Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl: 'Pretty as A Swastika'

One of the courses I took last year for my MA at the Hebrew University dealt with Visual Rhetoric and, of course, Leni Riefenstahl is very much a part of this.

Was she anti-semitic?

Judith Thurman notes this:-

One of Riefenstahl’s most cherished ambitions, ironically, was a Hollywood career like that of Munkacsi’s fellow-émigrée Marlene Dietrich, and she clung to this fantasy tenaciously even after the Kristallnacht pogrom, in November, 1938, which derailed what was supposed to have been a triumphal cross-country American publicity tour with “Olympia.” Upon docking in New York and hearing the news, she refused to believe it, and dismissed the hostility that greeted her at nearly every stop as a plot fomented, she told an interviewer on her return, “by the Jewish moneymen.”

After the war, Riefenstahl was vehement that not only had she “thrown no atomic bombs”; she had never “spoken an anti-Semitic word.” She lamented the fate of her Jewish friends in the film industry while claiming, on the one hand, that she had been ignorant of the Reich’s racial policies and, on the other, that she had protested them personally to the Führer.

Bach offers considerable evidence to the contrary, as does Jürgen Trimborn, the author of “Leni Riefenstahl: A Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $30), translated by Edna McCown. Both cite a letter first published thirty years ago in a biography of Riefenstahl by Glenn Infield in which Riefenstahl appeals to her friend and admirer Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stürmer and the most fanatic anti-Semite in a crowded field (he was hanged for his war crimes in 1946), for help with, as she puts it, the “demands made upon me by the Jew Béla Balázs.”

Balázs, Riefenstahl’s dramaturge and co-screenwriter on “The Blue Light,” was an avant-garde film critic who had also adapted Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” as a screenplay. She expunged his name from the credits so that a judenrein (Jew-free) version of the film could be released, and Balázs, hearing of its success, wrote to her from exile in Moscow to ask for his deferred fee. It was an easy and no doubt gratifying minor task for Streicher to deprive him of it.

Walter Winchell’s memorable epithet for Riefenstahl was —“pretty as a swastika”.

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