Early in the riveting two-woman play “Leni,” about the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl who chronicled Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, she asks a fundamental question that has plagued artists for centuries — at what point does art become propaganda?
“Is it my sin that Hitler admired me?” she asks. “I was hired to do a job.”
That dilemma is at the heart of Sarah Greenman’s play, in its Bay Area premiere through May 7 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre.
The 80-minute show, first performed in 2007, features an older Riefenstahl talking with her younger self about art and personal responsibility as they make a film about her life.
Black-and-white footage from her two most famous and controversial movies, “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” is shown at points during the performance.
The show opens with Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at the age of 101, reading from her own obituary in the New York Times. It ends with her standing firm in denying she was a Nazi collaborator — a battle she waged for most of her life.
“If we waver, our life will mean nothing,” she tells her younger self. “It’s just a film. Can a single piece of art really be so dangerous?”
Riefenstahl was an accomplished dancer and actress before becoming a movie director in 1932. She attended a Nazi rally with a friend, and became mesmerized with Hitler’s aura as a speaker.
She sought out Hitler and, funded by the Nazi party, used innovative film techniques — such as moving cameras, including one attached to a flagpole behind the speaker’s podium, and dramatic close-ups of adoring supporters — to create a documentary about Hitler’s fiery speech at a political rally in Nuremberg in 1934. The resulting film, “Triumph of the Will,” was praised for its artistry but criticized as a glorification of Aryan beliefs.
“Olympia,” a two-part chronicle of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, also was funded by the German government, and “Leni” has several scenes in which the protagonist flirts and pleads with Hitler for more funding.
Though both movies became powerful tools of Nazi propaganda in the years leading up to World War II, Riefenstahl throughout the rest of her life insisted that her films were apolitical, that she never joined the Nazi party and was just doing her job as a filmmaker.
“When I am working, all I see is my art,” she says in the play. “Perfectionism is the only thing I’ve been guilty of.”
In real life, Riefenstahl was declared a Nazi sympathizer by the Allies after the defeat of Germany in 1945 and never again was able to work as a movie director, though she reinvented herself as an underwater photographer in her 70s and continued scuba diving into her late 90s.
The play’s artistic director, Tom Ross, wrote in the program notes that the debate about Riefenstahl’s documentaries is relevant today.
“There has been much talk in the arts lately about what kinds of responses, if any, an artist should be making in this dawning age of Trump. What is an artist’s responsibility in these polarizing times?” he wrote.
Ross said in an interview that the play was chosen long before the presidential election, but that it has turned out to be timely as artists consider how they should react in the Trump era. And, just as important, he said it forces audience members to consider questions about art and propaganda.
“I like to produce plays that will lead to thought afterward,” he said. “I’d hope that people leave after seeing ‘Leni’ and then discuss it in their car and debate.”
For Riefenstahl, the artistry of her films was all that mattered — though she paid a steep price for soliciting Nazi funds for her work and being seen as an apologist for Hitler. At one point in the play, she acknowledges that making “Triumph of the Will” doomed her career after Germany’s defeat.
“Do I regret making the film? Yes,” she says. “Do I love the film? Yes.”