Think of the most innovative filmmakers of the 20th century. Chances are, adjusting for cinephile credibility, most people's lists are going to look similar, consisting almost exclusively of white, American men. The name Leni Riefenstahl, however, will probably be absent from most lists though she is more than deserving.
The dancer-turned-actor-turned-director is responsible for some of most technically stunning films of the 1930s and is the innovator behind countless camera techniques still used today, like putting a camera on rails. The reason she is unknown to most and deliberately omitted by others lies in one fact: she used her filmmaking prowess to make Nazi propaganda.
"This was a woman in the 1930s, there were no female directors at the time," Ron Jenkins, director of Mieko Ouchi's The Blue Light explains. "Women were treated like housewives. [The play is] about what she did because she wanted to be an artist. There really isn't a modern analogy I can think of for her. She wanted to make films so badly that she was willing to get in bed, so to speak, with the devil. She claims a lot of naivety because she says she was off making films in the mountains but there are photographs of her and Nazi officials as well as letters she wrote to Hitler."
Needless to say, Riefenstahl's life was a controversial one. Her films Triumph of the Will and Olympia are heralded by those who can see past their content as masterpieces of cinematography but are vilified by those same people because of their glorification of the Nazi regime. The Blue Light seeks to explore Riefenstahl's life without either crucifying or apologising for the filmmaker.
"I think the character of Leni Riefenstahl in this play is exactly the character of Leni Riefenstahl in life," Jenkins remarks. "I think that's why the play is so good and so interesting. This woman learned to scuba dive when she was 90 years old. She lived this incredible life but I don't think she's a hero and I don't think she's a villain. You need to look at her as she was in life, and in the play I think she's represented quite accurately. Kate Hennig, who's playing Leni, isn't about making the sympathetic choice, she's about playing that women to the hard core."
Though the play may seek to present Riefenstahl as the ambiguous character she was in real life, Jenkins has his own opinions of the woman, her films and the controversy surrounding her. Respecting her work from a technical standpoint, he does not find her omission from most people's lists a tragic one.
"I don't think it's tragic at all," Jenkins states. "Whether she knew or not what the Nazis planned, whether she was politically aligned with them or not, I think she should have known. I guess the [only] tragedy was that there were some filmmakers who made the same sort of propaganda films [who kept working]. With her, I think it's because her films were good. Those films in 1935-6 were touted as the best films of the year and not just in Germany but in Italy and France. Olympia, which is, I think, her best and most innovative film, won the Grand Prix in Paris for filmmaking that year. I think it was because her films were good that she was judged more harshly."
Premiering at Alberta Theatre Projects' Enbridge playRites Festival, The Blue Light promises to be a challenging play demanding audiences' attention and also their opinion. A biography, a time-piece, a cautionary tale and a catalyst for debate all rolled into one, The Blue Light is a sprawling, ambitious production, but, considering its subject matter, how could it be anything else?
Visit atplive.com for showtimes and details.