Screen Studies - Introduction: Screening Riefenstahl—Riefenstahl Screened
Riefenstahl Screened
Riefenstahl Screened

Neil Christian Pages

Neil Christian Pages is Assistant Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the Binghamton University SUNY, where he teaches courses in literary theory, cultural history, and European literature. His publications include essays on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Georg Brandes, and W.G. Sebald. He is currently at work on a manuscript on memorials, public memory and other acts of commemoration, tentatively titled On Commemoration: Memory.Identity.Ideology. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications
, Mary Rhiel

Mary Rhiel is Associate Professor of German at the University of New Hampshire.In tandem with her interests in German film and colonial narratives, particularly those set in China, she has published on German film and on the problems of biography. Her publications include Re-Viewing Kleist: The Discursive Construction of Authorial Subjectivity in West German Kleist Films (Peter Lang, 1991) and the co-edited volume The Seductions of Biography (Routledge, 1996). She has published on teaching Riefenstahl in the journal Unterrichtspraxis. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications
and Ingeborg Majer-O’Sickey

Ingeborg Majer O'Sickey is Associate Professor of German and Women's Studies at Binghamton University SUNY. Her publications include numerous articles on German film as well as the co-edited volumes Triangulated Visions: Women in Recent German Cinema (SUNY Press, 1998) and Subversive Subjects: Reading Marguerite Yourcenar (FDU Press, 2004). Her current book project, Women in Nazi Cinema: Engendering Heimat, Genderizing Nation, is forthcoming in 2006 (Berghahn). Her scholarly and teaching interests in contemporary feminist cultural theories, which she mobilizes in order to read cinematic representations of femininities, meld with her work in German literature and culture. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications

Continuum, 2008


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:




Related Content

Introduction: Screening Riefenstahl—Riefenstahl Screened

DOI: 10.5040/9781628928945.0005
Page Range: 1–8

This anthology emerged from our assumption that there were enough monographs and biographies of Leni Riefenstahl, but that there was a dearth of critical, scholarly volumes dealing with her work and persona. Predicting that the biography wave was declining, we looked forward to entering the era in which “Riefenstahl” had lost her power to turn our heads. We have been proven wrong. Two new books on Leni Riefenstahl appeared in 2007. Both the English translation of Jürgen Trimborn’ sRiefenstahl. Eine deutsche Karriere and Steven Bach's Leni Riefenstahl: A Life were met with considerable media attention, solid reviews, and radio and television interviews. At the same time, media reports told of Jodie Foster's apparent intention to return to her plan to produce and star in a Riefenstahl biopic. Dead indeed. Though Riefenstahl died in 2003 at the age of 101, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it would seem that we are still very much intrigued by her. From the lure of her persona as it enters our homes via television to our pleasure at the recognition of film images in advertising and at rock concerts, to her place as part of the history of the Nazi period, Riefenstahl lives on in our imaginations and in our cultural productions.

But what is the nature of that afterlife, the reverberations of Riefenstahl in the twenty-first century? To be sure, the continued fascination with Riefenstahl makes it all the more crucial that we continue to think about the issues that are invoked by her legacy. Indeed, Riefenstahl Screened also came about as an attempt to think about “Riefenstahl” beyond the compartmentalization of a biographical project or the divisions of academic disciplines. We aimed to gather a set of essays that would maneuver around the impasse that has characterized the debates around the meaning of her films and her biography. Thinking about Riefenstahl in gender terms, for instance, we noted her uncanny oscillation between disempowerment and empowerment. That is to say, she strategically instrumentalized advantages associated with “femininity” at the same time that she challenged patriarchal dicta as part of a strategy to create a different “reality” for herself. As a result, Riefenstahl's masks make it difficult to “screen” her as a fixed object of scholarly inquiry just as the proliferation of her images in popular culture has been largely impossible to control, no matter the litigious nature of the filmmaker herself, who sought doggedly to control the crafting of her persona in the public sphere.

Screening, of course, implies hiding, protecting, and projecting simultaneously. Our title, then, speaks to the problem of masking and to our cultural investment in unmasking Riefenstahl, in catching her in the act, as it were. For decades, writing about Riefenstahl has been motivated by a desire to have the final word about her and her films. In contrast, this volume seeks to be conscious of this projecting and hiding and to analyze the historical issues that motivate our need to “discover” Riefenstahl's secret. For us, there is no essential Riefenstahl, no discourse, whether scholarly or pop, that can give the final word on her. Indeed, these are also historical questions.

