The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl Makes a Fascinating DVD
You might not recognize director Leni Riefenstahl by name, and you may not even have seen any of her films, but you certainly know of her work. Her Triumph of the Will, showing Adolf Hitler and thousands of Nazi troops at the 1934 Nuremberg rally, is a riveting and repulsive work of art woven of innovative camera angles and masterful editing of the images of multitudes of banners, boots, and a sometimes smiling, sometimes thundering Hitler. It is perhaps the most powerful propaganda film ever made.
In The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, director Ray Müller takes us inside the mind, life, and career of Riefenstahl via film clips and interviews. She was 91 years old when Wonderful, Horrible was released in 1993, and was still working, this time on a documentary about underwater life. A remarkable woman, no doubt, but had she also been a willing instrument of evil? Riefenstahl insists throughout the film that she was never a member of the National Socialist party, and that Triumph of the Will was simply the work of an artist unconcerned with the politics of the time. Her denial is unlikely to convince many that she wasn't fully aware of Hitler's hatred of Jews—she even admits to having read his Mein Kampf, but says she dismissed its anti-Semitism and concentrated on its nationalistic themes, which she found engaging.
The question of whether or not Riefenstahl is lying is fascinating only because of the undeniable power of her work and its unquestionable influence on both the German people and the filmmakers who followed her. In Triumph of the Will, released in 1935, the Nazis were still struggling to transform themselves into the horrible force they would later become. The film is powerful and beautiful, the rally staged like a Wagner opera, propelled by menacing music and filled with shadows, smoke, and searchlights forming a stark, foreboding cathedral of light against the night sky. It all comes together in Riefenstahl's amazing editing—she cuts scenes to music and with conflicting and complementary angles to heighten the images' effects—all of which she describes with obvious pride as she sits at an editing table viewing her work.
The built-in dramas of the 1936 Olympics were enhanced by the groundbreaking filming techniques Riefenstahl developed for Olympia, her documentary film of the event. She had trenches dug, for instance, alongside the pole-vault competition in order to film athletes against the sky. She also employed multiple-speed cameras and a variety of innovative angles to film the high-divers, who seemed to soar out of the sky like beautiful birds before splashing into the water below. Many of her techniques, begun as experiments made possible by enormous financial backing from the Nazis, are still used today by television producers and filmmakers. (She used 120 cameras for Triumph, and had a virtual army of filmmakers at her disposal for Olympia, released in 1938.)
The image quality of The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl is perfectly adequate; the film clips have some scratches, but that's to be expected. The sound is mono, which is fine for a documentary.
When you see the many clips from Triumph and Olympia, and other films she made that had no connection to the Nazis, it's difficult to deny that Leni Riefenstahl has an extraordinary eye and is a brilliant editor. The tragedy of her wonderful, horrible life and body of work is that her genius was in the service of one of the greatest forces of evil humanity has ever known.