THIS STORY IS ABOUT A BLACK OLYMPIAN (Jesse Owens), A JEWISH FILM DIRECTOR (Bud Greenspan) AND AN AMAZING WOMAN (Leni Riefenstahl ), WHO MADE ADOLF HITLER LOOK VERY, VERY GOOD.
RESEARCHED & TRUE. (I WORKED FOR THE FILM DIRECTOR).
Leni Riefenstahl is a witness to the shooting of Jewish prisoners by German Wehrmacht soldiers in the Polish city Konskie on 12 September 1939:
“I know what my grandfather has shared throughout the years. So, to me, that’s the truth of the story.” —Marlene Dortch, granddaughter of Jesse Owens
“Reality doesn’t interest me…” —Leni Riefenstahl, Director, Triumph of the Will
Germany early ’20s, Leni Riefenstahl yearns to dance and tour Europe’s stages by the time she hits her 20s. Her mother puts her to bed each night, whispering in her ear beyond her father’s, “You’ll move in many ways for the world’s love always.” This promise keeps Leni, first in her sleep, then awake, burning for the world to know her. Other girls tailor sentences to become wives and mothers their dolls must imitate, but Leni broadens her courage and widens her steps like Isadora Duncan across plywood floors. She moves like second nature, her skin against the music’s backbone, and colors in her outline for eyes that reflect her motion. Leni becomes her body, gesture into gesture, reveling beneath the muscled fibers of stage lights. By her late teens, Leni thrums and spins across the horizons of a theater-going public. Her mother’s words push into their ears, and the planet erupts in applause.
But one day, nursing a knee injury alone at home, two weeks without compliment, Leni plucks from her boredom the bald knowledge that dance scenes never last. She misses standing ovations and the worship of roses at her feet. How to draw warmth from klieg lights without the shrinking stage for more? Happily ever after will never happen on the temperamental boards that could twist her leg at any turn and retire her to a quiet valley forever. Even back on tour, life will dim to solemn when the curtains descend, erasing her face from those who gaze back. What other way might reflect her transcendence? Her talent? She frets all night.
The next afternoon, Leni leans her way by cane along the train platform to the doctor’s office. Scanning film posters along the smoky walls, one sings out a sharp breath in its urban context. Leni stops, gaze affixed to the crystalline mountain in the picture. She misses her appointment and spends the evening in Mozart Hall climbing into Arnold Fanck’s Mountain of Destiny. The next night and the night after, she watches Fanck’s protagonist scale heights in thinning air, weathering avalanches and the jealous nearsightedness of saboteurs to reach the jagged peak where the hero finally stands, his chest full amid iridescent greens and rolling blues. Leni, after three days of Fanck, abandons Berlin’s dance scene and the beaux arts, to face a new trial-by-fire in the projected land of her favorite childhood tales. For the Pied Piper, Rumpelstiltskin and Snow White, she begins to plot a path into the big screen before her.
The art of making one’s own way hinges, however, on knowing the curves of the land. Leni has practiced the ways in which to enlist others, mostly men, in the work of fashioning her dreams. With melodious looks, the slight tilt of her head and a flash of teeth, she can entice them to chivalrous ends with lush, delicate pleas. She practices requests in the shape of a lilt. By young adulthood, Leni has learned the damsel can spark men’s desires, rooted as they are in the soil of necessity and helpfulness. The mastery of the feminine has been as quick as a dance, and the possibilities radiate horizons. Leni toes Dr. Fanck’s garden with the loam of her pen, and so, she begins. She writes the man a letter—and mails it.
/ / /
Bud Greenspan, the IOC’s filmmaker for the latter half of the 20th century, enters the sports film genre after a less-than-shiny stint as a writer/producer of TV commercials. He parts the waters when he attempts to make human the story of Jesse Owens, the black man who ran and jumped his way to four gold medals in the ’36 Berlin Olympics before the citizens of Adolf Hitler. In 1964, Bud travels with Jesse back to Germany to the renovated stadium where they record the celluloid tale of that combustible week. With the success of Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin, Bud is known in the screen world for his knack of finding the human in each story. Drawing that form with his palette, he casts his light on the figure who passed through the eye of blood and glory, sketching flesh and sinew atop the athlete’s skeletal calculus. By the film’s final scenes, the attendees burst out for the noble heart, uncaring for what place or ribbon lost, their claps demanding more. Bud dons his trademark vest with pockets of accordion sizes, smiles for photographers, and fishes out his reading glasses to be placed, as a crown, for the rest of his career at the crest of his forehead.
