Leni Riefenstahl – Five Lives – A. Taschen, editor

Written by:
Phil Freeman
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Leni Riefenstahl has created some of the most controversial films and photographs in the history of those forms. Unfortunately, criticism of her work often roots itself in criticism of her patrons and her subject matter. This does the images themselves the gravest kind of disservice. For if one agrees that there is a "fascist aesthetic," whatever one’s opinion of that aesthetic, it must be conceded that Riefenstahl’s mastery of it is unmatched. Indeed, it could be said that she so established the boundaries of propaganda-as-art that it did not truly exist before her work. Unfortunately, her films, Triumph Of The Will in particular, stir such powerful reactions in the viewer that honest aesthetic appraisal is at this point virtually impossible.

This coffee-table sized book collects photographs and film stills from Riefenstahl’s entire career. A cautious volume, it contains relatively few images from Triumph Of The Will; nevertheless, even the handful of stills and behind-the-scenes shots which are shown convey the power of the whole work. One photo depicts Riefenstahl and a cameraman tilting a camera upwards, which is practically flat on the ground. This immediately reminds the reader of the awe-inspiring low-angled shots of the Nazis, without having to see the actual images repeated. On some level, this is almost more disturbing than seeing the film itself would be; for the great power of Triumph is its ability to stir unbidden approval in the viewer.

The most stirring images in the book, though, are not these, nor even the astonishing, classically composed shots from The Olympiad; rather, Riefenstahl’s greatest achievement is her work documenting the Nuba tribe in Africa. These powerful, naked figures exemplify the noblest features of humanity. Beyond the innate power of the subject matter, though, the reverence with which Riefenstahl photographs these painted, muscular people is obvious in every one of the colorful full-page prints which make up this section of the book. The later, underwater images, beautiful though they are, are an anticlimax, and a coda.

A common misinterpretation of Riefenstahl’s work is demonstrated in a single photograph near the end of the book: Riefenstahl herself, taking a formal portrait of Mick and Bianca Jagger, at Jagger’s request, sometime in the Seventies. That her work, because of its political associations, can be reduced to a decadent joke for the jaded rich, is too bad. But anyone who takes the time to examine the awe-inspiring images on these pages will find that initial titillation washed away, and replaced with a fitting appreciation for this woman’s command of the camera, and her eye for beauty in all its forms.

Phil Freeman


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