Saturday, July 9, 2011

Eisenstein vs. Riefenstahl

During the 70s and early 80s I had a political cartoon strip called "Plympton". I took it very seriously and read all the new magazines and newspapers to keep up with all the political issues. Quite frankly I was burnt out on politics – it sucked out all my leisure time. I was so happy that my short "Your Face" was a big success and I was able to end my political cartooning career and move into animation. Obviously I still think a lot about politics and now I want to explore an issue that's been bugging me and I'd love to hear the thoughts from other Junkiteers on this issue.

As you probably know when Leni Riefenstahl won the Venice prize for her Land work 1936 documentary "Olympics" she traveled to Los Angeles to meet all the Hollywood bigweights. However they all shunned her because of her association with Adolf Hitler. Then when the great soviet director Sergei Eisenstein made the movie to Hollywood he was wined and dined by all big studios and celebrities.

What I don't understand is Leni was shunned because she was a propagandist for the Nazis, yet wasn't Sergei just as much of a propagandist for the Soviets and Stalin? Just like Leni, Sergei was forced to create various films that promoted a political agenda such as "October", "Potemkin" and "Alexander Nevsky". If he had refused he'd end up in Siberia or shot like many other Soviet artists and by many accounts Soviet Russian under Stalin was far more murderous and evil than the Nazis. There are accounts of Stalin killing up to 20 million Russians.

This is not just ancient history ether; this prejudice for Eisenstein persists today, he's revered as a great stylist innovative and revolutionary despite his role as a propagandist for the evil Stalin regime being well known. Yet Leni Riefenstahl is thought of as a Nazi puppet and many people refuse to acknowledge her great talent.

So please can someone tell me why Sergei Eisenstein is such a big hero and Leni Riefenstahl is not?


  1. I kind of shy away from touching stuff to do with Nazis and Soviets with a bargepole (online) but you make a very good point! And I can well see that a person could get burned out grappling with politics and have more fun animating.

    I was all sad when I found out you'd been in Exeter and I had missed out on seeing you. It's not very far away from me and I've been a big fan of your films for years.

  2. Whereas Leni Riefenstahl created dramatic images with the compositions being the star of her films, Eisenstein really showed how editing was the height of all film. Riefenstahl learned from Eisenstein, so it's kind of hard to compare the two. He learned from Griffith, she learned from Eisenstein.

    Their politics is irrelevant to the films they created. There was also a lot of bad propaganda films done by a lot of bad filmmakers. And who cares how Hollywood greeted either of them.

  3. The Soviets had a better PR machine.

  4. Wasn't he kind of on our side during the war. It's probably just something that dumb.

  5. Peter has a good point. The horrors perpetuated by figures like Stalin, or Pol Pot are totally eclipsed by those of the Nazis in American renderings of history. America played a major role in the Cambodian genocide, but we never really talk about that.

  6. I was chatting about this with my wife, and she hit on the obvious thing that everyone seemed to miss: Leni Riefenstahl was a woman. Is it a shock that back then she was greeted with less respect than Eisenstein, a man?

    But, I'm with Michael that I'm not sure why it's important to compare how these two were greeted by Hollywood. Since when did we respect the judgement of Hollywood bigwigs anyway?

  7. I always assumed it was because of the racist ideology of the Nazis that ran through Leni Riefenstahl's work. It's hard to divorce her talent from the propaganda in her films, for example the worship of the Aryan ideal in Olympia. I'm not sure you can say the same about Eisenstein, despite supporting the Soviet Union (especially since he apparently did clash and run afoul of Soviet authorities with his work). Would you say Battleship Potemkin advocates the same unseemly kinds of things as Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will does? Can you separate the message of Eisenstein's films from the atrocities of the gulags and Stalin's purges? Though Eisenstein's films about Ivan the Terrible seem to be similar to the debate over Zhang Yimou's Hero (and even then apparently Eisenstein's second Ivan film was censored by Soviets for portraying Ivan in a less-than-heroic light, which makes Eisenstein look less like Riefenstahl).

    And I'm not sure whether Riefenstahl being a women plays that much into it. Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger are reviled for their collaborations with the Nazis.

  8. Most of the studios were run by Jewish Americans. Hitler was anti-Jew as a matter of public policy.

    Stalin kept his murdering a little more quiet. It is possible to think that in 1935 movie moguls may not have been aware that Stalin was murdering his own people by the thousands.

    But also in 1935, it was public knowledge that the Nazis were taking property away from Jews and putting some of them into concentration camps.

  9. Both Riefenstahl and Eisenstein were geniuses at film making. They learned from each other. Whereas Reifenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" is a direct glorification in documentary style of Hitler and National Socialism, one is hard pressed to find anything in any of Eisenstein's films directly glorifying Stalin or the Gulag. His "October" is about the Russian Revolution, which Stalin took very little part in. "Alexander Nevsky" and "Ivan the Terrible" Parts 1 and 2 are about historical figures who lived centuries before Stalin was born. If anyone chose to see Stalin in them, Eisenstein wasn't going to dissuade them, but I doubt he saw them that way.

    Moreover, Eisenstein was more than once in disfavor with the Soviet authorities. He had been prevented from making any films for 10 years before "Nevsky". He had to write and publish an abject apology for"Ivan the Terrible" part 2, which he termed his "vicious and worthless film." Friends of his were fearful that he would be arrested, much like Shostakovich lived in fear of arrest. It is my personal opinion that Eisenstein was an anti-Stalinist leftist, but that he cooperated with Stalin, much as his hero Alexander Nevsky cooperated with the Mongols, so he could follow his muse. It was a dangerous game for Eisenstein as it was for other creative and brilliant individuals in the Soviet Union to work under the watchful and suspicious eyes of Stalin and his henchmen. One false step or one denunciation from someone, and you could find yourself spending 10 years in the mines of Kolyma.