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Laramie Movie Scope:
Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl
(The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl)

Fascinating character, but she wears out her welcome

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 15, 2009 -- This film about the fascinating and enormously influential Leni Riefenstahl depicts one of the most amazing people of her time, but at over three hours long, it is a lot for one sitting. Thankfully, the DVD of the film splits easily in two parts, and it is best seen in two sittings, not one, like I foolishly did last night.

If you haven't heard of Leni Riefenstahl, she was an amazing woman. She died in 2003 at the age of 101, shortly after making her last film, “Impressionen unter Wasser” (Underwater Impressions) in 2002. She was an actress, a dancer, a mountain climber, a scuba diver (still diving beyond 90 years of age) a photographer, author, film director, editor, cinematographer and producer. She had an enormous influence on films and on history itself.

This documentary film about her covers her early career as a dancer and as an actress first. When she was young, she was a stunning beauty and that gave her a huge advantage as a dancer and got her started in the film industry, where she got her first job on the strength of her photograph alone. She quickly became more than just a pretty face. She learned cinematography and film editing from her mentor Arnold Fanck, her director in several early films she starred in. She began making her own films. At least two of them became classics, both documentaries, “Triumph of the Will” (Triumph des Willens) released in 1935, and “Olympia,” her trend-setting depiction of the 1938 Berlin Olympic games. The films showed she had a sure eye for camera angles and film editing. It took her two years to edit some 400 miles of film shot at the Olympics. She even spliced in some diving film backwards to good effect.

“Triumph of the Will” is said to be the best propaganda film ever made. It was a depiction of the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. That is the reason Leni Riefenstahl was essentially blacklisted from the film industry for the next 50-plus years. She made Adolph Hitler and others in the Nazi Party look too good, too inspiring. Her critics would say she gave major support to the Nazi Party. Riefenstahl says the party already had massive support at the time she made the film and that her film merely reflected that fact. Her film about the Olympics was also criticized as being too favorable to the Nazi regime. If Riefenstahl had made poor films instead of great films, she probably would not have gotten into much trouble. Unfortunately for her she was not only a perfectionist, but a genius when it comes to making films. Riefenstahl was put on trial for her actions after World War II and was found not guilty of being a Nazi enabler. One major factor in her favor is that she never joined the Nazi Party. She did, however, enjoy a lot of money, favors and perks from the leaders of the Nazi Party.

Time and again in the movie, Riefenstahl is confronted with evidence from Nazi records to the personal diary of Joseph Goebbels, and she flatly denies that she was a friend to Goebbels, or that she used concentration camp prisoners as extras in one of her films. You can make up your own mind on this, but I think she was lying about some of these charges against her and that she was an important ally to the Nazi Party and its leadership. At the same time it appears she was a lot more interested in art than she was in politics. To her, politics seems a means to an end, a way to get money to make movies. In fact, she was making a movie called “Tiefland” (Lowlands) that was unrelated to the war, right up to the end of World War II. It was released in 1954.

In “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,” released in 1993, she appears to be in terrific shape for someone her age. She looks to be 20 to 30 years younger than she really is. She comes across as someone who has a very strong will as she constantly argues with the filmmakers about their choice of camera angles, lenses, filters, you name it. Her mind seems to be as sharp as the rest of her body. Although Riefenstahl was blacklisted after the war because of “Triumph of the Will,” she nevertheless fought her way back to fame with a book of photos taken of tribes in a remote part of Africa. Later, she became interested in underwater photography. She learned to scuba dive long after the age anyone is supposed to take up that sport. She was still scuba diving past the age of 90. Nearly 50 years after her last film, “Tiefland,” was released, the last film ever directed by Leni Riefenstahl was finally released, “Impressionen unter Wasser” in 2002. Some say it is as good as anything she ever did.

Was Leni Riefenstahl unfairly treated because of the amazing success and brilliance of her films? It is hard to say because you can't really take her at face value. She just doesn't seem truthful. Nevertheless, I have to think that humanity lost a treasure trove of films during that long gap in her career from 1954 to 2002. Who knows what she could have created if she had been making films all those years? I suspect that long movie exile hurt the rest of the world more than it hurt her. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2009 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)