Doctor Faustus, alchemist and astrologer in Germany during the Renaissance, wanted to discover everything there was to be discovered and become rich and famous. He therefore made a pact with the devil, who wanted only one small thing—his soul.
Playing Leni, by David Robson and John Stanton, produced by Madhouse Theater Company at the Adrienne Theater in Philadelphia, centers around the beautiful young actress, successful director, and controversial film maker Leni Riefenstahl. Her meeting with Hitler and Goebbels, which she later describes as a kind of Faustian dilemma, leads to the signing of a pact which results in the glorification of the Nazi Empire and numbs millions to the horrors to come.
Leni, political Jezebel of the Third Reich?
Many contemporaries all over the world viewed Riefenstahl as the brilliant film maker who entered history as one of the most innovative cinematic artists of her time, without knowing much about the real circumstances. Others, especially after witnessing the news reels from the concentration camps in 1945, perceived her as the filmic power behind the Hitlerian throne, the Jezebel who whored out her art to the false prophets of the Thousand Year Reich.
Doyenne of Denial
After World War II until her death in 2003, aged 101, she vehemently rejected any involvement with the Third Reich and became the doyenne of denial. Playing Leni centers around her lifelong occupation of refusing to admit any involvement with the Holocaust. Robson and Stanton’s play illustrates her stubbornness in acknowledging the suffering to which she had contributed with her heroic propaganda films.
The audience experiences a young woman after WWII who gets arrested and interrogated. However she manages to turn even her brief incarceration into a scene where she coaxes an American officer into playing various parts—first his own, and then, pinnacle of brazenness, interacting with Goebbels as Leni. She even manages to get him to play a German officer who kills prisoners in Poland while she films the scene.
Audiences in Riefenstahl’s works, like Triumph of the Will or the two famous 1936 Olympic films, may not have realized that they got played and sucked into toxic, persuasive propaganda.
Similarly, the audiences in Philadelphia were taken on an extraordinary ride through Leni’s linguistic landscape of cajoling and erotic persuasion. Riefenstahl, the mistress of power and control (compellingly portrayed by Amanda Grove), becomes “Leni," who goes all out to seduce the arresting US soldier (the multi-talented Robert DaPonte), forcing him and the audience into submission. She is so cocksure that, although a prisoner, she declares, “This is my story and my arrest! So stop screwing around with B-movie shit!"
As in her life during the Third Reich, Riefenstahl gets what she wants: “No Leni, no movie." Like Freyja, the German goddess of beauty, fertility, war, and death, Riefenstahl sees herself as the director of all directors. When told by the US soldier that there is no tree that she could film, she declares, full of tree arrogance, “We will build a tree!"
Similarly, the soldier, unwillingly dragged into a Riefenstahlian cat-and-mouse game, tries to work on her script as his ruse to get her cooperation in revealing information before the Nuremberg trials. She makes short shrift of it: “I think we worked out the kinks. Now keep your dialogue to a minimum. I carry the water in this scene anyway."
“First rule of the interrogation: Don’t joke about the Jews."
The soldier, modeled on Budd Schulberg, the writer who actually arrested and interrogated Riefenstahl, reveals himself as Jewish. The stubborn anti-Semite, who clearly has not learned anything, ridicules him. He then warns her, “First rule of the interrogation: Don’t joke about the Jews."
In an almost Pavlovian fashion, Riefenstahl declares that she has nothing against anyone, “as far as I’m concerned, people are all the same." Yet, she uses euphemisms to avoid the term “Jews." The interrogator has to beat it out of her before, referencing Hitler, she admits to prejudices against, “people unlike himself." The US soldier then spells it out for her, “Jews you mean."
Apparently unaware of the presence of a significant Jewish community in Los Angeles, Hitler’s filmmaker dreams of making movies in Hollywood—the height of chutzpah. The soldier reacts sardonically, “I’m not sure the Jews on Rodeo Drive have gotten past it yet." The audience roared with delight.
“The film might not be what we first believe."
The soldier, weaving in and out of the role of Riefenstahl’s interrogator and unwilling actor, in moments of clarity, tells her, point blank, “Let’s just say the film might not be what we first believe."
The same could be said for Playing Leni which takes place on numerous levels, a play within a play. Like a kaleidoscope, it reveals many different, often unexpected images through numerous role changes. The frequent repetitions of scenes, each time with a different twist, makes Playing Leni the youngest offspring of Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
I asked myself, is this American play within an Austrian setting of a German character structured like a Russian doll with many different personas hidden inside, waiting to be explored? What will the audience find deep inside the last chamber of their own hearts, their own minds?
“You’re a character in my story."
Robson and Stanton’s Playing Leni has much in common with Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In both plays, the director, in this case Leni Riefenstahl, argues with the character, a US soldier. In several scenes, Leni, the director, stops the arresting officer, who plays along, and tells him what to do. “You’re a character in my story. How would it play with you disappearing after the first reel?"
Just as some characters in Pirandello’s play explain parts of the scene and argue with the director, the lines in Playing Leni get blurred, too. By the end of the play, Pirandello’s Director gets confused about whether the play was real or not, unlike Riefenstahl, who never, not even for a moment, has any doubt about her unlimited and unchallenged power as a director.
Queen of Nazi Cinema
Riefenstahl had more power through her films than any other artist in Nazi Germany. She was revered and her ambitions were matched only by those of Lady Macbeth and her Führer.
It is therefore no surprise that, in her films, she cut and spliced things together that were as seemingly irregular and disjointed as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Robson and Stanton echo those disjointed structures, creating layers of false perceptions and realities, reflecting the mindset of the unstoppable Riefenstahl and the American soldier who frequently wavers with an almost Hamlet-like indecision.
Just as Hamlet tries to snare his uncle into confessing the murder of his father, so the soldier plays power and control games with Riefenstahl, following Hamlet’s intention, “the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king"—or, in this case, the Queen of Nazi Cinema.
Leni takes on Goebbels’s persona, manipulating the American soldier into playing the “innocent" young Leni who is “forced" by Goebbels into accepting the contract. However, the soldier knows that she is presenting revisionist history to grant herself pardon.
“Life is too short for regrets"
Seth Reichgott, the innovative director, opens the play with a gliding start when the audience, upon entering, sees Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will—effectively turning the theater into a 1930’s German movie house.
In the same spirit of immersion in Riefenstahl’s work, the audience, later in the play, witnesses an excerpt from Riefenstahl’s original film Tiefland (Lowland) with Gypsies as Spanish peasant extras.
The soldier tries to get Riefenstahl to confess that the actors were Romani and Sinti from a forced labor camp and that she made a contract with the SS to hire them, despite knowing that most would end up murdered in Auschwitz shortly after the shooting.
Riefenstahl vehemently denies the charges and even claims that she still maintains a wonderful correspondence with many of the gypsy actors. However, the soldier tries to tear down her web of fabrication: “All of those extras have been exterminated!"
The play presents the mercurial denier jumping from one excuse to the next: “Death is the nature of war! I pity the loss of life but it isn’t unusual." When challenged by the US soldier, “You have no regrets?" Riefenstahl, in typical Third Reich mode, brushing off any accusations, tells him, “Life is too short for regrets."
The Riefenstahl Confession
The Soldier no longer plays around with words; instead, he tells her point blank what kind of film he wants: “It’s called the Riefenstahl Confession. Now this is how it’s going to work. You are going to tell the truth. We have records that say the extras were taken from a concentration camp and brought to you."
Riefenstahl shrugs off the implication, “I am a director, not a casting agent." The soldier, however, does not give up, “What did you know about the systematic murders of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies—?"
The woman who was closer to Hitler, Goebbels, and the entire Nazi hierarchy than any other individual, renounces all accusation of involvement, adamantly declaring, “This won’t be in my film or any film!"
“Stop it, you’re soldiers, not animals!"
If the play resembles a cat-and-mouse game in which both antagonist and protagonist exchange roles and put non-stop pressure on each other, we are treated to one scene in which the famous filmmaker, shaken by a random act of violence, witnesses the killing of some prisoners in Poland.
Directly confronted by the realities of a murderous regime, she tries to prevent the killing: “Stop it! They’ll kill him. Please lieutenant. Stop. You’re soldiers, for God’s sake, you are not animals!" This scene brings a brief dramatic relief. She seems genuinely distraught, even though she never did anything about it in any of her films. This interaction of the filmmaker and the German officer stands alone in the play, before Riefenstahl continues her frantic search for new film material and her cover-up of what she really knew.
Reichgott, who had spent a great deal of time on each scene, came to this conclusion about Riefenstahl, “It’s not what Leni did, but how she justified what she did so she could live with it. She was far too intelligent and creative a person not to know on some level that what she did was unforgivable, but we all have to find a way to make our lives bearable. So she ‘edited’ her life, just as we all do to some extent."
A thorny issue
In spite of the knowledge of the world-wide fame of her filmic and photographic work, which, at times, has escalated into cinematic worship, the authors did not fall into the trap of Riefenstahl adulation. However, I had trouble with the use of her first name throughout the play because I feared that the engineer of the Nazi cinematic propaganda machine was being softened as “Leni."
Similarly, I was a bit concerned about the ending, powerful as the play was. Theatre critics cannot talk about a play’s finale, but playwrights and directors can. Though I will not give the ending away, it left me with questions, which I then posed to the two writers and the director in an interview:
“Riefenstahl did survive into old age. She does—at least physically—triumph. In the end, simply to function, she must don one of those masks once again. If she didn’t, she would not have been able to live with herself. So she must escape" (Robson). “I wanted the ending to not be realistic, to be more outrageous, because I wanted people thinking less about facts and more about choices and consequences" (Stanton). “The ending is somewhat abrupt, but I do think it works as the play is written. If we were to do another production and more rewrites, we might change things a bit. That's the great thing about working on a new play: You're never done" (Reichgott).
My main concern, though, centered around the danger of transforming a highly complex chameleon into a one-sided caricature. In lesser hands than those of Reichgott, the accomplished director, and two exceptional actors, the drama’s antagonist, Riefenstahl, could be turned into a comic book villain as part of a political Punch and Judy show. Going by the frequent laughter in the audience, at times we seemed to veer dangerously toward a farce of Riefenstahl and the Third Reich, even though there was nothing funny about her films, her actions, or Hitler’s regime.
One of my friends, Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust (WFJCSH), whom I had invited to the opening night, did not laugh. The play had brought back many painful memories of her childhood in occupied Poland. She told me afterwards, “For those who knew the story of Riefenstahl there was nothing one could laugh at. Her gifts as Jezebel, or female devil, enhanced Hitler's ability to kill millions."
Stanton, one of the two co-writers, showed empathy for that view. “I understand that laughter for some is not appropriate and something that is probably inconceivable. Throughout, the laughter works in that it allows some of us, maybe not so directly associated with the horror, a way to approach it. A way to face the darkness. We don't make light of people's suffering." Robson echoes this interpretation, “Clearly we're not laughing at the suffering of others. If anything, the joke is on Riefenstahl."
Still, I wasn’t sure whether the audience went home feeling enlightened or merely entertained by schadenfreude, whether they saw Leni as the “Inglorious Bitch"—the way fans reacted to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds—or whether they went home in self-reflection, as Robson intended:
“Our play is about how all of us edit our lives, change things, adjust moments so they better suit our self-image. It’s what we all do, and although we can be disturbed and even disgusted by many of Leni’s choices, it is hard not to admire her ability to survive—and her talent. It’s a thorny issue. "
“We are the same, you and I"
Playing Leni shifts constantly between different realities, perceptions, time frames, even locations, creating a film-like feel, as if the audience were sitting at an editing table, splicing together various parts. The fallen archangel of German cinema allows the American audience to see some of the inner workings of a Third Reich mind. One identifies with the soldier who, in exasperation, asks, “I’m dying to see how this fantasy ends."
Pushing each other constantly, the two characters reveal a great deal about themselves and their shared values and aspirations. Leni, realizing her position as prey, uses this commonality as a verbal weapon. She tries to equalize her position by pointing out the soldier’s selfish hypocrisies. “You’re doing this for you! We are the same you and I. You had me in your sights and you weren’t stopping until I was caged and repentant!"
As Robson puts it, Riefenstahl was “an opportunist extraordinaire. Her brilliant ability to frame a sequence and create jaw-dropping, majestic images—is matched by her later ability to edit out the parts of her own life that she didn’t want people to know about."
A power-hungry filmmaker, willing to walk over bodies, Riefenstahl symbolizes, in an exaggerated way, what quite a few people in the US and around the world seem to strive for: “Life is full of people willing to do anything to become famous. Where does the conscience go in all that?" Robson asked, “The conceit of Leni’s filmmaking allows us to delve into that ambiguous world from several different angles, telling her story from several points of view—leaving the audience to decide what the truth of the matter is."
Entering the theater, Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will fills the screen. Leaving the theater, where we had just witnessed the unbearable Riefenstahl, did we really look critically at the triumph of the will—within ourselves?