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A Conversation with Ray Müller, Director of The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl 

Marc Erwin Babej: Few people in the history of film have been more admired than Leni Riefenstahl. At the same time, few are considered more unsavory. How did you come to make your film about her?

Ray Müller:  At first, I didn’t want to make the movie. But then, the producer told me, out of frustration, that he had already asked 18 reputable directors. All hadn’t just declined, but been outraged by the very notion. Nobody wanted to take on deal with such an ”impossible woman”, who was considered persona non grata in Germany.

When I heard this, I spontaneously agreed to take on the project. I suspected that somewhere behind an image so distorted there had to be a human being, and I wanted to discover this human being. When I was about to meet her for the first time shortly afterward, I became aware that I was about to shake a hand that had frequently shaken Adolf Hitler’s. It was a strange feeling, to say the least.

During the course of production, you got to know her quite well. Were you able to shake this strange feeling?

Müller: She was a very contradictory personality. She could be very endearing and charming – but as soon as one would raise political subjects, much less the name ”Hitler,” she froze up and became extremely defensive. She had a reputation for throwing out journalists who so much as hinted at these “off-limits” subjects. But our film contract with her stated explicitly that she would have to answer any and all questions. I was able to take advantage of that. Still, she threatened over and again to drop out, because she felt my questions were too pushy or disrespectful.

Babej: Watching her in the movie, one has the impression that she grasped at any opportunity to take charge – particularly of your role, as director.

Müller: She certainly lived up to her reputation as a domineering personality – a martinet in the shape of a beautiful woman. This doesn’t mean that one couldn’t discuss things with her. But during production it was clear that she was going to be the only one person to set the tone. That’s why we clashed so often. I soon came to view the film as a duel with her.

Only later on it became clear to me that there was more to this behavior than a diva attitude: Since her work with Arnold Fanck six decades earlier, she had never been directed by anybody else, much less been told what she should be doing front of the camera. Being directed wasn’t easy for her.

I still remember our very first take – a simple tracking shot. She started barking at the cameraman, telling him that it was an imposition to shoot a woman of her age with the kind of lens he was using. There were also endless arguments about lighting. I have to confess that in those instances, I was amused – because she wasn’t gunning for me, for a change.

Babej: These character traits seem inseparable from her success…

Müller: Indeed. The first thing I can think of is her will of steel. Her name shouldn’t have been Riefenstahl; it should have been Kruppstahl (“Stahl” means “steel” and the steel of armaments manufacturer Krupp became synonymous for toughness). She was dead-set to impose her will, no matter circumstances, no matter the cost to others – or, for that matter, herself. I didn’t let her get away with it, but that’s how she had operated in all of her own movies.

Another remarkable aspect of her personality was her diligence, her sense of order. It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one tinks of her, but it explains how she was able to pull off a project as massive as Olympia. Especially in editing! During production, her film teams had shot 400 kilometers of material. A tremendous logistical challenge, particularly at that time. Had she not been able to organize these 400 km of film, she would have been lost.

Babej:  You spent a lot of time talking with her about her films and her sense of aesthetics. What sets her apart as an artist, in your view?

Müller: She had an extraordinary visual talent. And working with the some of the best cameramen of her day allowed her to further refine her skills.  Her single biggest gift, however, was as an editor. She was a genius at the cutting table. Her sense of rhythm with images, creative effects, musical accents, was unparalleled. Her training as a dancer helped her a great deal in this regard: rhythm and movement where in her blood– and after all, film is about moving pictures.

Babej: At the same time, many aspects of what later became known as ”her style” weren’t her own innovations, but rather adapted from the work of other filmmakers and photographers: the steep camera angles from her mentor, Arnold Fanck; lighting from photographers such as Helmar Lerski (who had also shot a famous portrait of her); rhythm and montage from Sergei Eisenstein. With all these influences, what accounts for her being credited with having created a style of her own?

Müller: Only a few filmmakers can be justly be credited with having made their mark on the medium: I would mention D.W. Griffith, Abel Gance, Eisenstein and Orson Welles – and Leni Riefenstahl. She invented the style of the moving camera: Her people were moving on roller skates; cameras were mounted on catapults, on gas balloons, on improvised tracks, on cranes and on elevators.

What motivated all this innovation was her genius as an editor. Images from a moving camera can be cut much more dynamically then images created by a static camera. And because she knew a dynamic edit benefits from a variety of takes and angles, she thought of the edit even during preproduction.

