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  • Philippe Mora

Notes From A Cinema Memoir: Nazi modernism and other conundrums

Updated: Jun 2, 2019

“My firm commissioned Ernst Jager to write a brochure on the work involved in Triumph of the Will. Jager wrote a ludicrously overblown text…and unfortunately, because of all my work, I didn’t read his brochure before its publication. Jager had put it together with UFA’s publicity department, which brought it out under my name.”

- Leni Riefenstahl, MEMOIRS, 1992

“The Fuhrer himself suggested the film’s title Triumph of the Will. He thus suggests the theme the film is to suggest. This is a heroic film of fact; in the Fuhrer’s will his people have triumphed.”

- Leni Riefenstahl, From the premiere brochure, Berlin, December, 1934

I was visiting Munich in 1991. In a posh restaurant, a German Countess stared at me. She daintily pushed a ceramic jar of schmalz or pork fat across the table with her diamond-laden finger. “Try this,” she smiled. “You won’t get much of this is Hollywood.”

Hannah Arendt coined a famous phrase referring to Nazis during the Adolph Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, 1961, that what struck her was “the banality of evil.” The phrase doesn’t directly address the issue of genocide. An explanation is that for Arendt, a cultured, highly educated person, perhaps even a snob, “banality” was about as disgusting a description as she could think of. For her it seems it was worse than, for example, psychopathic freaks, scum, baby killers and so on. Susan Sontag, another highly cultured intellectual made famous the term “Fascinating Fascism” when writing in 1974 for the New Yorker about, yes, fascination with evil. Being the son of genuine Holocaust survivors and Nazi fighters I have always been interested in evil, and particularly its manifestation in Hitler and the Nazis. Hitler made it clear that Nazi culture was key to his worldview. As a young artist I had put culture on a pedestal, so it was confusing and counter intuitive that there could even be such a thing as “Nazi culture.” I curated an exhibition of “Degenerate Art” at Sigi Krauss Gallery in London in 1970.

This was the term the Nazis used to describe Modern Art and we mocked it. Kubrick’s art director came to the show and the giant phallus and Rockette Christs in A Clockwork Orange are from that exhibition.

Artists and storytellers (I am both) are of course always drawn to examine evil. There is not much great drama without bad guys, and the negative charisma of villains has enhanced all literature, both secular and religious. In 1991 in search of facts, film, Nazis to interview and money (the latter an onerous task of filmmaking) I travelled to Munich. I stayed at the historic Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, birthplace of the Nazi Party and a Hitler hangout, and where Hitler stood up Churchill for a meeting that may have changed history. I checked in and the Concierge, who would have been excellent in The Great Escape as a Nazi officer smiled at me and said: “I worked for a Jewish family in New York for five years.”  This gave me the creeps and was like a scene out of Orson Welles’ brilliant version of Kafka’s The Trial. Years earlier my father had told me to read The Trial because “then you will understand The Third Reich.” At breakfast the next morning I tried to make conversation with a distinguished dowager. Vehemently she said in French she would never speak English. I dredged up my limited French and she warmed up when I told her I was researching Hitler, and had spent a day with Albert Speer in 1972.

Leni Riefenstahl apparently witnessing atrocities in the Polish Invasion, 1939

I wanted to make a film about the life of Hitler, so what better place to start than in Munich, holy in the Nazi history, profane to others. I had already visited Hitler’s actual birthplace in Austria, in a small town called Braunau am Inn. It was a nondescript rather shoddy building. I recalled seeing an Oxford professor on C-Span saying if Hitler had seen where “Churchill was born, Blenheim Palace, he never would have taken him on.” To avoid fanatics a gelato bar on wheels absurdly marked Hitler’s home for tourists. A token rock was inscribed with a comment about deaths in WW2. I ordered a lemon gelato in a cone and pondered. I thought of urinating on the side of the building. A dog appeared and did it for me.

My German friend, an eccentric Baron, took me to an Austrian bar serving the fresh white wine Heilegen. The place was rowdy and many were drunk.

The Baron said: “Watch this!” He stood up and yelled “HEIL HITLER!” For about fifteen seconds you could hear a pin drop as stupefied faces tried to figure out what to do. Then the party resumed without comment and we left.

In Munich proper I met various sinister Germans and many clearly good Germans. Many of the younger generation were angst ridden to an alarming degree about their history. Many times I had to say, “It wasn’t you, it was another generation.” In Los Angeles I had had a young German assistant who had a vasectomy because he was worried about his genes.

In 1991 in Munich the local aristocracy was alive, well and rich. I was entertained with good introductions to countesses, barons, fakes, millionaires and bourgeoisie. This is where I met the Countess who wanted me to sample pork fat on bread. It wasn’t bad if you put salt and pepper on it. Later that week I dined in a very fancy, gourmet restaurant and couldn’t help wondering what the restaurants would be like if Germany had won WW2. About a dozen well coiffed elitists tucked into dinner. The men all spoke like Dr. Strangelove and the women were gracious. A scarred former Luftwaffe officer grinned at me: “My boys were good! The British kept coming! We were outnumbered but we went up there and shot them down!”

