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|leni comes to germany
|The Leni Riefenstahl exhibition opened at the Filmmuseum in Potsdam on a sunny day, though the capital of the former East German state of Brandenburg was covered with icy snow. Despite this romantic and historical setting, about a half-hour outside of Berlin, one might have expected a bit of controversy.
After all, it is the first show ever in Germany of the unquestioned master of Third Reich propaganda films. Notorious for being "Hitler's favorite filmmaker," Riefenstahl directed Triumph of the Will (1935), a documentary on the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, and Olympia (1938), a two-part documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
It was no accident that Riefenstahl's talents stood out during the Nazi era. Her obsession with discipline, will power and exactitude perfectly matched fascist ideology. Consider just the titles of some of her other films: The White Flame (1921), The Sacred Mountain (1926) and Day of Freedom -- Our Fighting Forces (1935).
A multi-talented, self-made woman who pushed her career remarkably far, Riefenstahl began as an actress and successfully switched to being a cutter, writer, director and producer, a rare accomplishment. By 1931 she had founded her own production company, the "Leni Riefenstahl Studio Film GmbH."
After the war, Riefenstahl went through "Entnazifizierung," the national examination of society for Nazi party members. She had been a member of the Nazi Film Board, but never joined the National Socialist Party, and in the end was classified as "only" a collaborator in the system. Her rather incredible claim was, and has always been, that she was an idealist artist with no interest in or understanding of politics.
So given the fascinating subject matter, the Potsdam exhibition is something of a disappointment, featuring as it does a rather small presentation of films, photos and documents. The 96-year-old Riefenstahl, who is still alive, didn't show up at the opening. She would have made an uncertain icon, for bad or good.
Dealing with Riefenstahl has always been tricky for Germany. Though her work has been seen and discussed in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere, since the end of World War II her films were shown but once on German TV. The '70s saw a flickering of interest in Riefenstahl's photographs of the African Nuba, while in 1994 the brilliant documentary portrait, Die Macht der Bilder (The Power of Pictures), briefly confronted the problem of the living legend.
Riefenstahl is even less familiar in the former East Germany, where under Communism any discussion of fascist artists was simply banned. Over the past few years, Brandenburg has been in the headlines for neo-fascist activity, and with the Riefenstahl exhibition, the museum dreaded baleful attention from both the right-wing and the left. But so far nothing has happened. The press received the show with composure, and viewers seem to welcome the chance to see for themselves.
Four films are being shown at the entrance to the exhibition, but since they're on tiny TV monitors, the psychological effect can hardly be felt. What might seem to be a clever, "neutral" strategy by the organizers turns out to have been a pragmatic decision -- bigger screens were not available.
In contrast, the color photos of the Nuba (1973-75) are big -- another practical decision, as most of the material had to be borrowed from the artist, who provided prints that had previously been made for exhibition in Japan. These pictures embody the Riefenstahl perspective: the athletic body is confronted in full exposure, an appraisal of statue-like compositions that stand heroic against a blue sky. The monumentalizing of the human body marks her continuing interest in what could be called a fascist perspective.
Perhaps most surprising are Riefenstahl's underwater images. Their focus on blasting color and exotic forms seems to reveal nothing else than the driven spirit of a woman who wants to make everything she does larger-than-life. Starting to dive at the age of 71 and reportedly still at it, this lady is as ambitious as she was at the beginning of her career, when, as an actress, she insisted on climbing barefoot through ice-covered mountains, giving her best for the sake of art.
The exhibition's selection of archival documents and reviews of her work is a must-see, although it still does not explain the Riefenstahl phenomenon.
Today, the former queen of fascist esthetics is a vivid topic in Germany. The Berlin Olympic Stadium, where Riefenstahl did Olympia, is about to be renovated, while an Eastern German pop group called Rammstein made a big hit with an MTV video using sequences from Riefenstahl films. Finally, the contentious discussion over the design, size and location of the proposed Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which has gone on for nearly a decade, reflects the complexities of such representations.
In this, the films of Leni Riefenstahl could help. The museum is showing all of Riefenstahl's films and some others from the period, but one could hardly be expected to make the trip to Potsdam every night. It's time to think about broadcasting all the material on public TV!
The exhibition continues until Feb. 28, and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue.
CORINNA WEIDNER is an art journalist, living and working in Berlin.
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