Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Friday, September 12, 2003

In a world gone mad with grief and ecstacy, there is at least some good news. In April 2004 Fantagraphics Books will publish the first of 25 volumes of the Complete Peanuts. All fifty years. All fifty years.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Riefenstahl dies at 101; tainted by link to Hitler

September 10, 2003

BY ROGER EBERT Sun-Times Movie Critic

Leni Riefenstahl, who did more than any other artist to shape the image of the Third Reich, died in her sleep Monday night in Berlin. She was 101. Although her 1934 documentary "Triumph of the Will" was the most dramatic and influential visual treatment of Nazism and the cult of Adolf Hitler, she maintained until the end that she was not a Nazi.

Not everyone agreed. She was declared to be a Nazi sympathizer by an Allied tribunal after World War II and essentially disappeared from public view for 20 years. Then she attempted to rehabilitate her image through interviews, film festival appearances, a 1973 book of photographs about a threatened African tribe, a 1992 autobiography, and her appearance in an extraordinary 1993 documentary by Ray Muller named "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl."

I wrote in my review of that film: "If Leni Riefenstahl had done nothing notable before the age of 60, what a wonderful life we would say she had lived since then." At that time in her early 90s, she was the world's oldest active scuba diver, and in the documentary, at the end of a day of diving, we see her walk down a pier with two men -- the captain, and Horst, her younger companion and cinematographer -- and "the body language says everything. The two men walk ahead, carrying gear, engaged in conversation. She walks behind them, alone, carrying her own gear and oxygen tank. They don't lend her a hand, or offer to carry the tank for her, and what this says is that, at 91, they do not think she needs special consideration. She's one of the guys."

But being in great shape at a very old age, while admirable, does not erase the stain of her association with the Nazi movement. As Hitler began his rise to power, Miss Riefenstahl was already a famous German actress, best known for a group of "mountain films" in which idealized Nordic characters posed heroically against the sky. In "The Blue Light" (1932), which I once saw at the Telluride Film Festival, she is accused of being a witch, but finds truth and deliverance in the secret of a blue light which shines from a cave high on a mountainside.

By 1934, she was a favorite of the Nazis, and was chosen by Goebbels, the propaganda minister, to film the party's rally at Nuremberg. Given many cameras and unlimited film, she also benefitted because much of the rally was deliberately staged with the film in mind. The result, "Triumph of the Will," is one of the most important documentaries ever made, and by general consent one of the best: important at the time for the way it painted Hitler and his followers as idealized supermen, important now because it helps explain how Nazism was not only a political movement but an exercise in mass hypnotism drawing on fetishistic imagery.

Miss Riefenstahl's other important documentary was "Olympia" (1938), a record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which took place on the eve of Hitler's war.

Again she had unlimited resources at her disposal to create heroic images of muscular athletes conquering space and time. The buried message praised the cult of the body, particularly the Nordic body, and it was a considerable embarrassment for Hitler that the African-American runner Jesse Owens won four gold medals and set three Olympic records at the Berlin Games.

There was one other important film directed by Miss Riefenstahl, the little-known "Lowlands," partly filmed in Spain in 1944 and using gypsies in a parable that she said was intended as a criticism of Nazism. Post-production was interrupted by the end of the war, and the movie was not finished until 1954. Only last year Miss Riefenstahl was sued by gypsy death camp survivors who said she used them as slave labor; they objected to her statement that none of her gypsy extras died, since some did, in Auschwitz.

After her public reappearance in the 1960s, Miss Riefenstahl often defended herself against charges that she was a Nazi. She was an artist, she said, interested in film, not politics. In the 1993 documentary, she is questioned strenuously about her association with the party, and we see that she has rehearsed over the years an elaborate explanation and justification for her behavior. There is no anti-Semitism in her films, she points out. She did not know until after the war about the Holocaust. She was naive, unsophisticated, detached from Nazi party officials with the exception of Hitler, her friend -- but not a close friend, she insists.

But the very absence of anti-Semitism in "Triumph of the Will" looks like a calculation; excluding a central motif of Hitler's speeches must have been deliberate, to make the film go down more easily as propaganda. Nor could a film professional working in Berlin have been unaware of the disappearance of all of the Jews in the movie industry.

In the 1993 film, Miss Riefenstahl is seen visiting the site of the 1936 Olympiad with the surviving members of her film crew. They talk about some of their famous shots -- from aerial techniques to the idea of digging a hole for the camera, so that athletes could loom over the audience. We sense Miss Riefenstahl's true passion for filmmaking. But there are candid moments, when she is not aware of the camera, when she shares quiet little asides with her old comrades, which, while not damning, subtly suggest a dimension she is not willing to have seen.

