There is no doubt that some works that exalt authority over freedom, hatred over tolerance and the strong over the weak can be good or even great art – the writings of Nietzsche, for example, of Hamsun and Céline. But that is not because of their formal achievement alone. It is because they also examine the ideals they express; because they include at least some self-criticism and reflection. The problem with Leni Riefenstahl’s films – and with her photographs too, most famously of the Nuba people of Sudan – is that they contain no such reflection. They exalt beauty and strength, and a simplified notion of nobility, and that is all. They are, therefore, not art, but propaganda – superb propaganda, technically innovative propaganda, but propaganda all the same. They misrepresent the reality of Nazi power, and Nuba life, showing only a glittering, manipulated surface, not the complex and (in the case of the Nazis) horrifyingly costly truth. Art is about more than beauty, as Susan Sontag said. Leni Riefenstahl ‘had a flair for the stunning image and the histrionic episode’, Bach writes, but none for any human feeling or truth. He quotes Thomas Mann: ‘art is moral in that it awakens’, while ‘Leni’s art lulled and deceived’. Leni Riefenstahl was not an artist, but a gifted propagandist for an evil cause. That is Bach’s conclusion. His will probably be the definitive biography. I certainly hope so.
more from Literary Review here.