These quests in sports echo those of men sent forth in search of a grail or challenge. Jason sought the fleece, Don Quixote burned for his knight-defining fight, and Gilgamesh hunted the giant Humbaba. Bud knows it’s not the finish that makes the viewer’s heart fill; it’s the execution by which the hero’s adversaries are dealt with that dilates pupils and inspires odes on greatness. Bud finds champion mortals more compelling than their final sports statistics. In his plot, the finish line lies a distant reminder to viewers of what took place in the battle’s thick moments – a medal is only one form of notice. The cinematic torch illuminates and dissembles. For Bud, stuck in an editing puzzle, took three brief clips of Hitler and pasted them in after each of Jesse’s races, one time backwards. The fuehrer didn’t attend each event, including the black runner’s, but the filmmaker thought his presence, even in absence, should be marked.
Like many, when Bud first views Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, he instantly sees she has turned the ’36 Olympics into a fairy tale. Her vision jumps past documentation straight into action, wringing blood from a body on the battlefield. The sheen of will triumphs over doubt fed by a skeptical intellect. Her earlier films like The Blue Light root Olympia in the sinew of her legs and back, pressing over snow-packed peaks into sunlight that washes the valley translucent. Bud gleans from her face a reverence for the stretch of muscle across human bone, how each step enabled her climb to vistas only gods inhabit. Work, discipline, and courage are the pores through which Olympia is borne.
He recalls the day Leni’s cameramen were preparing the grounds for filming; the IOC refused permission to dig a pit beneath the pole vault where they would capture the athletes against the sky as backdrop, sweeping across the frame to glory. These shots carry the audience towards the home of gods, like the mountains, and move them to what they’ve never witnessed. The athletes’ bodies write the scripts of Leni’s ideals across a cloudless stark blue. Her vision could be directed and filmed unhindered, but the IOC blocked the artist’s team from their task. Leni recounts the scene to her troop, “Let me talk to them. Wait here.” Later that night on her return, the men had gathered for dinner in the canteen. “We can do it. I went to the committee and explained, ‘Our film will be ruined if we can’t dig the pit!’ They looked straight at me, and I cried my eyes out. Let’s eat!”
Bud adopts the techniques she invented to arrest action in a stream of work and achievement. Beside the athletes, Leni’s cameramen trained with catapults on tracks beside runners, hunkered in holes below the pole vault, with diving cameras shipped directly from Hollywood, in the art of exposure through night filters and with the incisiveness of telephoto lenses. Bud learns from the master of cuts between panoramas and close-ups, always with her subject elevated and idolized by cameras. Leni shot 250 miles of film in ’36, more than could be woven into her hymn on the purity of athleticism, the younger man discovers—and is thrilled.
In the early 60s, Bud writes an aging Leni long letters throughout the research phase of the Owens’s project. He puts promise to paper, “…mesmerizing … tremendous eye …visionary … inspired… beauty … composed … defiance,” and kindles that ember anew, persuading her of admiration and love for Olympiaand all that she has done. She feels the tug after decades of industry abandonment. Her limbs warm with the wool of each sentence. This American might be a way in to film again; she sends her footage of Owens for consideration.
But Bud is not in love with Leni nor a collaboration; he lusts for those scenes, the way her cameras were present that week in Berlin and so elegantly captured the body of the black athlete. Hers is only one take on a story of hard work and physical glory. What has been omitted, for Bud, is the real life saga, one that Leni neglected: segregated dormitories, the handlers for Black athletes, Hitler’s thoughts on inferiority in Olympia. He wants a chance to flesh out the bones, to color the face of history. He needs footage to set the scene. Without permission, he uses Leni’s.
Despite the letters typed by her own hand, Leni does not stop Bud from using her work. The pleas, still housed in their green file folder, begin to fade, turning brittle with a history that threatens disintegration. On them, an intrepid assistant will find a series of requests, demands, and increasing threats of litigious action, all spelled out in the staccato English of a sixty-something filmmaker begging the release of her footage from the hands of a Jewish man telling a story long in shadow. His first major sports film complete, Bud places a file marked, “Leni Riefenstahl,” in his bottom metal drawer at the Manhattan office of Cappy Productions.
/ / /
As her expertise in scaling mountains grows in the late ’20s, Leni flexes, moving surefooted into the world of film, limber enough to scale peaks for the camera and turn directors to putty. She becomes Germany’s “other Dietrich” directly after Marlene departs for the U.S. to stomp for the allies and report often, “Hitler is an idiot.” With each endorphined leg across the Dolomites’ crags, Leni hardens with a confidence that courses through her veins, fever-pitched, as production on The Sacred Mountain nears completion.