The impression remains that if Hitler had won, Leni Riefenstahl would not have been so quick to distance herself from him. Her postwar moral defense is based on technicalities. Understandably, she was not eager to face conviction or punishment as a war criminal. But ironically, if she had confessed and renounced her earlier ideas, she might have had a more active career. It was her unconvincing, elusive self-defense that continued to damn her.

Copyright © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Leni Riefenstahl was an amazing woman. I'm amazed she died. I figured she would outlive me. Her autobiography is an amazing document. In it, she describes Josef Goebbels crawling on his hands and knees in her living room, begging her to sleep with him. Amazing stuff.

German Film Director, Leni Riefenstahl, Dies at 101

By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2003; 1:40 PM

Leni Riefenstahl, 101, the German film director and protege of Adolph Hitler whose historic documentaries about the 1934 Nazi party congress at Nuremberg and the Berlin Olympics of 1936 set benchmark standards for cinematic imagery and political propaganda that endured through the 20th century, died Sept. 8 at her home in Pöcking, near Munich. No cause of death was reported.

Ms. Riefenstahl was a personal favorite of Hitler's, and one of the few remaining friends of the Nazi dictator still alive. Under his sponsorship, she had wide authority and unlimited access in her work, and her career flourished. But it collapsed with the fall of the Third Reich and the carnage of World War II, and Ms. Riefenstahl never rid herself of the Nazi stigma.

As a filmmaker and artist, she had an eye for detail and a talent for editing that evoked the hypnotic spectacle of the massed Nazi legions, the raw charisma of the German fuhrer and the mesmerizing drama and majesty of Olympic competition with a force and power not seen before in the film medium.

During the 1930s, Ms. Riefenstahl was widely rumored at the highest levels of the Nazi party and throughout Germany to have been Hitler's mistress. In the United States, the Saturday Evening Post described her as a "Nazi pinup girl," and the Detroit News, in a 1937 story, called her "the woman behind Hitler."

Ms. Riefenstahl always insisted the rumors were baseless, and investigators for the Allied Powers after the war found no evidence to suggest she may have had a romantic or sexual liaison with the fuhrer.

Taken into custody by military authorities following the Nazi surrender in 1945, Ms. Riefenstahl was eventually released without charges. But it was years later before she obtained a work permit, and the films she made under Hitler would become a permanent reminder that she had served a regime that produced concentration camps, gas chambers, the Gestapo and genocide of European Jews. She never regained her pre-war professional standing as a director and actress.

Late in her life, Ms. Riefenstahl would downplay her relationship with the fuhrer. "Hitler did not play such an important role in my life," she said.

But she did admit being "dazzled" by him. "I had never met anyone with such power of persuasion," she said, "able to influence other minds so effectively."

Ms. Riefenstahl had been a glamorous actress and film director who starred in her own adventure movies before Hitler selected her to make the film of the 1934 Nazi congress. As one of Germany's leading movie stars, she caught the fuhrer's eye with her performance in "Blue Light" (1932), which she co-directed, about a courageous village girl who scales a treacherous mountain.

"Your 'Blue Light' proved that you can do it," Hitler told her when she voiced doubts over her ability to produce the documentary he wanted about the Nazi congress. He would later describe the finished product, which came to be known as "Triumph of the Will," as "a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement."

For the filming of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Ms. Riefenstahl was officially working for the International Olympic Committee, but her efforts were surreptitiously financed and later exploited by the Nazi regime. She would produce an epic three-hour documentary entitled "Olympia," that became a prototype for much of sports television decades later.

In that picture she pioneered such techniques as aerial photography, underwater pictures of swimming and diving events and the placing of cameras on tracks to move with runners in a race.

She perfected the technique of dramatizing athletic contests by personalizing the athletes. With such details as a close up of the vein throbbing in American sprinter Jesse Owens' forehead and the glint of confidence on his face as he prepared for the final in the 100-meter dash, Ms. Riefenstahl made the Games come alive.

It took her 18 months to edit the 250 miles of film footage into a single documentary, which had its premiere showing in Berlin on April 20, 1938, Hitler's birthday. To no one's surprise, "Olympia" won Germany's State Prize as the best film of 1938, but it also won prestigious awards in France, Sweden and at the Venice Film Festival. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin sent a congratulatory note praising the film.