Babej: I can attest to that, even though I was shooting still images in this aesthetic. Thinking oneself into the head of another photographer was hard enough – it becomes even harder when that other photographer is such a technical and aesthetic talent, and such a perfectionist, as to be described (by Jean-Michel Royer) as “the Michelangelo of the Leica”…

Müller: … and not just the Leica. She was also a close friends of Robert Arnold (the brilliant designer of the camera manufacturer Arnold & Richter, today called ARRI).  She would always describe to him what kind of camera she would need in order to create dynamic films. Shortly after, Arnold developed the world-famous ARRI  ST, whose revolutionary revolver head allowed for lens changes on the fly.

Babej: For all of her technical abilities and aesthetic sense, many of the leitmotifs of her work were not of her own creation:  Masses of people moving synchrony, visually represented hierarchies (in which the camera consistently looked up at leaders and down at the admiring masses); the representation of Everymen such as soldiers, workers, farmers, mothers and children as archetypes. Such modes of representation represent the visual language of the 1930s – and not just in Germany. To what extent was she a product of her time rather than a creator of the imagery of her time?

Müller:  Probably both, and that can be said for many artists. Of course Eisenstein and others had developed much of this visual language, but through the dynamic editing, this language was made iconic by her – and later on became the famous, or infamous, Riefenstahl-touch.

This was especially applicable to the much-discussed ”cult of the body.” Of course one should not forget that Germany’s nudist movement and many new sports organizations had already brought the ideal of beautiful, nude bodies to public consciousness. One should also consider the influence of Greek antiquity. It’s not for nothing that the prologue of the Olympia movies, which I believe was shot without Riefenstahl’s even being present, has the camera moving over Greek statues showing nude, idealized bodies.

Babej: The footage you’re referring to was shot by Willy Zielke. It must have held special appeal to Adolf Hitler, who took great pains to co-opt the art of Greek antiquity for the Third Reich. Not just for art, but also literally – as an ideal that should be realized in the flesh, in the appearance of the German people.

The most telling shots in this opening sequence show a Greeks thrower statue, which then fades to a live discus thrower. In 1937, Hitler spent more than 700,000 Reichsmarks on a renowned Roman 1st century A.D. copy of that statue (by Greek sculptor Myron). The following year, Hitler ceremoniously donated it to the Munich Glyptothek, in celebration of the second edition of the annual “Great German Art Exhibition.”

Riefenstahl shared Hitler’s fascination with Greek antiquity. One of her great unrealized dreams was to make a film version of Heinrich von Kleist’s play Penthesilea – with herself in the lead role of the Amazon Queen.

In The Wonderful,  Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, she displays a rather lackadaisical attitude toward content. In one remarkable scene, she claimed that she would have created the same images for Stalin. Did you have the impression that she was only justifying herself, or did she really did not care much about the subject matter she portrayed?

Müller:  I really believe that content wasn’t all that important to her. What she cared about was form. She was an artist through and through, and chose to ignore anything she deemed unpleasant – especially the political context of her work. In that sequence, she also said that instead of Hitler, she could have also have been filming some vegetables. Of course she was exaggerating for effect, but in essence that’s how she saw things.

The problem with Triumph of the Will, after all, was that she had done too good a job of it. In the years that followed, there were other party rallies, and other movies about these party rallies, but the movies and their directors have long been forgotten.

I also believe her when she said that she didn’t really want to make the movie. One shouldn’t forget that, at this time, she had already become a movie star, had achieved success as a director of a feature film (The Blue Light) and had just played the lead role in a Hollywood production (S.O.S. Iceberg). And now she should be making a documentary, about a dead boring event such as a party rally? How would Steven Spielberg react if he were asked to make a movie about a party convention?

Of course she was flattered that the request had come directly from Hitler. After all, Riefenstahl and Hitler were two egomaniacs that formed a mutual admiration society. He saw in her the genuine artistic talent he lacked; she saw him as the representative of ultimate power and the opportunities such power could grant her. And so she decided to do her best. Riefenstahl always did her best.

The party also did its best. Albert Speer didn’t stage some dull, conventional party event, but a grandiose propaganda show. Riefenstahl then put her talent to work, to create a movie that would do justice to such a show. Hitler had insisted that she, and not a typical documentary filmmaker, should be put in charge – and it turned out he was right. She didn’t create a documentary but an artistic film, which endowed Hitler with a mythical, godlike aura.

