Review: Mystery of Hitler’s filmmaker comes to life in Berkeley

By KAREN D'SOUZA | | Bay Area News Group

Art was always more personal than political for Leni Riefenstahl. But the rest of the world could never untie the knot of her tangled motives for making controversial films such as “Triumph of the Will.”

Starring the always insightful Stacy Ross and bracingly directed by Jon Tracy, Sarah Greenman’s “Leni” offers a chilling and intimate look at the artist and at Nazi mythology, as seen through a postmodern lens, in its regional premiere at the Aurora Theatre Company.

Exploring the politics of propaganda is a particularly explosive theme in the Trump era. Tracy’s mesmerizing staging of this taut 80-minute piece, a small play with big historical themes that have disturbing relevance for our time, lingers in the mind long after the curtain falls.

Greenman’s play is constructed like a duet between a young and coltish Leni (Martha Brigham), a budding filmmaker whose head is turned by Hitler’s power, and an older Leni (Ross), a woman of steel sadly bowed by her embroilment with the forces of evil.

The elder Leni first enters the stage cloaked in shadows, with a vaguely haunted, Norma Desmond-style air. She tiptoes to the center of an old-school film set and gets ready for her close up. This time, she will be directing her own life story, rebutting forever the vilification she has suffered as a mouthpiece for the man who engineered the Holocaust.

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The playwright examines just how much responsibility the iconic German filmmaker has for the images she created, the way she glorified the zeitgeist of the Third Reich.

While Riefenstahl always denied that she made propaganda and described her work as documentarian in nature and not espousing the Nazi line, it’s hard to get beyond the pulse-pounding thrill of her films. From the throngs of adoring crowds at the Nuremberg rallies to the glistening athletes of the Olympic games, her work basks in the visceral majesty of power, the way it reshapes the world in its own image.

Flickering clips from her spellbinding films frame this astute production, showcasing the filmmaker’s eye for epic symbolism and breathtaking sweep. They also feel like ads for Hitler, which is how posterity has generally regarded them. The older Leni will have none of it.
Ross glows with conviction as Leni defends her only religion, the cult of beauty. She did what she had to for her art and refuses to apologize for that to anyone. She was a woman struggling to find her vision in a time dominated by the male gaze.


Still, her younger self can’t stop interrogating her about what she knew and when. Brigham radiates ambition and curiosity as the young Leni demands answers from her later self in one scene and then sweet talks Hitler into getting funding for her films in the next. She is so focused on her work that she misses the tragedies all around her. She keeps her eyes on the footage while the rest of the world suffers from the fallout.

Tracy smartly uses the tight confines of Harry’s UpStage, an intimate second space, to capture the nakedness of the artifice and the claustrophobia of being trapped into your own head. This is a memory play unfolding on the film set of Leni’s mind. Nothing is real, but everything feels grounded in a sense of personal truth.

Greeman’s central conceit of having Leni grapple with herself as she recounts her shifting narrative gives the play grace and fluidity. Fact and fiction slide in and out of focus as the two sides of Leni confront each other, the past staring into the eyes of the future, desperate for clarity.

The playwright also tries to let the audience into this discussion of complicity, pointing out the ways in which the filmmaker’s aesthetic has shaped the look of the modern age. She sees ominous reflections of her work in everything from Calvin Klein ads to presidential photo ops.
From the perspective of the now, it’s Leni’s memories of getting swept up by the zeitgeist that are the most unsettling, the way artists, and indeed everyone else, can need to believe in something or someone so deeply they blind themselves to all else.


By Sarah Greenman, presented by Aurora Theatre Company

Through: May 7

Where: Harry’s UpStage, 2081 Addison St. Berkeley

Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $45-$65, 510-843-4822,