She was, in other words, a wonderful filmmaker and an admirable survivor, whose fatal flaw was a horrible sense of judgment and an even more horrible tendency to glorify power, irrespective of the ideology it represented.
"The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" compels mixed reactions to its protagonist, evoking both admiration and aversion towards Riefenstahl. In one of the scenes, she is depicted as walking on a pier, carrying her own, undoubtedly heavy, scuba diving gear. Her much younger companions are walking ahead of her and neither offers to help her with her equipment and, indeed, her demeanour suggests that she would have rejected any offers of help. This scene would not have been remarkable were it not for the fact that Riefenstahl was over 90 at the time. This scene, which only occupies a few moments in a very lengthy three hour documentary, captures the essence of the woman. She is not one to concede to weaknesses, human frailties and recognises absolutely no boundaries or limitations. Had she done so, she would not have been directing an underwater documentary at the age of 91. Hence, in this single scene the filmmakers do more than countless verbal testimonies could have ever done - they show the audiences who Riefenstahl is and, who she is evokes admiration.
While it exposes her admirable qualities, the film exposes an infinitely less attractive dimension to Riefenstahl's personality. She is self-defensive and over-brimming with self-justification, not to mention unwaveringly unapologetic about the services she rendered to, or her association with, Hitler and the Nazi party. The film shows her defending the association and services in artistic and professional terms; she was not a member of the Nazi Party and did not touch upon anti-Semitism in her work. In her defence and self-justification, Riefenstahl seemingly deliberately overlooks, as Downing (2008: para 1) points out, the propagandist nature of her "Triumph of Will," and the extent to which it affected mass perceptions of Hitler as a national hero and Nazism as the answer to all of Germany's problems. Her defence of her works, as presented in the documentary, indicates that either Riefenstahl did not understand the consequences of her propagandist documentaries, which is hardly believable, or quite unapologetically believes that the end justifies the means.
In the final analysis, the documentary is objective. It presents both sides of Leni Riefenstahl and, more importantly, allows her to speak for herself. In so doing, it gives the audience the opportunity to witness the good and the bad and, accordingly, arrive at their own judgement. If that judgement is not in Riefenstahl's favour that is not because of the filmmakers' prejudices but because of Riefenstahl's presentation of her own self.
Downing, T. (2008) "Nazis and the Cinema." History Today, 58(3), 63.
Rentschler, E. (1985) "The Use and Abuse of Memory: New German Film and the Discourse of Bitburg." New German Critique, 36, 67-91.
Tegel, S. (2006) "Leni Riefenstahl: Art and Politics." Quarterly Review of Film & Video, 23(3),