The Greatest, Most Repellent Film of All Time.

Those who read this blog will know that one of my major interests is cinema. And, a few weeks ago me and a few other members of the Pathways Group went to a film night at the local Film Theatre in Stoke. One of the short films shown there had been produced with the involvement of one of our members, Dom, hence our presence. There were other films shown there, however, one with footage of Marlene Dietrich giving a performance at a concert in London in the '70s. My friend remarked that Dietrich had lived into her 100s, but later corrected himself, saying that in fact she had only lived into her 90s, and that he had been confusing her with another, famous (nay infamous) German female figure of the cinema, Leni Riefenstahl, who indeed did live until the grand age of 101.
Although involved in the same industry, the figures of Dietrich and Riefenstahl were polar opposites in terms of their political beliefs. While Dietrich was a fervent anti-Nazi, and became an American citizen in 1939, Riefenstahl was a supporter of Hitler and was on close terms with Joseph Goebbels. She once described Hitler as "the greatest man who ever lived." Indeed, for those who know, Riefenstahl was, of course, the director of the Nazi propaganda film, "Triumph des Willens" ("Triumph of the Will"), made at the 1934 Nuremberg congress of the Nazi Party. Although she made other movies, this is her most famous film.
One would expect that such a person would, after the war, be totally vilified, and indeed her film career was virtually destroyed following Germany's defeat, after which she was arrested but then released without any charges. What is interesting, though, is that Riefenstahl's films are still heralded by many as important and groundbreaking works of art, pioneering techniques involving cranes, tracking rails and many cameras working at the same time. The opinion of her as an innovative and important film maker is backed up by many critics, Mark Cousins remarking that, "Next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented Western film maker of her era." Gary Morris called her "an artist of unparallelled gifts, a woman in an industry dominated by men, one of the great formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles." Finally, the great American critic Pauline Kael said that "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia" (Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games) were "the two greatest films ever directed by a woman."
I suppose what is important about this critical reputation is that it is based not on what Riefenstahl said in her films, but rather the way she said it. Her value as an artist appears to rely on the aesthetic, formal qualities her films had, rather than anything displayed in their content. This was nicely summed up by the character played by Juliet Lewis in Woody Allen's "Husbands and Wives", who remarks of "Triumph of the Will", "it's a great movie, but you despise the ideas behind it." Even so, some have sought to defend Riefenstahl against accusations that her films were just vehicles for the promulgation of Nazi beliefs, "The Daily Telegraph" writing that, "Critics would later decry her fascination with the athletes' physiques (in the film "Olympia") as fascistic; but in truth her interest was born not of racist ends but of the delight she...took in the human form."
Whatever we may think of her as a person, then, it seems clear that Riefenstahl's influence on cinematic technique cannot be denied, and this raises the notion that art really can say anything, even if what it says we may find utterly despicable. And, "Triumph of the Will" seems to have secured its place as one of the greatest, if most repellent, films of all time.


Dixie said…
Hi David.
This subject is a "catch-22" for me. I appreciate all venues of art but have no technical experience regarding the film industry.

Your post is interesting as I've never thought to consider things that might repel me, as art, yet it might seem egotistical not to.

Things to ponder... thank you, David.
bazza said…
Hello David: This post reminded me of a debate I had years ago after I posted about Einstein in the 'My Heroes' series on my Blog. The commenter said "Yes, but wasn't he cruel to the women in his life?". My view was that perhaps he was but did that make his scientific achievements any the less? One could make the same kind of remark about Riefenstahl.
By the way, I'm a huge Woody Allen fan.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’
klahanie said…
Dear David,
An interesting and provocative article you have submitted.
It seems, in the name of art, that political leanings are somewhat overlooked and the plaudits based on the aesthetics of her films, certainly becomes a point to ponder.
Anyway, I'm not at all familiar with her work and shall duly go and check it out. Further discussion about this at your place, perhaps.
Take care and see you soon.
Kind wishes, Gary
David said…
Dear Dixie,
Glad you found this interesting. I aim to please!
Thanks, Dixie,
David said…
Dear bazza,
I suppose the problem with Riefenstahl is that her "art" is inherently bound up with the ideology of Nazism. You can't, I think, really seperate the two in the same way as you could with Einstein's science and his personal life. And so it is clear that her critical reputation is based mostly on the technical/formal innovations of her films.
And, I love Woody too!
Very Best Wishes, bazza,
David said…
Dear Gary,
Glad that you got the point of this post, and I of course look forward to discussing it with you further at my humble abode. I'm sure you can't wait!
See you soon and very best wishes, your way,

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