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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY ONE Riefenstahl, Roehm and Ravioli

We sat this morning under the twin towers of the Sebalduskirche enjoying a couple of Elisenlebkuchen – a flourless, gingerbread cookie made with almond paste, candied citrus, chocolate, ground nuts and spices on an Oblaten (monks apparently made them with unleavened communion wafers). These 'Elise cookies' can by law only be made in Nuremberg and are named after the daughter of the Leberkuchner who baked the first one in 1808.

Ernest Benecke Children from the Village of Kalabshah, Nubia 1852 (c)metropolitan museum

We talked about Leni Riefenstahl, who was the first female photographer to work in Nubia, and I tried to recall when I had first seen an image of a Nubian. The earliest photographs – paper negatives and salt prints - were actually taken in 1852 by a Frenchman of German extraction, Ernest Benecke. And the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin has a large collection also of salt prints taken on the expedition in 1900 by three German Egyptologists.

It was publishing her photographs of a remote Nubian tribe which made Riefenstahl famous again in the 1970s - at which point Susan Sontag hammered her for her 'fascist aesthetics'. In the New York Review of Books, Sontag wrote:

To cast Riefenstahl in the role of the individualist-artist, defying philistine bureaucrats and censorship by the patron state ... should seem like nonsense to anyone who has seen Triumph of the Will — a film whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker's having an aesthetic conception independent of propaganda .... The Nazi films are epics of achieved community, in which everyday reality is transcended through ecstatic self-control and submission; they are about the triumph of power. And The Last of the Nuba, an elegy for the soon-to-be extinguished beauty and mystic powers of primitives whom Riefenstahl calls "her adopted people," is the third in her triptych of fascist visuals.

The spread of Sontag's shot caught something solid. Riefenstahl had not left Germany with other filmmakers: she had made films for the Nazis, most notably Triumph of the Will, to which Sontag refers - which then and is still regarded as the greatest propaganda film of all time.

The film was made in 1934 and released in 1935 and portrays Germany's 'return' as a great power under Hitler. Against the backdrop of that year's Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, 700,000 of the faithful paid homage to the man Riefenstahl was busily raising to messianic status.

But around two hundred of the most faithful were not able to attend - several personally known to Riefenstahl, having starred as heroes in her 1933 film The Victory of Faith (Der Sieg des Glaubens). The absentees comprised the hierachy of the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary SA - victims of a summer purge, Hitler's 'Night of the Long Knives', three months before filming had started on Triumph of the Will.

Riefenstahl will have known precisely why they were not there. The leader of the SA, Ernst Roehm, a national figure: she had used the scars on his face from the First World War to advantage in her edit of The Victory of Faith.

Ernst Roehm (c)Bundesarchiv

And she moved in high Nazi circles where Roehm's importance to Hitler was well known. In Munich in 1923, he had led 2,000 men to occupy the War Ministry while Hitler, Goering and Ludendorff marched through the city, ostensibly to rescue him - but in reality, in search of revolution. Hitler's street mob was dispersed by police gunfire and he and Roehm were sentenced to prison (during which time, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf). Riefenstahl would have heard Roehm using the familiar 'du' to Hitler and calling him Adolf: he even used a pet name, 'Adi'.

She would also have been fully aware of Roehm's homosexuality - shared, as it happened, by most of the SA leadership. It had proved bad publicity in the elections of the early 1930s and tongues wagged about Adi's own sexuality. But what finished Roehm was Hitler's fear of his growing military power: in February 1934, Roehm signed his own death warrant by insisting that the regular army be merged with the SA under his leadership.

So as Riefenstahl was preparing her crew for the Nuremberg filming of Triumph, Hitler met up with a squad of SS in the dawn light of 30th June 1934 outside the hotel where Roehm and his senior SA officers were staying. The peaceful spa town of Bad Wiessee, on the shore of beautiful Lake Tegensee, then witnessed a scene of utter ruthlessness. Hitler himself arrested Roehm, who was taken to Munich prison and executed along with the rest of his senior command. The officer who was caught by the SS in bed with a young SS trooper was, on Hitler's orders, taken out with his lover and the pair shot there and then. The rest of the two hundred victims were murdered piecemeal over the next few days.

What followed affected Riefenstahl directly. To secure the rewrite of history that now branded Roehm as an existential threat, any evidence to the contrary had to be destroyed. This included The Victory of Faith, which had idealised Roehm and his men as heroes. All the prints of the film were destroyed – except one which had found its way to England. And this print shows that Reifenstahl had already honed the directorial and editorial skills that were to make Triumph of the Will a masterpiece of propaganda.

Time has passed again and supper looms. Tonight we await the arrival of Swabian Maultaschen (lit. 'mouth-pockets'). These giant ravioli are said to have been invented by Cistercian monks to eat during Lent when meat was forbidden.. God, of course, could not see inside these 'pockets' and to this day they are known as Herrgottsbescheisserle ('Mr God deceivers' – but you have to be a little careful with this translation). The Maultaschen are particularly delicious because they usually have the same filling as the local sausage. What could be nicer.

A three hour film on Susan Sontag -

Tomorrow is all about the making of Triumph of the Will. The film has been removed from YouTube but here is a lot of sub-titled footage (with an unstoppable commentary and selective fast forwarding by a social studies teacher from Ohio) -

Leni Riefenstahl describing in one minute her unbridled creative freedom in making the Triumph of the Will -

And, for no reason, here is Matthias Goerne singing Nacht und Träume -

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