In the Witch's Cottage: Visiting Leni Riefenstahl

  • News from 12.02.2018

    The estate of Leni Riefenstahl was recently donated to the SPK. It all had to be packed up in her house in Pöcking on a one-week ‘flash expedition’ in late 2017 and brought to Berlin. Reason enough to reflect upon Leni Riefenstahl, her life, and her work.

    Leni Riefenstahl bei Dreharbeiten© bpk / Erika Groth-Schmachtenberger

    An artist has to endure that. He must not close his eyes to evil. He also has to depict ugliness.

    I never did that. I am only attracted by what is beautiful. When I dive and I look around underwater, I see tin cans lying there, but I don't even think about photographing them, because I find them horrible. I move the cans away. If I don't want to see something, I don't want it in my composition.

    That is exactly what I am reproaching you with.

    Yes, but that's how I am. You won't be able to change me. I steer clear of ugliness. That's my predisposition, maybe my weakness.

    [Klaus] Theweleit has written that in your film "The Triumph of the Will", you unknowingly unmasked the essence of fascism.

    That's totally new to me.

    You wanted to see beauty and unconsciously showed evil.

    What evil?

    (Leni Riefenstahl in conversation with André Müller, who visited her at home in Pöcking in 2002. The text first appeared in Die Weltwoche on August 15, 2002)

    Leni doesn't live here any more: Gotenweg 13 in Pöcking, a village by Lake Starnberg in Bavaria. On a gently sloping hilltop, facing away from the lake, stands a house of black-stained wood and glass, a high-end prefabricated structure from HUF, built in 1979. It nestles under tall, aged fir trees, which give it the air of a mountain cabin in a Japanese print. A ‘witch's cottage’, as Leni Riefenstahl herself commented. That gets it about right, because there is a somewhat eerie fairytale quality. However, the atmosphere inside the house is surprisingly cosy, warm and pleasant. The rooms are airy and light, with tasteful decor. What else should we have expected? On this visit, it is important to keep reminding ourselves that we all want the world to be as we believe it to be. 

    From Riefenstahl's desk on the gallery under a gable with full-height glazing, you look out onto the undulating lawn of the front garden, where Helmut Newton portrayed her, at the age of almost a hundred, in the midst of a sea of flowers. It was one of the last pictures of the woman who was said to be the most beautiful woman in Europe in her thirties, which were also the Thirties of the twentieth century. At the edge of the flower meadow stands "her old oak", which recalls the visit of an Italian magazine team many years ago. Journalists would often come here wanting to interview and photograph Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps in the hope of landing a scoop if she finally said "Yes, I acted wrongly and I apologize for it." This oak tree led to one of the many libel suits which Leni Riefenstahl brought – more or less successfully – throughout her life to refute accusations that she bore a share of the guilt for what happened between 1933 and 1945. What happened? The Italians took a photo of Riefenstahl with her left arm outstretched, pointing to the tree. This image was printed on the cover of the Italian magazine, but mirrored so that it seemed to reveal the truth about her convictions: Leni Riefenstahl giving the Nazi salute to her oak tree. But it wasn't that simple. 

    "Leni had a penchant for fantasy"

    And talking of oaks: every champion at the 1936 Olympics was presented with an oak seedling as a symbol of German values, for nurturing at home or transplanting to their native countries. It was another of the more or less effective stunts with which the Nazis tried, by every means possible, to exploit the world's greatest sporting event as a stage for propaganda. Their biggest coup – at once artistic, enthralling and ground-breaking – was the film Olympia, which Riefenstahl produced and directed at Hitler's request. It was released in two parts: Festival of Nations and Festival of Beauty. To this day, it is generally considered to be one of the hundred best films of all time. But is it propaganda? That is the crucial question. The rest of the world says, "of course!"; Riefenstahl says that she merely documented reality. She has also said that about her Nazi party film Triumph of the Will, filmed in 1934. This statement leads in turn to the question of what Riefenstahl's concept of 'reality' was. 

    "Leni had a penchant for fantasy," recalls Gisela Jahn, her secretary for many years. Her directorial debut in 1932 with The Blue Light seems to support this assessment, as do her change of subject to the Nuba people of Sudan in the Sixties and, finally, her diving films of the Eighties, which evoke the mysteries of the underwater realm. Fantasizing also means creating a reality of your own – and repressing the actual one. With this in mind, it seems fitting that, in addition to countless photographic books, publications on Speer, Eva Braun, Goebbels, Hess and Hitler, picture books on nature subjects and gardens, we also find Harry Potter stories on one of the many bookshelves in the house. A kind of clash of centuries: Leni Riefenstahl reads Harry Potter. This interplay of reality and fiction fits well with the fact that Riefenstahl worked hard, all her life, at being something out of the ordinary, someone special. She was a dancer, actress in ‘mountain films’, director, ace at the editing desk, photographer, globetrotter, diving film-maker, memoir writer – and by the 1980s, at the latest, she had acquired the status of a mythical icon. 

