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Sloppy Thinking


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Dear editors:

The way Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his piece on Leni Riefenstahl ["Can Film Be Fascist?," June 24], relies on empty cliches like "puff piece" is typical of the sloppy thinking that permeates his review. In my Riefenstahl profile, I do praise her artistry and I do assert that she was not a Nazi, but I also write that, in her dealings with Hitler, "she had made a pact with the Devil"; I write that she cannot claim to be innocent and that certain arguments she makes on her own behalf are pure sophistry; most important, I insist that, contrary to her protestations, Triumph of the Will was indeed propaganda, and of the most powerful sort.

If Rosenbaum wanted to accuse me and others of being "unscholarly," he ought to have engaged in a little scholarship of his own. He might at least have skimmed Leni Riefenstahl's memoirs, in which she never denies having socialized (if that is what Rosenbaum means by "hung out") with Hitler and Goebbels; on the contrary, she details ad nauseam the time she spent with them. (A careful look at her statements in the Ray Muller film also belie Rosenbaum's interpretation.) A little more research, and Rosenbaum would have discovered that the passage he so relies on in Albert Speer's memoirs was (a) later retracted by Speer himself and (b) not even about Triumph of the Will in the first place. Triumph was a film of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally, and Speer's passage is explicitly about the 1935 party rally, which Riefenstahl filmed for a rather undistinguished short called "Day of Freedom."

Finally, to say that I admire the filmmaking of Riefenstahl and Steven Spielberg because I am "infatuated with directors holding unlimited power" is the sort of inane observation I'd expect from a high-school socialist. Not only does it fail to take into account the legions of powerful, big-budget directors whose work I don't admire, it equates the enormous power of a Spielberg--a man whose market success allows him to make any film he wants--with the very fragile power of a Riefenstahl, a woman operating under a brutal, male-dominated dictatorship that threatened her at every turn. A writer incapable of making that sort of distinction ought to be very careful about accusing others of "uncritical" thinking.

Stephen Schiff
New York

Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:

"Puff piece" is neither an empty cliche nor sloppy thinking but a precise description of the sort of glamour profile Schiff writes. He isn't the only one in Tina Brown's New Yorker who writes such pieces (cf., for instance, Lillian Ross's Premiere-style promo on Mrs. Doubtfire, a production that Ross's son happened to be working on), and his may be less egregious than those of some of his colleagues, but to call this writing critical or scholarly to any serious degree is a bit of a stretch. The last piece of "straight" criticism I read by him was a review of The Player in Vanity Fair that began by calling the film "far richer and stranger" as a movie about moviemaking than Day for Night, Singin' in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, or Barton Fink, and then never got around to explaining why; perhaps this could be called a critical or scholarly analysis, but not by me.

I have skimmed Riefenstahl's self-serving and extremely unreliable memoirs, and I suspect that Stephen Schiff has too, because all the corrections he supplies come straight out of that book, which has no scholarly apparatus whatsoever. He's right in pointing out that I confused the 1935 rally with the one in 1934, for which I apologize, but it doesn't occur to him that Speer might have made the same mistake--which seems more plausible than the contrived-sounding explanation Riefenstahl gives in her memoirs. (The only evidence I've found that Speer "retracted" his original statement is Riefenstahl's claim in her memoirs that he did.) Regarding the overall veracity of those memoirs, I'm more inclined to trust Manohla Dargis's review in the March 1994 Voice Literary Supplement, which at least did some cross-checking, than John Simon's lazy gush in the New York Times or Schiff's equally lazy semigush--feminist outrage included--which gives the "fragile" Riefenstahl the benefit of every doubt.

Finally, I never said that Schiff was "in awe of and infatuated with directors holding unlimited power"; high school socialist that I am, I said that "we" were--a "we" that includes myself and Schiff as well as many others. It's true that this statement fails to take into account powerful directors we don't like, but it has nothing to do with equating Spielberg's power with Riefenstahl's; I was talking about their glamorous appeal as icons--an appeal that Schiff's work seeks to foster and extend.

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