The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl

Ray Müller spends 3 hours going over the 101 years of Leni Riefenstahl’s life. In the popular mythology, Leni Riefenstahl is the poster girl for Nazi cinema—an inglorious honour that has caused much of her work to be rejected as propaganda, has seen her career as a filmmaker cut off after the end of World War II, and has compressed her century of life into nothing but a shadowy decade of work under Hitler. Ray Muller’s documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl is a much welcome and much overdue act of decompression.

The film follows a simple chronology, and traces the whole of Riefenstahl’s several careers, from her youngest days as a dancer, through her acting stint, delving deeply into her most famous filmmaking days during the Third Reich, resurfacing to trace her adventures in photographing the Nuba peoples of the Sudan, and finally settling in her older times as a scuba diver and underwater filmmaker. Muller also makes it a subtle point to draw parallels between these periods. Hence, the film nudges us to pick up similarities between, for example, Riefenstahl’s portrayal of Olympic athletes and Nuba warriors. Throughout, there is this type of delicate craft in the structure of the film that makes it a good documentary in addition to being an interesting and important one.

However, all of this is not to say that Muller downplays or shies away from asking, hounding Riefenstahl about her activities during the Nazi period. Not only is a good portion of the film about Riefenstahl’s two Nazi masterpieces (her account of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin titled Olympia and her even more infamous representation of a Nazi rally in Nuremberg called Triumph of the Will), but Muller actually puts her to task about several key issues: her personal relationship with Hitler and Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister; a controversy over the alleged use of forced labour, imprisoned Sinti and Roma, in her film Tiefland; and her obsession with speed, power and the male body, as posited by Susan Sontag. In the end, though, Riefenstahl is also given time to speak in her own defense, during which she correctly points out that, despite all of the guilt dumped on her after the war, she was actually never a member of the Nazi party. There are no simple answers here.

One valid complaint to lodge against the film is that it is so vast (running three hours in its longest cut) and, therefore, sometimes unfocused. Viewers who find Riefenstahl’s life exciting in itself, for instance, may be driven to boredom watching her discuss how she edited Olympia on a new editing machine; and viewers who are fascinated to learn that the diving sequences in that same film were extensively manipulated to give the divers the grace and fluidity of flying birds (sometimes this meant running the footage backwards) may not be as interested in seeing Riefenstahl swim with a deadly Manta ray. Ultimately, however, extensively faulting The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl for showing the various facets of Riefenstahl’s character and life is to deny the film its central argument—the one captured so well in its title: that Riefenstahl’s life is neither horrible nor wonderful, but both at once; and the two are so interrelated that you can’t even stick an and between them!

Audiences for documentaries aren’t huge, and documentaries themselves tend to further fragment their own potential audience through overt political leaning, form, subject, and other factors. Having said that, there is so much in Ray Muller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (biography, film history, history, politics) and the film is so straightforward in is intentions, that I doubt any fan of the documentary could see this film and watch the end credits without at least some form of satisfaction, entertainment, or education. Plus, who knows, you may even be compelled enough to track down one of Riefenstahl’s own films. And, surely, that’s not a bad thing.

Rating: B+