When detained and interrogated after World War II, Leni Riefenstahl did not claim she was "just following orders" in making films that were...

Theater Review |

When detained and interrogated after World War II, Leni Riefenstahl did not claim she was “just following orders” in making films that were Nazi propaganda tools.

She may as well have. The “orders” Riefenstahl followed, as Sarah Greenman’s play “Leni” sharply argues, were those of an ambitious artist, whose cultural myopia is stunning.

A debate between Riefenstahl’s flinty, evasive older self (played by the riveting Amy Thone) and her girlish, seductive younger self (Alexandra Tavares), “Leni” is an intelligent brief on artistic responsibility, influence and narcissism.

Cogently presented by Strawberry Theatre Workshop as directed by Rhonda J. Soikowski, “Leni” cleverly uses postmodern theatrical means to ponder Riefenstahl’s arrogance and sensibility.

It opens with a clip from the 1926 silent film “Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain)” — a stunningly operatic ode to nature starring Riefenstahl as an ecstatic über-nymph.

Excerpts from epic Nazi-era films Riefensthal herself directed (“Triumph of the Will,” “Olympiad”) also appear on screens in Greg Carter’s evocative, editing-room set. And live video projections conjure double images of the actors, from contrasting angles — a haunting effect that suggests Riefenstahl’s own duplicity.

“Leni” also imagines the younger Riefensthal’s conversations with her great admirer, Adolf Hitler. She flirtatiously begs for more funds to finish “Triumph of the Will” — her heavily staged, much-touted “documentary” of a massive Hitler rally in Nuremberg.

Later, she gripes to Hitler about being reviled during a trip to the U.S. in 1938. (The visit, ironically, coincided with the horrific Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ mass burning of synagogues and Jewish stores.)

As for the elder Leni, elegantly imperious in tailored white shirt and slacks, she “directs” the play as a reputation-cleansing film within a film.

Bitter that her career was derailed because of her association with Hitler, she blames sexism and false accusations. She insists she knew nothing about Hitler’s Final Solution and other atrocities (a claim dashed in the play, on a couple of occasions).

But Riefenstahl’s main alibi (in interviews, and in her self-serving memoirs) was that an artist’s sole obligation is to conjure and celebrate beauty.

In her revelatory essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag explored how Riefenstahl’s “pure” and “harmonious” aesthetic of beauty was an outgrowth of 19th-century German romanticism that played right into the Nazi idealization of Aryan superiority.

That’s intriguing ground to cover, and Greenman’s 80-minute play could be expanded, and the awkwardly placed intermission dropped. As it is, “Leni” boasts two good female roles for the excellent Thone and capable Tavares (who was ailing, and a bit off her game, at a recent show).

The play also offers an insight into how Riefenstahl’s aesthetic lingers in our own culture, for better or worse. After seeing “Leni,” you may never look at a Calvin Klein ad in the same way again.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com