the (in)flexibility of steel

it feels like taking it a notch further: what applies to zarah leander also applies to leni riefenstahl. aaah, leni: actress, filmmaker, personal friend of a certain adolf. high priestess of heroic beauty. and unable to tell us something about history.

different then zarah leander she did not even keep the most minimal distance to the regime of the nazis. unlike zarah leander she used the totalitarian system of the time directly for her purposes. and it is somewhat strange to see her paint herself as a victim… as seduced by adolf and his writings. well…

but then again i can just be very cautious. and i actually want to use the example of leni riefenstahl for two other purposes then slaging her of as an opportunist – for this we will have herr karl in the next post.

first her work and the reactions to it and the influence it has, the traces it leaves, is an interesting example to muse about art and society – or maybe formulated differently: aesthetics and the political system. the aesthetic of her films are called fascistic – but what does that mean? by showing the parteitag? does the topic make the aesthetic? by showing only beautiful, young, athletic people? hm, ever read vogue lately? the thing is that leni riefenstahl maybe would have made very similar movies in a different political environment. that thought makes her work actually more cynic… but it also shows how we try to distance ourselves, or rather try to draw lines where there aren’t always some: a great aesthetic can show up on the wrong places.

the connection between art and society seems to be more complicated then “fascistic system=fascistic art”. leni riefenstahl’s movies were undoubtly one thing at her time: groundbreaking. and many art that was new and groundbreaking, from music to painting to literature to theater was made by artists with not necessarly good and right political attitudes. and anyway we will have a problem agreeing on what is good and right. maybe it boils down again to the questions if also artists which we hate can make art that is relevant, and how much an artist has a responsability as a citizen in his / her art. I just find it too easy to dismiss it as fascistic and also to insinuate the fascits had bad taste anyway – oilpaintings of the german forest and all that… the example that always springs to mind is the one of the futurists… have a look for yourself here – and be sure to read the introduction – down to the last sentence.

second there is something which fascinates me in the reception of leni riefenstahl. something that was for me maybe the first aspect of her work, but just rarely gets mentioned. it has something to do with the first picture not by her, but of her that i remember having seen:

yep, everybody might talks about the extreme aestheticism of her work – but what about…the sexyness of it all? allright, i was young, and i was terribly impressed to be able to stare at a naked man.

and this picture also denies this nakedness by her appearance and making clear that this colonial style dressed lady is hanging out with the primitives in africa – and has therefore a similar effect like the extreme aestheticism of most of her movies: it is so much about a certain beauty that it seems we do not even see that it is also about sexual attraction. which might be why it fitted so well with adolf: dreaming of this extreme militarise, homosocial society, singing the song of the beauty of the man – but of course deny that there could be something like a physical attraction where it should not belong. So i do find it overdue to point out also the sexyness of her olympia movie. and while totalitarian organisations will fight hard to draw a very clear line between homoscial and homoerotic (don’t ask, don’t tell), it is also interesting that critics of leni riefenstahls work do not like to admit this aspect of some of her films. it is kind of cute how to me it seems that everybody, for different reasons, wishes for a sanitized represantation of the physical: either to glorify it, or to condemn it. hardly anybody ever admits that it would be nice to explore these bodies of these burschen and mädels (of all races, mind you) with more then our eyes… again it seems rather irritating to admit that desire might transgress ideological lines. yes, we are back with – jean genet. is it allright to desire the political enemy? well, jean genet knew all along that politics are also always politics of desire…

and it is especially this aspect which shows up even more visible in one of the clearest examples of the appropriation of her work in pop culture. it is basically a cut up of snippets out of her movies. officially sanctioned by herself.

yeah, rammstein covering depeche mode to the images of riefenstahl. for me still a glorious moment of postmodernist pop culture. and rammstein are the perfect modern day example how desire just will not be acknowledged if it does not fit: using extensive homoerotic visuals in different ways, it is, when acknowledged, seen either as highly ironic, or as actually ridiculing fags. and the style always gets conflated with the question of the band being gay – which can not be, since they’re not doing gay music, right? but while i do find the question if the members of the band are gay or not not so interesting (not true: i do quite like the singer and his, hm, jaded physique. definitly interesting), i do find the occurence of a certain homoerotic, even -sexual aesthetic quite interesting. there is the crass explicitly sexual example (which by its lyrics always seems to me a reply / modern version to soft cell’s numbers), the somewhat odd example, by presenting a not so obvious choice of dominator. and then there is the downright irritating example which is somewhat lesser known – interesting enough this video is said to be one of their most controversial. hmmm…

i think what i want to get at is the idea that, although part of the fun of looking at the work of rammstein is their ambiguity, many videos allow for a reading that they try to install another gay aesthetic: a hard and sometimes cynic aesthetic, one that uses the vocabulary developed within totalitarian contexts. and here closes the circle again: while the homoerotic in leni riefenstahls work could be called “a necessary side effect”, to me it seems that it is an integral part, and it is an integral part, but rather as a starting point for the aesthetic of rammstein. and it is intersting that many reactions to both aesthetics are very similar in denying this element. where we are back at the seemingly annoying quality of desire, and especially this queer one to not respect drawn lines…

4 Responses to “the (in)flexibility of steel”

  1. norman Says:

    great seeing u back and once again a fully entertaining structured blog covering a plethora of time and style.
    As a slave to your indepth research and comments i feel refreshed once again ….just love the rammstein video and yes the first pic is a memorable one for me as a first vision of a woman i never thought much of/about.
    great stuff….dude!

  2. sunbathinglizard Says:

    yeah – it has been a while… but then i’m getting old and need the money…
    eeerrr – i will not get into that slave stuff… but thanks, mate!

  3. memibeltrame Says:

    Nice one.

    I always found the critique on riefenstahls work on the nuba tribe rather irritating. The idea that her showing of athletic and unspoiled i.e. natural, skinny but muscular, low-fat bodies could be taken as a proof for her “fascist aesthetics” is somehow disturbing. a certain aesthetic is a defined set of rules for form and representation. it does not segregate and discriminate. it can be instrumentalized to do so creating a mass phenomenon, be it fafhion or fascism.


  4. sunbathinglizard Says:

    i agree. it seems that aesthetics have become so important for identity politcs that their ideological emptyness / ambiguity has to be denied. but then i guess you have to if you have just aesthetics and no content… pfuh, i start to sound like my father. but then agin that seems to be the destiny of sons.
    i just find it still so fascinating that the opening sequence of leni’s olympia could also be the work of that german photographer whose name i keep on forgetting – who in turn was ideologically definitly somewhere else – and of course gay, you guessed it right. and being a little bit daring i do see a line running from these photgraphs to mapllethorpe and somehow also to bruce weber – to keep things gay, but also me suspecting again that certain aesthetics lend itself better to express certain things…

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