Let us turn to the period in which Riefenstahl emerged as an artist—Weimar Germany—and to the aesthetic and political discourses of that historical and cultural context. Riefenstahl was in many ways typical of the Weimar “New Woman,” whose supposed transgressive gender-bending is assumed to have rewritten the patriarchal grammar of self-presentation. This was part of an emancipatory project associated with modernity. While that project was probably within the grasp of a minority of women in the period, namely those in urban centers and on the covers of the illustrated magazines, it was not the rule for most women. Riefenstahl is a fascinating case here, because she in many ways embodies the contradictions of the time in which she began her career. Although Alice Schwarzer would try to make her into a kind feminist icon in the pages of the magazine Emma in 1999, Riefenstahl herself had already used the power of her various positions in a feminist movement that had only one constituent, namely Leni Riefenstahl.[1] What we find intriguing (and confounding) about her is how limited her imagination seems to have been in the historical and artistic context in which she worked.

Although she represents a break from the exclusion of women from the development of technological media in the early twentieth century, Riefenstahl's films employ technology in largely derivative ways, in approaches that reinstall power structures instead of challenging them. Consistently enough, her postwar attempts at the rehabilitation of her person and her career stubbornly worked not to reflect on patriarchal history, but rather to portray “Riefenstahl” as a victim of the very structures she helped to (re)produce. This repetition, then, is also a re-petitioning through which the filmmaker reappears in an array of postwar cultural productions as she tries to repackage herself as victim, genius, innovator, and pop culture icon.

The editors recognize that there is little to be learned from a resuscitation of Leni Riefenstahl's dichotomous image as “Hitler's filmmaker,” as a “Nazi pinup girl,” or as a misunderstood, naïve artist. Indeed, Ian Buruma got it right when he noted recently, “The fact that Leni Riefenstahl was rather a monster is not really in dispute.”[2] Thus, we by no means see this project as part of a compilation of evidence for or against the person or work of Leni Riefenstahl. As the remark above indicates, these debates are largely over, largely because postwar controversies surrounding “Riefenstahl” have run their course.

Historical studies have also influenced our approach to questions of art and Nazism by redefining the object of study as we continue to refine our understanding of National Socialism and its aftermath. Historical inquiry has moved away from trying to construct and give a name to a coherent, unitary system of Nazi politics and aesthetics. Instead, in examining the interrelations between cultural productions and ideologies, we now recognize the generative potential of the inconsistencies, vicissitudes, and complexities of everyday life and politics in the Nazi period. Reflecting on these issues must necessarily bring us to ask different questions of the person whose films helped to define what we have come to understand as “fascist aesthetics.” In thinking about these problems, though, we bear in mind that “fascist aesthetics” is itself a problematic category. There is no coherent aesthetic strategy behind “fascist aesthetics.” Nevertheless, their political effects, however predictable they are, do indeed generate a “counteraesthetic” that could be useful for our understanding of the relation between art and politics.

As we have learned from the work of scholars like Linda Schulte-Sasse, Sabine Hake, Lutz Koepnick, Eric Rentschler, and Hans Dieter Schäfer, films from the Nazi period, even the films of Leni Riefenstahl, reveal the gap between visual culture and what it purports to represent. Ruptures, fissures, breaks, and lapses remind us that the seemingly uniform surface of fascism is itself yet another fiction. Nevertheless, studies of Riefenstahl's texts (dance, film, photography, memoirs) still can teach us something about the workings of Nazi culture and how its mechanisms live on well past 1945 in a range of contexts and citations. Although there is no “totality” of Nazi fascism, although there is indeed its historical reality (Saul Friedlander), the representational issues connected to the texts and figures of complicity will always be re-energized by our changing theories of the relationship of art and ethics.[3]

