June 30, 2005

Ray Muller's 'The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl'

Ray Muller's 'The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.'

In the past year, as I've gone around the world promoting my documentary film Imelda, I've often been asked by press and audiences alike what my favorite documentary films are. I've found myself listing films that are character-driven—Crumb, Salesman and, most often, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, to which I returned over and over again during the long haul of producing Imelda. In many ways, the two films deal with the same issues and themes: power, redemption and denial.

The conceit of The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, as the opening narration states, is to approach probably the most influential filmmaker of the Third Reich "without preconceptions." She is, on the one hand, the filmmaker Pauline Kael once called "one of the dozen or so creative geniuses who have ever worked in the film medium," and on the other the woman who created Triumph of the Will, the most powerful propaganda film about the Nazis ever produced.

The film succeeds for the most part because director Ray Müller lets Riefenstahl speak for herself, with no experts to deconstruct or interpret what she says. And the result is mesmerizing. Riefenstahl regales us with stories of her years as an actress making mountain films in Germany, her notorious era as Hitler's filmmaker producing Triumph of the Will and Olympiad, the post-war period photographing the Nuba and, finally, her obsession, at age 90: scuba-diving.

I was both attracted to and repulsed by Riefenstahl. As a filmmaker I was seduced when this groundbreaking visualist discussed her work--how she constructed scenes in the editing room, how she composed shots, how she saw the world through the camera lens. This pleasure I felt, however, was lined with a certain shame: Should I be having so much fun listening to this woman? She was, after all, an artist so obsessed with the need to create that she allowed herself to ignore—and perhaps become complicit with—the virulent racist politics of the Nazis.

There's a chilling scene of Riefenstahl watching a scene from Triumph of the Will, obviously enamored of her own footage. She posits that "in art one can't afford to be political," that Triumph of the Will was not about politics but an event. I wondered if she truly believed this or had she been telling herself this for so long that it had become a kind of truth—her truth. Can art really be taken out of context? Isn't the very aesthetic of her work political?

My favorite scenes are when Mller shows us Riefenstahl trying to direct his movie. She suggests, for instance, how he should set up his camera so that she is juxtaposed against the mountains. In another scene, she argues with him about a dolly shot and refuses to walk and talk at the same time. Müller shows us the difficult time he had with his subject, but most important he disabuses the audience of any notion that Riefenstahl is actually directing the film. He seems to be suggesting that whoever gets final cut, wins.

In the last scene, Müller suggests that maybe the German people are still waiting for an apology from Riefenstahl. She is unrepentant and insists she's never uttered an anti-Semitic sentiment in her life, was not member of Nazi party and didn't denounce anybody. "What then am I guilty of?" she asks.


Ramona S. Diaz's film Imelda, about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, aired on PBS' Independent Lens series on May 10.