Propaganda Wars: Philip Kerr Agrees with Leni Riefenstahl's Low Opinion of Mainstream American Movies

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Years ago, in the days when Clive James was fronting a programme about cinema on ITV, I used to think of the entrance to my local cinema in much the same way that Lucy thought of the wardrobe door in the children's novel by CS Lewis: as the gateway to a magical world of infinite possibility. These days, however, whenever someone asks me about what's worth seeing at the cinema, I find myself exclaiming, like Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) in Gigi(1958), "It's a bore, it's a bore, it's a bore." Cinema used to seem much less predictable, much less boring. After all, we had Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick to liven things up a bit, and before them we had Orson Welles.

And before Welles, well, yes, there was Leni Riefenstahl, to whom I think we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. For without her, no one below the age of 70 would have any idea of how it was that so many Germans were captured by the spell of Nazism. Diana Mitford may have adduced the evidence of Hitler's lovely eyes, and his fascinating conversation, but this merely served to make the old girl sound a couple of "heils" short of the full party rally, and brought us no nearer to a visceral understanding of the magnetic phenomenon that was Nazism than a new novel by Jack Higgins.

To see Riefenstahl's technically brilliant film Triumph of the Will (1934), however, is to gain a real insight into how the likes of Unity and Diana were swept away by the Nietzschean imperatives of Hitler and the Nazis. While I find it impossible to believe that Riefenstahl was not a Nazi, it is only through her films that future generations will be able to appreciate how it was that a civilised, law-abiding people like the Germans were able to entrust the Volksgeist to a bunch of psychopathic gangsters. To that extent, Triumph of the Will--and to a lesser extent Olympische Spiele (1936)--serves as one of the 20th century's most salutary films.

Now that Riefenstahl is dead, it will be interesting to see what will happen to Jodie Foster's plan to direct and star in a biopic of Hitler's favourite movie-maker. Shooting was to have begun on the project last year, but at the last minute Riefenstahl refused to sign a contract, on the grounds that she believed Foster's film would not be faithful to her self-serving memoirs. "I have no intention," she said at the time, "of permitting sensationalist lies and distortions to creep into the film, as is so often the case with Hollywood productions. …