Babej: … and, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Goethe’s poem, she couldn’t control the ghosts she had summoned…

Müller: For her, the film at first lived up to its name – it was a triumph. But later on, it became her catastrophe ­– because this time, she had given her talents over to the devil (something that only a few could guess at this point – or at least wanted to guess). Later on she had to pay dearly for this. She never really understood why this film about the party rally destroyed her career after the war. Never again was she able to get the movie project off the ground, other than an underwater documentary toward the end of her life.

Babej: In the film, and also in her autobiography, one gets the impression that she never really understood, or at least was willing to understand, why she was considered so notorious…

Müller: No, she didn’t understand it. At the 1937 World’s Fair, Triumph of the Will was awarded a gold-medal – right in the capital of Germany’s archenemy! “How could I have known what was going to happen in the future?” she asked again and again, full of desperation and outrage. The issue of art and morality – whether an artist is responsible for his work, and what is being done with his work – always eluded her.

Babej:  To this day, there is probably no film director whose work stirs such polarized reactions to form versus content. And despite all the controversy, Riefenstahl is still considered the most famous woman film director of all time, and also one the most accomplished photographers. In which areas of photography and film is her influence most perceptible today?

Müller: I believe in advertising. The “cult of the body,” which she has been accused of creating, has become the standard in today’s advertising – so in this sense she was ahead of her time.

The term ”fascist art” has often been applied to Riefenstahl. But is there really such a thing as “fascist art”? Don’t monumental buildings of the Stalinist era also try to make people feel small in the face of a monumental power, which they must look up to? After the premiere of my film at the New York Film Festival, the term “fascist art” was discussed at length and with great passion – and, I should mention, without result.

Babej: That doesn’t surprise me. After all, the premise of ”fascist art” is as imprecise as the term ”fascism.” Fascism wasn’t a defined ideology comparable to Marxism-Leninism; rather, it was a hodgepodge of often contradictory, views. For example, Nazism would be unimaginable without ”racial theory;” in Fascist Italy, however, racial laws were only introduced at the end of 1938, 16 years after the March on Rome.

But when it comes to form and aesthetic, one can understand why her style was so appealing to a regime with totalitarian aspirations. When working with this aesthetic, I felt this again and again. To achieve that ”Riefenstahl touch,” an image can leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. It has to propagate, to hit the viewer between the eyes. This was very different from her democratic contemporaries Welles or Renoir, whose style confronted viewers with various perspectives and ambivalences.

This formal language of propagation runs like a thread through her work. Even Welles couldn’t resist it entirely. The iconic scene Citizen Kane in which Charles Foster Kane speaks in front of an immense billboard with his own image quotes Riefenstahl’s visual language quite obviously intentionally.

Müller:  I don’t think any photographer who works in black-and-white can ignore Riefenstahl. And when one thinks of her outstanding pictures of the Nuba tribe, the same can also be said for color images. One can accuse her of many things, and in many instances rightly so, but one can’t get around crediting her for her influence on film and photography.

In some ways, her influence even extends to areas one wouldn’t expect: When Mick Jagger married Bianca, only one photographer was invited to shoot the wedding: Leni Riefenstahl. She was quite surprised when she got the call, because she had no idea who Jagger was – and for that matter, who the Rolling Stones were. But it was a well-paid commission, so she accepted it. Jagger told her that he had watched Triumph of the Will fifteen times.

For a long time, I couldn’t understand why. Only later on did she explain it to me: a rock star has to be able to control a large crowd, to manipulate it into ecstasy. The Nazis showed how this is done through their party rallies, and Riefenstahl showed how to translate such events into images. Mick Jagger had understood this right away.

 

A Mercury Production

Direction and Photography: Marc Erwin Babej

With Texts By: Dr. Karamba Diaby (Member of the Bundestag), Prof. Dr. Thomas Kühne, Asi Meskin, Ray Müller and Collien Ulmen-Fernandes
Historical Advisor: Prof. Dr. Volker Berghahn
Editing: Rebecca Sternthal
Assistant Direction: Martin Sümening, Alex Vanderheyden
Associate Producer: Katie Stretton
Location Manager: Matteo Canalis Wandel

Cast
Pina Akin
Agnieszka Artych
Collien Ulmen-Fernandes
Maria Ursula Günther
Penelope Heilmann
Maleen Johannsen
Zara Persephone Jones
Danai Kadzere
Katarina Lackovicova
Laura Lindermann
Michelle Malter
Myriem
Alida Michal
Cem Özdemir (Member of the Bundestag)
Janina Scheuer
Kristina Schröder
Wlada Schüler
Jana Wirth

