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Slavo Zizek, "Learning to Love Leni"

"Learning To Love Leni"

Slavoj Zizek, In These Times, 9.10.03

The life and work of Leni Riefenstahl, who died on
Monday at age 101, seems to lend itself to a mapping of
a devolution, progressing toward a dark conclusion. It
began with the early "mountain films" of the 1920s that
she starred in and later began directing as well, which
celebrated heroism and bodily effort in the extreme
conditions of mountain climbing. It went on to her
notorious Nazi documentaries in the ‘30s, celebrating
bodily discipline, concentration, and strength of will
in sport as well as in politics. Then, after World War
II, in her photo albums, she rediscovered her ideal of
bodily beauty and graceful self-mastery in the Nuba
African tribe. Finally, in her last decades, she
learned the difficult art of deep sea diving and
started shooting documentaries about the strange life
in the dark depths of the sea.We thus obtain a clear trajectory from the top to the
bottom: We begin with rugged individuals struggling at
the mountain tops and gradually descend, until we reach
the amorphous teem of life at the bottom of the sea. Is
not what she encountered down there her ultimate
object, the obscene and irresistibly thriving eternal
force of life itself, what she was searching for all
along? And does this not apply also to her personality?
It seems that the fear of those who are fascinated by
Leni is no longer "When will she die?" but "Will she
ever die?" Although rationally we know that she has
just passed away, we somehow do not really believe it.
She will go on forever.

This continuity of her career is usually given a
fascist twist, as in the exemplary case of the famous
Susan Sontag essay on Leni, "Fascinating Fascism." The
idea is that even her pre- and post-Nazi films
articulate a fascist vision of life: Leni’s fascism is
deeper than her direct celebration of Nazi politics; it
resides already in her pre-political aesthetics of
life, in her fascination with beautiful bodies
displaying their disciplined movements. Perhaps it is
time to problematize this topos. Let us take Leni’s
1932 film Das blaue Licht ("The Blue Light"), the story
of a village woman who is hated for her unusual prowess
at climbing a deadly mountain. Is it not possible to
read the film in exactly the opposite way as it usually
is interpreted? Is Junta, the lone and wild mountain
girl, not an outcast who almost becomes the victim of a
pogrom -- there is no other appropriate word -- by the
villagers? (Perhaps it is not an accident that Béla
Balázs, Leni’s lover at that time who co-wrote the
scenario with her, was a Marxist.)

The problem here is much more general; it goes far
beyond Leni Riefenstahl. Let us take the very opposite
of Leni, the composer Arnold Schönberg. In the second
part of Harmonielehre, his major theoretical manifesto
from 1911, he develops his opposition to tonal music in
terms which, superficially, anticipate later Nazi anti-
Semitic tracts. Tonal music has become a "diseased,"
"degenerated" world in need of a cleansing solution;
the tonal system has given in to "inbreeding and
incest"; romantic chords such as the diminished seventh
are "hermaphroditic," "vagrant" and "cosmopolitan."
It’s easy and tempting to claim that such a messianic-
apocalyptic attitude is part of the same "spiritual
situation" that eventually gave birth to the Nazi final
solution. This, however, is precisely the conclusion
one should avoid: What makes Nazism repulsive is not
the rhetoric of final solution as such, but the
concrete twist it gives to it.

Another popular conclusion of this kind of analysis,
closer to Leni, is the allegedly fascist character of
the mass choreography of disciplined movements of
thousands of bodies: parades, mass performances in
stadia, etc. If one finds it also in communism, one
immediately draws the conclusion about a "deeper
solidarity" between the two "totalitarianisms." Such a
formulation, the very prototype of ideological
liberalism, misses the point. Not only are such mass
performances not inherently fascist; they are not even
"neutral," waiting to be appropriated by left or right.
It was Nazism that stole them and appropriated them
from the workers’ movement, their original site of
birth. None of these "proto-fascist" elements is per se
fascist. What makes them "fascist" is only their
specific articulation -- or, to put it in Stephen Jay
Gould’s terms, all these elements are "ex-apted" by
fascism. There is no fascism avant la lettre, because
it is the letter itself that composes the bundle (or,
in Italian, fascio) of elements that is fascism proper.

Along the same lines, one should radically reject the
notion that discipline, from self-control to bodily
training, is inherently a proto-fascist feature.
Indeed, the very term "proto-fascist" should be
abandoned: It is a pseudo-concept whose function is to
block conceptual analysis. When we say that the
organized spectacle of thousands of bodies (or, say,
the admiration of sports that demand high effort and
self-control like mountain climbing) is "proto-
fascist," we say strictly nothing, we just express a
vague association that masks our ignorance.

So when, three decades ago, kung fu films became
popular, was it not obvious that we were dealing with a
genuine working-class ideology of youngsters whose only
means of success was the disciplinary training of their
bodies, their only possession? Spontaneity and the "let
it go" attitude of indulgence belong to those who have
the means to afford it -- those who have nothing have
only their discipline. The "bad" bodily discipline, if
there is one, is not the one of "collective training,"
but, rather, jogging and body-building as part of the
New Age myth of the realization of the self’s "inner
potentials." (No wonder that the obsession with one’s
body is an almost obligatory part of the passage of ex-
leftist radicals into the "maturity" of pragmatic
politics: From Jane Fonda to Joschka Fischer, the
"period of latency" between the two phases was marked
by the focus on one’s own body.)

So, back to Leni: What all this does not mean is that
one should dismiss her Nazi engagement as a limited,
unfortunate episode. The true problem is to sustain the
tension that cuts through her work: the tension between
the artistic perfection of her practice and the
ideological project that "ex-apted" it. Why should her
case be different from that of Ezra Pound, William
Butler Yeats, and other modernists with fascist
tendencies who long ago became part of our artistic
canon? Perhaps the search for the "true ideological
identity" of Leni Reifenstahl is a misleading one.
Perhaps there is no such identity: She was genuinely
thrown around, inconsistent, caught in a cobweb of
conflicting forces.

Is then the best way to mark her death not to take the
risk of fully enjoying a film like Das blaue Licht,
which contains the possibility of a political reading
of her work totally different from the prevailing view?

[Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a
senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study
in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. Among other
books, he is the author of The Fragile Absolute and Did
Somebody Say Totalitarianism?