Once upon a time in Berlin, there was a young, blonde, beautiful maiden named Leni, who starred in silent movies and longed to make films herself. Because she was proud and willful and ingenious, she did, eventually being asked to film a giant Nazi rally in 1934 by Adolf Hitler. The whole world knew Hitler was very, very bad, but like Germany herself, Leni enjoyed his attention, and filmed the crowds and hectoring orations with a mythic flare. Next, she filmed the 1936 Berlin Olympics, creating visual abstractions of sinew and human beauty that seem, at least now, too decadent to be über.
The 1934 documentary may or may not be “the most powerful propaganda film” ever—how could you measure such a thing? Leni decided it was none of her business. She lived for almost 70 more years, taking pictures of sharks and lionfish so that people might forget about the rally film. When asked, she’d scoff like an old widow quizzed about wartime one-night stands. Third Reich citizens tried to shrug off the Nazi period, but Leni put her love on film. Everyone saw it. But what did she love? Hitler and fascism, or celluloid, spectacle, muscle, and power sex? She lived a century; now she’s gone.