  • Mischlinge Scene III: Olympia – Title
    Maleen Johannsen: 56% W.Eur., 42% N.Eur.
    Mischlinge Scene III: Olympia – Title
  • Lighting the Flame in the Berlin Olympic Stadium
    Collien Ulmen-Fernandes: 55% S. Asia, 18% N.Eur., 11% W.Eur., 5% Ireland, 4% Ib.Pen., 2% E. Asia Maria-Ursula Günther: 40% It./Gr., 29% N.Eur., 11% E.Eur., 5% W.Eur., 1% Eur.-J,; Zara Jones: (Proof of Ancestry pending) Wlada Schüler: 89% E.Eur., 6% Caucasus, 3% Eur.-J.
    Lighting the Flame in the Berlin Olympic Stadium
  • Into Eternity
    Kristina Schröder: 70% N.Eur., 13% Ib.Pen., 7% W.Eur., 5% It./Gr., 4% Caucasus Jana Wirth: 53% N.Eur., 42% E.Eur., 3% W.Eur.
    Into Eternity
  • In the Colonnade ofthe OlympicStadium
    Cem Özdemir: 84% Caucasus, 13% It./Gr., 1% M.E.
    In the Colonnade ofthe OlympicStadium
  • In the VIP-Section of the Berlin Olympic Stadium
    Cem Özdemir: 84% Caucasus, 13% It./Gr., 1% M.E.
    In the VIP-Section of the Berlin Olympic Stadium
  • Legend
    Danai Kadzere: 29% Bantu, 20% N.Eur., 16% E.Eur., 10%, Cameroon/Congo, 6% Ireland, 6% Nigeria, 4% W.Eur.
    Legend
  • Festival of Beauty 1
    Maria-Ursula Günther: 40% It./Gr., 29% N.Eur., 11% E.Eur., 5% W.Eur., 1% Eur.-J.
    Festival of Beauty 1
  • Festival of Beauty 2
    Agnieszka Artych: Proof of Ancestry pending Myriem: Proof of Ancestry pending
    Festival of Beauty 2
  • Festival of Beauty 3
    Kristina Schröder: 70% N.Eur., 13% Ib.Pen., 7% W.Eur., 5% It./Gr., 4% Caucasus Penelope Heilmann: 30% W.Eur. 25% Ib.Pen. 20% N.Eur., 17% It./Gr.
    Festival of Beauty 3
  • Grace
    Agnieszka Artych: Proof of Ancestry pending
    Grace
  • Dancer
    Alida Michal: Proof of Ancestry pending.
    Dancer
  • Rhythmic Gymnastics 1
    Katarina Lackovicova: Proof of Ancestry pending.
    Rhythmic Gymnastics 1
  • No Matter How Lofty the Goal
    Alida Michal: Proof of Ancestry pending
    No Matter How Lofty the Goal
  • At Rest
    Janina Scheuer: 83% W.Eur., 6% Ib.Pen., 2% each Eur.-J., N.Eur. and It./Gr. Maleen Johannsen: 56% W.Eur., 42% N.Eur.
    At Rest
  • “I Call the Youth of the World”
    Inscription on the Bell in the Berlin Olympic Stadium Michelle Malter: 51% N.Eur., 39% E.Eur., 8% W.Eur., 3% Ireland, 1% Eur.-J. Collien Ulmen-Fernandes: 55% S. Asia, 18% N.Eur., 11% W.Eur., 5% Ireland, 4% Ib.Pen., 2% E. Asia Wlada Schüler: 89% E.Eur., 6% Caucasus, 3% Eur.-J. Zara Jones: (Proof of Ancestry pending)
    “I Call the Youth of the World”
  • The Torchbearer
    Maria-Ursula Günther: 40% It./Gr., 29% N.Eur., 11% E.Eur., 5% W.Eur., 1% Eur.-J.
    The Torchbearer
  • Roundel
    Myriem: Proof of Ancestry pending Agnieszka Artych: Proof of Ancestry pending
    Roundel

A Conversation with Ray Müller, Director of The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl 

Marc Erwin Babej: Few people in the history of film have been more admired than Leni Riefenstahl. At the same time, few are considered more unsavory. How did you come to make your film about her?

