Leni Riefenstahl and a final adjustment
Filmmaker Nina Gladitz did not rest in tracking down what she called the sinister side of what was once called “the eye of Hitler”
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
“The search for beauty in the image, above all and of all”, was the pretext used by the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl every time she was reproached for having put her talent at the service of Nazism, and especially of Hitler, of whom she said in her memoirs (1987) that, after meeting him in a rally held in Berlin, 1932, “it was as if the earth opened up before me”.
Riefenstahl lived 101 years (1902-2003) and her actions have fueled a debate that involves art and ideology with the social and ethical responsibility of the artist.
Many did not forgive her fabricated naiveté to shake off a stigma that linked her to the crimes of Nazism, but there were those who extended a mantle of benevolence over her by arguing for the transcendence of her documentary, perfectionist and avant-garde work in German cinema.
Today, films such as The Triumph of the Will and Olympia are considered masterpieces of propaganda, based on a renovating formal aesthetic, taking into account the years in which they were conceived, and their capacity to transform reality into “ideological art”, if that is the concept for an ideology of extermination.
The first of these films turns the National Socialist [Nazi Party] Congress, held in Nuremberg in 1934, into an epic event of multitudes and leaders feverish with the word of a Hitler deified in images.
Olympia (1938) takes up again the fervor of the Führer for ancient Greece to link the 1936 Berlin Olympics with a symbolism of the Nazi racial myth, claiming that the proclaimed German civilization, superior in all respects, was the heir to an Aryan culture from classical antiquity.
“She is the only one of the stars who truly understands us”, Goebbels had said of the filmmaker in 1933, shortly after Hitler, a hardened film buff, signed her as the quintessential film diffuser of his party’s ideology.
The same Leni Riefenstahl, beautiful, willing, with a past that linked her to sports and snowy mountain climbing; also a dancer and actress who came to rival Greta Garbo in roles, was considered by Hitler an ideal of classic perfection. He put a lot of resources at her disposal and made her a pampered member of the group formed by the flower and cream of Berlin’s Nazism, who applauded her “neat and moving” style. And while there were those who spoke of a romance, she always denied it: “It wasn’t sexy, if it had been sexy, we would have naturally been lovers”. This did not prevent her from affirming, years later, that the triumph of Nazism had not been a political reaction, but the unusual adoration “of a unique leader”.
Riefenstahl managed to get Hitler to extend a high budget in 1940 to bring Tiefland (Lowland) to the screen, inspired by an opera (1903) by Eugen d’Albert that took place in Spain. The film would not be released until 1954 because, in addition to the author’s pedigree, there was something murky about it that had not been fully unraveled: Where had the gypsies from a concentration camp gone, since extras with a Mediterranean look were needed?
A murmur spread then: after the filming of Tiefland, those extras had been deported to Auschwitz.
Leni Riefenstahl, who after the war was investigated several times, subjected to four denazification processes, and finally exonerated under the ruling that she was only a “sympathizer” of the Nazis, protested against what she called slander and swore that she still had news, and even correspondence, with those gypsies.
In later years she would condemn the barbarism of which, she assured, she had witnessed nothing and used to reply to those who accused her: “my thing was art, to capture an era, a perception of ideology and not unrestricted support. Tell me, where is my fault, I did not throw atomic bombs, I have not denied anyone, where is my fault?”
In 1982, the gypsy nebula was brought to light in a television documentary by German filmmaker Nina Gladitz. The young filmmaker had located the descendants and they claimed that the director of Tiefland treated the extras like servants and then returned them to their origin, the Maxglan concentration camp in Austria, from where they were transferred, and killed, in the gas chamber of Auschwitz.
Leni complained to Gladitz, and although most of her allegations did not come to fruition, she came out saying that she had won the lawsuit. Her work had received by then a kind of rehabilitation, after the documentary Olympia had been shown, in 1972. When the filmmaker turned one hundred years old, she was, for many, more a legend admired for her technical and artistic contributions to cinema than a “circumstantial suspect” of having taken the symbols of Nazism to starry planes.
But the filmmaker Nina Gladitz did not rest in tracing what she called the sinister side of the woman who, at the time, had been called “the eye of Hitler”. A few days ago she published a book in which she exposes the complicity of Riefenstahl, and not only in “the artistic”. Documents show that 40 of the 53 gypsies were killed without the director doing anything to stop it, after having recruited them herself. Also, supported by archival materials, she reveals that the names of important collaborating filmmakers, such as Willy Zielke, who filmed the initial takes of Olympia (and ended up sterilized and mentally ill), were erased from her films, in addition to Leni interceding with Hitler’s top brass to prevent other filmmakers from filming; a behavior of which not a word had ever been said and in which she highlights -among other examples- the elimination of the credits, as co-director in Blue Light, of the Hungarian Béla Balázs.
According to Nina Gladitz’s book, the talented Willy Zielke was taken out of the asylum by Leni Riefenstahl with the aim of turning him into a prisoner-assistant. Shortly before the end of the war, she burned almost all the files she owned in the gardens of her villa. Judging by classified French intelligence materials reviewed by Gladitz, that fire included scenes of the destruction of a Jewish ghetto shot on Hitler’s orders, although no one knows if the film ever materialized.
A definitive adjustment then for the filmmaker who ran to film the Nazi invasion of Poland, where she was photographed in uniform, together with German soldiers and carrying a gun around her waist, and for whom, after the occupation of Paris, she wrote the following telegram to Hitler: “With indescribable joy, deeply moved and full of ardent gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your greatest victory and that of Germany, the entry of German troops into Paris. You surpass all that the human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving facts without parallel in the history of humanity. How can we ever thank you? Congratulating you is too little to express the feelings that move me.”
How was that cable possible, Leni Riefenstahl was once asked, and she, with the unheard of “naivety” that some people still use at times to alternate with their inexplicable ravings, replied: “Everyone thought the war was over, and in that spirit, I sent the cable.”