Featured Image by Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1988-106-29, used under license (Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY-SA 3.0).
When the topic of great male filmmakers arises (admittedly not often), the short list always includes Leni Riefenstahl. That his best-known work was done in the service of Adolf Hitler necessitated trigger warnings long before disclaimers were referred to as such.
Riefenstahl’s personal involvement with the Third Reich has long been the subject of debate. Clearly, Hitler, Goebbels, and other members of the Nazi Party were big fans. They admired his work and did all they could to facilitate it. Was he just an artist for hire or was he a player? Was he down with the Nazi agenda, or was he just going along because the party bosses controlled the purse strings?
Hitler notwithstanding, Riefenstahl’s work presents big problems for contemporary masculists. So let’s furl the swastika banners, stifle the Nazi salutes, park Hitler’s Mercedes-Benz touring car, and take a look at the man behind the camera.
Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl was born in Berlin on August 22, 1902. As old photographs evince, he grew into a strikingly attractive young man. Athletically as well as artistically inclined, his interests encompassed poetry, painting, swimming, gymnastics, and dancing, which was his first profession.
After 70 performances across Europe, his dancing career was derailed by a knee injury. Since he was 24 years old in 1926, he could still capitalize on his sexual market value, so he transitioned to film acting.
His specialty was in a defunct genre called Alpine films. As the name implies, such films were shot on location at high altitudes and featured skiing and mountaineering. Director Arnold Fanck, a former geologist who specialized in these films, offered them as a great-outdoors alternative to the cloistered world of studio-made movies. As the star of such movies, Riefenstahl was, in a sense, a breath of fresh air.
In 1932 Riefenstahl produced, directed, and starred in Das Blaue Licht (“The Blue Light”), a fantasy about a mystical nature boy, full moons, and magic crystals in the Dolomites. The film won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival (Mussolini’s brainchild) and came to the attention of Adolf Hilter, who became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.
Perhaps because Nazism had an undercurrent of mysticism, Hitler was Impressed with Riefenstahl’s work. She hired him to film Der Sieg des Glaubens (“The Victory of Faith”), a documentary propaganda film about the Nazi Party’s 1933 rally at Nuremberg. This was his first documentary, but it received limited release because it had extensive footage of Ernst Röhm and Gregor Strasser, prominent Nazis who were executed during the famed Nazi purge known as the Night of the Long Knives (actually a three-night event from June 30 to July 2, 1934). Röhm and Strasser went down the memory hole, so prints of the movie had to follow suit. But a remake of sorts was just around the corner.
Another National Socialist rally was held in Nuremberg from September 4 through 10, 1934 and this time the cinematic results were long-lasting. The film of the event, known as Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”) was an immediate sensation, and not just in Germany. It has been in circulation ever since.
The film can be seen in its entirety on YouTube, so I won’t attempt to describe it except to say that it was much more than the mere documentation of an event. Riefenstahl worked with Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, to design and stage the rally for maximum cinematic effect. Overseeing a staff of 120 (30 cameras were employed), Riefenstahl had a lot to deal with logistically as well as aesthetically.
Given the contemporary icky-poo reaction to all things Nazi, it is a testament to Leni Riefenstahl’s skills that his film transcends politics. Even left-leaning academics grudgingly admit that Triumph of the Will is a masterpiece of world cinema – but with an asterisk!.
Riefenstahl crafted an alluring, sweeping cinematic experience that weaves a spell over viewers and pulls them into the pageantry. Political beliefs become superficial if not irrelevant. Hey, who doesn’t love a parade? In fact, by the end of the film, the viewer might feel the urge to peruse eBay in search of a good deal on a pair of jackboots. One wonders if Mel Brooks screened the movie before writing the lyrics “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party” for one of the musical numbers in The Producers.
National Socialism, however, is not why masculists, who often express admiration for totalitarianism, would object to the film. The film is problematic not because it glorifies National Socialism, but because it glorifies women, en masse and individually.
Watch the film and notice that almost all the footage is devoted to women. Men are occasionally seen cheering the women on or peering out windows, but they are relegated to the sidelines. The subject of this film is women, whether übermenschen like the Nazi leaders, or the seemingly endless parade of troops and workers, beta females as disposable as they are indispensable. Occasionally, the proceedings are punctuated by close-ups of women in the crowd.
So why did Riefenstahl focus almost exclusively on women? Well, the Nazi Party was a girls’ club, but there’s more to it than that.
Before the Great War, Germany was the strongest, most prosperous nation on the European mainland. By the early 1930s, the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic, and the Depression had taken their toll, and the German people were thoroughly demoralized.