In its May 1938 issue, the German Film magazine declared "Olympia," to be "one of the greatest works of art that the German film has produced up to now -- filled with the spirit that we sense not only as the spirit of the Games but also the spirit of the German reality of today. . . . It is a result of National Socialism, which is penetrating the total life of the nation. Only in the ideological structure of National Socialism could this great documentary film have come into being as an artistic achievement."

Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl was born in Berlin, where her father was a prosperous manufacturer of plumbing and heating equipment. As a child she aspired to be a dancer, but a knee injury cut this career short and she turned to acting.

Dark haired, brown eyed, and athletic, she radiated confidence and a cool Teutonic sensuality. In seven films during the 1920s and early 1930s, she displayed a lively and spirited alpine glamour as she climbed mountains barefoot, survived avalanches and traversed treacherous crevasses on the flimsiest of ladders, often in films by her protege, director Arnold Fanck.

In May 1932, after having attended a Nazi party rally where Hitler spoke at the Berlin Sports Palace, Ms. Riefenstahl sent the fuhrer a letter. "I was so impressed by you and the enthusiasm of the spectators that I would like to meet you personally," she wrote.

A few days later she received a telephone call from one of Hitler's aides inviting her to meet the Nazi leader at Horumersiel, a small fishing village on Germany's North Sea coast. She accepted, and the following day she spent several hours with Hitler, walking along the seashore and conversing on subjects ranging from art and architecture to Hitler's politics. "I feel that I have been called to save Germany -- I cannot and must not refuse this calling," she recalled him as saying.

At one point, she recalled in her 1987 autobiography, "Leni Riefenstahl: a Memoir," Hitler "halted, looked at me, slowly put his arms around me and drew me to him, . . . but when he noticed my lack of response he instantly let me go and turned away. Then I saw him raise his hands beseechingly: 'How can I love a woman until I have completed my task?' "

They met periodically over the next several years. At one point Hitler offered to place her in charge of all German cinema, which she declined. But she agreed to his request to film the 1934 Nazi congress. Preparations for filming this spectacle began months before the rally itself, which took place from Sept. 4 to 10, 1934, and they involved elaborate, stage-managed coordination between party organizers and the 36-member film crew.

The result of these efforts was an amalgam of exquisitely interwoven and highly emotional images building up to a crescendo of frenzied German nationalism and mass hero worship for the fuhrer. Time magazine later called it "newsreel raised to romantic myth."

Especially powerful was a sequence in which Hitler walked down an enormous corridor of massed party members to lay a commemorative wreath at the grave of a Nazi martyr.

The American film director Frank Capra found the fanaticism of "Triumph of the Will," so compelling that he used copious footage from the documentary to illustrate the nature of the enemy in "Why We Fight," the inspirational films he made for the U.S. armed forces.

To film the Berlin Games, Ms. Riefenstahl directed dozens of camera crews -- 60 were assigned to the opening ceremonies alone -- and pictures were taken from helium balloons and the saddles of horseback riders.

In editing the films, she perfected such artistic techniques -- copied later by U.S. film directors -- as superimposing the image of the Olympic Stadium getting nearer over the running feet of a marathon racer and the cinematic silhouettes of the Olympic divers soaring and tumbling as if in defiance of the laws of gravity.

Late in 1938, Ms. Riefenstahl toured the United States with the film, which drew grudging admiration. She herself received a cold shoulder from the media and the Hollywood film industry. At the outset of World War II, she followed the Wehrmacht into Poland, but she soon decided against making war films.

She did some desultory work during the war on a film version of the Eugen d'Albert opera "Tiefland," but the picture was not finished until the early 1950s and it was withdrawn from circulation after unsuccessful openings in Germany and Austria. Several other film projects during the 1950s never materialized. For the Munich Olympics of 1972 she was a photographic adviser.

For most of the half century since the end of the war, she attracted little notice from the media, although she did return to the public spotlight with the publication of her memoirs and the U.S. release of a documentary film about her, Ray Muller's "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" (1993).

She also learned to scuba dive at age 71 to take photographs for her book "Coral Gardens," which was hailed for its stunning beauty.

She continued diving well into her 90s. In 2002, she released in conjunction with her 100th birthday a 45-minute documentary, "Underwater Impressions," about her 30 years of exploring the coast of Indonesia.

Hilmar Hofmann, director of the Goethe Institute, was quoted as saying, "It exceeds even the talents of the veteran French underwater film-maker Jacques-Yves Cousteau."

She was married once, in 1944 to Peter Jacob, an officer in the Wehrmacht. They were divorced in 1946.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003