‘Leni’ at Aurora: Can Artistic Genius Thrive in a Realm Dominated by Evil?

Leo Stutzin, Contributor

Stacy Ross as Leni Riefenstahl, defending herself; behind her, an image from Triumph of the Will

Leni, the taut biographical drama at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, poses a moral question that defies easy answer. Can we judge an artist’s work without judging the artist?

The artist in this case is German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who soared to international fame in the 1930s and plunged to international contempt during World War II.

Riefenstahl’s fame arose from the technical brilliance of two films: Triumph of the Will, which premiered in 1935, and Olympia” from 1938. The first is a propagandistic record of the huge Nazi Party congress that took place in Nuremberg the previous year; the second is a documentary covering the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a two-part epic that runs close to four hours and boasts innovations that are used in filming sports to this day. The film can also be considered a glorification of German ideals under Hitler.

To her dying day, in 2003 at the age of 101, Riefenstahl insisted that she was a naive sympathizer who knew nothing about Nazi atrocities and had no intention of glorifying its policies. Her sole intention, she said, was to make the most beautiful works of cinematic art that she could.

That’s the puzzle playwright Sarah Greenman tackled in shaping Leni. She resolved it by splitting the filmmaker into two personalities: the young woman who pleads with Hitler and his cronies for the financial, material and human support she needs to make the movies; the mature woman who mounts a persistent defense against accusations of abetting war crimes.

With Stacy Ross playing the older Leni with grace and conviction, and Martha Brigham showing fire and ego as her youthful self, the drama in large part offers a debate between ages, eras and motivations. Both performances are outstanding. Although it’s hard to believe Riefenstahl’s protestations that she knew nothing about concentration camps and meticulously planned evil, Greenman’s text and Ross’s performance force a viewer to wonder whether she could possibly have been telling the truth. Artists have been known to blind themselves to everything outside their intense, narrow realm.

Riefenstahl and her younger self: Martha Brigham, Stacy Ross

On occasion the performers drop out of the biographical roles, adding broader dimensions to the narrative. The external figures that they introduce, however fleetingly, include inquisitors who grill Riefenstahl about her ties to Hitler and company, and even the führer himself. The interrogations sound as if they were drawn from transcripts of trials that Riefenstahl faced after the war. She was never convicted of anything other than being a sympathizer.

To jog the memory of playgoers who have seen her major films and to offer intriguing snippets to viewers who haven’t, the production includes short clips from each of them, appropriately inserted. (You can find both films on YouTube, apparently in full.) As presented by director Jon Tracy in Aurora’s intimate Harry’s UpStage space, the action unfolds before an audience seated on both sides of the playing area. Large projection screens cover the walls behind each bank of seats, giving all a clear view of a cinematic vision that reflected both 19th century romanticism and 20th century craftsmanship that was well ahead of its time.

What might she have done if not for her affiliation with the Nazis? No one could possibly say. To turn that question around, would she have ever earned attention if not for Nazi support? That’s hardly likely: Female directors were hardly commonplace in her time, or even in ours.

Leni runs through May 7 in Aurora Theatre’s small annex, Harry’s UpStage, at 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45 and $55, with various discounts available, from 510-843-4822 or auroratheatre.org