Ray Müller:  At first, I didn’t want to make the movie. But then, the producer told me, out of frustration, that he had already asked 18 reputable directors. All hadn’t just declined, but been outraged by the very notion. Nobody wanted to take on deal with such an ”impossible woman”, who was considered persona non grata in Germany.

When I heard this, I spontaneously agreed to take on the project. I suspected that somewhere behind an image so distorted there had to be a human being, and I wanted to discover this human being. When I was about to meet her for the first time shortly afterward, I became aware that I was about to shake a hand that had frequently shaken Adolf Hitler’s. It was a strange feeling, to say the least.

During the course of production, you got to know her quite well. Were you able to shake this strange feeling?

Müller: She was a very contradictory personality. She could be very endearing and charming – but as soon as one would raise political subjects, much less the name ”Hitler,” she froze up and became extremely defensive. She had a reputation for throwing out journalists who so much as hinted at these “off-limits” subjects. But our film contract with her stated explicitly that she would have to answer any and all questions. I was able to take advantage of that. Still, she threatened over and again to drop out, because she felt my questions were too pushy or disrespectful.

Babej: Watching her in the movie, one has the impression that she grasped at any opportunity to take charge – particularly of your role, as director.

Müller: She certainly lived up to her reputation as a domineering personality – a martinet in the shape of a beautiful woman. This doesn’t mean that one couldn’t discuss things with her. But during production it was clear that she was going to be the only one person to set the tone. That’s why we clashed so often. I soon came to view the film as a duel with her.

Only later on it became clear to me that there was more to this behavior than a diva attitude: Since her work with Arnold Fanck six decades earlier, she had never been directed by anybody else, much less been told what she should be doing front of the camera. Being directed wasn’t easy for her.

I still remember our very first take – a simple tracking shot. She started barking at the cameraman, telling him that it was an imposition to shoot a woman of her age with the kind of lens he was using. There were also endless arguments about lighting. I have to confess that in those instances, I was amused – because she wasn’t gunning for me, for a change.

Babej: These character traits seem inseparable from her success…

Müller: Indeed. The first thing I can think of is her will of steel. Her name shouldn’t have been Riefenstahl; it should have been Kruppstahl (“Stahl” means “steel” and the steel of armaments manufacturer Krupp became synonymous for toughness). She was dead-set to impose her will, no matter circumstances, no matter the cost to others – or, for that matter, herself. I didn’t let her get away with it, but that’s how she had operated in all of her own movies.

Another remarkable aspect of her personality was her diligence, her sense of order. It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one tinks of her, but it explains how she was able to pull off a project as massive as Olympia. Especially in editing! During production, her film teams had shot 400 kilometers of material. A tremendous logistical challenge, particularly at that time. Had she not been able to organize these 400 km of film, she would have been lost.

Babej:  You spent a lot of time talking with her about her films and her sense of aesthetics. What sets her apart as an artist, in your view?

Müller: She had an extraordinary visual talent. And working with the some of the best cameramen of her day allowed her to further refine her skills.  Her single biggest gift, however, was as an editor. She was a genius at the cutting table. Her sense of rhythm with images, creative effects, musical accents, was unparalleled. Her training as a dancer helped her a great deal in this regard: rhythm and movement where in her blood– and after all, film is about moving pictures.

Babej: At the same time, many aspects of what later became known as ”her style” weren’t her own innovations, but rather adapted from the work of other filmmakers and photographers: the steep camera angles from her mentor, Arnold Fanck; lighting from photographers such as Helmar Lerski (who had also shot a famous portrait of her); rhythm and montage from Sergei Eisenstein. With all these influences, what accounts for her being credited with having created a style of her own?

Müller: Only a few filmmakers can be justly be credited with having made their mark on the medium: I would mention D.W. Griffith, Abel Gance, Eisenstein and Orson Welles – and Leni Riefenstahl. She invented the style of the moving camera: Her people were moving on roller skates; cameras were mounted on catapults, on gas balloons, on improvised tracks, on cranes and on elevators.

What motivated all this innovation was her genius as an editor. Images from a moving camera can be cut much more dynamically then images created by a static camera. And because she knew a dynamic edit benefits from a variety of takes and angles, she thought of the edit even during preproduction.

