THE BLUE LIGHT
Leni Riefenstahl is probably history’s most infamous great filmmaker. The German director revolutionized the documentary with her brilliant and terrifying Triumph of the Will (1934), glorifying Hitler and the awesome Nazi war machine.
In The Blue Light, Edmonton playwright Mieko Ouchi offers an intelligent examination of the life and career of Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at the age of 99, unrepentant about her role as one of Nazism’s chief propagandists. The play asks what made this fascinating woman tick, and whether complicity in monstrous war crimes can ever be excused, even in the name of great art.
Donna Spenser’s west coast premiere of the play scores high with a handful of sterling performances, especially Gabrielle Rose’s Leni. But our ability to take Riefenstahl’s self-justifications seriously is handicapped by problems with the script, including Leni’s own character.
Ouchi sets the play shortly before Leni’s death, in a fictional meeting with a tough but sympathetic young Hollywood producer (the excellent Daniela Vlaskalic), who wonders why Leni doesn’t just apologize (shades of Mel Gibson!) to rehabilitate her reputation. From there we flash back and forth in time, seeing Leni’s youthful start in showbiz as a dancer and actress, and her intense desire to write and direct her own movies.
Her break comes when her first film, The Blue Light, a mystical German folk tale, attracts the attention of Goebbels (a mannered Sean Devine) and Hitler (beautifully understated by Jack Paterson), who commission her to “capture the power” of the Führer in his speech to a giant rally (Triumph of the Will), and celebrate the Aryan triumph of the Berlin Olympics (Olympia). We also see her later at a war crimes trial, accused of turning a blind eye to elements of the Holocaust that she filmed.
Gabrielle Rose, Vancouver’s answer to Helen Mirren, magnificently milks every ounce of Leni’s imperious arrogance and her child-like awe when flattered by her Nazi father-figures. Rose also shows us the brief moments when an awareness of the horror she’s helping to create breaks through Leni’s defensive shell. But it becomes clear that her need to make films is a megalomania, preventing Leni from any serious ethical self-examination and draining her character of real complexity.
The other key element missing in Ouchi’s portrait of the artist is the art itself. In Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, Mozart’s infantile obnoxiousness is mitigated by our immediate experience of his glorious music pouring through the theatre’s speakers. For whatever reasons, The Blue Light doesn’t show us a single frame from Riefenstahl’s films. We’re left to reconstruct them from memory or from the play’s verbal descriptions.
In the conflict between very good art and very bad politics, that makes no contest at all.