Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl: Pretty as a Swastika

An excellent article on the much improved New Yorker site, Where There's A Will: The Rise of Leni Riefenstahl by Judith Thurman - occasioned by the publication of a new biography Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach.

From the article:

Walter Winchell’s memorable epithet for Riefenstahl—“pretty as a swastika”

[...] Riefenstahl’s acting roles, however, like her impetuous sexual adventures of the period, tend to blur. Beginning with Fanck, her fellow cast and crew members constituted a virile harem irresistible to an emancipated sultana inclined to take her pleasure where and with whom she chose (even if she later boasted of “my well-known, almost virginal sexual history”). The bruised egos that she left behind earned her an unsporting epithet, “the nation’s glacial crevasse.” And jealousy, perhaps, encouraged Fanck’s habit of subjecting his star and muse, in repeated takes, to immersion in freezing water, near-suffocation by avalanches, and the barefoot ascent of a sheer rock face. At least he respected her prowess. On the Nazi films, Bach writes, the supremely organized and imperious Riefenstahl “was competing with men she had displaced through a relationship with the Führer that invited speculation she actively encouraged,” and who were “disposed to view her presence behind a camera as illegitimate no matter how she got there.”

[...] Riefenstahl survived the debacle that her idol wreaked upon humanity to be reborn, in late middle age, as a amateur (or, according to the professionals, pseudo) ethnographer, in the Sudan. In exchange for beads and oil but also apparently with a measure of good will, the Nuba let her photograph their ceremonial dances and wrestling matches and rituals of body painting and scarification. (When they didn’t, she used a telephoto lens.) Those beautifull composed and reverential pictures, taken between 1962 and 1977, are Riefenstahl’s African “Olympia.” To explain the absence of imperfect specimens from her gallery, she later told an interviewer that old, ugly, or disabled Nuba hid themselves in shame.

[...] Marcel Ophuls declined her invitation to celebrate her career in a television documentary, so she awarded the job to an unknown German, Ray Müller. He released “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl” to wide acclaim in 1993, and, seven years later, agreed to film her return visit to the Nuba. Though he himself narrowly escaped from the helicopter crash, she was furious that he hadn’t caught her being pulled from the burning wreckage. It wasn’t easy, she wrote at eighty-five, “to leave the present behind,” but she managed to write an enthrallingly disingenuous seven-hundred-page memoir, taking her epigraph from a complaint of Einstein’s: “So many things have been written about me, masses of insolent lies and inventions, that I would have perished long ago, had I paid any attention.” Finally, having joined Greenpeace and celebrated her thirty-fifth anniversary with Horst Kettner, her handsome sixty-year-old companion, she died in bed, at a hundred and one—living, working, loving, lying, and litigating with prodigious vitality until her heart gave out.

[...] Yet one has finally to ask if a creative product counts as a work of art, much less a great one, if it excludes the overwhelming fact of human weakness. That fact is the source of soulfulness and dramatic tension in every enduring narrative that one can think of. A seductively exciting surface, such as the morbid spectacle of a mass delusion, may distract from, but cannot insure against, a slack core, and in Riefenstahl’s case a handful of sequences singled out for their formal beauty and a quality that Sontag calls “vertigo before power” have achieved an influence disproportionate to their depth or originality.

"When you photograph a Greek temple and at the side there is a pile of rubbish, would you leave the rubbish out?"

Riefenstahl: "Definitely, I am not interested in reality."

- From “Reality doesn’t interest me...” by Stefan Steinberg

In both fascist and communist politics, the will is staged publicly, in the drama of the leader and the chorus. What is interesting about the relation between politics and art under National Socialism is not that art was subordinated to political needs, for this is true of dictatorships both of the right and of the left, but that politics appropriated the rhetoric of art—art in its late romantic phase. (Politics is "the highest and most comprehensive art there is," Goebbels said in 1933, "and we who shape modern German policy feel ourselves to be artists . . . the task of art and the artist [being] to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy.") What is interesting about art under National Socialism are those features which make it a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China aims to expound and reinforce a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics—that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in physique magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy. Riefenstahl's promotion of the beautiful and the healthy, it must be said, is much more sophisticated than this; and never witless, as it is in other Nazi visual art. She appreciates a range of bodily types—in matters of beauty she is not racist—and in Olympia she does show some effort and strain, with its attendant imperfections, as well as stylized, seemingly effortless exertions (such as diving, in the most admired sequence of the film).

In contrast to the asexual chasteness of official communist art, Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing. A utopian aesthetics (physical perfection; identity as a biological given) implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a "spiritual" force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic (that is, women) is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse.

[...] Between sadomasochism and fascism there is a natural link. "Fascism is theater," as Genet said. As is sadomasochistic sexuality: to be involved in sadomasochism is to take part in a sexual theater, a staging of sexuality. Regulars of sadomasochistic sex are expert costumers and choreographers as well as performers, in a drama that is all the more exciting because it is forbidden to ordinary people. Sadomasochism is to sex what war is to civil life: the magnificent experience. (Riefenstahl put it: "What is purely realistic, slice of life, what is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me." As the social contract seems tame in comparison with war, so fucking and sucking come to seem merely nice, and therefore unexciting. The end to which all sexual experience tends, as Bataille insisted in a lifetime of writing, is defilement, blasphemy. To be "nice," as to be civilized, means being alienated from this savage experience—which is entirely staged.

- From Fascinating Fascism by Susan Sontag

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