinema has always had a place for fascists. It's just that Riefenstahl filled it with more glory than most people.

She was often called a very dangerous woman, and that is really the reason why she found it so hard, after 1945, to make films again. But danger is a funny thing. In America, obituaries for Riefenstahl appeared on the same day - yet were rather longer than - those for Edward Teller.

Teller was not as old as Riefenstahl - a mere 95. He lived and died in honour. Born in Hungary, educated in Germany, he was a genius of maths and physics. In 1943, just about when Riefenstahl's film work stopped, Teller was drafted to Los Alamos from his teaching position at the University of Chicago. From that moment on, he became not just a diligent fan of the A-bomb, but the leading advocate of the super, the Hydrogen bomb. In a power struggle that developed after 1945, and in the Cold War paranoia, Teller effectively ousted J Robert Oppenheimer from the Atomic Energy Commission, and argued for bigger and more powerful bombs.

Yes, it's chance that these two people died on the same day, though I note that in one of her last protestations of innocence, Riefenstahl actually said, "So where is my guilt? You tell me. I have thrown no atomic bombs."

Well, I've tried to argue, briefly, what she did, and would not challenge the danger in that. In the same way, I would want to defend the beauty. But her work was helplessly political. There is no separation of art from its larger consequences, just as there is no such thing as "pure" science when it is ordered and paid for by governments. Edward Teller, it seems to me, was more bloodthirsty than Riefenstahl, more irresponsible, and altogether more dangerous. He insisted on a bigger bomb when the deterrent response was already provided by the smaller weapon. He had a lust for explosions, for absolute power and authority, and he did his part in contributing towards the gradual fascism of the American state.

He bears remembering as much as she does. You may even reach the conclusion that he was by far the more threatening. The capacity for righteous people in power being wrong is infinite, and "triumph of the will" is a phrase that can have so many meanings. It's our luck, maybe, that these two were on different sides. We cannot rely on such fairness looking after us.