Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Leni Riefenstahl

When I was a film student we watched a lot of movies. Chaplin, Keaton, Kurosawa, Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Lang, Wilder, Kubrick, Lean, Hawks, Stevens, Berkeley, Fellini, De Sica, Rosselini, Antonioni, Cocteau, Bergman, Marnau, Curtiz, Eisenstein, to begin with. Sometimes we'd see 4-5 movies a day. There were two inexpensive classic movie theaters a short walk from Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, and a handful of us took full advantage. I don't know if we absorbed everything, but we all absorbed enough to have careers in the film industry. Some of us went into animation, others went into live action. We had great instructors and they instilled in us an appreciation for the film form, imagery, storytelling and the impact it can have on an audience.

The first time I saw Triumph of the Will at a tiny little theater in West Hollywood in the early sixties, I was stunned by the huge, powerful imagery of one of the most influential propaganda films ever made. The art of the movie was what impressed me most. Incredible black and white compositions, dramatic lighting, an amazing documentary. Setting aside the politics and motivation for the film, when studied strictly as a piece of film-making, this is an important film.

While living in Denmark in 1993 I met people from all over Europe. It was then that I learned that Leni Riefenstahl was still alive and still working as a film maker. Riefenstahl was born in 1902, began her movie career as an actress in 1924, directed her first movie in 1932, and directed Triumph of the Will in 1934.

After WWII she went to Africa to begin a film project that never materialized. But her time there gave rise to an interest in Africa. In the 1960s she took up photography and documented the lives of the Nuba Tribe in Sudan. In 1974 she published The Last of the Nuba, and in 1976 The People of Kau.

In 1974 she took up underwater photography and published two books on the subject. On August 22, 2002, on her 100th birthday, she released a documentary film called Underwater Impressions.

Leni Riefenstahl died in 2003 in her sleep a few weeks after her 101st birthday.

There are numerous DVDs and books available. The best biography is probably Leni Riefenstahl by Leni Riefenstahl.

When I learned she was still alive and living in Munich, a friend of mine there put me in touch with her. I wanted to have her sign my copies of The Last of the Nuba and The People of Kau. She said she would love to but was leaving very shortly to shoot some underwater documentary footage in The Caribbean and would be happy to sign the books when she got back. Meanwhile, she sent along the photocards below.

By the time she returned to Munich I had relocated back to The States and all my books were in storage.

I can't think of anyone who lived through more historically interesting times and had such unbelievable life experiences as this woman did.


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