The good, the bad, and the artist

Leni Riefenstahl knew her angles. She knew exactly how to frame her shots, how to capture her preferred lighting, and how to create a devastatingly dramatic effect by way of cinematic arrangement. She spent the better part of her career in Germany during the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, before her work would go on to become celebrated internationally. According to film scholar Mark Cousins, “next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented filmmaker of her era.”

If you ask film critic Gary Morris, Riefenstahl was “an artist of unparalleled gifts, a woman in an industry dominated by men, one of the great formalists of the cinema on a par with Einstein.” Riefenstahl died at 101 years of age in 2003, but praise for her work lives on. Her legacy has endured throughout the twentieth century, and her art continues to inspire photographers and filmmakers alike.

Leni Riefenstahl was also a Nazi. In the early 1930’s, Riefenstahl developed a friendly relationship with Adolf Hitler, and before long, was commissioned to create a series of propaganda films for the Nazi Party. Through funding from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s minister of propaganda, Riefenstahl created The Victory Of Faith, shortly followed by Triumph Of The Will, an hour-and-a-half long documentary about the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Riefenstahl later denied having knowledge of the film’s intent, but her close involvement with the party strongly suggested otherwise. In a report from The Detroit News she was quoted saying, “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time so possessed of masculine strength.”

So, how might a Nazi become a widely celebrated artist? It’s a legitimate question, and not an easy one to answer. Apart from the fact that the Nazis were well-known art-haters, they were also Nazis; intuitively, there is no reason to celebrate a Nazi for anything. But Riefenstahl is a fascinating exception. Her love for the Third Reich certainly doesn’t lessen her technical capabilities, but whether she deserves international acclaim for her artwork is a very different question.

The art world, as you’ve probably noticed, is lousy with awful people. Riefenstahl, while certainly unfavorable, is arguably not the worst among them. The list of bad people who make good art is extensive, which forces you to question whether the two components are interconnected, and if their misdoings are a byproduct of their own creative brilliance. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year old cousin; Roman Polanski is said to have raped a 13-year old girl; Mark Wahlberg beat and racially abused a Vietnamese man; and Snoop Dogg faced a charge for murder. Oh, and Riefenstahl isn’t the only anti-Semite in the art world, either; she’s accompanied by Richard Wagner, Mel Gibson, Walt Disney, T.S. Elliot, Coco Chanel, and a crusade’s worth of others. Ultimately, if it weren’t for fame, wealth, and a few other systemic variables, these transgressors would ­— or should — be sitting in their local penitentiaries, and Chuck Berry would likely be stationed in solitary confinement.

Questions then turn to the artist’s perceived legacy. Artists like Riefenstahl and Wagner are not simply bad people who also happened to make decent art, they’re bad people who happened to be artistic geniuses; their art is integral to our understanding of their respective art forms, and without them, we would have a vastly altered version of their fields.

Professor John Haines teaches musicology at U of T, with a specific focus on medieval studies. His written works range from music during the Middle Ages, to popular music more broadly. Recently, Haines led a course on musical scores in film. He pointed out that when he teaches the course, it is integral that he note the importance of Richard Wagner’s compositions in his lectures. “If you listen to his music, it’s an acquired taste,” Haines explained. “It’s difficult to get into. But there’s no question to me that his music is great music, and is worthy of study regardless of what his personal life was like. To a certain extent, we have to be able to separate that.”

Wagner, who once wrote that his “long suppressed resentment against Jewish Business” was “as necessary to [him] as gall is to the blood,” was also the inventor of the ‘leitmotif,’ an incredibly influential element of music that serves the purpose of associating a short musical phrase with a person, place, or idea. It is a concept used frequently in films.

For instance: the Darth Vader entrance music in Star Wars is a leitmotif. The majestic trumpets that sound off when Indiana Jones escapes the Temple of Doom is also a leitmotif. In fact, one could argue that the marimba tone that plays on your iPhone alarm every morning is a leitmotif as well. Arguably, the first thing you hear every morning before you get out of bed is the invention of Hitler’s favorite anti-Semitic composer. Chew on that the next time you wake up.

Still, “a lot depends on the extent to which the artist’s unsavoury views have registered within the artwork,” said Ellen Lockhart, associate professor of musicology at the Faculty of Music. “If they really can’t be overlooked or forgotten for any considerable stretch, then that art is unlikely to inspire audience affection beyond its original time and place.” These notions apply to Wagner, whose anti-Semitism doesn’t really factor into his work, but whose music has stood the test of time. That being said, this fails to justify the success of Leni Riefenstahl, whose most famous works feature a young Adolf Hitler giving the Nazi salute in front of a million German people at a Nazi rally.

Haines and Lockhart are intent on separating these artists from their work, largely in order to appreciate the artwork without validating the artist’s personal actions. “Can I love Wagner’s The Meistersingers of Nuremberg and still be a good person? Of course,” explained Lockhart. “But I have no interest in celebrating these artists as people. Let’s put it this way: Wagner’s operas are on my shelves and in my DVD player, but his picture isn’t on my wall, and I make no pilgrimages to his hometown.”