Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2004/08/24

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Subject: [Leica] Riefenstahl ...apolitical alternate view
From: pklein at (Peter Klein)
Date: Tue Aug 24 00:51:53 2004

You make an interesting point, John.  And if the French had only listened 
to Woodrow Wilson instead of sticking it to the Germans at Versailles, 
maybe the whole mess would have been less horrific later.  Ditto if they'd 
paid heed to a young Ho Chi Minh. . .

But seriously, I think it is perfectly appropriate to judge Leni 
Riefenstahl, because she became the visual spokesperson for Nazi 
Germany.  "Triumph of Will" was not just German nationalism, it was a 
glorification of Nazism itself, and of the sublimation of self to the 
collective "Volk" under the supreme will of the Fuhrer.  Meanwhile, the 
persecutions had already begun.  Leni's Jewish friends in the German cinema 
were already fleeing.  The central place of racism and Jew-hatred in Nazi 
ideology had been apparent from the Party's earliest days.  And the whiff 
of conquest and Auchwitz are in the lines of "Mein Kampf."

What irks me most about Leni is not just that she made those propaganda 
films.  It's that to her dying day, she maintained that she did nothing 
wrong, she knew nothing of the Nazi barbarities, and what's all the fuss 
about, anyway?  This tells me that she was (pick one or more):

1.  The kind of artist who was a genius in her field, but not particularly 
bright to totally clueless about all else.
2.  A "compartmentalizer" who blinded herself to all that was going on 
around her save what directly affected her.
3.  Someone who, like Richard Strauss, thought she could make a deal with 
the devil and come out intact.  Unlike Strauss, she lived another 
half-century, and had to create an internal fiction so she could live with 
4.  Someone who got caught up in the Wagnerian pageantry of early Nazi 
Germany, and by the time she realized what the inevitable result was, it 
was too late.
5.  A committed Nazi who knew exactly what she was doing, and has lied 
through her teeth about it forever after.

Personally, I think the answer is some combination of 1-4.  I could forgive 
Riefenstahl if she had acknowledged her complicity in evil.  But she did 
not.  It's telling to compare her with another German who turned to work in 
Africa--Albert Schweitzer.  While Schweitzer healed the sick in Africa in 
part to atone for his feeling of collective guilt over German militarism, 
Leni found perfect black African bodies to glorify in the same way she had 
glorified perfect Aryan bodies in the 30s.  A master stroke, as she could 
say "See, I'm not a racist" while using the same predilections that had 
served Hitler so well.

--Peter Klein
Seattle, WA

At 09:06 PM 8/23/04 -0700, John Collier wrote:
>The only comment I going to make is that Germany suffered under
>egregious terms and conditions following the end of WW1*. The economic
>miracle following the dreadful inflation of the late twenties must have
>made for very giddy times. It is trite for us pinheads to judge her for
>what we know now. This does not exonerate her or anyone else but it
>should make you wonder what you might have done if you had been in her

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