the ethical dilemma of leni riefenstahl
By Raine Roberts
“The crucial thing, after all, is our own inner experience, and the fault we charge ourselves with depends on what we knew and didn’t know.”
–Leni Riefenstahl (p.366)
Leni Riefenstahl | A Memoir recounts her life in its entirety from her point-of-view. Drawing from her personal journals, newspapers, legal documentation, her friend’s recounts, and her own memory, this memoir was extremely fascinating. Her life was a rollercoaster of misfortunes and successes—mainly in regards to her work. Riefenstahl was a fanatic about her occupation—whether that be a dancer, an actress, or a filmmaker—she strove towards mastery in everything she did. Her views on romantic connections or personal growth were not at the top of her priority of activities, it was advancing her skill. I have personally categorized Leni Riefenstahl as an Objectivist, however, towards her mother and in parts in her early life she was most definitely Deontological—nonetheless, I am focusing mainly on her life post-Triumph of the Will, in which she is an Objectivist. The concepts that will be addressed forthcoming have to deal with the difference between “a truth” and “the truth”, and the separation between art and politics.
Let’s begin with one of the most controversial films made of all time, Triumph of the Will—produced, directed, and edited by Riefenstahl. Leni Riefenstahl chose to present Hitler in a certain light, certain angle, and certain perspective. But, were these entire compositional choices relevant to the truth? To reality? Or was it just pure fantasy that the audience was viewing? Plato believes in one, singular truth, “Let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be” (Plato). Here, he solidifies his belief that there’s only two ways of viewing truth—it’s either false, or true. There is no grey area; you’re either one or the other. Aristotle, however, believes in a plurality of truths, “Every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all considerable amount is amassed” (Aristotle). Therefore, according to Aristotle, one must assess the truth how it is given, and one must accept that what is your singular truth may not be the truth to the perspective presented. Leni Riefenstahl showed a certain perspective of Hitler and the Nazi Party—what she presented, was it her truth—“a truth”, or was it “the truth”? And, is it ethical to present “a truth” even if it is somewhat fantastical to the universal truth—“the truth”?
There is almost a sense of irony here. For most of Riefenstahl’s life post-WWII she was running around suing newspaper companies, television shows, and the media in general for misrepresenting her—the media was lying about what she did and what she had said. As a result, Riefenstahl was in constant search for “the truth”, because the truths of the media were just a form—an incorrect form—of “a truth”. It’s difficult to say that the media was completely false in its retellings, because if you look it from an Aristotelian perspective, technically, the media had “a truth”. There’s just this ethical dilemma for what kind of truth one presents, and whether or not you attempt to tell the whole truth.
In the one-hour documentary, The Immoderation of Me (you can find this on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjgYS8uXwFk), the Interviewer notices all these archival books and binders of everything that has been said about Leni. The Interviewer asks, “Here’s a loose-leaf binder – ‘Press Attacks’. Do you mind my asking why you have saved this stuff?” in which Leni responded, “It’s all part of my life. It would be wrong just to save the good things. There are negative things, too. It’s right to keep both” [7:48-9:06]. I’m presenting this quote because it pertains to Leni’s personality of recognizing all point-of-views—all perspectives. Whether these ‘perspectives’ were telling the truth or not, is up to an individual’s opinion, but Leni saw it as being ethical responsible. To have ‘the whole truth’ is to incorporate all aspects of ‘a truth’. She gathers all viewpoints of herself—including her own self-reflection (which, we have to recognize is biased)—to conclude a larger ‘universal truth’. Though no one can be certain what actually happened in regards to Leni’s ethical decisions, we need to appreciate her archived perspectives that result in culmination to ‘the truth’. To conclude, this would support her Objectivist stance—to gain all perspectives on herself can be viewed as ethically responsible and objective.
Moving onto the separation of art and politics, I would like to open with a few quotes from Leni regarding such: in the documentary The Immoderation of Me the camera pans towards Leni’s wall, and we see awards for Das Blaue Licht, The Olympiad, and Triumph of the Will. Leni then proceeds to say, “I got three gold medals in Paris in 1937. I’m fairly proud of that,” to which the Interviewer asks, “Are you as proud of Triumph of the Will as you do Das Blaue Licht?” and Leni immediately responds, “I don’t see anything political in Triumph of the Will. I just see it as a film. And I look at all films the same way.” Before discussing this quote, I would like to present another in comparison, “In those days, I really believed that Hitler was a man who would champion social justice, an idealist who would strike a balance between rich and poor… The fact that I was too late in recognizing his demonic nature was, no doubt, my fault or the result of my bedazzlement” (Riefenstahl 366). Though the latter quote sounds very politically-informed, I would like to point out that she resolves with her admitting fault—her ‘bedazzlement’, her eye for anything aesthetically pleasing. I would like to make a claim that Leni Riefenstahl was inherently and chronically drawn to beautiful, aesthetically pleasing things no matter the message of which they might present. She focused solely on the outwards appearance, not the opinions or the effects of those appearances (other than whether one viewed them as pretty or ugly). The Interviewer in the documentary asks, “Where does your eye for beauty come from?” Leni responds, “Somehow that’s an innate feature that has interested me as a child. I used to collect pretty flowers, and bright colors fascinated me…visual impulses fascinated me” [18:21]. It is Leni’s human impulse to visually represent and share aesthetically pleasing objects, no matter the message that one can draw from it. Leni is literally taking things as they are, objectively, and making an opinion off of their appearance. Now whether that’s ethically responsible is up for interpretation.
“I never thought what kind of effect the images might have. I just tried to do it the same way you take a good photo” [25:50]. To Leni, one can absolutely separate art and politics—that’s what she has been doing her whole life…only taking things as they are (an Objectivist stance). However, the inextricably problematic dilemma here is that everyone else—the media, individuals, scholars—tend to not see it that way. Many people look at art as politically driven, or politically reflective—but Leni is solely making art to represent beauty, and if that’s also, by chance, political then she is ignorant in this regard. Why I feel it is hard for people to believe and accept her is because everyone seems to have a strong political opinion about practically anything nowadays—as a society, we are constantly fed political information, opinions, and art. So, we find it difficult to believe that an individual can be so ignorant on politics especially when they worked with a radically political person. Leni Riefenstahl was an uncommon individual; she saw things for what they objectively are. Can we blame her for being her?
The Immoderation of Me, Dir. Leni Riefenstahl and Sandra Maischberger,
Perf. Leni Riefenstahl and Sandra Maischberger. Arte 2002, YouTube:
Leni Riefenstahl’s The Immoderation of Me. YouTube, 5 Aug. 2014.
Web. 6 May 2017.
Riefenstahl, Leni. Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir. New York: Picador USA,