By the time her next role in SOS Iceberg gets underway, she turns as restless as the days when her dancing knee was bent. Leni performs on screen, immortalized but controlled, told what to do; she can’t lay claim to what the projector reveals. Leni wants to render the world in her own style with a Kino-eye that only she directs.
Leni asks questions between scenes. “Why is the camera not atop that peak?” “What if the shutter speed is slowed for the sun setting?” “Can you capture their shadows instead of the direct shot?” “How did you get this lens?” “What happens if you keep the action but run two cameras at opposite angles to fuse a seamless motion in editing?” Moved by her naïvely curious tone, two directors teach Leni their techniques along with the business of the film world’s mechanics. By 1932, production of The Blue Lightbegins with the dancer, actress, and mountaineer fresh-faced and poised at the helm of the newly-founded Leni Riefenstahl Production Company.
/ / /
The Telltale Heart
Jesse Owens is not awarded a Coca Cola contract when he brings back from Berlin four gold medals. He doesn’t leap, mid-stride, from the side of a Wheaties box while Americans eat their breakfasts, nor does he excite a radio audience after dinner with the speed of the Ford Thunderbird. In fact, when he first sets his cleats on American soil again, President Roosevelt does not invite him to the White House nor call him to offer congratulations. The “Day of Infamy” orator doesn’t even write Owens a letter. At the end of WWII, the Olympic athlete cobbles his paychecks together wearing the hats of playground director, racer of horses and motorcycles, dry cleaner, gas station attendant, promoter for the Negro Baseball League, and sports entertainment presenter.
Over the years, he is hired to speak a few times at company conferences, a college track and field meet, and a local organization for underprivileged children. The pay is decent, and speaking beats running beside racehorses that are secretly spooked at the gate. When the invites increase, Owens realizes he might be able to support his wife and three daughters by telling his story. He starts up his own PR firm. Word spreads that Jesse Owens is available for speaking performances, and, as the Civil Rights Movement grows louder, a handful like the idea of hiring a black athlete, a respectable gesture, to detail how he dealt with the racism he faced under Hitler’s gaze while running against the Nazis.
As his appearances increase, the more fine-tuned his stories replay. With each sentence, he learns to pause for effect. With each lap of the track, his pacing increases. As Hitler appears and his audience leans in, Jesse sets the next scene with a contingency of Aryan athletes beside him. He cuts the deadwood, and speaks long and slow to tense the moments. He repeats for emphasis. Jesse acquires the storyteller mode, and he notes the elements of drama quicken with each visit to the podium.
The key moment, the one that intrigues businessmen and lady’s auxiliary meetings, takes place on the field during the running broad jump preliminaries. Jesse begins, “On the first two jumps, I fouled on one and didn’t go far enough on the other. Luz Long came to my assistance.” Long was a blue-eyed, blonde-haired poster boy from the German team.
Jesse bends down on his runner’s knee by the lectern. “He helped me measure a foot back on the take-off board. He held the tape until I measured a foot back as far as my take-off was concerned.” He stretches, in slow motion, a long stride before his American audience and says, “And then I came down and hit between the two qualifying marks. With Luz’s help, I qualified and that led to my victory in the running broad jump.”
Except that moment never happened. Luz did not approach Jesse until the latter jumped farther than he had. The medal was Jesse’s. In that moment past the runner’s pit, Luz put his arm around the winning athlete, and the two walked together, in front of Hitler, photographed in conversation, enjoying each other’s victory.
Jesse Owens stands friendly and present before his countrymen and women as they grapple with the mixing of races, thoughts of black men and women taking jobs held by whites only, and continues, “A fellow athlete showed a special grace and courtesy when I needed help. I’ve experienced many moments in the sun, but perhaps the most rewarding was to have Luz Long beside me on the winner’s platform.” As he repeats his story on American soil, each time more vividly than the last, Jesse seeks the neutral shape that an earnest appeal must take by the end. And so the story adapts.
/ / /
In 1932, Adolph Hitler walks out of a German theater into a day scrubbed by sunlight, entranced by the star of the film, The Blue Light. Leni later learns that, then and there, her future leader decided to commission her to make National Socialist films and help him come to power. Like Leni, he is well versed in the reach of movies, and her kindred enthusiasm sells her cinematic talents. The admiration is shared. At the prompting of a friend that same year, Leni attends a rally and hears Hitler persuade a crowd with the merits of his party, a party she sees can save Germany. When the crowd responds with a heartiness she has not witnessed before, she joins voices with a spirit usually reserved for her own feats. It is as though Hitler is channeling energy from the mountains themselves, and the people echo their support in primal return. This man burns with a passion Leni knows; her spirit rumbles in her chest.
