LENI RIEFENSTAHL AT THE FAHEY-KLEIN GALLERY, LOS ANGELES

 

“One danger confronts the development of the photo-document—the danger of it becoming a tool of propaganda. All art is delicate propaganda of some sort, but I do not feel that direct propaganda succeeds except in the injury to the aesthetic potentials. Comment is legitimate in art, but motivated by reform or personal advantages, blends dubiously with aesthetic purposes.” 1

                                                                                             * Ansel Adams

 

Every now and then an artist comes along with a reputation that generates as much fascination as her work. Such is the case with Leni Riefenstahl, whose first-ever exhibition of photographs in this country is currently on display at the Fahey-Klein Gallery in Los Angeles. Try as one might, it’s not easy to separate the purely aesthetic value of the remarkable images she made of the 1936 Berlin Olympics from the taint of her association with Hitler’s notorious Nazi regime. This is due in large part to the fact that her Olympic stills represent a relatively minor achievement when viewed alongside the two major films for which she is best known (and in some circles still vilified for) today. In filming Triumph of the Will (1935), and Olympia (1938), both funded by and intended to glorify the Nazi’s, Riefenstahl took advantage of an unlimited budget to create innovations such as cameras that worked from catapults, balloons, and underwater. Both films are studied today as supreme examples of the documentary form. Triumph, the Wagnerian-influenced depiction of a 1934 Nazi Party rally, is the quintessential use of film for propaganda, demonstrating how perfectly masses of people can be directed. Olympia, her self-proclaimed tribute to the “body beautiful,” has been characterized as representing the fascist ideal. This ironically calls to mind the apocalyptic conclusion of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction”:

“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.” 2

 

Blacklisted after World War II, Riefenstahl was officially cleared of complicity in war crimes at Nuremberg and resumed work thereafter. She has since become an almost iconic figure, with a reputation for daring and commitment to her craft. In her 60’s, she roughed it for several months among the Nuba tribe in Sudan, where she resumed her infatuation with the body beautiful, producing an acclaimed book. In her 70’s, she learned to dive, and ventured into underwater photography. Still lucid and active at 99, the former dancer and actress insists to this day that she couldn’t see the danger coming from Hitler, and was somewhat naively documenting events. While much of the world seems to have accepted this explanation, Riefenstahl’s reputation in Germany still generates controversy. A 1997 article in a Hamburg periodical questioned her motives anew:

“Naivete? Of course. But a dangerous naivete which borders very close on a deliberate lack of reality when the motion-picture artist claims to not have realized why artist colleagues of hers had to leave Germany and why her favorite painter van Gogh was suddenly considered `degenerate.’” 3

 

When this exhibit first debuted in Berlin in May 2000, it provoked public demonstrations and condemnation. In her defense, the Berlin News wrote, “Young Germans admire Riefenstahl for her eye, not her political brain. The photographic exhibition is the latest event in her gradual rehabilitation.” 4 Others have argued that Riefenstahl’s lingering pariah status is due in part to gender discrimination.

In light of all this baggage, and in the interest of objectivity, would it perhaps be better that the viewer remain unconcerned with history, assume an apolitical perspective, and simply look at the photographs as Fine Art? Is this possible? Indeed, it appears that the forty-seven exquisitely printed and framed images currently on display were chosen strictly for that purpose. Noticeably absent in this exhibition is any evidence of overt propagandistic intention. Although the Games (awarded to Germany by the IOC two years before Hitler took power) were awash in Nazi banners, not one swastika is in evidence in the exhibition. And though it is well-known that Hitler intended to use the platform of the first-ever televised Olympic games to promote his misconceived notions of Aryan supremacy, the athletes depicted in the photographs appear as just that—athletes, expertly photographed in various stages of preparation, peak action, reaction and repose. Interestingly, the only non-German athlete on display is Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals for the United States, effectively destroying the Aryan myth, spoiling the Fuehrer’s party.

At last, we can direct our attention to the quality of Riefenstahl’s images. Contrary to Ansel Adams’ defensive sentiments on propaganda (he should have known better, having used his environmental images for conservation efforts), aesthetic quality and editorial intent can indeed coexist harmoniously. This is a fact that has been proven time and again, by a revered litany of artists that include Dorothea Lange, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, and Sabastio Salgado today. Removing the historical element, and judging purely on aesthetic value, the still work of Leni Riefenstahl may not rank with these masters, but much of it is not far behind.

The photographs can be divided roughly into two categories, interspersed in their curation: sporting events (athletes and their participation); and a series of pictorialist images that are used to establish an atmospheric framework for the event. First, the athletes: As stated above, all her photographs of gymnasts, swimmers, and track and field participants transcend politics, and should be admired for their technical virtuosity. Her shot of a swimmer half submerged in water seems (like much of her work) conventional by today’s standards, but considering that it was made sixty-five years ago, it’s a remarkable achievement. Well-chosen camera angles, tightly directed compositions and precise timing serve to accentuate the strength and grace of her subjects. Occasionally, this is overdone to the point of disbelief. In the photograph entitled Lebendige Antike, Riefenstahl catches a discus thrower in a pose so identical to the classic Greek sculpture that the possibility of coincidence is difficult to contemplate.

Riefenstahl’s photographs of athletes also portray them as human beings, rather than the faceless servants of Fascism one might expect in a body of work known for its propagandistic merit. Der Schwimmer, a tightly cropped headshot of what appears to be a swimmer waiting anxiously for the result of a close race, would not be out of place in a current issue of Sports Illustrated. Similarly, in the better of the two Jesse Owens photographs, Riefenstahl perfectly captures an expression of confidence and anticipation, as the American sprinter focuses on the challenge ahead.

The other group of photographs, smaller in number but equally impressive, is as mentioned pictorial in content, and is unapologetically romantic. Vergangenheit is one of three soft-focus images of what appear to be Greek or Roman-style ruins. Shot at dusk or dawn, the partially silhouetted columns stand as haunting metaphors for an enduring western culture, bringing to mind Susan Sontag’s statement that “what renders a photograph surreal is its irrefutable pathos as a message from time past, and the concreteness of its intimations about social class.” 5 Another memorable image, Vor der Sauna, plays dreamily on the mind like a nineteenth-century gum print by Julia Margaret Cameron. A stolen moment shot hurriedly from behind a group of athletes relaxing on a rustic porch above a pond of some sort, its beauty is in its rawness, and casual composition.

A final word about Olympia, which was being shown on video in a corner of the gallery: in the segment of the film I happened to catch, a series of athletes were shown attempting the high jump. Even though slow-motion technology was used to highlight the efforts of the “star” athletes, tight editing allowed the viewer to see several jumpers in a short time span, one after another. It occurred to me how preferable this style of documentary is to what passes for network coverage of contemporary Olympic Games, where there is far too much dead air, idle chatter and heartstring-tugging biography, as live action is sacrificed at the altar of corporate sponsorship. For the most part, NBC only allows us to see either American performances, or foreign competitions where a gold medal is at stake. Now that to me seems like propaganda.

March 18, 2001

 

ENDNOTES

1 Adams, Ansel. “A Personal Credo.” Photography in Print. Ed. Vicki Goldberg. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. 377-380.

2 Benjamin, Walter. “A Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction.” Photography in Print. Ed. Vicki Goldberg. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. 334.

3 Michalsky, Oliver. “From Hitler’s Darling to the Pariah of Motion-Picture History.” Berliner Morgenpost, Germany, August 1997.

4 Boyes, Roger. Berlin News. May 13, 2000.

5 Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Doubleday, 1973. 54.