Babej: I can attest to that, even though I was shooting still images in this aesthetic. Thinking oneself into the head of another photographer was hard enough – it becomes even harder when that other photographer is such a technical and aesthetic talent, and such a perfectionist, as to be described (by Jean-Michel Royer) as “the Michelangelo of the Leica”…

Müller: … and not just the Leica. She was also a close friends of Robert Arnold (the brilliant designer of the camera manufacturer Arnold & Richter, today called ARRI).  She would always describe to him what kind of camera she would need in order to create dynamic films. Shortly after, Arnold developed the world-famous ARRI  ST, whose revolutionary revolver head allowed for lens changes on the fly.

Babej: For all of her technical abilities and aesthetic sense, many of the leitmotifs of her work were not of her own creation:  Masses of people moving synchrony, visually represented hierarchies (in which the camera consistently looked up at leaders and down at the admiring masses); the representation of Everymen such as soldiers, workers, farmers, mothers and children as archetypes. Such modes of representation represent the visual language of the 1930s – and not just in Germany. To what extent was she a product of her time rather than a creator of the imagery of her time?

Müller:  Probably both, and that can be said for many artists. Of course Eisenstein and others had developed much of this visual language, but through the dynamic editing, this language was made iconic by her – and later on became the famous, or infamous, Riefenstahl-touch.

This was especially applicable to the much-discussed ”cult of the body.” Of course one should not forget that Germany’s nudist movement and many new sports organizations had already brought the ideal of beautiful, nude bodies to public consciousness. One should also consider the influence of Greek antiquity. It’s not for nothing that the prologue of the Olympia movies, which I believe was shot without Riefenstahl’s even being present, has the camera moving over Greek statues showing nude, idealized bodies.

Babej: The footage you’re referring to was shot by Willy Zielke. It must have held special appeal to Adolf Hitler, who took great pains to co-opt the art of Greek antiquity for the Third Reich. Not just for art, but also literally – as an ideal that should be realized in the flesh, in the appearance of the German people.

The most telling shots in this opening sequence show a Greeks thrower statue, which then fades to a live discus thrower. In 1937, Hitler spent more than 700,000 Reichsmarks on a renowned Roman 1st century A.D. copy of that statue (by Greek sculptor Myron). The following year, Hitler ceremoniously donated it to the Munich Glyptothek, in celebration of the second edition of the annual “Great German Art Exhibition.”

Riefenstahl shared Hitler’s fascination with Greek antiquity. One of her great unrealized dreams was to make a film version of Heinrich von Kleist’s play Penthesilea – with herself in the lead role of the Amazon Queen.

In The Wonderful,  Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, she displays a rather lackadaisical attitude toward content. In one remarkable scene, she claimed that she would have created the same images for Stalin. Did you have the impression that she was only justifying herself, or did she really did not care much about the subject matter she portrayed?

Müller:  I really believe that content wasn’t all that important to her. What she cared about was form. She was an artist through and through, and chose to ignore anything she deemed unpleasant – especially the political context of her work. In that sequence, she also said that instead of Hitler, she could have also have been filming some vegetables. Of course she was exaggerating for effect, but in essence that’s how she saw things.

The problem with Triumph of the Will, after all, was that she had done too good a job of it. In the years that followed, there were other party rallies, and other movies about these party rallies, but the movies and their directors have long been forgotten.

I also believe her when she said that she didn’t really want to make the movie. One shouldn’t forget that, at this time, she had already become a movie star, had achieved success as a director of a feature film (The Blue Light) and had just played the lead role in a Hollywood production (S.O.S. Iceberg). And now she should be making a documentary, about a dead boring event such as a party rally? How would Steven Spielberg react if he were asked to make a movie about a party convention?

Of course she was flattered that the request had come directly from Hitler. After all, Riefenstahl and Hitler were two egomaniacs that formed a mutual admiration society. He saw in her the genuine artistic talent he lacked; she saw him as the representative of ultimate power and the opportunities such power could grant her. And so she decided to do her best. Riefenstahl always did her best.

The party also did its best. Albert Speer didn’t stage some dull, conventional party event, but a grandiose propaganda show. Riefenstahl then put her talent to work, to create a movie that would do justice to such a show. Hitler had insisted that she, and not a typical documentary filmmaker, should be put in charge – and it turned out he was right. She didn’t create a documentary but an artistic film, which endowed Hitler with a mythical, godlike aura.