Their first meeting feels like providence. Leni had read Mein Kampf while filming The Blue Light and, tapping into the feminine, wrote the author a letter of introduction and gratitude. His ability to persuade with force and dexterity – Leni longs to draw on that talent and learn from it. This power is a man’s, and it is the potential in that masculinity she admires. Men have helped Leni make her own way. She too wants to inspire Germans with her art, and if anyone can return Germany to prosperity, she knows the leader who stands before her speaking with a Wagnerian zest will move others to strive in the name of love for country and beauty. At first introduction, she raises her glass and toasts his health and future.
/ / /
With the end of the 30s approaching, the world bends and moves around Germany’s premier filmmaker; her work radiates a new aesthetics of beauty and progress. Behind the scenes though, rumors grow tendrils that prick Leni’s ears. Even as a child, teasing distracted her with a heat that crawled up her back. The whispers torment with details of holding camps and the treatment of war criminals, some even saying detainees are gassed without trial. Leni loathes the scandalous tales people resort to; the desire to spread insinuations reveals more about the teller’s character in their efforts to anger and distract. Leni vows to protect her artistic temperament at any cost from the muck of gossip.
The filmmaker, now comfortable on the world stage since her success with Triumph of the Will, thinks little of banning disloyal friends from her famous salons. If they speak of uncorroborated ‘crimes’, she tells them where to go. New friends fill their places. War, and all its deafening politics, lies beyond her. The thing is to create, fueled by a longing she’s known forever, as though her life depended on it, and leave the rest to history. Her art is the work that carries her forward, makes her a liberated German woman of acclaim and expertise, supported by powerful men at a time rare with exceptions. Her tale, she’s certain, is one of bravery, reliance on no one but one heroic leader. Leni’s politics are only useful when crying in need for more funds or access, or to move to a new set. Sheer determination and vision get her through. Leni holds her own torch and lights each step with purpose.
But when the war unexpectedly ends, Leni Riefenstahl loses license; she is marked quickly as the Nazi Party’s greatest propagandist. Even half a century later, she feels misunderstood and corrects the story of her life every scene she appears in. She brought her Führer in on the clouds of Triumph of the Will and was hailed the greatest living filmmaker, but no one knows what to call her now as the years gather round in anger. After dinner on occasion, she recalls the story of a little girl whose people warned her not to reach beyond her station, not to shoot for the stars when her feet were rooted in soil. The girl thought of those words as she stepped out to dance the stage into flames; they fueled her when she set foot to rock and crested up the mountains’ faces with the sleekest Alpine Ibex. When she put on the robes of the king’s magician, the entire court bowed to her, guaranteeing the images she’d need to complete the spell that would free her people from suffering.
/ / /
Days after she turns 70, Leni Riefenstahl is officially denied entrance to the ’72 Munich Olympics. The next night, she bumps into Madame Berlioux of the IOC and relays the shock of her recent rejection. Madame issues her a photographer’s pass for the duration of the games. She begins to circulate, camera in hand, fulfilling her commission to take pictures of the athletes in action for London’s Sunday Times Magazine. But she is not solely in attendance for the games. Since her return to Germany, Leni spied a notice among the newspaper listings for the premiere of Bud Greenspan’s new film, Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin, which will take place one evening during the events. The ache of a slipping power, on the heels of years of film rejections, suddenly burns again. It doesn’t take her long to happen upon Jesse Owens in attendance at one of the running events, and catch his eye in passing.
No one overhears what details she reveals to Owens on the occasion of their reunion more than thirty years after the Berlin games, but by the end of their discussion, he takes both of her hands into his own, moved by what she has told him. He asks her to come to the premiere of the film; he longs for her presence. She promises to try the next night, though she doesn’t want to upset Bud, who will speak about the film’s making. Jesse asks her to attend as a final favor, and she agrees, but swears to remain in the shadows to avoid disturbing the evening.
The night of the ceremony, Leni Riefenstahl assumes her place at a table in the back of the room as Bud’s footage, pieced together with her own from the ’36 Olympics, unspools. Forty-five minutes later, the lights go on and Jesse stands before the audience thanking Bud and his wife, Cappy, for their efforts to make his Berlin experience history. As the applause calms, Owens continues, “There is another lady here who is important in my life.” He points to the German filmmaker in her discrete distance and calls her to come up and join him. He begins to clap.
In that moment, everyone falls silent. They uncomfortably adjust as their own names sharpen beneath their seats. The dozen West German officials look to each other, eyebrows bent in question, asking through the now-static air how this ghost made her way among them. Everyone else wilts over their coffees. Jesse, however inadvertently, is making a mess of a comfortable room. But he keeps on clapping.
