Even after her death, the life and works of Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) still captivate the imagination. Known mostly for her two state-sponsored features, Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), her story reads like a grim tale in which art and politics merge like never before. The debate surrounding her persona wavers between extremes, never striking a human balance; for some, she is an apolitical artist, for others, a vile propagandist. Praised or despised, Riefenstahl remains a problematic figure in the Western imaginary. But why? Why, among all artists who supported totalitarian regimes, does Riefenstahl alone still constitute a taboo figure? Why is the idea of a “Nazi artist” still considered by most today as a noxious paradox, an impossible construction? Who’s Afraid of Leni Riefenstahl? takes a critical look at the history of the Riefenstahl debate and maps its ideological grounds. With the Third Reich abolished and democracy recovered, what might the idea of “Nazi artist” jeopardize that it remains so polemic? In fact, one wonders: to what extent is art essential to democracy?
Riefenstahl’s story reveals the seams of one democracy’s most enduring founding myths: that of the enlightening role of art and its creators.