The Devil’s Director

Last fall, one of the world's most talented movie directors died at the age of 101. According to obituaries, she was "daringly innovative" and a "genius." Not only that, but she was one of the first women to become famous as a director. But there were no misty-eyed television tributes to this director and no posthumous film festivals organized to celebrate her career. And it's a safe guess that no one at this year's Academy Awards will share fond memories of the woman whom some have called "the devil's director." In her long life, Leni Riefenstahl never lived down her 1934 documentary Triumph of the Will, which presented a glowing vision of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi government. She believed Hitler was the savior of Germany, and she worked closely with him to create what many people have called the greatest propaganda film ever made. Riefenstahl would spend the rest of her life arguing that she was never actually a member of the Nazi party and claiming that she didn't know Hitler's real agenda. But it didn't matter. Nor did it matter that she was a brilliant filmmaker who invented techniques that are still used today. Riefenstahl's directing career was essentially over. Nobody would work with her or finance her projects. It would be forty-eight years before she was able to release one last film. What's fascinating about this story is that the artistic community's reaction to Riefenstahl undermines everything many of them say they believe. It's fashionable to claim that art is above all moral considerations and that it justifies itself. So what happens to the director who fled the country to avoid being jailed for statutory rape, or the director who pals around with Communist dictators? What happens to the films that present a deliberately distorted portrayal of religion, or the documentary that shamelessly twists the facts to make a point that Hollywood approves of? They get showered with awards. Anybody who complains is reminded that artistic achievement trumps every other consideration. But it doesn't, and the case of Leni Riefenstahl shows the lie. What she did is no different than what many others have done since her time -- using their talent to serve an immoral cause. It just happened that this one was one Hollywood disagreed with. Sometimes artists have to be blunt and to open our eyes to truths that we'd rather not see. Some of the greatest Christian artists have done just that. But that's very different from whitewashing evil and lying about the facts. Just like any other discipline, the arts are subject to the moral laws that are written on our hearts. And when we don't realize that, we end up with films like Triumph of the Will. Because of Riefenstahl's brilliance as a filmmaker some film professors still use Triumph of the Will as a teaching tool. I hope they'll continue to do so, so students can see excellence put to an evil use. We don't need another generation of artists who celebrate all kinds of evil -- from gratuitous, sickening violence to pedophilia -- all in the name of art. If Leni Riefenstahl's twisted masterpiece can teach people that art is not higher than morality, then "the devil's director" will have unwittingly done more good than most contemporary directors put together. For further reading and information: Alan Riding, "Leni Riefenstahl, Filmmaker and Nazi Propagandist, Dies at 101," New York Times, 9 September 2003. (Free registration required.) Luke Harding, "Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's favourite film propagandist, dies at 101," The Guardian, 10 September 2003. "Just What Did Leni Riefenstahl's Lens See?New York Times, 13 March 1994, reprinted by the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Scott McGee, review of Triumph of the Will -- Special Edition on DVD, "Movie News," Turner Classic Movies website. Richard Corliss, "That Old Feeling: Leni's Triumph," Time, 22 August 2002. "Duvall rebukes Spielberg for Castro visit,", 9 January 2004. Beth Gillin, "Polanski has avoided consequences," Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 March 2003. James M. Kushiner, Creed & Culture: A Touchstone Reader(ISI Books, 2003). Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Tyndale, 1999). See especially chapters 41-45. The BreakPoint "Christians in the Arts" kit includes It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God by Ed Bustard (editor), William Edgar, Makoto Fujimura, and David Giardinieare (Square Halo Books, 2000), and Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner (InterVarsity Press, 2001). Both are great resources for Christians involved or interested in the arts. Visit BreakPoint's Christians in the Arts page for more resources and links. Also visit the Wilberforce Forum page on the arts.


Chuck Colson


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