Susan Sontag and the Nazi Filmmaker

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

When the noted author and literary critic Susan Sontag passed away on December 28, the obituaries spotlighted her controversial statements about U.S. foreign policy, racism, and the 9/11 attacks.  Unfortunately, almost no mention was made of one of Sontag’s most important public stands–her startling about-face with regard to Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl was personally chosen by Adolf Hitler to direct films glorifying the Nazi regime, such as “Triumph of the Will” (1935) and “Olympiad” (1938).  Riefenstahl even used Gypsy prisoners from German concentration camps as extras in one of her films.  Although Riefenstahl later claimed she did not support the Nazis, when Hitler conquered Paris in 1940, she sent him a telegram declaring: “Your deeds exceed the power of human imagination. They are without equal in the history of mankind.  How can we [the German people] ever thank you?”

In her 1965 essay “On Style,” Sontag wrote:  “Because they project the complex movements of intelligence and grace and sensuousness, these two films of Riefenstahl [‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘Olympiad’] transcend the categories of propaganda or even reportage.”  In effect, Sontag was separating Riefenstahl the filmmaker from Riefenstahl the Nazi propagandist.

A decade later, however, Sontag reversed herself.  In her essay “Fascinating Fascism” (published in the New York Review of Books in 1975), Sontag derided Riefensthal as “a leading propagandist for the Third Reich,” someone who “completely identified with the Nazi era.”  She dismissed the notion that Riefenstahl’s filmmaking talent could be judged separately from the political (Nazi) purposes that her films served.  Sontag also took aim at apologists for Riefenstahl.  She sharply condemned the attempts by “the most influential voices in the avant-garde film establishment” to bring about the “de-Nazification and vindication” of Riefenstahl by downplaying the filmmaker’s Nazi links.

It’s not easy to admit that you are wrong.  Sontag deserves credit for her willingness to concede that she had been wrong about Riefenstahl.

Unfortunately, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has not done likewise.

At the 2004 Oscar Awards ceremony, Riefenstahl was included in the Academy’s memorial tribute to recently-deceased figures from the movie industry.  Hitler’s hand-picked filmmaker, who played a leading role in making propaganda for the most evil regime in human history, was included alongside legitimate artists who recently passed away, such as Gregory Peck and Elia Kazan.  The Academy should have explained that Riefenstahl was an example of how art can be perverted to promote fascism, racism, and genocide.

Susan Sontag was wrong to praise Leni Riefenstahl in 1965, and the Motion Picture Academy was wrong to glorify the Nazi filmmaker at the Oscars ceremony last year.  The difference between the two is that Sontag recognized her error and publicly recanted.

February 2005