Art Is Moral In That It Awakens
“She used her century’s most powerful art form to make and propagate a vision that eased the path of a murderous dictator who fascinated her, and shaped a criminal regime she found both inspiring and personally useful….She sought credit for art and craft while rejecting to the end of her life all moral responsibility for content or consequence.”
—Steven Bach, in Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl
Leni Riefenstahl made eight movies (most of them minor), but she is best known as the creator of Triumph of the Will (1935), the most famous of the Nazi propaganda films. Its images are instantly recognizable: Nazi leaders filing down a center aisle, passing the saluting faithful; three swastika banners looming above the crowds; an orating Adolf Hitler as viewed from below. Triumph is widely acknowledged as groundbreaking, a technical masterpiece; as biographer and Bennington faculty member Steven Bach writes in his new book, “Her manipulation of formal elements was virtuosic,” and “her innovations in shooting and editing set new standards and remain exemplary for filmmakers seven decades later.”
Against Leni Riefenstahl’s tailored version of her story, Steven Bach lays the countless scraps of truth she tried to discard.
Yet after World War II, Riefenstahl repeatedly claimed she was ignorant of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime she had championed. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she swore that Triumph was neutral documentary, not propaganda—that her sole aim was the creation of art, and that she didn’t bear responsibility for its political results. Nor did she admit to responsibility for using slave labor on one of her films—enlisting her extras from a group of Gypsies on their way to a concentration camp. Nor for her other exploitations of human beings in pursuit of her own ends.
Against Riefenstahl’s tailored version of the story, Bach lays the countless scraps of truth she tried to discard. In the words of the Washington Post, he “makes the vivid and exasperating Riefenstahl come back to life and stand before us to be judged.”
“I continue to be disturbed,” Bach says, “by the acceptance of her version of her life, which was basically ‘I was a filmmaker only interested in art and beauty, and what did I know about politics, and therefore I had no responsibility for what came of the Nazi party’…So I thought it was time that someone tackle this problem with the question in mind—not necessarily to answer, but to ask or pose or suggest the question—Is there a moral dimension to art? Do we have the right to ask for that as part of the artistic process?”
“Is there a moral dimension to art? Do we have the right to ask for that as part of the artistic process?”
As Bach readily admits, “It’s a huge aesthetic question.” He doesn’t attempt any pat answers, choosing instead to focus on the specific thread of Riefenstahl’s life and work, refusing to remove it from the context of history. The resulting book creates the sense of an ongoing conversation between her own portrayal of herself (further propagated by later admirers) and the undeniably different figure who emerges from decades’ worth of documentation.
That documentation includes not only personal letters, journals, newspaper articles, photographs, and never-before-seen court documents, but also dozens of recorded interviews with those who knew Riefenstahl (including several who are now deceased), conducted in the 1970s by doctoral student Peggy Wallace but never before used as a source.
“Out of all that,” Bach says, “came a picture of a woman who was insanely ambitious. And while she was not, as she said, a political person, she was extremely shrewd about how to manipulate political situations with which I believe she had serious sympathy.”
“Art is moral in that it awakens.”…So what do you do with an art whose aim is in fact the reverse?
As Bach writes in his biography, Riefenstahl’s is an art that “lulls and deceives.” Contrast that with the epigraph that he chose for the book, a line taken Thomas Mann’s classic The Magic Mountain: “Art is moral in that it awakens.”
“When I read that,” Bach says, “I thought ‘he’s right, he’s right.’ So what do you do with an art whose aim is in fact the reverse—not to awaken you, but to draw the veil over your eyes? Riefenstahl always maintained that what she did was documentary, not propaganda….I came out believing that the questions that one needs to ask about her are in fact extremely severe.”
At Bennington, Steven Bach (1938-2009) taught both literature and film, and one of his classes was partly inspired by his research for Leni and his biography of Marlene Dietrich (published in 2000). As he wrote in his course description for the class, Weimar: Germany Between World War One and Hitler: “The arts of this period—literature, film, music, theater, and the graphic arts—enjoyed unprecedented creativity (some would say decadence) until brutally silenced by the Nazis and their book-burnings.” In examining the period’s novels, plays, musicals, films, and visual art, Bach hoped to provoke his students to examine the connections between the arts and their historical context, “to the degree that you can do it without imposing 20/20 hindsight on everything, which is always the danger.”
[first published at www.bennington.edu]