What, then, is in dispute in the context of the persona and films of the woman who is arguably the most recognized German filmmaker of all time? What is there left to say about Leni Riefenstahl in this period—postwar, post-Wall, post-Sontag, post-Riefenstahl? In response to these questions, the essays in this collection explore our highly invested discursive struggles over the meaning of Leni Riefenstahl and the images she created. The first part of the anthology, “Aesthetics,” looks in new ways at the intersections of politics and aesthetics as well as the problem of reception in Riefenstahl's work. This section opens with German media critic Georg Seesslen's widely cited and acclaimed work on the influence of Riefenstahl's films from the perspective of contemporary pop culture. Seesslen's essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the first exhibition on Leni Riefenstahl in Germany, which opened at the Film-museum Potsdam in December 1998. It appears here for the first time in English translation. In his reflections Seesslen demonstrates how Riefenstahl's films anticipate pop culture in the way in which their images abolish any link to historical referentiality, thus underscoring the continuities between pop and fascism. Like pop culture productions, Riefenstahl's images circulate freely, carrying none of the weighty historical signification of the context in which they were produced. Unlike Seesslen's work, Carsten Strathausen's essay argues that Riefenstahl criticism (and with it, “fascist” art) can no longer serve as a foil with and against which we construct prescriptions for theorizing the relevance of art for ethical praxis. He asserts that the aesthetic binaries associated with modernity are no longer viable as guidelines or tools for resistance to political tyranny. With the contention that Riefenstahl is historically irrelevant for our time, Strathausen theorizes how we might rethink the relation of art and politics. Working with questions of aesthetics and their production, Lutz Koepnick's essay probes Riefenstahl's aesthetic via the use of slow-motion photography in the film Olympia. Taking as his vantage point the acceleration of play on the contemporary soccer field, Koepnick finds in Olympia an example of a point at which the Riefenstahl “aesthetic” fails to capture what it seeks to represent. The game of soccer, he argues, eludes Riefenstahl's cinematic strategies. Koepnick's interventions show what this aesthetic cannot do with a sport that deconstructs forward movement through “fluid movements of discrete bodies across extended spaces.” This scholar takes on a specific historical link between Riefenstahl's films and fascism that represents a break that has been overlooked by critics.

The second section of the volume, “Afterlife,” is organized around the reception of Riefenstahl and her position as a cipher in popular culture's construction of our cultural memory of the Nazi period. It is a commonplace among those who write on Riefenstahl to note that she has been influential in a range of cultural practices, from fashion advertising to art photography, from sportscasting to the theatrics of politics, to the representation of celebrity in our time. The essays in this section investigate the specific ways in which her work reverberates in contemporary settings. Film scholar David Bathrick begins his essay with an analysis of Triumph of the Will. He asserts that the film gives voice to an inchoate, unexplicated trauma. Bathrick shows through careful analysis how the iconic images from the film were picked up by other filmmakers and at times employed in unexpected, sometimes jarring, contexts. His close readings of seminal films by Chaplin, Wilder, Resnais, and others show that the filmmakers’ citation of Triumph created new binaries that limit the ability of many of the films to offer a deeper critique of fascism. Through careful historical research, Bathrick exposes how major postwar films used Riefenstahl images in their historical reconstruction of the Shoah. Working with and against the documentary genre as seen on German television, historian Wulf Kansteiner provides a sociological view on the present state of German collective memory and its representation in historiographic work. His essay shows that the popular demonization of Riefenstahl has everything to do with her function in the entertainment industry. In the context of the programming made by the German television channel ZDF, Kansteiner critiques a kind of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) that defines Nazism as the product of the machinations of an evil clique that included Riefenstahl. This warm-up exercise brings Kansteiner to a contentious and intriguing assessment of a film that has been central to how we think of this historical figure, namely the 1993 Emmy-winning biopic The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Die Macht der Bilder) by Ray Müller, which he concludes is a “terrible documentary.” Like Kansteiner, Valerie Weinstein approaches the contemporary state of German popular culture in order to uncover its continued investment in the images of Riefenstahl. In this case it is the heavy metal band Rammstein that provides a focus for this scholar's investigation into how the image of the filmmaker and the images she created were recycled in German hard rock. The essay explores how the German media condemned the band Rammstein for its use of images from Olympia and Triumph of the Will in its music videos. Weinstein's close reading of the videos in question suggests that although the group did indeed rely on the antimodern themes of Riefenstahl's films in these works, it did so in a far more ironic and self-reflective manner than most German music critics would have it. In the end, the essay shows that the reception of the music and videos tells us more about the state of post-Wall German memory culture than it does about the supposed “fascist aesthetics” of Riefenstahl's work.

