Leni Riefenstahl, still travelling after all these years, is turning the clock back almost half a century in an attempt to revisit the Mesakin Nuba of Sudan, the African people among whom she made her home at the start of a lifelong battle to overcome her reputation as a Nazi apologist - a shadow so dark, she has said, that death will be "a blessed release".
Two years short of her 100th birthday, Riefenstahl wants to see for herself what war has done to "her" Nuba, a cluster of tribes on the great African divide between the Islamic north and tribal south. While the woman who was Hitler's favourite photographer has been reinventing herself yet again, as an underwater photographer, the people she visited seven times between 1962 and 1977 have fallen prey to an Arab-oriented government seeking to impose a bleak cultural and religious conformity in the name of "civilisation".
Evil genius to some, narcissistic naif to others, Riefenstahl lost her heart to the Mesakin, a "gentle and peace-loving" tribe in the southern Nuba hills whom she immortalised in The Last of the Nuba, her first and most impressive book of Nuba photographs. She lived among them for months on end. She learned their language and studied their customs. But she failed to escape from her past.
Riefenstahl's images are strikingly similar to those of the much- respected British photographer George Rodger, whose portrait of two proud wrestlers was the inspiration for her journeys. But rather than wipe away the stain of her days as a child of the Third Reich, her Nuba photographs confirmed her reputation as an unrepentant fascist interested only in an almost inhuman physical perfection. One of her most spirited critics, the American essayist and novelist Susan Sontag, called The Last of the Nuba "the third in her triptych of fascist visuals" after her "mountain" films (The Holy Mountain and The Blue Light) and her Third Reich films (Triumph of the Will, on the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, and Olympia, her masterpiece on the 1936 Berlin Olympics).
This is not the view of the Nuba, who come to Riefenstahl without any preconceptions and without any ideological baggage. They may not remember her, may not even know her name, but they adore her work. "She shows us as we are," they say. "What's the problem?"
In Fascinating Fascism, the 1974 essay in which she lambasts The Last of the Nuba, Sontag says Riefenstahl's "almost naked primitives, awaiting the final ordeal of their proud heroic community, their imminent extinction, frolic and pose under the scorching sun". (Frolic and pose, that is, when they are not busy being "aloof".)
"What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical and pluralistic," she says. "In Riefenstahl's casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly, as in Levi-Strauss, the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organisation or thinking that is being extolled."
It is difficult to decide which is more preposterous, or more unfair: demanding scholarly anthropology from a photographer, or the patronising description of the Nuba as a "frolicking, posing" people - adjectives unjustified by anything in The Last of the Nuba.
Sontag sees what she wants to see. It is she who turns the Nuba into fascist cut-outs, not Riefenstahl. In Africa at least, it is not Riefenstahl's lens that is distorted but Sontag's. Riefenstahl may have been attracted to the Nuba by their bodies, but it was their way of life that drew her back.
In this context, it is instructive to compare The Last of the Nuba with the Nuba photographs published in a collection of George Rodger's life's work. More than half of Rodger's published photographs are of naked or near-naked wrestlers, compared with fewer than one in 10 of Riefenstahl's. Two-thirds of Riefenstahl's images depict Nuba society and social life, compared with only a third of Rodger's. …