By Eddie Reynolds, March 22, 2017
How much responsibility does an artist own when art is evidently going to be used as propaganda? Can an artist become so engrossed in the work’s creation to become oblivious to the content’s meaning and to the primary actors that are a part of its making? Is groundbreaking perfection of beauty and a positive, direct influence on future generations of art-makers a high enough accomplishment to forgive an artist’s past sins? And why is the only woman out of one hundred thirteen filmmakers associated with Hitler the one person who was put on trial, post World War II, while some of the men went on to become highly sought after and celebrated worldwide, including in the U.S?
These are just some of many questions that readily come to the fore in watching the Bay Area premiere of Sarah Greenman’s LENI as intimately and imaginatively staged in Harry’s Upstage of the Aurora Theatre Company.
German film director -- and innovator of that art form in the 1930s and early ‘40s -- Leni Riefenstahl is still studied and emulated to this day for the revolutionary techniques she invented and the stunning, unprecedented beauty she created in two key films: Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938). At the same time, from the end of WWII until she died in 2003 at the age of 101, Leni Riefenstahl was shunned, ostracized, and even hated by most anyone outside of Fascist circles for her close association with Hitler and particularly for the glorifying in her films of the Fuhrer and his plans for an Aryan-dominated world. Until the end of her life, she continued to claim her concerns were only art for art’s sake with never a thought for creating propaganda for the Third Reich – something few, if any, ever came to accept as truth.
Taking a cue from the filmmaker’s drive for innovative, up-close exploration of her subjects, Sarah Greenman digs deep to discover the possible truth about this cinematic enigma by having her 1930s young and beautiful self interact directly with her older self soon after her death has been announced and life chronicled in the New York Times. The medium is their joint project to create a film about her life – post her own death -- focusing particularly on the questions of her relationship with Hitler and the purposes she had in making her films. The two alternate roles of film director and principal actor, with the younger Leni taking the lead role of self during the mid-‘30s to mid-‘40s and the older Helene taking her own witness chair to reenact post-war interrogations and trials where she was drilled for information on her relationship with Hitler and the Nazi Party. Throughout, there is the attempt by the reincarnated Riefenstahl to make yet again another “perfect” film – this one on her own life -- often stopping action and demanding retakes in order to make her answers more presentable for history and the modern audience.
As directed by Jon Tracy, the resulting back-and-forth between her two selves is gripping and often-electric theatre – especially when interspersed with snippets of the very films the two discuss. The younger Leni often challenges the older Helene in ways that greatly irritate and upset the latter (“When did you first find out [about the atrocities of the Third Reich]?” ... “Why did you never take the responsibility for your part in this?”). The older persona stalwartly and proudly stands by claims such as “when I am working, all I see is the art ... I only see the work.” To her, Hitler was the “choreographer” while she and her films were “only the recorder.” But for all her pushing of the older Helene to own some of her own doing, when put in the spotlight as the younger Leni, the younger easily becomes the overly friendly, close to flirty upstart filmmaker in her one-on-ones with Hitler, unafraid to push him hard for required funding for her film’s perfection and unabashedly eager to make him look as good as she could on the big screen.
Martha Brigham plays the young, bold Leni with an edge sharp and exact. When in front of the unseen Fuhrer, there is a mature confidence that emanates from her every, thirty-something muscle and move. One can almost read the well-thought-out, step-by-step plan plotted by the young filmmaker whose sole purpose is clearly to win and keep the special confidence and camaraderie of Hitler so that she can continue to make her films in the manner her perfective ways dictate. Employing eyebrows that speak their own words, hands that move quickly and then freeze with their own message, and a formal posture that quickly loosens to denote persistent passion for her art, Ms. Brigham is exceptional in the role of Leni.
Equally if not even more impressive is Stacy Ross as the older Helene who emerges from the hereafter (a shadow world behind closed Venetian blinds at one end of the floor-level stage) to take charge directing the film of her just-passed life. Often speaking through a broad and forced smile or in between fast-alternating smiles and grimaces, Helene fiercely watches the reenactment of scenes of the younger Leni to make sure they meet her approval, stepping in to edit where needed for a more perfect -- if not necessarily a more accurate -- take. But it is when clips of her films are shown that we get a real glimpse of just how the older filmmaker truly sees herself and her contribution to the world. In those moments, Ms. Ross’s Helene radiates to the point of almost a luminous glow as she stares in awe at her own wondrous creations. The depth of her own ego and her bitterness of later treatment is also fully telecast when Ms. Ross brings all manner of bile to voice and demeanor as she snarls, “I am on trial for creating the modern world ... Scheisse!”
A low-budget, movie studio has been created by Nina Ball with full face validity for the mid-1930s era, complete with adjustable spot lights, director’s chair, and minimal set pieces for the required scenes. The sense of movie-making as well as of the other-worldliness of reincarnation is especially achieved through a lighting design by Kurt Landisman that is a show unto itself – one of the better lighting accomplishments that I have seen yet this theatre season. Theodore J.H. Hulsker continues his fine reputation as sound designer with a number of striking touches, including a soft, mysterious ‘whoosh’ that signals when filming commences of the life story that is taking place before us.
An unsettling aspect of Jon Tracy’s direction of Sarah Greenman’s script in the dark, shadowy, and almost claustrophobic Harry’s Upstage is the way Helene often interacts directly at the watching audience, often only inches from the faces of those on the two first rows on either side of the stage. She all but accuses us of being ignorantly complicit in honoring her legacy by our own addiction to the modern ads, sports broadcasts, and movie techniques that all draw on her innovations. “You want to be glorious ... So do I,” she sneers. We are left with the uneasy realization that we probably do not often enough question or too soon overlook the morals and motives of many of the great artists we glorify on a day-to-day basis -- both those current and long past.
If there is any downside to Ms. Greenman’s script, it is an ending that is a bit like the clips of film shown: It rather crumples and burns out all too quickly before final resolution. But, this is also a “film” that is being manufactured to include both fact and fiction in an attempt to create a life more perfect than it actually was. To that end, there is not an ending that can be tied into a nice, complete knot; for the task itself is a given impossibility.
Using a stellar duet of proven actors under the acute direction of Jon Tracy and with a lighting schemata of Kurt Landisman that produces the feel of black-and-white movie-making of the 1930s, Aurora Theatre Company stages a LENI that is fascinating, thought-provoking, and brimming with its own claim of being high art.
Rating: 4 E
LENI continues in a well-deserved, extended run through May 7, 2017 on the Harry’s Upstage of Aurora Theatre Company, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.
Photos Credit: David Allen