The essays in “Continuities,” the third section of the volume, turn to specific historical and theoretical perspectives on Riefenstahl's oeuvre. These scholars focus on artistic and aesthetic practices as a historically grounded means to understand Riefenstahl's “texts” as manifestations of their time and context. Returning to his seminal work on Riefenstahl's The Blue Light from his 1996 The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife, Eric Rentschler reflects anew on his contention that Riefenstahl's aesthetic in this film anticipates fascism's combining of the antimodern with the technological. His comprehensive discussion of the debates surrounding the filmmaker's status in the postwar world now takes into consideration the recent release of a DVD of The Blue Light that contains both the version of the film that premiered in 1932, long thought lost, as well as a shorter postwar release. Rentschler explains how Riefenstahl's first feature is indeed the cornerstone upon which the filmmaker crafts her own biography as legend. Moving from movie to sound, historian Celia Applegate's reflections on the status of music in Riefenstahl's Nazi-era “documentaries” provides English-speaking readers with new research on this ignored aspect of these iconic films. Putting to rest the myth that Richard Wagner provided the “sound track for the Third Reich,” Applegate gives us a detailed account of the early history of musical composition for the cinema and ends with the compelling story of Herbert Windt's contributions to Triumph of the Will. Applegate touches upon the role of dance in understanding Riefenstahl's musical tastes, but Mary Rhiel zooms in on dance rhythm and repetition as central to the aesthetic of the films both in terms of theory and historical practice. Rhiel's argument begins with an interrogation of Riefen- stahl's vexing memoirs, in which she locates a particular narrative rhythm. She then links this beat to the filmmaker's foundational training in modern dance. Having done the historical legwork on dance in the Weimar period and earlier, this scholar, through a discursive reading of Freud's fort/da paradigm, teases out fresh connections between movement and politics in Riefenstahl's style.

“Riefen-Star,” the final section of the volume, is in no way intended as a closure. As the essays here indicate, there remains much to be done in terms of questioning the existing scholarship on Riefenstahl and the filmmaker's own attempts at controlling her legacy in the postwar period. Guinevere Narraway's critical overview of Riefenstahl's postwar photography cannily locates these images in the contexts of both their historical settings and in recent thought on ethnography and postcoloniality. As a site for examining these problematic images she sees Riefenstahl's Nuba photographs as occupying a liminal position between the traditions of ethnographic photography and touristic photographs. Beginning with the narrative of how Riefenstahl sought to rehabilitate herself in the postwar period, the author shows how the photographer's trips to Africa and her expeditions to coral reefs were part of her postwar autobiographical mythmaking. Narraway offers some needed contextualization of Riefenstahl's postwar projects. In a similar vein, media scholar Martina Thiele works with a more recent phenomenon of image making and presentation, that of Leni Riefenstahl's Web site. In her discussion she gives a useful summary of Riefenstahl's (auto)biography and develops the beginnings of how one might consider the filmmaker's self-presentation in cyberspace. This look at Riefenstahl's latest work of self-fashioning appears here in English translation for the first time and gives readers a sense of the interest in Riefenstahl among scholars in media studies in Germany. The anthology ends with an important document from a particular historical moment for the reception of Leni Riefenstahl, the comprehensive exhibit on her life and work at the Filmmuseum Potsdam. Ingeborg Majer-O'Sickey's interview with the exhibition's curator, Bärbel Dalichow, reflects on the show from a number of perspectives but also documents some of the key themes of this important exhibit, which ran from December 1998 to March 1999, among them the visit of Riefenstahl herself to the exhibit. That tense day and the fact that a newly founded museum in what was the German Democratic Republic had taken on the organization and presentation of such a contentious show on a controversial living artist are the topics of some of Dalichow's pointed reflections on her work as a curator of the troublesome “Riefenstahl.” This contribution to the volume contains previously unpublished documentation of what the editors see as a turning point in the public presentation and perception of Riefenstahl in post-Wall Germany. It serves as something of a bookend to the anthology's opening contribution by Georg Seesslen, whose essay comes from the exhibition's catalogue.

The contributions to this volume make clear that the phenomenon “Riefenstahl” has entered our collective memories in ways not necessarily apparent on the surface of contemporary cultural productions and the scholarly discourses that aim to analyze and understand them. These essays gathered here should serve to illuminate the trajectories that informed Riefenstahl's own work and to investigate the palimpsest of Riefenstahl's films, photographs, and persona in her aftermath. The following texts, then, aim both to excavate what has gone unsaid or unstudied in Riefenstahl's body of work and to build upon existing scholarship in order to think about how this contentious figure will be received in the future.

The Editors

[1] See Alice Schwarzer, “Leni Riefenstahl. Propagandistin oder Künstlerin?” Emma 1 (1999): 34–47.

[2] Ian Buruma, “Fascinating Narcissism,” Review of Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, by Steven Bach (New York: Knopf, 2007) and Leni Riefenstahl. A Life, by Jürgen Trimborn, trans. EdnaMcCown (New York: Faber and Faber, 2007), New York Review of Books 10 (14 June 2007): 49-52: 49.

[3] See Saul Friedlander, Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993).