Christopher Ondaatje glories in Leni Riefenstahl's extraordinary - and unashamedly sensual - images of tribal Africa.
Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial and legendary film-maker, began as a solo dancer touring Germany and Europe before a knee injury forced her to retire. Undeterred, she transformed herself into a film star, appearing in several German adventure films set in mountain landscapes in the late 1920s and early 1930s, movies that set off perfectly her beauty and athleticism - attributes she would later focus on as a director. It was through acting that she learnt about film-making and photography and was able to make the transition into directing - a remarkable achievement in a male-dominated world.
Her first film, The Blue Light , made in 1931, was well received but led her into troubled waters. It caught the attention of the rising Adolf Hitler, who invited her to film the 1934 Nuremberg rally. Although she spurned Hitler as a lover, Riefenstahl did fall for his charisma, later telling the BBC: "I am one of millions who thought Hitler had all the answers. We saw only the good things, we didn't know bad things were to come." Her documentary on Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will , was technically astonishing as well as a chillingly effective propaganda tool for the Third Reich: cinematic black magic, as a recent critic remarked. Two years later, again at Hitler's bidding, she made the stunning Olympia , a documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was a massive undertaking, with 40 cameramen, 250 miles of film and 18 months of editing, not to mention many innovative shooting techniques that are now taken for granted in sports photography and film.
After the war, Riefenstahl's involvement with Hitler brought an abrupt end to her film career. She was taken into police custody several times between 1945 and 1947, and it was difficult for her to escape pariah status in Europe. Entangled in innumerable court cases, she drifted professionally until 1956 when she set out to make a film about the illegal slave trade in Africa. This first expedition was an inauspicious introduction to the continent she came to love: just north of Nairobi, her Jeep overturned and she was hurled through the windscreen. She was not expected to live, but resilience and determination saw her through and her glimpses of Masai warriors carrying spears and wearing tribal costume sparked a lasting fascination with Africa. Interviewed by the film-maker and Riefenstahl aficionado Kevin Brownlow, she describes how the mixture of the strange and the familiar in Africa was so seductive: "I read Hemingway's book The Green Hills of Africa . And that influenced me. And when I got there, this shimmer, this light that I found in Africa, the warmth and the colours that look so completely different in the heat from those of Europe, all that fascinated me greatly. It reminded me of the Impressionist painters - Manet, Monet, Cezanne."
However, it was a single picture of a Nuba wrestler - one tribesman carried on the shoulders of another - taken by the English photographer George Rodger that clinched her interest. She thought it looked like a Rodin statue, so beautiful and enticing that she could not help but seek out and film these people herself. In 1962, she got her chance. Riefenstahl was asked to make a scientific film for the German Nansen Society. After a long journey into a remote part of the Sudan, she spotted the distinctive roundhouses of the Nuba. She describes her excitement at first sighting the people in her memoirs: "The blacks were led by a number of men covered in snow-white ashes, who were naked and wore strange headdresses. They were followed by others whose bodies were painted and adorned with white ornamentation. At the end of the procession were women and girls, likewise painted and decorated with white pearls. They walked straight as candles and carried calabashes and large baskets on their heads." When the Nansen-backed film collapsed, she was forced to fall back on her trusty Leica camera. Thus the failure of a film project sparked a great career in still photography.
Taschen, the German publisher, has published an elephant-sized limited edition of the African photographs of Riefenstahl, each copy of which is signed by her. At £1,200, it is a weighty investment but one that will pay rich dividends to anyone interested in Riefenstahl's work, the tribespeople of the Sudan and the art of photography. It is a magnificent collection and a fitting celebration of this formidable artist's 100th birthday last year.
The collection includes photographs of the Mesakin Quissayr, the Masai, the Shilluk, the Dinka, Murle, Nuer and Latuka. Tribal life is captured: from working the fields to baking bread; from intimate portraits of family life to great gatherings of warriors; from the carefree informality of children playing in the dust to the extraordinary, painstaking artistry of the Kau (part of the Nuba tribe) in face and body painting. These beautiful, elaborate face "masks" are designed to accentuate the wearer's best features. No pattern or motif is ever repeated; the Kau's decorative imagination seems inexhaustible.
In these and other pictures, the large size of the book's pages is a blessing. Extreme close-ups reveal not just facial markings and expressions, but also the actual texture of painted skin, while double-page vistas put the viewer into the endlessly yellow, endlessly dusty savannah stretched out beneath an equally unrelenting blue sky.
Throughout, Riefenstahl's eye for, and delight in, physical beauty shines through. Turning the pages reveals acres of black skin - painted, oiled, ash-dusted, pierced - magically shot with unmistakable and unashamed sensuality. There is little doubt that Riefenstahl's passion for the body beautiful retains a lingering fascist ideal, despite her depictions being entirely at odds with Hitler's pathological race theories. But Brownlow, as editor and interviewer, is clearly enthralled by Riefenstahl's genius and stays out of the political debate, preferring to leave her photographs to speak for themselves (with the aid of an illuminating index and detailed biodata on Riefenstahl, which, like Brownlow's introduction, are translated into French, German and Japanese).
The photographic achievement aside, this is also a record of a vanished world. When Riefenstahl first visited the Nuba, it was an offence for her to photograph them in their habitually naked state. A government policeman went with her and she had to send her pictures to Khartoum to be censored.
Riefenstahl ignored the censorship because she saw the Nuba's nakedness as an important part of the innocence and honesty she revered in them. They were a gentle, peace-loving tribe who had respect for women (unlike the Masai, for whom women had less value than cattle). She tells Brownlow that "the time I spent with the Nuba was among the happiest of my life, among the most beautiful of my life. It was just wonderful. Because they were always cheerful, laughing all day long, good people who never stole a thing. They were very happy with everything, pleased with everything."
The happiness was to take on a prelapsarian quality, for five years later, when she returned, the tribe was much altered. No longer permitted their nakedness by the government, the Nuba were dressed in rags and, as in Eden, with clothing came a hitherto unknown sense of shame. Now the wrestlers she could have captured five years before in all their naked glory were too embarrassed to remove their trousers.
It seemed, too, that a series of bad harvests had forced young men to seek a living in the towns and with the coming of money, the easy life of the tribespeople was disrupted. "Human happiness simply dissolves the moment it comes in contact with the darker side of humanity," Riefenstahl wrote in her memoirs, apparently without conscious irony. Fearing that the Nuba were fated to go the same way as the Australian Aborigines, on her next trip to Africa Riefenstahl sought out a more distant, more untouched tribe: the Kau, great mask painters who had never before been photographed. More difficult to work with than the friendly Mesakin Nuba, the Kau nonetheless inspired some of her most fascinating photographs. Even the Kau, however, were ultimately touched by what Riefenstahl saw as the disfiguring hand of tourism and the cash it held out.
As Brownlow concludes in his interview, "Leni Riefenstahl had travelled from the Twentieth Century to the Stone Age. She had seen people living in perfect harmony with nature and she had seen what the 'plague of civilisation' had done to them. One great benefit of civilisation, however, is the photograph, that frozen moment of time. To receive such a record of Leni Riefenstahl's journeys is a priceless gift on the occasion of her centenary." Riefenstahl's African photographs are as brilliant, disturbing and unique as the films she made for Hitler.
Christopher Ondaatje is a council member, Royal Geographical Society. He is a writer and photographer on Africa.
Author - Leni Riefenstahl
Editor - Kevin Brownlow
ISBN - 3 8228 1616 7
Publisher - Taschen
Price - £1,200.00
Pages - 559