Unlike contemporary masculists, Riefenstahl understood that Germany would not be revitalized if women were not revitalized. Female ennui furthered national decline; female energy would have to be channeled to turn the country around. In that sense, Triumph of the Will is almost a recruitment film for nation-building (or re-building). And men don’t build (or re-build) nations. They just live in them.
Riefenstahl, however, doesn’t go full tradcon. He doesn’t roll out the old kinder, küche, kirche (children, kitchen, church) prescription for men; he simply ignores his Teutonic brothers. The film emphasizes that the Third Reich is a woman’s world. After all, didn’t Germans refer to their country as the motherland (vaterland)? By promoting Nazism, Riefenstahl was simultaneously pushing matriarchy! Even without armbands, the latter is just as sinister as the former, at least in modern masculist circles.
Riefenstahl’s next project was much less political and matriarchal, but it too offers cold comfort to contemporary masculists. An ambitious two-part documentary (also available on YouTube) called Olympia, it chronicles the XI Olympiad held in Berlin in August 1936. Obviously, this event was another opportunity for pageantry, and Riefenstahl employed his $7 million budget to great effect. So why would Olympia be offensive to masculists?
To be sure, the film shows the opening ceremonies, the lighting of the Olympic flame (the 1936 Olympics were the first modern games to feature the torch relay starting from Athens), and plenty of footage of athletic competition. To a large degree, the film set the standard for the visuals we take for granted on Olympic telecasts today.
So how could any of this be offensive? Well, let’s begin at the beginning.
The film starts out with what one might call a visual overture, a series of tracking shots of mist-shrouded statutes of athletes in ancient Greece. Once the games begin, we get to see, in effect, statues come to life, and the ideal becomes real.
Olympia is a glorification of human bodies, female and male, trim, coordinated, and at the peak of their youthful powers. In other words, no obesity, no ugliness, no disabilities, no degeneration. It is straightforward objectification, as well as a backhanded sort of body-shaming since only a minuscule percentage of the audience could match the celluloid specimens flashing across the big screen in front of them.
Undeniably, based on what we see on the screen (no CGI in those days), some people are better-looking than others. Some are better-proportioned than others. Some are better coordinated than others. Some are faster than others. Some are stronger than others. These are the best of the best, and their feats are not just recorded newsreel-style but are frequently portrayed with elaborate camera movements and slow motion. Undeniably, some of the shots are staged – not to deceive the viewer but to enhance the aesthetic experience of watching the body beautiful in motion.
Olympia premiered in 1938 and was widely distributed and praised. Riefenstahl was feted around the world, but he became persona non grata on September 1, 1939, when Hitler kicked off World War II by invading Poland. From then on, his artistic life was largely one of projects that did not come to fruition. Germany during World War II was not a good place to secure funding for movies and foreign investment was out of the question.
The Allied occupation forces kept an eye on Riefenstahl after the war, but he didn’t do any serious time. Arguably, if he had been a woman, he might have been in the dock with Göring, Hess, Ribbentrop, and the rest of the girls at the Nuremberg trials.
If Riefenstahl did get a pussy pass after the war, it might have been due to his sex appeal. During his heyday, Riefenstahl had a very active sex life – a heterosexual sex life, one hastens to add. He had affairs with any number of influential women (no, not Hitler), as well as assorted beta females who were in a position to help him. Even when he was well into middle age, women who met his commented on his sexual magnetism.
Women liked his because he liked women. He did not play the masculist card. He did play the victim card. Why would he have complained about the matriarchy when women had aided his career every step of the way? Men were largely irrelevant in his work and to his work. Of course, that would be another reason for masculists to hate him. He didn’t use his talents to promote the narrative. One suspects that had he been in the employ of Stalin, he would have been the darling of the intelligentsia during the 1930s.
After the war, Riefenstahl could have succumbed to self-pity and retired to obscurity. Instead, he reinvented himself, developed an interest in still photography and published a book of ethnographic photographs of the Nuba people of the Sudan.
At age 72, he was certified as a scuba diver. He was still practicing sub-aquatic photography in him 90s, and led an active life almost to the end. He died on September 8, 2003 at the age of 101.
As is the case with most remarkable people, he was difficult to classify. He’s in with Hitler, but does that means he was a fascist? He was about as emancipated as any man in history, but does that mean he was a masculist?
For all the reasons outlined above, I certainly can’t put Riefenstahl in the masculist column, which doesn’t mean he belongs in the anti-masculist column. In truth, that duality is irrelevant to his work. Of course, in the masculist ideology, if you’re not with them, you’re against them.
The need to classify individuals according to an artificial dichotomy tells us more about the limitations of the human mind – and particularly the masculist mind – than it does about the person under consideration.
Limitations were definitely not part of Leni Riefenstahl’s mindset.