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Grade: A-Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, The (1994)

Director: Ray Muller

Stars: Leni Riefenstahl, Adolph Hitler, Horst Kettner, Marlene Dietrich, Walter Frantz

Release Company: Kino Video

MPAA Rating: NR

Ray Muller: The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl

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Leni Riefenstahl Directs Cameraman Walter Frentz During the Filming of the Berlin Olympics
Leni Riefenstahl Directs Cameraman Walter Frentz During the Filming of the Berlin Olympics Giclee Print
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"Being sorry isn't nearly enough, but I can't tear myself apart or destroy myself. It's so terrible, I've suffered anyway, for over half a century, and it will never end, until I die."

—Leni Riefenstahl


Ask any film aficionado to list the three greatest women directors of the 20th century, and you will definitely see Leni Riefenstahl's name, most likely topping the list. And with good reason. Her visual artistry and sense of composition rank her among the very best directors, yet her name will forever endure in infamy, as the controversial actress/director remains eternally linked with Adolph Hitler. Although Riefenstahl never uttered an anti-Semitic remark herself, she inadvertently promoted Nazism with the greatest propaganda film ever created in Triumph of the Will, commissioned by Hitler to cover the second Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1934.

A few years later, she directed Olympia to chronicle the 1936 Berlin Olympics, creating one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time, often referenced with film clips of her beautiful diving sequences that show the athletes gracefully leaping like ballet dancers into Swan Lake. But since both of her great films were supported and financed by the Nazi propaganda machine, Riefenstahl instantly conjures up issues concerning an artist's responsibility in politics. Indeed, even still photographs she took years later of the physically handsome Nuba people (Africa) were criticized for having a "Fascist aesthetic."

When the conflict between art and politics comes up, Leni Riefenstahl ranks as the supreme example—but was she a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or does she bear some responsibility? Ray Muller's 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl) explores this a great deal, but refuses to give a definitive viewpoint. Certainly, one of the first things that comes to mind when watching Riefenstahl's incredible Triumph of the Will are questions of how could she be so na�ve to create such a film. Muller's documentary gives the most thorough and illuminating look at the controversial director, and the most direct explanation of how she came to be Hitler's official film propagandist.

In her nineties, the spunky Riefenstahl cooperates to a degree with Muller for the documentary, but some of the unusual choices he leaves in the film clearly illuminate her perfectionistic character, revealing her directorial nature. At one point she bluntly declares that she can not talk and walk at the same time, and another she tells the cinematographer to get a special shot to include the distant mountains more clearly. These moment would be out-takes in most films, but are wisely left in this documentary, giving us a true sample of her artistic temperament and making it far easier to accept her earlier naivete.

M�ller gives a broad overview of Riefenstahl's life, focussing mostly on her film career beginning with her early work as an actress under the direction of her mentor, Arnold Fanck, who fascinated her with his camera movement and artistry in his mountain climbing films. Soon Riefenstahl was climbing the Alps barefooted like a Wagnerian heroine and risking her life in an avalanche for Fanck's camera, before turning her attention to directing.

Her first directing project, the 1932 fairy tale of Das Blaue Licht, attracted Adolph Hitler, who had also loved her dance by the sea in The Holy Mountain and was attracted by the stereotype of the beautiful dare devil that she represented. He wanted something more than newsreel footage to portray his growing Nazi party; he begged Riefenstahl to give him six days of her life because he wanted the film to be made by an artist and not a Party film director. Poignancy touches this documentary, as she returns to the same Nuhrenberg steps made infamous by Hitler in her documentary and explains how she was much like her fairy tale protagonist Junta, who was loved and hated:
"Just as Junta lost her ideal through the shattering of the crystal, in the same way I lost my ideals at the end of that terrible war."
Confirmed is her admiration of Hitler for certain aspects, as Riefenstahl defends her Triumph of the Will, citing how it contains no anti-Semitic remarks and instead has a central message of peace and talks about creating jobs. Her eyes communicate a certain admiration for Hitler, whether at age 91 or especially nearly 60 years earlier in archive footage. Yet she bristles sharply when Goebbels and his diary are brought up, flatly denying her assertions about her intimacy with him. Animatedly she angrily dismisses his words as idle fantasy when selected diary entries are read to her.

Little doubt that 1934 proved to be a pivotal year for Riefenstahl. She had neglected to follow rival Marlene Dietrich to Hollywood, preferring to remain in Germany with her beloved mountains and learning film making from Fanck. Her Triumph of the Will lends two-sided immortality to Riefenstahl, for this film will be eternally studied for its propaganda techniques by historians and people of political bent and will forever be studied for its cinematography technique and artistry by a smaller number of film lovers. Her choice of remaining in Germany and following her artistic longings lead to her downfall, as she will become reviled and boycotted from getting future film projects.

Riefenstahl�s love for film comes across clearly, as she relates how devastated she was during her first project when Fanck re-edited her film to make it "work better." She was in tears, but learned a few editing techniques from Fanck and was soon re-working the film to suit her. This meticulousness would continue. Before her most famous documentary, she had filmed a few sequences of the first Nazi congress, but never accepted that as a real film, as she was too limited in time and resources to do it justice. But when Hitler granted her virtually unlimited cinematic resources, she worked tirelessly to create a true work of art, spending five months editing Triumph of the Will (often with 20 hour work days) and taking two whole years to editing the extensive footage for Olympia. You can see her excitement mount when talking about her film work, so no doubting that she is a unique talent, obsessed with visual art.

Riefenstahl will continue to rank as a directing enigma for as long as celluloid art remains�on the one hand, a supreme artist, who could have made many more classic treasures had she not become enmeshed with Hitler and his propaganda machine. In a sense, she has suffered far more greatly than any of the Nazi war criminals. She has outlived them all, and was prohibited from pursuing her primary love—creating cinematic art. Ray Muller's documentary is essential viewing for film lovers, who want to understand Riefenstahl or for anyone curious about how art and politics come out when on a collision course. He doesn't serve up only softballs, and Riefenstahl lets loose emotionally at a few points in this intimate and revealing film.
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