The life and work of Leni Riefenstahl, who died on Monday at age 101, seems to lend itself to a mapping of a devolution, progressing toward a dark conclusion. It began with the early “mountain films” of the 1920s that she starred in and later began directing as well, which celebrated heroism and bodily effort in the extreme conditions of mountain climbing. It went on to her notorious Nazi documentaries in the ‘30s, celebrating bodily discipline, concentration, and strength of will in sport as well as in politics. Then, after World War II, in her photo albums, she rediscovered her ideal of bodily beauty and graceful self-mastery in the Nuba African tribe. Finally, in her last decades, she learned the difficult art of deep sea diving and started shooting documentaries about the strange life in the dark depths of the sea.
We thus obtain a clear trajectory from the top to the bottom: We begin with rugged individuals struggling at the mountain tops and gradually descend, until we reach the amorphous teem of life at the bottom of the sea. Is not what she encountered down there her ultimate object, the obscene and irresistibly thriving eternal force of life itself, what she was searching for all along? And does this not apply also to her personality? It seems that the fear of those who are fascinated by Leni is no longer “When will she die?” but “Will she ever die?” Although rationally we know that she has just passed away, we somehow do not really believe it. She will go on forever.
This continuity of her career is usually given a fascist twist, as in the exemplary case of the famous Susan Sontag essay on Leni, “Fascinating Fascism.” The idea is that even her pre- and post-Nazi films articulate a fascist vision of life: Leni’s fascism is deeper than her direct celebration of Nazi politics; it resides already in her pre-political aesthetics of life, in her fascination with beautiful bodies displaying their disciplined movements. Perhaps it is time to problematize this topos. Let us take Leni’s 1932 film Das blaue Licht (“The Blue Light”), the story of a village woman who is hated for her unusual prowess at climbing a deadly mountain. Is it not possible to read the film in exactly the opposite way as it usually is interpreted? Is Junta, the lone and wild mountain girl, not an outcast who almost becomes the victim of a pogrom—there is no other appropriate word—by the villagers? (Perhaps it is not an accident that Béla Balázs, Leni’s lover at that time who co-wrote the scenario with her, was a Marxist.)
The problem here is much more general; it goes far beyond Leni Riefenstahl. Let us take the very opposite of Leni, the composer Arnold Schönberg. In the second part of Harmonielehre, his major theoretical manifesto from 1911, he develops his opposition to tonal music in terms which, superficially, anticipate later Nazi anti-Semitic tracts. Tonal music has become a “diseased,” “degenerated” world in need of a cleansing solution; the tonal system has given in to “inbreeding and incest”; romantic chords such as the diminished seventh are “hermaphroditic,” “vagrant” and “cosmopolitan.” It’s easy and tempting to claim that such a messianic-apocalyptic attitude is part of the same “spiritual situation” that eventually gave birth to the Nazi final solution. This, however, is precisely the conclusion one should avoid: What makes Nazism repulsive is not the rhetoric of final solution as such, but the concrete twist it gives to it.
Another popular conclusion of this kind of analysis, closer to Leni, is the allegedly fascist character of the mass choreography of disciplined movements of thousands of bodies: parades, mass performances in stadia, etc. If one finds it also in communism, one immediately draws the conclusion about a “deeper solidarity” between the two “totalitarianisms.” Such a formulation, the very prototype of ideological liberalism, misses the point. Not only are such mass performances not inherently fascist; they are not even “neutral,” waiting to be appropriated by left or right. It was Nazism that stole them and appropriated them from the workers’ movement, their original site of birth. None of these “proto-fascist” elements is per se fascist. What makes them “fascist” is only their specific articulation—or, to put it in Stephen Jay Gould’s terms, all these elements are “ex-apted” by fascism. There is no fascism avant la lettre, because it is the letter itself that composes the bundle (or, in Italian, fascio) of elements that is fascism proper.
Along the same lines, one should radically reject the notion that discipline, from self-control to bodily training, is inherently a proto-fascist feature. Indeed, the very term “proto-fascist” should be abandoned: It is a pseudo-concept whose function is to block conceptual analysis. When we say that the organized spectacle of thousands of bodies (or, say, the admiration of sports that demand high effort and self-control like mountain climbing) is “proto-fascist,” we say strictly nothing, we just express a vague association that masks our ignorance.
So when, three decades ago, kung fu films became popular, was it not obvious that we were dealing with a genuine working-class ideology of youngsters whose only means of success was the disciplinary training of their bodies, their only possession? Spontaneity and the “let it go” attitude of indulgence belong to those who have the means to afford it—those who have nothing have only their discipline. The “bad” bodily discipline, if there is one, is not the one of “collective training,” but, rather, jogging and body-building as part of the New Age myth of the realization of the self’s “inner potentials.” (No wonder that the obsession with one’s body is an almost obligatory part of the passage of ex-leftist radicals into the “maturity” of pragmatic politics: From Jane Fonda to Joschka Fischer, the “period of latency” between the two phases was marked by the focus on one’s own body.)
So, back to Leni: What all this does not mean is that one should dismiss her Nazi engagement as a limited, unfortunate episode. The true problem is to sustain the tension that cuts through her work: the tension between the artistic perfection of her practice and the ideological project that “ex-apted” it. Why should her case be different from that of Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and other modernists with fascist tendencies who long ago became part of our artistic canon? Perhaps the search for the “true ideological identity” of Leni Riefenstahl is a misleading one. Perhaps there is no such identity: She was genuinely thrown around, inconsistent, caught in a cobweb of conflicting forces.
Is then the best way to mark her death not to take the risk of fully enjoying a film like Das blaue Licht, which contains the possibility of a political reading of her work totally different from the prevailing view?