Leni Riefenstahl’s towering reputation as a visual storyteller is significantly tarnished for me as sit, presently, watching her crowning achievement. Reports of revolutionary breakthroughs in camera location, meticulous planning and tireless editing leave me wondering about the crappiness of all that came before her. Perhaps I’m disappointed in Riefenstahl’s direction and editing because I’ve been spoiled by several decades of sports broadcasting performed by people who studied her work (and improved upon it tremendously).
I think Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 pushed almost all manner of cinematic talent absolutely out of Germany, which left a limited number of people (who were mostly famous for being famous) like Riefenstahl to photograph the 1934 Nazi Pary Congress in Nuremburg, embellish the static documentary style, then prevalent, with fascinating bits of moviemaking magic and spend two years editing her so-called propaganda masterpiece, Triumph of the Will. So they called on her again in 1936 for the XI Olympiad in Berlin. But (for example) Olympia stations the primary camera for four heats and the final of the 100m dash high above the track in the stadium stands at midfield. Which puts that stationary camera in one of an infinite number of wrong places to clearly and dramatically document the crossing of the finish line every time that race is run. There was no recognizable learning process evident as each race ends with the camera locked on the backs of the runners rather than looking straight down at the tape. All of the track and field events are made less coherent, substantive and meaningful by theoretically-appropriate camera angles, editorial interruptions for snippets of crowd reaction, Hitler footage, flag waving, awards ceremonies, and irrelevant bits of bullshit. Jesse Owens starts his approach for his very last attempt at the long jump victory (he will win). We cut away to anxious faces in the crowd whle he’s tearing along the runway. We jumpcut back from the crowd as Owens leaves the ground at the foul line, hangs in the air (in realtime) and lands, characteristically springing out of the pit because his forward momentum always carries him forward. The narrator explains that Owens has won the event. We cut back to the jubilation erupting from the stadium’s American contingent. It might as well have been radio, for all the value added by cinematic file footage edited by Leni Riefenstahl to dramatize an event that required no music, no punching-up and no crowd footage, and (properly shot) zero narration.
She did the best she could do with unlimited funds, license to dig pits in the field, float baloons, and submerge cameramen in the diving pool for optimal camera placements, 40 camera operators, two years to edit 400 miles of film, and Hitler’s unconditional blessing.
It’s like George W. Bush, in late 1999, appointing Angelina Jolie to create a stirring cinematic propaganda record of his first presidential inauguration, then appointing her again to cover Superbowl XXXVII without permitting her to consult exhiled or assassinated acknowleged football experts, hire experienced staff, nor listen to anything better-informed than her famous celebrity gut.
I think Leni Riefenstahl performed two monumentally difficult tasks (that were jammed down her throat) quite admirably. Neither of those productions deserves the mountains of praise that have been heaped upon them nor the ruinous condemnation, nor did she. Her careers as dancer-then-actress (as presented in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl) don’t look particularly interesting, but Hitler’s ascendancy pulled her unfairly way out of her league/depth, just as his fall buried her unjustly for several decades. No doubt, I’ll eventually stumble over Billy Wilder’s and Fritz Lang’s… remarks about her, but now that I’ve seen the two masterpieces that created the fuss that made her a figure of controversy, the unkind remarks of the genuine talent (whose conspicuous absence from Germany) made her a star will wait while I stumble along elsewhere.