I was sitting next to Countess Clemmie Von Stauffenberg. Her family hero was the famous Von Stauffenberg who was shot for putting a bomb under Hitler’s table in July 1944. I told her I was of German Jewish origin, and looking to make a film about Hitler. I had already made the documentary SWASTIKA but this would be a dramatization. After a few drinks she said: ” I admire your courage with your background coming to Munich!” Taken aback I resorted to nervous humour: “I’m a fast runner, and I know where the airport is!” Across the table the son of SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich stared at me. His father had been an intimate associate of Hitler. I couldn’t read him but he would have been great in Stalag 17.

“No, No,” said the Countess, “I am not joking. You look around this table and tell me whose cellar you think you would hide in?” I looked around and now all the men looked like Erich Von Stroheim, some even had monocles. The women now looked dangerous like Otto Dix paintings come to life.

“Your cellar,” I responded lamely trying to be charming but truthful. “Good choice,” she said, “I have the best French wine of anyone here."

Ilse Riefenstahl

I wanted to meet Leni Riefensthal and an approach was made. She did not want to meet. I was later told it was because I didn’t use any footage of her films in Swastika. But there was a break: her sister in law Ilse Riefenstahl who had married her brother Heinz would meet me. I went to her Munich apartment with an interpreter. At 78 she was still startlingly beautiful.

She was outspoken in her loathing of Leni Riefenstahl. She hated her because she said when Hitler ordered her husband Heinz to the Eastern Front for reasons unknown, Riefenstahl did nothing to help her own brother with Hitler. That Front was a death sentence and Heinz was killed in action.

She said Hitler in person gave her the creeps, including a limp handshake, and she could not understand the apparent spell he could cast on people. At a Chancellery party Hitler suddenly declared: “I will build a highway from Berlin to Johannesburg!”  Everyone applauded and Ilse thought: “What a lunatic!”

When I met Albert Speer in 1972 he had said if Hitler walked into the room now he would be compelled to do what he asked, such was the force of his charisma. Ilse would hear none of this and said he had the charisma of a homeless man. Triumph of the Will had gone a long way to mythologizing Hitler and had simultaneously proven the power of the film medium. He was no tramp in that movie but a dramatic man flying around, idolized by millions.

After 1945 and the curtain was raised on the Hitler atrocities many of his associates frantically distanced themselves. Hard core loyalists suicided.

Leni Riefenstahl emphasized that she had never joined the Nazi Party. Still she had created Hitler’s vision of himself with her 1935 film and arguably it is one of the most history changing films ever made. It created a Hitler myth that permeated the German population with incredible potency. It was even shown to peasants in remote areas with portable projectors who had never seen a film before or seen a man stepping off an airplane. According to Speer and Riefenstahls’ memoirs they were very close and Speer had more to do with the design of Triumph of the Will than previously recognized. In effect, he was the production designer. He then became the Production Designer of the Third Reich with spectacular concepts like the Cathedral of Light. They were both Nazi Modernists, a tricky subject now meriting a microscopic analysis. That is not for this essay, but a new translation of the Riefenstahl brochure commentary for the Triumph of the Will launch goes a long way to explain and demonstrate her Faustian bargain with Hitler, and her clear passion for him, weirdly entwined with a passion for film. The movie is a love letter to Hitler. It’s also a mystery why Hitler, one of the nastiest misogynists in history (he approved breeding farms for “Aryan” women, for example) gave carte blanche to a woman director. Her breathless, even ecstatic description of making the film gives the labour of love a new dimension.

She wrote, as a Nazi avant gardist; “It is immaterial if sequences are placed in their correct chronological order. The way to create this film is to find—imbued with the inner reality of the Nuremberg experience—a unifying theme which will take the viewer, in an overwhelming crescendo—from act to act—from impression to impression.” She proudly exults in the disclosure that Hitler himself titled the film, so he is in a way, the Ur author of the work. As noted later she denied her involvement in the brochure writing and said she never approved it. That defies logic, but no wonder she was later embarrassed by her super groupie words about the Fuhrer spirit and inspiration.

Ilse, Unknown, Goebbels, Leni and Hitler

Art historian John Richardson described Picasso’s work as a “jump in history.” It changed reality in a sense and changed art in practice. Riefenstahl’s work on the evil side, for want of a better phrase, was also a “jump in history”, changing history and the medium of film. Triumph of the Will is still a premier example of “fascinating fascism” in full blown toxicity. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the idea that a masterwork can be inherently evil in impact. This all ends literally in Auschwitz. The death camp was designed by another Nazi Modernist, Bauhaus graduate Fritz Ertl.

The many questions remain.

Originally published in Curnblog.

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