Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, died today at age 101. In a sense, Riefenstahl wasn’t as interesting a person as one thinks she should be. She was an exceptionally talented and innovative filmmaker and photographer; she was swept up in Nazism as a young woman, and made important propaganda films for the regime. But Riefenstahl doesn’t seem to have had any particular insight into Nazism, Germany’s leaders, or the era that she helped to shape. Her interest, she said, was always in beauty. She doesn’t seem to have been a particularly awful person, but she certainly lacked the moral sense to question the “beauty” she found in Nazi rallies.
Perhaps fittingly, Germany’s Culture Minister saw Riefenstahl off with a bit of silly Marxism: “Her career shows that … art is never unpolitical, and that form and content cannot be separated from one another.” Actually, Riefenstahl’s career shows that art can be political. But much art, certainly most art, is apolitical, even though an ideologue can always apply a political prism to anything, art included.
Riefenstahl grabbed for the brass ring in her youth, in the process committing a terrible sin which she never really acknowledged. In the end, it is hard to feel strongly about her demise, one way or the other. She was preceded in death by a great many better men and women. Her art survives largely as a reminder of how pernicious art can be, and how little we can trust the moral or political judgment of artists.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill
“Proclaim Liberty throughout All the land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.” Inscription on the Liberty Bell