A "part cross-examination, part psychoanalysis" of the Nazi propagandist cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl

Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, California
Written by Sarah Greenman
Directed by Jon Tracy
Starring Stacy Ross, Martha Brigham
Through May 7, 2017

“Leni,” a powerful two-person high wire act, examines the controversial Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), the 1930s extraordinary filmmaker and vilified Hitler propagandist. “Leni” is part exposition, part cross-examination and part psychoanalysis. This intermissionless 80-minute production explores, but of course, cannot resolve, the persistent indictments of Nazi collaboration that have quashed Riefenstahl’s reputation for more than 80 years.

Leni Riefenstahl left her dancing and acting career to become a filmmaker who documented Hitler’s triumphant rise to power. Her wordless film, “Triumph of the Will,” made in 1934 at the Nazi party rally in Nuremburg, was greatly praised for its innovative artistic techniques. It won many awards, including a gold medal at the 1935 Venice Biennale and the Grand Prix at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. Whether or not intended by Riefenstahl, and this is the crux of the matter, “Triumph of Will” became a prime propaganda vehicle for Hitler that helped bring millions of Germans to the Nazi cause.

As a method of analyzing Leni Riefenstahl’s motivations and rationales, playwright Sarah Greenman introduces the audience to Riefenstahl just after her death at 101, as she directs a film of her life, which is acted by a younger version of herself. The two phases of Riefenstahl’s lifespan are personified by marvelous actors — the incomparable Stacy Ross (“Gidion’s Knot,” “Wilder Times”) plays a commanding yet equivocal elderly Leni, while talented Martha Brigham (“The How and The Why”) acts a much younger, seductive Leni. The two women thrust accusations and parry retorts about Riefenstahl’s life.

In the drama, Leni’s defense to propagandizing is that she was an artist who only focused on her art and created the best film possible that documented a point in time, and that she bears no responsibility for how the film was used or what effect it had. This position is contradicted a number of times in the play as the audience sees her socializing with an unseen Hitler, cozying up to him for funding, as she denies allegations of a more intimate relationship. Among other charges, she chose to remain in Germany after all of her artist friends had left, and was said to have asked Hitler for extras in a film and was sent concentration camp victims. Leni is portrayed as commanding and self-obsessed. One could almost imagine that her narcissism might have allowed herself to see no further than her own art and ambition.

Yet despite the damning evidence, Riefenstahl was a creative talent who initiated what are now standard techniques in filmmaking, such as using multiple cameras, cranes and tracking rails. She also introduced the use of creative camera angles to film the human body in ways that are now commonplace in films, photography and commercials.

The performances in “Leni” necessarily become agitated at times as the indictments and rebuttals fly. Yet skilled director Jon Tracy (“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” “Breakfast With Mugabe”) keeps the pace tense, but prevents it from growing frantic. Two movie screens show us clips of Riefenstahl’s footage so we may judge her art for ourselves.

Despite the stunning performances, if there is an element lacking in “Leni,” it’s that the drama has only one pace and one mood. It lacks the archetypal introduction, development and crescendo of resolution. It poses many tough questions, leaving it to the viewer to ponder Leni Riefenstahl’s intentions, and more importantly, an artist’s obligation to society.

This review originally appeared on Berkeleyside.com

©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.