The seating of the Aurora Theatre Company’s Harry’s UpStage is arranged untraditionally. The stage is the ground; three tiered rows of seats stand on each side. A nearly too-intimate arrangement, the separated audiences are forced to face each other like opposing teams in a stadium. In a way, this was perfect for “Leni”; the audience’s perceptions of the tour-de-force was just as much on display as the infamous Leni herself.
Leni Riefenstahl directed Hitler’s two most influential propaganda films in Nazi Germany — “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” — in her 20s. Tried multiple times for Nazi connections but never convicted, Riefenstahl denied both knowledge of the Holocaust and partiality to Hitler’s regime. She claimed her films were documentaries, not propaganda. “Propaganda uses the commentator … to tell the viewer what to think,” Leni explains in the stage production. “I make film art.” Nevertheless, she refused to denounce “Triumph of the Will.” After her last film made in Nazi Germany was released in 1954, she was never again hired to direct a feature film. She lived to be 101 years old.
“Leni” walks a fine line between celebrating Riefenstahl’s work and condemning it. Though this is a problem “Leni” inherently invites, in a near-ingenious choice made by playwright Sarah Greenman, Leni directs her own life story through the play. Beginning with the entrance of posthumous Leni, referred to as “Helene” (Stacy Ross), lights and camera directions are called by Riefenstahl throughout the show. She physically adjusts the lights and props on-stage to play to imaginary camera angles. She commands her younger self (Martha Brigham), directing her approaches in monetary negotiations with Hitler. In turn, younger Leni directs her older self as Helene relives her denazification proceedings.
Though both actresses are equally brilliant, each shines in their drastically different methods of portraying the controversial director. Ross’ performance is subtle and nuanced. She forces the audience to see past Riefenstahl’s prideful facade and to try to determine exactly how much Leni knew during the war and in what she was complicit. Brigham, however, plays younger Leni with a ferocity. Instead of playing audio recordings or even casting the Führer, Brigham unsettlingly teases and pleads with the air in front of her. She listens to his silent commands and appears visibly stricken in response. Lacking the thick skin of her older self, she shudders and cries when Helene reenacts the questionings she will later go through.
Nevertheless, the play wisely strays from too sympathetic a portrayal: Leni is equal parts relatable and detestable. When her older self is hesitant to go before the “camera,” young Leni implores the audience, “Don’t you want to see the great Leni Riefenstahl? She was once a great film actress.” Through this clever trick, Leni both encourages Helene and warns the audience: we are not to believe all of Riefenstahl’s claims.
In the play’s most pivotal moment, Riefenstahl plays the diving scene from “Olympia,” shot at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She forces the audience to see the beauty in “Olympia.” “Look!” she exclaims as the divers launch from their boards on screen. She explains the techniques she developed so that the viewer can feel the divers’ mid-air ethereality. She falls silent, the music builds, and the audience simply watches. In isolation, the film is beautiful.
Cleverly, this is the play’s message about all of Riefenstahl’s work. In isolation, Riefenstahl made “the two greatest films ever directed by a woman,” to quote New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael.
But art can never be separated from its external conditions. While the exposition of Leni Riefenstahl’s life as a play could be considered tasteless, the audience is forced to examine her life and work in their heinous creative conditions. As Helene reminds us in her most ominous monologue, the techniques and styles Riefenstahl created are found in today’s sporting events, political speeches and clothing ads. Riefenstahl’s work is used everyday by the media, though this work was deemed too political to allow Riefenstahl to continue her career. We reap her art’s benefits with one hand, while condemning its creation with the other.
Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].