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Riefenstahl's unknown parable about fascism and freedom
Leni Riefenstahl's "Tiefland" surely must be one of the tragedies of cinematic history. Filmed during WWII, under the scrutiny of the Nazi administration, it is an unmistakable statement against the evil of authoritarianism and a call for freedom of the common people from tyranny.
A little background may be in order for those who are unfamiliar with Riefenstahl. Born into a middle-class family in Berlin in 1902, she aspired to be a dancer. However, during her formal training in her early 20s, she suffered a crippling injury to her knee. While undergoing physical therapy, she discovered the film "Mountain of Destiny" by Arnold Fanck, which was about mountaineering in the Dolomite Mountains. She was fascinated with the film and managed to meet its director. Impressed by her spirit and fresh-faced beauty, he decided she would star in his next film, "The Holy Mountain", another mountaineering film.
After starring in another half dozen films in as many years, Riefenstahl was given an unprecedented opportunity: to direct the official documentary film on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. She threw herself into the project, overseeing hundreds of crewmembers and helping develop many revolutionary techniques and pieces of photographic equipment. "Olympia" was an unparalleled artistic achievement and a breathtaking tribute to the athletes that competed. Some opponents to the Nazis derided the film as propaganda, but in fact the film is nearly apolitical. For example, it focuses at length on the black American athlete Jesse Owens and other athletes from (later) Allied nations. 'Olympia' was hailed as a masterpiece around the world.
Impressed with her work, Adolf Hitler required her to make a film to promote the aims of the Nazis, which Riefenstahl did. "Triumph of the Will" became an effective propaganda device for the Nazi Party. Riefenstahl later explained that she had very little choice in the matter; those who refused to do the Party's bidding were routinely imprisoned or killed. It is also important to remember that film directors in every country were required to make propaganda films during the war. Many American directors made wartime propaganda films caricaturing the "Japs" as "yellow devils".
Nevertheless, Riefenstahl regretted her involvement, and hoped for some way to show the public that they should not believe the image that Hitler was attempting to project. That was where "Tiefland" came in. Ostensibly a "folk tale", it tells the story of a poor gypsy dancer in Spain who is desired and eventually imprisoned by the tyrannical lord of the land. Marta, played by Riefenstahl herself, only wants her freedom and peace for the oppressed peasants. Her salvation comes in the form of a lowly shepherd who loves her.
Technically, 'Tiefland" is well-crafted, with great care given to sets and locations, and some striking cinematography. The acting is rather understated, and the characters are fairly three-dimensional.
In many ways, "Tiefland's" story is somewhat old-fashioned for the early 1940s -- fairly predictable and quaint. But under the surface is an undeniable denouncement of oppression and tyranny. No doubt, Riefenstahl used the allegory as undiluted as she dared. The lord is dark and tempestuous, rather like Hitler. He rules the peasants without a care for their welfare. Had it been filmed in Germany, it probably would have been banned and resulted in Riefenstahl's arrest. That would come very soon, but from the victorious Allies, rather than the Axis.
As soon as the war was over, Riefenstahl (like thousands of others who had worked in the Nazi Party) were detained while it was determined whether or not they should stand trial for war crimes. She was never officially charged, but she spent four years in detention, and her rolls of film for 'Tiefland' were stored carelessly. When she was finally able to regain possession of her film, she could find no support or financing for its completion. She labored on, and in 1954 - ten years after filming began (and with many of the cast and crew dead from the war), Tiefland was finally complete. Naturally, no one would help release a film by the woman that was (wrongly) claimed to have been 'Hitler's girlfriend', and so, Tiefland remained in its cans.
An aside: the great aim of Riefenstahl's life had been to film an adaptation of the Greek legend of Penthisilea. Unfortunately, despite much work and a very promising premise (the story of the female Amazon warriors, filmed by a woman director), Penthisilea never saw completion and its footage is lost.
N.B.: I recently received a message from IMDb stating "This review was deleted by IMDb based on an abuse report filed by another user". I have carefully read IMDb's Guidelines and my review in no way violates them. It IS, however, against IMDb's Guidelines to flag other people's reviews out of a personal disagreement with the content of their reviews. That, I suspect is what's happening. If this review gets flagged, I will re-post it again, and as often as necessary.
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