nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
August 15, 2007
Leni Riefenstahl is known as Hitler's filmmaker because she made the documentary Triumph of the Will, during six days of the Nuremberg Congress of the Nazi party in 1934. In Sarah Greenman's play Leni, the complicated onion of the responsibility of art is peeled away by two sides of Ms. Riefenstahl, brought to life by a younger and an older actress. Equal parts psychodrama, biography, courtroom drama, lecture, and double solo performance, this piece takes you deep into her mind, where the conflicts and accusations fly just as much as they did around her. Was she aware she was making such a strong piece of propaganda for Hitler, or was she just an artist brining her highest level of craft and professionalism to her work? Was someone who wanted beauty to be the new religion simply blind to the events happening around her?
Leni opens up with actual footage without subtitles of Triumph of the Will. It is astounding and sickening what a breathtaking film it is. Riefenstahl's argument against the film being a piece of propaganda is that it does not contain any commentary. She maintains this "film art" simply shows a series of images as they happened.
The mystery of her true relationship with Hitler is never completely unearthed. Looking at all the evidence, it is doubtful anyone will ever truly know what it was. Was she Hitler's puppet? Was Hitler at her beck and call when she needed support to complete her projects? Were they romantically linked or good friends? Was she secretly supportive of him? Did they just use each other to serve their own needs? Conjecture goes back and forth amongst historians so it is only fitting that the two Lenis in this piece fight at times over the accuracy of details, accounts, and memories. The questions bring up more questions while the stranger-than-fiction historical details make you wonder what surprises are in store.
Sarah Greenman's eloquent and spellbinding play avoids many of the traps inherent in all the genres used in this piece. Louisa Cabot and Olivia Mora are perfect in their roles. You buy them instantly as versions of the same person, their dialects are spot on, they knock many moments right out of the park, and they give and take so well you actually think they are operating with only one shared mind. Lorraine Clink's direction keeps the prism of Greenman's play turning briskly.
One complaint. The piece runs close to 90 minutes with a 10-minute intermission. Cutting that out would keep the action moving and let Fringers get to other shows. Second (non-show) complaint to audience members: unless you plan on giving millions to a theatre, don't gripe about the facility. If downtown theatres continue to go the way of CBGB, you will be sorry.
Riefenstahl's influence is deeply embedded in our culture. From our clothing ads to the way sports events are shot to how the President lands his plane and makes his entrance, we experience her aesthetic daily. One can only imagine her impact had she not created Triumph of the Will but created some other equally potent film. On the other hand, what if she had been allowed to make films after World War II? Hopefully, we will not have questions about the output of Collective Play Productions and they will bring us more textured, quality work. If you are looking for a big helping of meat to put on your FringeNYC plate, go see Leni.