People and animals alike live forever in the movies, so it’s easy to forget what a king-slayer and high-mountain-bringer-downer the relentless march of time can be offscreen. Until, say, trying to come to grips with how only a handful of people in the massive crowd scenes of D.W. Griffiths’s 1916 epic Intolerance could possibly be alive today.
An even more poignant illustration of this effect can be seen in the packed stadium of Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 documentary of the Berlin Olympics. Many members of the global village portrayed in Olympia would not succumb to natural causes. Scenes of athletes milling around on the field seem strangely hushed in spite of the jubilant roar from the stands—like a residential street in the eerie quiet and drowned gray light preceding a downpour. Of the faceless multitude of cheering fans, thousands would be prematurely dead by bombs and bullets and prison camps just a few years after Riefenstahl shot her footage.
Riefenstahl herself was not among them. In fact, on Aug. 22, the darling filmmaker of the Third Reich celebrates her 100th birthday with the release of a new film—a documentary, as it happens, of her underwater cinematography. The complete story of Leni Riefenstahl’s rollicking 20th century is far too long to recount here, but, in honor of the occasion, let’s at least look at the parts of it that are available on video and tell at least some of her story.
Bearing in mind the aforementioned strangeness of seeing so many dead people in Olympia and even older movies, the most striking thing about The Blue Light (1932) is that Riefenstahl not only directed it but starred in it as well. And not in some larval form, like a child actor in a W.C. Fields movie who might still be alive. As Junta, the wild mountain girl, Riefenstahl is a full-grown, stunning woman of almost 30, leaping from peak to peak in the Italian Dolomites and reclining quite fetchingly in a bed of straw.
The Blue Light is perhaps the best-known example of filmmaking in the German “mountain film” genre. Mountain films were to Germany in the late ’20s and early ’30s what cowboy movies were to the United States in the ’40s and ’50s, and director Arnold Fanck was perhaps the most prolific and celebrated director in the genre. A Fanck protégée, Riefenstahl starred in a number of the director’s early pictures before making her directorial debut with The Blue Light.
Like its predecessors, Riefenstahl’s mountain film combines light humor and simple, heroic themes to appeal to German filmgoers and an image the country had of itself that was still rooted in the Romantic period of the 19th century. It also features some stunning exterior photography, as naturalistic as the Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with its heavy stage makeup, forced perspective and painted-on shadows, was eerily artificial.
The scenes of Riefenstahl herself, for instance as she plucks fist-sized crystals out of a mountain stream, are luminous in a way that only silent films can be. Which leads us to something else: Perhaps the most compelling thing about The Blue Light is that to watch it now, 70 years later, is to admire many of the same things Adolf Hitler himself admired about it on its release in 1932. So “stirring” did Hitler find The Blue Light, in fact, that he gave Riefenstahl the assignment to make a film documenting the 1934 Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg for the Propaganda Ministry.
That film, Triumph of the Will (1934) has the twin distinction of being the most notorious piece of propaganda ever made and one of the most astonishing exercises in aesthetic formalism in all the history of the moving picture. Drawing on unlimited funds and a slew of innovative camera techniques, Riefenstahl captured the pomp and pageantry of the Nazis in a triumph of editing that still merits its cornerstone position in any discussion of the movies’ power to seduce. With its all-star cast of real-life Nazi officials and streets bristling with sieg-heiling citizens, for all the malevolence of the subject matter it’s almost impossible to watch Triumph of the Will without some kind of creepy stirrings welling up from your nethers. You can scarcely help thinking it: Nazis, man—terrible ideas, great packaging.
For her next project, Olympia, Riefenstahl exposed more than 1.3 million feet of film—that’s 248 miles, enough to stretch from Missoula past Spokane—to make a documentary about the 1936 Olympics that was divided into two parts: a Festival of Nations and a Festival of Beauty. Festival of Nations has more grand pageantry and thrilling sports action than most Olympic coverage since, albeit slightly skewed in favor of German medalists. It’s like a partially denatured Triumph of the Will, and as such it’s slightly more comfortable to watch. The night pole-vaulting scenes are among the best.
With the collapse of the Third Reich, of course, Riefenstahl had a lot to answer for. The filmmaker spent four years in a French work camp but, in spite of a few pro forma apologies for her professional collaboration with the Nazi regime, has always claimed ignorance of Hitler’s designs and bristled at the suggestion that she was anything more than an artist. In her memoirs and a 1993 documentary by Ray Müller, she has also shown a unique talent for recalling minute technical details of her propaganda films while dismissing larger questions.
Riefenstahl’s birthday release, Underwater Impressions (2002) is her first film since 1954’s Tiefland, which some film scholars interpret as her tacit rejection of Nazism. It probably won’t make it to Missoula for awhile, so in the meantime a long-distance Prosit for the birthday girl in Munich will have to suffice. She’s still fairly active, by the way—at least for a centenarian. Anyone who walks away from a helicopter crash at age 97 is made of tougher stuff than most.