“I want to see, that’s all. This is my life. I want to see.”
Leni Riefenstahl, on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday (Vanity Fair, September 1992)
Leni Riefenstahl, amazingly, turned 100 in August. She won’t die. She has survived skiing accidents, mountain falls, internment, automobile and helicopter crashes, and according to her, uncountable extremes of heat, cold, bugs, discomfort, narrow bureaucrats, false accusations, contempt, bad luck, and suffering, all of which she endured in the cause of great art. Not only is this old romantic notion a necessary factor in her theory of creativity, it is also necessarily her fate–having been born a century late, and hence misunderstood by so many and vilified by pedants. The day following her birthday, in fact, the German Government inaugurated a lawsuit against Frau Riefenstahl accusing her of having denied the Holocaust-a punishable crime in Germany.
She lives today in a grand almost-glass house outside Munich, known colloquially as “the house the Nuba built,”– from the wealth produced by her books on peoples of Kordofan Province, Sudan. Photographs of these peoples have been exhibited and published widely, and Riefenstahl has been f?ted and celebrated during the past two decades in Japan, the U.S., and Germany. She still travels, though somewhat inhibited by a back injury from scuba diving (and undoubtedly exacerbated by a helicopter crash in the Sudan in 2000, while attempting to visit “her” Nuba once again). She most commonly appears publicly in angelic white stretch pants with stirrups, matching fuzzy sweater and fur-tipped low boots. 1950’s apr?s ski.
Everyone is familiar with her work for the Third Reich, culminating in the two films, Olympia and Triumph of the Will. She directed filming of a succession of Nazi Party annual congresses in Nuremberg from 1933 to 1935–the 1934 congress yielding Triumph of the Will, regarded by many as the greatest propaganda film ever made. Olympia was originally a two-part film based about the Berlin Olympics of 1936. It exists today in several versions–some de-Nazified. While Riefenstahl also had the lead role in several ice-maiden movies prior to World War II, her principal infamy derives from these documentary works of the 1930’s.
Much of her fame and fortune, however, stems from her post-war work: still photography of the Nuba peoples of Sudan. She (or rather, her long-time cameraman and companion, Horst Kettner) also filmed the Nuba peoples, but we are told much of that cin? footage was destroyed (sabotage?) in processing. More bad luck. Nevertheless, most critics, while condemning Riefenstahl’s work for the Nazis (or not, since some argue that the two documentaries are brilliantly effective work, however repulsive their sponsorship), praise her later photographic work in Africa. To the extent that Riefenstahl is regarded as having been rehabilitated, this later post-war work is given credit.
Susan Sontag, in a famous review (“Fascinating Fascism”–New York Review of Books, 6 February 1975) of Riefenstahl’s first book on the Nuba (paradoxically titled The Last of the Nuba), argued that her photography of Nuba peoples emphasized purity, the lack of pollution, the authentic, the triumph of the strong over the weak, as did her documentary film work for the Third Reich. Sontag saw continuity in Riefenstahl’s vision from her earlier work for the Third Reich to her later photography of Nuba, calling it “fascist aesthetics.” Stung by this critique, Riefenstahl has challenged anyone to find “fascist” her photographic volumes on underwater coral formations. But the extent to which notions of purity, beauty, authenticity, and threat from pollution characterizes this underwater work, it too might easily be considered fascist. Her actual photography on land, especially in Sudan, is a mixture of grotesque close-ups, the voyeurism of the long lens, and people arranged in settings and in colors Riefenstahl found more photogenic. She brought lots of beads and money and oil, and chased off elders and others with clothing, requiring only the naked and painted. Riefenstahl certainly leans heavily on the spectacular and flamboyant.
However, while Riefenstahl’s photographic vision is limited, it seems too easy to dismiss it all as simply “fascist.” First, to do so absolves us of any closer critique and axiomatically conflates content and form; secondly, this discrimination could be applied to just about all photography of non-Western people of lesser power by Western photographers, and this same critique applies to much of National Geographic’s production and most coffee table photographic volumes of others. It is an aesthetic widely shared in the West, a practice of photography well-insulated and rewarded these days by humanist notions of the underappreciated beauty of those photographed, their overlooked misery, their unrealized authenticity, with a further inference that we (the photographers) should be lauded for having documented and appreciated them. Often such photographic practice is presented in terms of how much we can learn from them or how much these photographs can help us capture a less-polluted time, a less-compromised setting, a more genuine experience–all from the secure vantage point of the lens.
Back to Riefenstahl. Her memoirs, coming out in several editions, and certainly heavily edited from the original German publication in 1987, are a litany of the evil and vindictiveness of others, a whitewash of her past, and in the case of the Nuba peoples, filled with outright lies. She has always allied herself with those she thought could most help her. In the Sudan she associated with Germanophiles (or those seeking contracts with German industrial and defense interests), such as the one-time dictator, Gaafar Niemeri. Indeed, she was named by him an honorary citizen of Sudan, and she tells us her Nuba books were given as Christmas presents by Sudanese embassies around the world (a rather ironic claim, if true, featuring naked pagans as advertisements for a severe Islamicist state). She regularly had army vehicles made available to her while in Sudan, and was not averse to throwing fits when things didn’t go her way. As in Germany in the 1930’s, she did not seem to care about the politics of those in power, so long as they facilitated her projects. In the biography section of her present web site, she is featured in pictures with Siegfried and Roy and white tigers, Mick Jagger, and at home, surrounded by balloons, champagne, and stuffed animals. She has been f?ted by feminists (for having been a successful single woman in a Nazi regime characterized by firm patriarchy), and there is reputed to be a sympathetic portrayal of her life, based on her memoirs, in a forthcoming movie featuring Jodie Foster.
Despite some significant differences between her memoirs in German and the later English editions, both are characterized by self-aggrandizement and blame heaped on others. She sees herself as the lone heroic white woman, especially in Africa, a trope that resonates well in the northern hemisphere and hence in Hollywood productions. Here again, we have to ask why such a presentation is so successful in the West. Is it, following Hannah Arendt, the latent potential in us all, the thin edge over which are totalitarianism and racism-the cheap aesthetics of the spectacular, the limits of a facile modernism? Is it our conditioning from an atavistic anthropology, our uncritical acceptance of the fictions of photography and truth, or simply the lack of a morality? This last spells itself out as the absence of an image ethics, making the world available to all with capital and camera, under the rationale that all that can be photographed should be photographed. Whatever it is, it has served Riefenstahl very well indeed, and testifies to the profound degree to which her photography is approved in Western aesthetics and photographic practice.
James Faris, a retired anthropology professor, lives in Santa Fe, NM. His most recent book is a critical history of the photography of an American Indian people, Navajo and Photography (University of New Mexico Press, 1996). One of his earlier books, Nuba Personal Art (Duckworth, 1972), contained maps that lead Riefenstahl to the Southeast Nuba of Sudan, resulting in her second book on the Nuba people, The People of Kau (Harper, 1976). In her memoirs, Riefenstahl claims to have learned of the Southeast Nuba from a dream. She was inspired to visit the subjects of the first Nuba book, The Last of the Nuba (Harper, 1974), from a photograph taken in Nuba land by the British Magnum photographer, George Rodger. Rodger had been a photographer with Allied Forces that first entered Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war, and went to the Sudan to attempt to recover from the horror of that assignment. Rodger was bitter to the end of his life at this terrible irony and at her use of his work.
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