Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Tuesday, September 09, 2003
A Touch Of Evil
I've always had a problem with Leni Riefenstahl, the German film-director whose death at the age of 101 has been announced today.

On the one hand, I have nothing but respect for any Prussian battle-axe with a death's-head face and fright wig, who, until a few months ago was still scuba-diving, and falling out of helicopters, before picking herself up and carrying on. In her day, she was, apparently, a great beauty, and an OK-ish actress (you do not want to watch The White Hell of Piz Pulu; trust me on this one); she was an expert mountaineer, and an acclaimed photographer of the Nuba tribes of the Sudan, whom - so she claimed - she loved.

And, of course, as the director of Olympia, one of my favourite all-time films, and her iconic record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics - the "Hitler-Olympics", as they became known - she established herself as one of the greatest documentary directors of the twentieth century. Its pioneering slow-motion idealism of the capabilities of the human physique (OK, for which read body-fascism), dripping with more than a little homo-eroticism, had an incalculable influence on future film-makers. Try and rent out a video of it if you can: it’s worth it.

And then there's Triumph of the Will, her meticulously-choreographed documentary of the Nazis' Nuremberg rallies of 1934. You'll have rarely seen anything but clips of it on TV - it took me ages to track down a DVD - and the only time you'll see it in Germany is at private screenings.

While I despise all the Nazis stood - and still stand - for, it’s clear, to me at least, that Triumph of the Will is a great film. An evil film, certainly, dangerous in the wrong hands, definitely not a "good" film; but in its well-crafted and manipulatively-choreographed celebration of one of the most iniquitous regimes in history, it’s propaganda without parallel.

Dare to drop your guard for just one moment, try and forget for just one tiny, unforgiving second those cattle-trucks packed with Jews and Communists and gays and anyone else who didn't fit in, and Riefenstahl's power and command of the camera is so mesmerising she'll sweep you right up into her chilling fairytale world of torchlight processions and a goose-stepping and jack-booted, blue-eyed and blond-haired Master Race. It'll almost get you believing. And that's what makes this film so frightening; and that's what, unfortunately made her so great. So you claim you weren't a Nazi, Leni Liebchen? Pull the other one, darling.

And that's why I have a major problem with her. Should I regard her as a great film-maker to be acclaimed, or as a piece of Nazi trash to be despised? Who do I judge? The person or the producer? The substance or the style?

I'm off to Berlin this weekend. It will be interesting to see how her death is received over there.