Underwater Impressions

Joshua M. Tyree on Leni Riefenstahl’s last documentary…

Leni Riefenstahl’s final film begins with graceful images of the deep—colorful fish and all sorts of magnificent creatures—filmed by Riefenstahl over decades of dives with her cameraman, assistant, and companion, Horst Kettner.

Underwater Impressions, a documentary released a few days before Riefenstahl’s 100th birthday in 2002, is a non-narrative exploration of coral reefs, replete with remarkable images of the splendor of nature. Could this be the same director who had made the short film Day of Freedom at the 1935 Nazi Party Rally where the Nuremberg Laws were previewed, and the now infamous Triumph of the Will? And how is one supposed to view Underwater Impressions, assuming that one wishes to view it at all?

Ray Müller’s 1993 biographical documentary on the filmmaker, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, reveals a brilliant and narcissistic cinema pioneer—“one of a dozen or so creative geniuses who ever worked in the film medium,” wrote The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. After defining the political propaganda film with Triumph of the Will (1935), Riefenstahl went on to establish durable parameters for another long-lived genre, the sports film, with Olympia (1938), her Nazi-funded depiction of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Riefenstahl witnessed a massacre early on in the invasion of Poland and used Roma inmates from the Maxglan-Leopoldskron labor camp as extras on her film Tiefland (1934-1954). Although she never joined the Nazi Party, denazification hearings labeled her a Nazi sympathizer (Mitläufer). Riefenstahl released no films between Tiefland and Underwater Impressions (2002), instead producing collections of still photographs about traditional African cultures, The Last of the Nuba (1974) and People of Kau (1976).

A skeptical psychoanalyst might detect in Underwater Impressions a metaphor for the flight from responsibility, since deep-sea diving provides a sort of temporary or illusory freedom from the human world. Diving apparently gave Riefenstahl relief from persistent back pain. But the bottom of the ocean is also one of few places on earth where it is virtually impossible to hear anyone criticize you, where nobody asks you to speak, and where the past ceases to exist for a little while. It’s fascinating to witness one of film’s greatest editors drowning out all of life’s sound and fury—cutting history and even traditional storytelling from her work.

In the film’s opening underwater sequence, the camera invites the viewer to discard her or his cynicism, first by revealing a marvelously coiled fuzzy sea creature shaped like a giant umbilical cord, then by passing through its coils and loops, as if it were a pilgrim passing through the gates of a mythical Kingdom of the Sea, in a matchless display of shape and color. This mesmerizing effect is spoiled a bit by the film’s soundtrack, New Age synth that is supposed to evoke wonder, but instead recalls the “relaxing” kind of music heard at a spa.

It’s impossible to watch Underwater Impressions without the divers and swimmers of Olympia in mind. The technical breakthroughs of Olympia were equally revolutionary when it came to underwater photography. During the 1960s, when Riefenstahl’s reputation as an image-maker was beginning to be rehabilitated by filmmakers and critics, she was viewed as a pure aesthete, interested only in form and beauty, wherever she might find it. She told Cahiers du Cinéma:

“I can simply say that I feel spontaneously attracted by everything that is beautiful. Yes: beauty, harmony. And perhaps this care for composition, this aspiration to form is in effect something very German…I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, what is living. I seek harmony. When harmony is produced I am happy.”

Susan Sontag—who cited this interview in her searing 1975 attack in The New York Review of Books on Riefenstahl’s primitivist photography in The Last of the Nuba (1974)—sensed she’d smelled a rat. Sontag discerned an astonishing continuity of “fascist aesthetics” nearly half a world and almost half a century away from Riefenstahl’s propaganda films of the 1930s.

Although her subjects were black, Sontag argued, Riefenstahl remained obsessively focused on physical virility and contests of will—one center of Nuba life involved wrestling—and deeply avoidant of any traces of modernity, technology, or cultural complexity that might spoil her ideal of the noble savage. Sontag felt that Riefenstahl’s “mass athletic demonstrations, a choreographed display of bodies” revealed more about the filmmaker’s past than they did about the culture of the Nuba.

Although Sontag’s accusation about turning human bodies into objects cannot be leveled at Underwater Impressions, Riefenstahl’s final film inevitably recalls the Romantic philosophical concern with unspoiled and sublime natural beauty extolled in the German mountain movies of the 1930s, such as The Blue Light (1932), which starred Riefenstahl herself.

In that film, she plays Junta, an outcast whose physical prowess at barefoot mountaineering allows her access to a magical grotto in the Alps where the full moon illuminates a field of crystals. From the mountains to the sea floor, where she filmed a ray glowing with a phosphorescent blue light for Underwater Impressions, Riefenstahl’s self-mythology involved the conception of herself as a finder of difficult-to-access pure sites of vanishing beauty. “I like to search for rare things,” she once explained. But her unwillingness to show what is not pure, what is not clean, and what is not beautiful, is by Sontag’s lights, is precisely what makes Riefenstahl’s work fascist.

Ecofascism” was a peculiar element of National Socialism that remains unsettling; it endured after the war and continued under the guise of anti-immigration, pro-eugenics, far-right environmental groups promoting “the natural order of life” and extreme “blood and soil” nationalism, organic farming and “teutonic mysticism.” One Nazi ecologist, Max Karl Schwartz, bizarrely referred to “the Jewish spirit” of “multistory buildings,” indicating that he would welcome the destruction of German cities by Allied bombardment because it would provide opportunity to rebuild more garden-like cities. Is Underwater Impressions a seemingly innocuous film that secretly inculcates “eco-fascism”? That interpretation seems far-fetched, yet it would also be strange to try to see the film as totally detached from the rest of Riefenstahl’s biography.

It’s interesting to note that another intellectual with ties to Nazi officialdom, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, also turned to thinking about nature after the war. In his essay “The Anaximander Fragment (1946), he wrote about the Ancient Greek “early thinkers who ponder the things of nature…sky and earth, plants and animals, and also in a certain way men.” Unlike Heidegger’s, Riefenstahl’s later work attempts to discard any serious consideration of human culture and technology, a curious decision for a film artist who endures as a superlative technician.

What, then, to make of Underwater Impressions, one of the most curious minor works in film history? Is it an attempt at a coded apology, one that implicitly opposes domination, exploitation, and degradation? Is it an escape act, designed to free its director from her past by creating the illusion of leaving the human world behind? Or can it be viewed as a more purely technical achievement involving the most stringent standards of filmmaking, including decades of location-scouting, camerawork, lighting, experiments with lenses and underwater color photography, countless hours of editing back on land?

Despite Riefenstahl’s personal appeals on behalf of the protection of coral reefs, Underwater Impressions as a work of art is more quietist than activist. Although it was created by a pair of filmmakers, it feels fundamentally individualistic—a record of a series of intimate encounters with the deep. The film doesn’t document the history of any particular reef or any campaign to save a specific habitat.

The viewer is left awed but chilled, glimpsing a series of treasures but failing to understand how they are connected. (“She is no thinker at all,” Sontag said of Riefenstahl in a devastating aside.) As with any documentary, what the viewer doesn’t see is almost as intriguing as the film itself. In this case, the undersea quiet seems strangely fitting. If Riefenstahl had wished her final film to speak, there would have been a lot to explaining to do.

The above article was originally published on Lapham’s Quarterly- The Magazine of History and Ideas.

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