On The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl


Seeing a box of DVDs aptly titled ‘Art & Life of Leni Riefenstahl‘ was hard to ignore, so there were no second thoughts of purchasing it. I knew that she was a photographer, and that she made films. My father pointed this out one day, but I believe this is because one of his keen interests have been addressed: Germany during World War II.

Leni Riefenstahl, primarily a dancer and actress, directed what is considered as the best propaganda film in history, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will 1934), which was commissioned by the Nazis. She then also directed the breathtaking Olympia, which documented the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Later on, after the war, she was persecuted as a Nazi sympathizer, and her attempts at filmmaking again were met by protests. She resurfaced in the ’70s, having published photographs on the Nuba tribes in Africa. At the age of 70, she became a certified scuba diver, and became passionate underwater photography. She died in 2003, a few weeks after turning 101 years old.

Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl, Die, or The Power of the Image: Leni Riefenstahl or The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, is a three hour epic-scale biography of Riefenstahl, released in 1993. Easily, this is a fascinating portrait of a fascinating life. Riefenstahl during filming was in her 90s, and was apparently either still sharp-witted, or on the brink of old-age dementia. We see her answering questions posed by director Ray Müller, from accusations of fascism, to being one of Hitler’s mistresses (or by any other high-ranking Nazi official). Half of the time we are convinced that she spoke truth, and the other half is spent with us scathing a skeptical brow.

Peering through the effort and creativity of Riefenstahl, however, exposes an immense gift of eye, an almost scientific-natural instinct for the most apt mixture of the ideal image, fit on a four-cornered frame. Various filmmaking experiments were done on Olympia, and the techniques utilized is a film revolution itself. How else do you manage to edit practically several hundred kilometers of film? Riefenstahl gave the project two years of her life, post-production.

The most interesting, and funniest moments of the documentary lies on clips where we catch Riefenstahl unposed, unknowing that the camera is rolling. We see her correcting camera angles, debating dialogue continuity, and, though she claims to thoroughly unpoliticized, discussing WWII politics during a reunion with two fo her old cameramen.

Sitting through three hours of Müller’s work was effortless. Next viewing, if it is possible to do this again on a rainy, cold, Shanghai autumn: Triumph of the Will, and Olympia.

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