A few seconds pass, and Leni rises to come forward, slowly, joining him before the screen on stage. The entirety follows in one long stare. At last, one man joins Jesse’s solitary clapping with his own, and the blocks begin to topple. Leni receives a standing ovation, rounded out with roars, and with a few tears of her own, she leans into the Olympian, very slightly. “I thank you,” Leni says, and with that, a few more call her name above the din. She is again reminded of her dancing days when roses piled at her feet.
/ / /
Leni Riefenstahl carries her remaining years beneath an unkind star. The light that falls across her face is neither warm nor illuminating; she has great difficulty wearing its mask. It isn’t the soft, kind focus that erases the lines of a woman’s face and showcases her features. It’s the kind reserved for men, intended to sharpen chiseled cheeks and sturdy jaws, their bones in direct proportion with the stone statues of Zeus and Apollo standing tall in Athens. Leni’s light chills her with a dramatically flawed side-angle not becoming limbs neglected by passing years. Today, the star reminds her with its persistence of the hails the crowd in Nuremberg called back to Hitler. Undone by duty, it slowly wanes, following her to the ends of the planet.
After the trials that exonerate her (“no relationships were established beyond those necessary to her artistic undertakings”), Leni leaves for the Sudan to photograph the Nuba wrestlers. If she can put enough photos of their bodies into the world, if she can prove she feels their rhythms and dances their steps and admires their wrestlers’ prowess, she might show the audience that she would never hurt a soul, much less the captured Gypsies who appeared in her final film, The Lowlands. She starred as the leading Gypsy herself. Even in these late years, she continues to ask the cameras that appear, “How could I know the extras would go on to die in the camps?”
Until one year, one month, one day, Leni realizes the Sudan will not refresh her, so she leaves the mountains for the sea, becoming the oldest living scuba diver. The star’s light cannot plunge the murky depths, and the fish and coral do not care for the past’s propaganda or the tales of surface lives. If the world of people will not embrace her, the strange beings of the sea will find a way. She explains, I do not feel pain deep in the depths. But the air down below eventually fails, and even a ghost will surface.
/ / /
Reprise: from Poland to Paris
In 1939, Leni is encouraged to cover the German soldiers’ efficiency during the Polish campaign. Hitler has won the hearts of his people, and she sees no need to continue assisting the film ministry at home. Instead, the thrill of the front calls, and the filmmaker turns war correspondent. Dressed in masculine fatigues, face forward and high, she marches with the troops into the town of Konskie. The air is charged, and the swarm of German might emboldens. Leni is armed, ready to show the world how discipline and courage can conquer a frontier—and transform it.
But the scene unravels before it begins. Leni cannot direct or stop the action, and many later report she is upset by the massacre of nearly 50 Jews who have been forced to dig a mass grave before her. The problem for Leni, however, erupts when a defiant lieutenant happens upon the set. The troops had already rounded up the Polish Jews to warn them and send them back home. The men are angry at the loss of their comrades, four German soldiers killed earlier while seizing Konskie. But the officer-in-charge maintains control and announces the release of the prisoners. As the filmmaker captures the noble generosity of his command, a car pulls up, and seeing what he thinks is a mob, the reserve lieutenant fires his gun into the air without conferring with the commander on set. Two shots echo through every German heart present, setting them off, and they begin to beat their prisoners with rifle butts and fire bullets into the faces before them.
Leni cannot edit control into chaos. She has not considered the enemy element that lies in the wilderness. Someone else must eliminate that which does not accept the elegance of order, the security of respect, the recognition of leadership. There is only one person she believes is able. She abandons the front and returns home to film The Lowlands. She will wait for Hitler to banish the decadent, the indulgent, the disobedient. She will do her part in the legend of film, and wait.
Nine months later, still shooting The Lowlands, Leni receives word that Hitler has captured Paris and the French will now know peace. Before her coffee, she hurriedly pens her last known words to her Führer:
With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with ardent gratitude we share with you, my Führer, in your and Germany’s greatest triumph: the entry of German troops into Paris. You go beyond anything the human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without the like in the history of humanity; how can we possibly thank you? Expressing my congratulations is an inadequate way of showing you the feelings which move me. –Leni
She sends the telegraph, and waits.
Of her most recent book from Litmus Press, I Want to Make You Safe, John Ashbery described Amy King‘s poems as bringing “abstractions to brilliant, jagged life, emerging into rather than out of the busyness of living.” Safe was one of the Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011. The Missing Museumis forthcoming in 2014 from Kore Press. King also teaches English & Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College and works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.