19 December 2012

Leni Riefenstahl and the Intercutting of Truth

Leni and Adolph. Quite a pair. 
          As described in Ray Müller’s documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl was “the last great image maker of the Nazis” and “the most famous female filmmaker in the world.”  In her memoirs, however, she would have us believe that she was much more than that.  Drawing upon her screenwriting and visual storytelling skills, she constructs an elaborate scenario in which she is the misunderstood heroine, a single-minded artist naïvely plying her craft amidst a storm of political and professional intrigues. 
Her story makes for compelling drama, however, it seems far more likely that Riefenstahl was simply an ambitious person, caught up in the fervor of the Reich’s zeitgeist and taking advantage of the opportunities provided her by her high-ranking connections.  When the end of the Second World War found her on the losing side, the same instincts and skills that guided her artistic survival were then needed to negotiate her physical survival.  As someone whose profession was manufacturing fiction, she had the capability to say or do or create anything necessary to ensure that survival.  This drive for self-survival is in direct opposition to the self-sacrifice shown by true heroes and thus negates the underlying premise of Riefenstahl’s explication of her life.
As a screenwriter, Leni understood the first major principle of effective storytelling, the suspension of disbelief in the audience.  The artist must produce a world and characters of such great verisimilitude that the audience forgets they are experiencing a work of fiction and becomes engrossed in the action as though it were really happening.  Using very visual language, many historical events and several vignettes from the lives of real people, Leni creates an expectation in the common reader of her memoirs that what he or she is reading is as close to objective truth as is accessible so long after the fact.  She quotes letters, newspaper articles and reviews, names contemporary artists and provides firsthand accounts of the making of her films.  All of this lends authority to the work.
While she purports to have argued with Hitler that she only wanted to be an actress, Leni seems to have derived her greatest professional pleasure from directing.  Filmmaking, in general, is the product of a team effort, but it is the position of director that tends to have the greatest control over the final product, and Leni needed to feel in control.  The director’s main responsibility to the film is to get the shots necessary to the story.  Just as Riefenstahl had no ethical problems with restaging Olympic events when she found footage of them to be “unusable” for her documentary, Olympia (pp. 196-97), she could just as easily have changed or staged events in her memoirs as she deemed necessary. 
Being also an editor, however, she understood the need to select, cut and alter material in order to make it more entertaining and effective.  To establish a structure and rhythm in a film, events can be reordered, outcomes can be changed and motivations can be hidden. An editor selects the best takes of a scene for the final film.  However, what is left on the cutting room floor is often as important as what makes it into the work.  What scenes did Riefenstahl omit from her memoirs?
The art of film editing provides, perhaps, the most important technique she could have adopted in constructing her memoirs:  intercutting or cross-cutting.  To intercut scenes is to cut between them so as to establish in the viewer’s mind some sort of unity between them.  Often this simply implies that they are occurring simultaneously, but when used effectively, as done by the early Russian filmmakers so admired by Leni (like Eisenstein), other associations are conjured.  In the case of her memoirs, by intercutting scenes of historical events with her own fabrications, she seeks to establish an indiscriminate unity of truth.  It becomes impossible to disentangle the fact from the fiction.
Just as she understood the power of this technique and utilized it in her defense, so, too, did her detractors in their accusations.  Leni wrote of one of the many critical television programs produced during her lifetime: “Anyone watching that footage was bound to believe that I had witnessed an execution of Jews.  Such cross-cutting adulterates truth into its very opposite” (p. 653).  Even Müller’s film relies on the technique from the very outset, as it opens with underwater scenes from Riefenstahl’s later life intercut with scenes from Triumph of the Will, then Olympia and shots of the Nuba.  Like Susan Sontag’s article mentioned in the memoirs, this technique ties together the various images into a nearly unified aesthetic.  Whereas Sontag openly referred to that aesthetic as “facist,” Müller lets the images speak for themselves.
Leni may have disliked Sontag’s take on her unified aesthetic, but, to some degree, it was necessary for her to create the impression that she had a singular vision in order to help establish herself as heroic.  A Carlylian definition of “hero” requires that the person have a vision of an underlying truth in reality and to direct all her actions toward establishing that truth.  From Triumph of the Will, Leni seems to believe that the machinations of National Socialism would realize that truth.  For her then to deny knowledge of the political ideologies of the Party and disassociate herself from it effectively counteracts any sort of heroic stature that may have been bestowed upon her by the Nazis.
With Olympia and her work with the Nuba, her vision of truth seems to shift toward the fit body as beautiful.  Again, Riefenstahl denied this association as an overarching theme for her work, and thus again denied a singular vision and any sort of heroic status that might impart.  Her body of work and her subsequent vehement denials of the various readings of that body of work paint her as inconstant and untruthful about her intentions.
The cover of her greatest work of fiction.
            Just how much of Riefenstahl’s memoir is truth may never be known. However, at least one confession that she makes in the book is almost certainly true, and its implications cannot be taken lightly:  “Ever since my childhood, freedom had always been the most important thing in life for me” (p. 641).  Her sense of freedom was inextricably tied up with a need to be in complete control of the situation around her, a position that led her to the profession of directing films.  After the war, to ensure that freedom, the same skills she utilized to great achievement in filmmaking were then needed to distance herself from the Nazi regime for which she had worked (however willingly). 
While she did serve some time in prison, her talent for constructing believable fiction was so great that she could not remain there for long.  She had only to recast herself as a politically naïve woman, blind to the injustices perpetrated around her due to her intense focus on her craft.  Since the avenue of filmmaking had been closed to her, she brought this new, heroic character to life in a book, her memoirs.  Ultimately, however, Leni Riefenstahl is an unreliable narrator in her own life story and the character she creates is not her true self (and not a true hero).
            Even were the premise of this essay completely off base and every word in her memoirs true, her character still suffers from too long an association with facism and complicity with the Reich government.  If she was truly politically naïve, then she ignored a fundamental responsibility of the artist to find out how her or his art is to be used.  If she did not seek out a full understanding of the policies of the government, she should not have become so intimately involved with its leaders, especially as patrons.  The verdict remains the same: Leni Riefenstahl was a talented artist, but no hero.

No comments: