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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY Marmite, Dietrich and Riefenstahl

This morning we were high up on the Sinwellturm – the round tower of the Kaiserburg looking out across medieval Nuremberg. Below us, deep in the rock is the cellar, the Kunstbunker, where the city's treasures were kept safe as Allied bombs destroyed some 90% of the buildings.

The Race Marshal had picked up a couple of slices of chocolate spice cake festooned with black cherries, a little messy up here in the wind, but worth it: as no less an authority than Justus Freiherr von Liebig put it, “chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power. It is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.”

And we have to take von Liebig's opinion seriously – yet another great German scientist, a professor at the University of Gleissen. Born in 1803, he lived to the age of 69, a lifetime in which he founded organic chemistry and invented many things vital to modern life - beef extract in the form of Oxo; a substitute for breast milk; and, because he discovered that yeast can be concentrated, he can lay claim also to having invented Marmite.

His main study was plant nutrition and he promoted the 'law of the minimum': that the rate of plant growth is directly related to the availability of the scarcest nutrient available. The logic was inescapable - growth can be encouraged by putting into the soil the nutrients that would otherwise be scarce – hence von Liebig's appellation as 'father of the fertilizer industry'. In particular, he was advocated the use of guano for nitrogen - though he was by no means the first to do so. In his 1813 book, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, Humphry Davy described how guano had made the "sterile plains" of Peru fruitful.

But von Liebig unknowingly set in train a process of imperialism, conflict, enslavement, and environmental degradation. From all over the vulnerable parts of the world, from the Pacific Islands, Hawaii, China, newly freed slaves from post-bellum America, men were 'blackbirded' - kidnapped, coerced and cajoled to the guano islands where they became slave labour. The United States took around a hundred guano islands as possessions - some still are US territory. One Congressman reported on life there:

I observed Coolies shovelling and wheeling as if for dear life and yet their backs were covered with great welts...It is easy to distinguish Coolies who have been at the islands a short time from the new comers. They soon become emaciated and their faces have a wild despairing expression. That they are worked to death is as apparent as that the hack horses in our cities are used up in the same manner.

Eight hundred men were blackbirded from Easter Island and only twelve returned: enslavement is the main reason the island became 'uninhabited'. The global contest for guano persisted until 1913 when another German scientist, Fritz Haber, invented an industrial process for making ammonia as a source of nitrogen in fertilisers. These days, however, with the popularity of organic food, the demand for guano is once again rising.

As we tucked into our spice cake, enjoying the panorama of a magnificently rebuilt city, chocolate indeed proved a 'beneficent restorer of exhausted power' bringing the realisation that we are halfway. To mark the occasion, the Race Marshal and I were wondering if every reader who is still with us, if it is not an imposition, would forward the blog to two other people with the request that they also forward it on.

So far, we have collectively gathered sufficient to fund one full day of food and shelter for all 350 homeless people in St Martin's care – amazing, thank you – and it would be nice to achieve the same on the homeward leg.

On Friday, a plate of sausages interrupted the story of Leni Riefenstahl. But they weren't ordinary sausages, they were the special Nürnberg Rostbratwurst – about as thin as your finger, made from pork, marjoram, ginger, cardamom and lemon powder. I expect Leni paused for a few herself.

There is an interesting link between Leni Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich and not just that both were extremely promiscuous and picked up by famous film directors - Marlene by Joseph von Sternberg and Leni by Arnold Fanck, who gave her the starring role in his 1926 film Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain).

Both were dancers in Berlin at around the same time and there is at least one photograph of them standing near each other at a party. The story goes that Leni went round boasting that von Sternberg had chosen her to play Lola in The Blue Angel. Another story says that over supper with von Sternberg, Leni suggested that Marlene would be perfect as Lola, given her vulgarity and willingness to show her breasts in public. When Marlene read this in Leni's memoirs, she remarked that von Sternberg would have died laughing. Certainly, they were never friends – not least because their attitudes to Nazism differed so greatly.

Leni and Hitler in 1938 (c) AP

Riefenstahl was first a very successful dancer and then an actress who danced: her Dance of the Sea in The Holy Mountain remains a classic. Fanck taught her how to direct while she acted in his films and in 1932 she made her own film: The Blue Light. The centrepiece is a mountain-top cave filled with sapphires that glow eerily when the moon is full. Young men to try to climb to the blue light but they all fall to their deaths. Only the witch-girl, Junta (played by Leni), can climb safely- or so it seems until she unwittingly leads Vigo, who would be her lover, up the mountain. He returns to the valley and describes the route up to the villagers: they strip the the grotto of its jewels. Bereft, Junta falls to her death.

The film was a huge critical success. The New York Sun described it as "one of the most pictorially beautiful films of the year. Leni Riefenstahl - author, director and star - is an expert climber as well as handsome woman." And The Blue Light was judged one of the top five foreign films by the American National Board of Review of Motion Pictures - along with The Constant Nymph directed by Basil Dean (who made stars of George Formby and Gracie Fields).

Hitler, of course was a film buff, and he was struck by the symbolism of this folk story – and, it seems, by Leni herself, though they probably did not become lovers. Certainly he picked her up: she was smitten, awestruck by Mein Kampf, and hitched her wagon to the Nazi propaganda machine.

In 1932 she made Victory of Faith - a first essay on the annual Nuremberg Rally. Then in 1934 she was back to make her most infamous film - Triumph of the Will, a powerful orchestration of sound and image whose black wraiths still hover undeserved over Nuremberg, a city that voted against the Nazis.

Sausages and Red Beer (c)

Triumph of the Will is an extraordinary story but one that must wait until tomorrow. Once again, I have been caught out by the arrival of a platter, this time of Wurstsalat - slices of Nuremberger Stadtwurst (a smoked sausage) served with minced onion, vinaigrette and a warm potato salad. And a mug of Nuremberg's famous Rotbier, brewed in cellars cut into the rock, rather like the caves in Erlangen's Burghof. Altogether a nice way to celebrate the turning point.

Leni Riefenstahl in her Dance of the Sea -

The Blue Light - full film -

Recipe for German chocolate spice cake. If you are a chocoholic, don't miss the first 17 seconds -

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