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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

October 16, 1994|Kristine McKenna

OLYMPIA by Leni Riefenstahl (St. Martin's Press: $50; 288 pp.) German artist Leni Riefenstahl created two extraordinary films, "Triumph of the Will" (1934) and "Olympia" (1936). However, her real contribution to culture lies elsewhere; Riefenstahl brings the complex relationship between art and morality into focus as few artists of this century have done. Riefenstahl worked for Hitler, you see, and though the films she made for him are indisputably brilliant, they raise troubling questions. Can great art be created in a moral vacuum? Do we throw out all of Ezra Pound's work because he was smitten with Mussolini for a spell? Should an artist, however gifted, be blackballed from the culture if he fails to abide by certain basic humanitarian principles?

You won't find answers to any of those questions in this marginally interesting book. For those unfamiliar with her work, Riefenstahl blueprinted a visual style that's been borrowed almost whole-cloth in recent years by fashion photographer Bruce Weber. It boils down to this; burnished, glowing images of perfect physical specimens. That's essentially all there is to this book, which opens with images of classical Greece--the Parthenon, etc., just in case the readerdoesn't get where she's coming from--then goes on to document various events at the Olympic Games of 1936. Actual photos Riefenstahl shot (as opposed to stills from her film), the pictures are erotic yet oddly antiseptic and quickly become predictable in their perfection.

Now 92 and still working (she does a lot of underwater photography these days), Riefenstahl was the subject of a fascinating documentary released this year, "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl," which found her expending quite a bit of energy proclaiming the innocence of her relationship with the Third Reich and with Hitler (many historians believe she was his mistress). She insists she just didn't know what was going on, that she was out of town when the Holocaust happened, and the woman is so afflicted with tunnel vision shemay well be telling the truth. Too preoccupied with finding the perfect light to notice the burning bodies, Riefenstahl comments in her autobiography published last year that when German troops marched into Austria in 1938 "I realized these events would have an bearing on the premiere date of 'Olympia' but I wouldn't hear of delaying it." In 1948 a Baden denazification court adjudged Riefenstahl to have been merely a "follower" of the Nazi party, rather than an activist; nonetheless, an ugly stain continues to disfigure her work and probably always will.

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