Riefenstahl Screened: An Anthology of New Criticism.
Riefenstahl Screened offers a number of unconventional analyses of Riefenstahl's work and persona that move beyond well-worn discussions of aesthetics, innovative cinematic techniques and montage, and complicity in the Nazi regime. Whereas Siegfried Kracauer and Susan Sontag have traced a trajectory of "fascist aesthetics" from Riefenstahl's Alpine films, Nazi-era films, and postwar Nuba photographs, the editors' goal is to investigate the fascination that Riefenstahl's oeuvre and image held and still hold over viewers and scholars. Divided into four thematic sections, the text addresses the intersection of politics and aesthetics, the reverberation of Riefenstahl's persona and films in popular culture, historical and theoretical perspectives on her oeuvre, and the directors legacy and iconic status. While all the essays provide thought-provoking discussions of her works or her myth and demonstrate thorough research, their scholarly quality and pedagogical usefulness varies. However, the volume as a whole offers fresh perspectives for both scholars and film students on her impact as a filmmaker and her status as a figure of controversy.
The first section, "Aesthetics," consists of insightful essays that analyze the political and social implications of her cinematic style. Riefenstahl's films have been viewed both as expressing "fascist aesthetics" and as avant-garde "works of art." As Georg Seesslen observes, the strict demarcation of popular culture--to which the former belongs--and high culture no longer apply. Seesslen analyzes the myths in her films, in particular the mythologizing of Hitler in Triumph of the Will and the male body in Olympia, a documentary of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. He claims: "In the Riefenstahl aesthetic, the driving forces of fear and desire are suspended in a monumentalized world of images" (23). Although Seesslen does not offer a new interpretation of the impact of her images, he convincingly explains the renewed interest in her films as part of "the new brutality of neoliberalism" of the 1980s (29). Carsten Strathausen argues for a shift away from a "production oriented" definition of "fascist aesthetics" to a "reception-oriented" approach. He correctly contends that Nazi aesthetics can be defined not by a "fixed set of tangible characteristics or stylistic patterns," but by the "transformative and self-realizing power of images and ideas" (34, 35). However, by analyzing the aesthetic of her images, one runs the risk of negating their political content (Riefenstahl herself perceived her aesthetic as beyond morality). I agree with Strathausen that "there is nothing to be gained anymore from rehearsing the same old debate about her personal guilt or innocence vis-a-vis the horrors of German fascism" (37). This section concludes with Lutz Koepnick's essay on the aesthetics of slow motion in Olympia. He offers a fine analysis of decelerated images of athletes as "celebrating profound moments of psycho-physical transformation and transcendence," but also depicts their limits: her shots are devoid of "the unpredictable, relational, flexible, and forceless force of playfulness" (61, 68). He concludes that, for Riefenstahl, history has meaning only when "framed by the camera" and "mirrored in the timeless forms of the past," and that she cannot imagine history "as something open to intervention, change, and multiplicity" (69).
In the second section, "Afterlife," the contributors examine the appropriation of Riefenstahl's images and persona in subsequent films. David Bathrick examines Charlie Chaplin's visual citations of Triumph of the Will in his Hitler parody The Great Dictator, Frank Capra's use of film clips of Triumph in his propagandistic and overtly anti-German World War II films Why We Fight and in the postwar documentary The Nazi Plan, which played a pivotal role in the proceedings and outcome of the first Nuremberg trial. In his scathing critique of Ray Mueller's documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Kansteiner correctly accuses Mueller of failing to set the record straight of the inaccuracies and lies in Riefenstahl's interviews, but fails to mention Mueller's use of editing to undermine some assertions, such as her denial of close ties to Goebbels. By inter-cutting citations from Goebbels' diaries that describe his social interactions with the director, Mueller puts Riefenstahl's claims that Goebbels was a bitter "enemy" into question. Valerie Weinstein offers a fine analysis of the German rock group Rammstein's ironic use of Olympia footage for a controversial video "Stripped," which "draws uncomfortable parallels between Riefenstahl's "fascist" visions of the body and contemporary media culture" (135).
Eric Rentschler's "Founding Myth and Master Text: The Blue Light (1932)" constitutes the most insightful essay in the collection. Drawing upon literary and artistic works of German Romanticism such as the "Blue Flower" motif in Novalis's Romantic novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, Rentschler discusses how Riefenstahl "transforms exterior landscapes into emotional spaces" (156). He examines the influence of the Weimar mountain films (Bergfilme) on Riefenstahl's debut film, The Blue Light, and draws upon Sontag's and Kracauer's assessment of it as political allegory. Rentschler focuses on the role the film played in rehabilitating Riefenstahl's reputation during the postwar years: it helped clear her from charges of Nazi collaboration, and was used to support her claim that her art transcended politics. Although Riefenstahl compares herself to Junta, the innocent gypsy who identifies herself with nature, Rentschler suggests that she more accurately resembles Vigo, a painter and a stand-in for the camera, who expropriates landscapes and physiognomies for their aesthetic worth and commercial value. Like Vigo, the director gained status and wealth from her career as Hitler's filmmaker. Also in this section are Mary Rhiel's essay on Riefenstahl's memoir as a "narrative of defense and counteraccusation," and Celia Applegate's analysis of music in Riefenstahl's Nazi era films (203).
In her analysis of Nuba photographs of the 1960s, Guinevere Narraway discusses Riefenstahl's "prioritization of aesthetics, of getting a beautiful shot, over a politics of social justice"--that is, her disinterest in the ongoing conflicts in Sudan--and concludes that Riefenstahl's consumerist images of the "beautiful" reveal an aesthetics of "fascinating cannibalism," in which Riefenstahl is the "savage" who devours the body of the Other (228, 229). Martina Thiele analyzes how on her website the filmmaker reinvents herself with the carefully crafted persona of an invincible fighter, and minimizes her association with the Nazis. No photographs with Hitler or prominent Nazis appear there, and she claims not to have known of the deportation to concentration camps of the Sinti and Roma extras in her film Lowlands (243). Her claim that Triumph of the Will is a documentary, not propaganda, is belied by its meticulously composed images, which betray her efforts to rehabilitate herself. Thiele concludes that Riefenstahl's search for the "beautiful, harmonious, forthright, [and] strong" (248) in her work explains the popular appeal of her images, while revealing that "her gaze upon others did not change," implying that she apparently learned nothing of the ethical implications of her art (248). Ingeborg Majer-O'Sickey's review of the first comprehensive retrospective of Riefenstahl's life and work in Germany at the Potsdam Film Museum critiques the exhibitors for failing to deconstruct the Riefenstahl myth of indestructibility and beauty featured on her website, but acknowledges their reliance on her collaboration and the sharing of her personal archives for the exhibit. The exhibitors could have demythologized Riefenstahl's myth as the "lone female genius of the German film industry" with counter-examples of equally important women such as director Hanna Henning, Lotte Reininger, the trailblazer of animated film, Leontine Sagan, whose directorial debut Maedchen in Uniform predates Riefenstahl's first film, and Thea von Harbou, one of the most productive women in the German film industry (266). Neverthess, Riefenstahl's "fascinating fascism," served as a marketing tool that drew throngs of visitors to the exhibit, which attests to the commercial success of the myth that Riefenstahl so carefully cultivated and that continues to fascinate film aficionados.
Margarete J. Landwehr
West Chester University