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FESTIVAL OF SMOKE

Jeremy Murray-Brown 

Soon after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, an incident occurred in the town of Konskie in which a number of Poles were massacred by German soldiers in reprisal for Polish partisan attacks on Germans. Photographs were taken, one showing the bodies of the murdered Poles lying on the ground. Also present in Konskie that day was a uniformed woman in charge of a German "documentary" film crew. She was Leni Riefenstahl, then thirty-seven years old and well known as Hitler's favored film maker. A photograph was taken of her too. 

These photographs taken at Konskie haunted Riefenstahl after the war when she was accused of being an eye-witness to Nazi atrocities. Although a German de-Nazification tribunal cleared her of this charge, she was so tainted by her association with Hitler and other Nazi leaders that she found it impossible to resume her career as a film maker. Tiefland, which she had been working on intermittently during the war and released finally in 1954, was her last film. She survived the difficult post-war years through one expedient after another and went on to make a brief splash as a stills photographer of certain African tribes. In 1987, aged 85, she published her memoirs in Germany. These were translated anonymously and published in Britain in 1992 under the title The Sieve of Time. They have now been published in the United States as Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir

  In these pages Riefenstahl explains why she was in Konskie that day in September 1939 and how the photograph of her came to be taken. It is one of many instances where she has found it necessary to justify, correct, refute, or excuse something about her past. But she gives no hint that she is aware of the irony that she, whose reputation among cinéastes rests on so-called "documentaries," should find herself trapped by a visual document. In part her book is an attempt to score off what she terms her "enemies," writers like Susan Sontag who have identified Nazi aesthetic themes in the photographs of her post-Hitler career. Alert readers are unlikely to find her explanations convincing.  

Riefenstahl's book is very long and repeats much of what she has told about herself before in one form or another. Its narrative follows the arc of her long and turbulent life from its petit-bourgeois beginnings in the Kaiser's Germany (she was born in 1902) to its long downhill love affair with Africa. (She says she'd like to settle in Africa among the simple mud huts and naked people, but the rains and mosquitoes make it impossible). As active in the latter half of her life as in her prime, she has survived through single minded concentration on her own interests and remarkable physical stamina. She was photogenic, with a good face and figure, and many men were attracted to her. But it does not seem that people liked her, apart from Hitler, nor will most readers find her self-portrait appealing. 

The relationship with Hitler is the centerpiece of her book. Spread out over some two hundred pages, this is the fullest account Riefenstahl has yet given of it. She takes us from the day she first met Hitler in early 1932 to the final moments of the war, when, at the very end of April 1945, trying to hide herself away in Austria, she heard of his death ("A chaos of emotions raged in me. I threw myself on the bed and wept all night.") In the course of these pages Riefenstahl introduces us to the top Nazis and her work on the films that made her famous. It is this section of the book that the publishers must hope will attract readers. 

Index of Papers   1  2  3  4 

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