New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 11 March 6 to 12, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Sins of Omission:
Leni Reifenstahl’s Africa

Nuba by Leni Reifenstahl. Source: Leni-riefenstahl.de/
Leni Reifenstahl, "Nuba"

At heart scientists and artists are amoral creatures, working for whoever pays the bills. They get a hot idea and want to see it through to its conclusion, be it the atom bomb or Triumph of the Will. In many ways the least ethical of beings, it has always amused me how often they pose as the contrary. Still, courage in the wrong cause is still courage, as is craft.

And yet talent in the service of evil has always posed a terrible problem for the critic. Whose job it is to think, to analyze, to weigh the arguments, to seek the underlying values in the work. Leni Riefenstahl’s book, Africa, brings all these issues home to me.

A brilliant filmmaker, if a middling still photographer, Riefenstahl was notorious for her collaboration with and exaltation of the Nazi regime. Looking past that specifically thorny business for the moment, I want to focus on the underlying sensibility that informed her work, both before and after World War II. Like the Nazis, who worshipped physical perfection and despised weakness, programmatically eliminating it in their euthanasia policy, Reifenstahl adored youth and power. Her film, Olympiad, was a cinematic poem in praise of it, especially in the guise of white beauty. In disgrace after the war was over, she turned her attention, ironically enough, to black beauty. George Rodgers’ photograph of naked Nubian wrestlers transfixed her and she went to Africa in search of them, apparently braving all sorts of difficulties en route.

Africa, her big color coffee table book published by Taschen, is the kind of glossy, oversized tome one sees in dentists’ offices. At best a layman’s study of African combat sports, at first glance it seems glitzy but innocuous, the images spilling across the bleed and crowding one another out of the frame, demanding your attention but making it difficult to really examine anything.

Dance of Love by Leni Reifenstahl. Source: Leni-riefenstahl.de/
Leni Reifenstahl, "Dance of Love"

But then you notice that she does not call the book “African Wrestlers”, she calls it Africa, after a continent stalked by disease, civil war and pain, not a trace of which is to be found in her book. Africa resolutely ignores anything to do with the difficult condition of Africa, and of a people Riefenstahl’s former masters would have happily exterminated had they won the war.

Working in a generic National Geographic style, Riefenstahl’s work epitomizes that peculiarly fascist blend of primitive ritual, physical strength, and disdain for those who do not possess it. The glorification of power always implies a contempt for weakness. In her book Riefenstahl has done symbolically what the Nazis did literally: eliminate flaws.

As does the lengthy biography at the end of the book. Filled with denials, dissimulations, and bold faced lies, this new improved Leni Riefenstahl was a woman who actually had the courage to defend the Jews to Hitler’s face. (Can you imagine what Hitler would have done to her had she really dared do that?)

So while there are some lovely images in Africa, and there are, no doubt, there is something fundamentally disturbing about the book. As there was about Leni Riefenstahl herself.

Africa Leni Reifenstahl Taschen 2010
ISBN: 978-3-8365-2317-2
About Barbara Confino
Barbara Confino is an artist and writer whose work is housed in such collections as The Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the British Museum. Her graphic history, The Genetic Wars, can be viewed at www.thegeneticwars.com. Her writings on art and culture have been published in ArtsCanada and The Village Voice among other publications. She is currently associate editor for The New York Photo Review.
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