Sunday, February 21, 2016

Great German Filmmaker and the Movie 'Race'

Leni Riefenstahl directs behind the camera.
Just saw the movie "Race," which deals with Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, which were used dramatically for political purposes. The movie itself is entertaining and fairly well fact-based (though there some points many would argue), but it isn't in a class with the great Olympics movie "Chariots of Fire," which won an Academy Award as Best Movie in 1981.

You know Owens' story: four gold medals, pretty much making a shambles of Hitler's showcase of German racial superiority. But the story that is every bit as interesting--especially to me--is that of movie maker Leni Riefenstahl, who produced the memorable, groundbreaking film of the games.

Riefenstahl, one of my heroes, is a controversial figure because she worked for the Nazis, willingly, even enthusiastically. She was much like Albert Speer in that respect. Speer was the architect of the Third Reich and built all of the memorable infrastructure. He was a Hitler favorite because he was a visionary, but he was not especially political and simply saw being given carte blanche to do his job as an opportunity.

Riefenstahl apparently felt much the same way. She had been an outstanding actress (she was the lead actress in "Tangier" with Boris Karloff and Humphrey Bogart), director and finally later a visionary filmmaker. Hitler wanted her to record Nazi history and gave her everything she wanted in order to do it. She simply could not resist. Her politics were non-existent and, like Speer, she saw an unparalleled opportunity.

Leni examines her film.
She immediately produced, "Triumph of the Will," a ground-breaking propaganda film that is still the standard 75 years later. Of course, her film of the Olympics remains memorable and was even groundbreaking in the literal sense.

At one point, she dug a trench beside the broad jump (now, long jump) pit so she could shoot up at the athletes, giving them a heroic look. In 1941, five years after these Olympics, Orson Welles dug holes in the studio floors to shoot a number of scenes in his seminal "Citizen Kane."

Reifenstahl gets completely sympathetic--some of it manufactured--treatment in "Race," but it's the first time I have really seen her portrayed in a way I believe she felt: an artist making the best of her opportunity.

It is difficult for me to remove the horror of Nazi Germany from this woman's life and I don't make the effort. I simply see her for what she was: a great filmmaker and later a woman of considerable compassion and continued productivity throughout her life. Even as an old lady, she was scuba diving with a camera, making movies and doing great work in Africa.

Reifenstahl lived a long and productive life, working with African tribesman late in her life, but she was hounded with her Nazi association for all of her 100 years. A documentary titled "The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Reifenstahl" ("Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl") remains one of my favorites, but at times it is difficult to watch. (Peek here.)

Go see the movie. I think you might enjoy it, for a lot of reasons (including the fact that it made an utter ass out of longtime Olympic Committee head Avery Brundadge).

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