The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl

1995, NR, 180 min. Directed by Dan Algrant. Starring Eric Stoltz, Mary-Louise Parker, Jill Clayburgh, Tony Curtis, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Macchio, Lynne Thigpen, Kathleen Turner, Whoopi Goldberg, Roscoe Lee Browne, Griffin Dunne, David Johansen.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 10, 1994

At three hours and one minute, this (along with Leni Riefenstahl's recently released autobiography) has got to be the final, exhaustive say on the life of the most important and controversial female documentarian/filmmaker of all time. Although hardly known these days outside of upper-echelon RTF students and scholars, Riefenstahl did indeed have a wonderful, horrible life, filled to capacity with amazing events and touched more than once by the dark winds of history. To this day, at the age of 91, she continues to work as a still photographer and, amazingly, scuba-dives the deep in order to capture underwater images. Riefenstahl is perhaps best known as “Hitler's cinematographer,” but long before her intimate involvement with the Nazi party, she was a student of German Expressionist filmmakers like G.W. Pabst and Mountain Film pioneer Dr. Arnold Fanck. Her directorial debut, The Blue Light (which she also wrote, produced, and starred in), attracted the attention of fledgling demagogue Adolf Hitler, who commissioned her to film the 1934 Party Congress in Berlin. It was from this exacting footage that she fashioned Triumph of the Will, the most famous -- and, inarguably, the best -- propaganda film ever made. Choreographing her camera angles and her cutting in ways never before seen, Riefenstahl's film brought the Nazis a legitimacy that was theretofore uncaptured and helped solidify Hitler's position as Reichsminister. Riefenstahl explains how she focused on the Fuhrer's messages of “work” and “peace,” and downplayed (or removed, entirely) any of his race-related tirades. From there, Müller's documentary moves to her film Olympia, the chronicle of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for which she shot over 400 kilometers of film and which took two full years to edit. After the fall of Berlin, Riefenstahl went on trial at Nuremberg thanks to her close ties with Goebbels, Goering, Hitler, and others, but was found innocent of any conspiratorial leanings, despite the fact that, toward war's end, she had used Gypsies from a concentration camp outside Salzburg as extras in her film Tiefland. Throughout Müller's film, Riefenstahl denies any political motivation for her work, saying again and again how she never realized the atrocities her Fuhrer was committing or how her work might influence the German people. You come to realize, after three hours of this woman making defensive non-apologies for her actions, that she was (and remains) either utterly stupid or utterly emotionally blind, so wrapped up in her own work that she couldn't see the forest for the bodies. There is no doubt that Riefenstahl is a genius -- her work on both Triumph of the Will and Olympia rivals anything Welles ever did on the home front -- but at what price? Highly recommended.

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The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Dan Algrant, Eric Stoltz, Mary-Louise Parker, Jill Clayburgh, Tony Curtis, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Macchio, Lynne Thigpen, Kathleen Turner, Whoopi Goldberg, Roscoe Lee Browne, Griffin Dunne, David Johansen

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