Babej: … and, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Goethe’s poem, she couldn’t control the ghosts she had summoned…

Müller: For her, the film at first lived up to its name – it was a triumph. But later on, it became her catastrophe ­– because this time, she had given her talents over to the devil (something that only a few could guess at this point – or at least wanted to guess). Later on she had to pay dearly for this. She never really understood why this film about the party rally destroyed her career after the war. Never again was she able to get the movie project off the ground, other than an underwater documentary toward the end of her life.

Babej: In the film, and also in her autobiography, one gets the impression that she never really understood, or at least was willing to understand, why she was considered so notorious…

Müller: No, she didn’t understand it. At the 1937 World’s Fair, Triumph of the Will was awarded a gold-medal – right in the capital of Germany’s archenemy! “How could I have known what was going to happen in the future?” she asked again and again, full of desperation and outrage. The issue of art and morality – whether an artist is responsible for his work, and what is being done with his work – always eluded her.

Babej:  To this day, there is probably no film director whose work stirs such polarized reactions to form versus content. And despite all the controversy, Riefenstahl is still considered the most famous woman film director of all time, and also one the most accomplished photographers. In which areas of photography and film is her influence most perceptible today?

Müller: I believe in advertising. The “cult of the body,” which she has been accused of creating, has become the standard in today’s advertising – so in this sense she was ahead of her time.

The term ”fascist art” has often been applied to Riefenstahl. But is there really such a thing as “fascist art”? Don’t monumental buildings of the Stalinist era also try to make people feel small in the face of a monumental power, which they must look up to? After the premiere of my film at the New York Film Festival, the term “fascist art” was discussed at length and with great passion – and, I should mention, without result.

Babej: That doesn’t surprise me. After all, the premise of ”fascist art” is as imprecise as the term ”fascism.” Fascism wasn’t a defined ideology comparable to Marxism-Leninism; rather, it was a hodgepodge of often contradictory, views. For example, Nazism would be unimaginable without ”racial theory;” in Fascist Italy, however, racial laws were only introduced at the end of 1938, 16 years after the March on Rome.

But when it comes to form and aesthetic, one can understand why her style was so appealing to a regime with totalitarian aspirations. When working with this aesthetic, I felt this again and again. To achieve that ”Riefenstahl touch,” an image can leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. It has to propagate, to hit the viewer between the eyes. This was very different from her democratic contemporaries Welles or Renoir, whose style confronted viewers with various perspectives and ambivalences.

This formal language of propagation runs like a thread through her work. Even Welles couldn’t resist it entirely. The iconic scene Citizen Kane in which Charles Foster Kane speaks in front of an immense billboard with his own image quotes Riefenstahl’s visual language quite obviously intentionally.

Müller:  I don’t think any photographer who works in black-and-white can ignore Riefenstahl. And when one thinks of her outstanding pictures of the Nuba tribe, the same can also be said for color images. One can accuse her of many things, and in many instances rightly so, but one can’t get around crediting her for her influence on film and photography.

In some ways, her influence even extends to areas one wouldn’t expect: When Mick Jagger married Bianca, only one photographer was invited to shoot the wedding: Leni Riefenstahl. She was quite surprised when she got the call, because she had no idea who Jagger was – and for that matter, who the Rolling Stones were. But it was a well-paid commission, so she accepted it. Jagger told her that he had watched Triumph of the Will fifteen times.

For a long time, I couldn’t understand why. Only later on did she explain it to me: a rock star has to be able to control a large crowd, to manipulate it into ecstasy. The Nazis showed how this is done through their party rallies, and Riefenstahl showed how to translate such events into images. Mick Jagger had understood this right away.

 

A Mercury Production

Direction and Photography: Marc Erwin Babej

With Texts By: Dr. Karamba Diaby (Member of the Bundestag), Prof. Dr. Thomas Kühne, Asi Meskin, Ray Müller and Collien Ulmen-Fernandes
Historical Advisor: Prof. Dr. Volker Berghahn
Editing: Rebecca Sternthal
Assistant Direction: Martin Sümening, Alex Vanderheyden
Associate Producer: Katie Stretton
Location Manager: Matteo Canalis Wandel

Cast
Pina Akin
Agnieszka Artych
Collien Ulmen-Fernandes
Maria Ursula Günther
Penelope Heilmann
Maleen Johannsen
Zara Persephone Jones
Danai Kadzere
Katarina Lackovicova
Laura Lindermann
Michelle Malter
Myriem
Alida Michal
Cem Özdemir (Member of the Bundestag)
Janina Scheuer
Kristina Schröder
Wlada Schüler
Jana Wirth