The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Ray Muller, 1994)
[originally posted 2Nov2001]
First, let’s get something straight. An artist’s intentions are secondary, to say the least, to the intentions of the viewer. (That’s how Jesse Helms can say “I don’t know what pornography is, but I know it when I see it,” I can say the same thing, and both of us can be accurate despite having thoroughly different subsets of what constitutes pornography in our heads.) That said, the “is/was Leni Riefenstahl a Nazi?” question is quite simply irrelevant all the way around, and is hereby dispensed with.
Ray Muller, on the other hand, would have been lax in his task had he let it go so quickly. His three-hour documentary would probably have been an hour shorter, but the American obsession with the private lives of our stars wouldn’t have been satisfied, and it is this prurience, in part, that makes The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl such an excellent way to spend three hours. Riefenstahl herself, who was over ninety at the time this documentary was made, is just as charming and magnetic as ever. Her deep love of filmmaking comes out in everything she does; for example, Muller takes her to a spot where we can see one of the rock faces featured prominently in her film The Magic Mountain, and she can describe shot by shot exactly how various scenes were filmed over half a century ago. It is not just the archival value that makes this worth watching, but the contagious enthusiasm Riefenstahl shows. As well, as one of a rapidly-dwindling number of people who lived through World War II, her impressions of it are often fascinating, even when (especially when?) they’re at odds with the contemporary reporting of events.
All in all, a wonderfully absorbing piece of work for both Riefenstahl fans and critics alike, and even, despite the length, an excellent introduction to Riefenstahl herself. Highly recommended. ****