The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl
Screenplay : Ray Mueller
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1993
Half a century after her initial claim to fame, Leni Riefenstahl remains a frustrating and fascinating enigma. Here is a woman who directed only six films during the 1930's and 40's, and yet she has been hailed as the greatest female director of all time, and deplored as a conspiring agent of Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich.
This complex existence is the subject of writer/director Ray Mueller's engrossing documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl." Running over three hours in length (which is a little longer than it needs to be), Mueller traces Riefenstahl's lifework, from her days in the 20's as a stage dancer and actress in daring mountain adventure films, to her forced exile from the film community after World War II, and into her later years where she spent months at a time with the reclusive Nuba tribe in Africa. When Mueller's film was made in 1993, Riefenstahl was 90 years old, and still making frequent scuba diving trips around the world. Love her or hate her, she is an incredible woman.
Despite her later accomplishments and her insistent denials of willful involvement with the Nazis, her name is still almost unspeakable in Germany. She will most likely be remembered for only one film, "Triumph of the Will," a documentary of the Nuremberg Party Congress of 1934, which is considered by film historians to be the greatest propaganda film ever made. Riefenstahl repeatedly declares that she was simply a filmmaker doing a job to the best of her abilities, and the film's use for political purposes was out of her control.
Mueller dedicates most of his film to one-on-one interviews with Riefenstahl in locations ranging from her home to the site where "Triumph of the Will" was filmed. He allows her almost free range to explain herself and how she fit into the events that led to World War II. Mueller has obvious respect for Riefenstahl, and rarely does he challenge her answers. But, when he does, she fights back with strong words. Even now, she is still a determined woman, and she refuses to accept any responsibility for the damage her work did. Because she was never a member of the Nazi Party, and she claims she knew nothing of the Holocaust until the war was over, she cannot understand why people think she is guilty.
So, what to make of her? Pioneering feminist artist, or willful Nazi propagandist? Mueller's film does not answer this question, per se. It gives a great deal of information, and thoroughly presents the argument from both sides. One side consists of Riefenstahl's passionate defense of herself, and the other side consists of documentary footage of the horrors of Nazism, photos of her and Hitler side by side, and documents that often flatly contradict what she says. For instance, at one point in the film, she denies ever using Gypsies from a Nazi concentration camp as extras in one of her films. But then Mueller shows us documents showing the list of prisoners and the prison administrator's signature allowing them over to work for her.
Even though it explores the negative aspects of her life, "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" also pays a great deal of homage to Riefenstahl as a trailblazing artist. The fact is, she was a brilliant filmmaker with an incredible eye for composition. The original German title of Mueller's film, "Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl," actually translates as "The Power of the Image." This is both a reference to Riefenstahl's work being used as effective propaganda, and to her artistic ability to capture unique and beautiful images on film. The point may be that the films themselves are guiltless -- it's how they're eventually used that matters.
One of the most fascinating sequences in the film shows Riefenstahl sitting at an editing machine, watching "Triumph of the Will." As the film plays, we look over her shoulder as she stops at various points and explains how she achieved certain shots, and what she was trying to accomplish. In these passages, it is all too easy to forget the propagandistic effects of the film, and view it simply as marvelous cinema.
The same is true of her 1938 film "Olympiad," which was a painstakingly crafted documentary of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. With her camera, Riefenstahl turned the human body into a fluid work of art. She went far beyond the bounds set by traditional documentary filmmaking of the time, and made a fantastic tribute to "the body beautiful." Needless to say, it has since been condemned as a Fascist ode to superior races.
Whatever your views on Riefenstahl and her involvement with the rise of Nazism, "Wonderful, Horrible Life . . ." is an absorbing film that might make you think twice. By chronicling her life and accomplishments, and showing her from numerous points of view, Mueller managed to shed at least a trace of light on this complicated artist. We will never know what she might have accomplished had she refused to film "Triumph of the Will" (as she asserts she tried to do), and so we are left only with speculation.
©1998 James Kendrick