    Fair is foul and foul is fair…

    A mythical icon, then, but of what? She would have answered "of beauty." It is somehow reminiscent of the recurring trope of "fair is foul and foul is fair," uttered by the three witches in Shakespeare's play Macbeth. His wife, possessed by ambition, stops at nothing in her thirst for power and status. Riefenstahl was no Lady Macbeth, but she was ambitious and single-minded, with an inner compulsion. In the witch's cottage, "fair is foul and foul is fair" seems applicable in so many ways. Take Riefenstahl's best-known films for example. The Olympia films are masterpieces of the modern photographic aesthetic, but they also served fascist propaganda. And never again did the Nazis look as good they did as in Triumph of the Will

    Riefenstahl's case seems to be yet another illustration of the Janus-faced character of Modernism, the thinking that shaped the twentieth century. After all, Modernism was not just the Bauhaus, functional clarity and the ‘new man’, but also fascism, body culture and the superman. In that sense, Leni Riefenstahl was a child of her time and its trends: the avant-garde, fascism and, finally, Pop Art. That's why the list of people who had dealings with her reads like a Who's Who of the twentieth century: Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger, Helmut Newton and David Bowie, Siegfried & Roy, Susan Sontag and Siegfried Kracauer, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Cocteau, Gret Palucca, Josef von Sternberg, but also Hitler, Goebbels, Speer, Breker, and their associates. 

    Whereas Lady Macbeth ended up being tortured by repressed guilt, Riefenstahl saw herself as an unwitting victim who meant no harm, who wanted only to make films and who was pressured by the National Socialist elite into creating masterly propaganda films – and claimed to have known nothing of the expulsion of Jews, the extermination of Jews, the horror of war, and other consequences of Nazi rule. 

    Whether it is politically charged or not, Riefenstahl's concept of beauty is expressed in such a way that there are overlaps with that of fascism in any case: strong, healthy, vital, superhuman bodies in a constant battle to be the strongest and best – be they earnest, nude, muscular Nuba warriors or earnest, nude, muscular participants in the Nazi's 1936 Olympics. 

    Helmut Newton, Siegfried & Roy, and Kevin Brownlow have been here too. 

    Back to Pöcking. Is there actually a person behind the Riefenstahl icon? Can one tell something about this person from her home, her personal belongings, from the books gathering – or not gathering – dust on her shelves? What does it tell us, for example, that a book of poems by Nietzsche lies on the bedside table? That there is a collection of small crystal figures made by Swarowski? That in the basement there is a model of the round hut – her house among the Nuba – which was never built? And why are all the sofas yellow? One thing is certain: this person by the name of Leni Riefenstahl did exist. “The Leni," as the secretary affectionately calls her, who ate a soft-boiled egg and drank two cups of coffee every morning, who in extreme old age could hardly move for the pain it caused her, who was very grateful for every little thing. The woman with contacts to countless more or less well-known names of the twentieth century, such as Helmut Newton, with whom she kept up a regular correspondence. 

    He was not the only one to visit her in Pöcking, as can be seen from the many mementos presented to the lady of the house. One of the most striking is a picture frame made of a large piece of rock crystal and given as token of admiration by the English filmmaker Kevin Brownlow. It contains a portrait of Riefenstahl as Junta, the protagonist of her aforementioned directorial debut The Blue Light. It was this film, said to have been one of Hitler's favorites, that drew his attention to her skills as a director. There are also books written by Dr. Müller-Wohlfahrt (a personal friend and the doctor of the German football team), window pictures painted by Dr. Kühnemann, the TV doctor, and lots of white cuddly tigers and pictures of Siegfried & Roy, which testify to the close friendship between Riefenstahl and the two German wild cat tamers based in Las Vegas. 

    In the Basement: the Accumulated Film-editing Technology of the Twentieth Century

    Then we go down to the basement. After a brief inspection of the contents, the first thing that Martin Rossbacher, the restorer at the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library), does is to order more packaging material, because the 530 transport containers planned are not going to be enough. Leni Riefenstahl and cameraman Horst Kettner, her partner and forty years her junior, assiduously collected anything with a connection to Riefenstahl and kept it all in order: everything from rolls of old film to Leni's riding boots, ski boots, and diving suits. There are lawsuit documents, newspaper articles, photographic prints, movie posters, correspondence, videos, slides, and Leni's old suitcase. The equipment accumulated down there reflects the last hundred years of film-editing technology. 

    Now the group of experts from Bildarchiv PK, Kunstbibliothek, and Staatsbibliothek faces the daunting task of deciding what's going to Berlin and what's not. Fixed to an editing suite is a typewritten note on handmade paper: "You do not necessarily have to blow out the light of others to make your own shine!" Is a motto like this of importance to posterity's understanding of Riefenstahl? In Berlin, a more difficult question will arise: What do we do with it now? The only right thing: professional storage and cataloguing accompanied by academic research. In view of the size and complexity of the estate, that will be a challenging task and take many years. Riefenstahl's secretary Gisela Jahn, who inherited the estate almost by accident, shows herself very relieved and glad to have placed this rather unexpected burden in reliable hands. It was here that Helmut Newton came into play again: Mrs. Jahn donated the Riefenstahl estate to the SPK mainly because the estate of the great photographer has been in the Foundation's care since 2004 as a permanent loan. 

    In the meantime, Holger Roost-Macias has joined us in the basement of the house and accompanies the inspection of its contents with an expert eye. At the beginning of the 1990s, he and his then company produced the "Popstars" series for the Pro Sieben TV channel. Mr. Roost has secured the commercial rights of use and is now planning to digitally remaster Leni Riefenstahl's film about the Nuba people, which has a greenish tint owing to a material defect and was never completed. Then he will release it for showing in cinemas. As a first step, he has arranged for her directorial debut, The Blue Light, to be shown at the 2018 Berlinale film festival – with a critical introduction and an FSK 18 rating, just to be on the safe side.

    Text: Gesine Bahr