Sarah Greenman's 2006 play "Leni," about German film director Leni Riefenstahl (who documented Hitler's rise and reign in "Triumph of the Will"), considers the controversial Riefenstahl as a young woman and an older woman in this Seattle production by Strawberry Theatre Workshop.
How do you solve a problem like Leni Riefenstahl? Sarah Greenman’s tactic: Get Leni’s older and younger selves to confront one another, and us, in the play “Leni.”
Greenman is among the many biographers and historians who’ve been intrigued and mystified by the late Riefenstahl, a brilliant German director who vividly documented the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich in her film “Triumph of the Will.”
“I’m fascinated by the dilemma Leni and a lot of other artists faced during times of war,” says Greenman, 29, a writer and actor on the Seattle scene before a recent move to Dallas, where she lives with her teacher husband and infant daughter.
In “Leni,” produced here by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, Greenman asks whether an artist can ever be truly “apolitical” if their work serves the ends of powerful political forces.
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An innovative artist and beauty of Garbo-esque allure, Riefenstahl grew impressed with Hitler while reading his manifesto, “Mein Kampf.”
When the Nazi führer asked her to film his epic 1934 public rally in Nuremberg, she agreed. And “Triumph of the Will,” her cinematic record of that event, is considered one of the most aesthetic and effective pieces of propaganda ever devised.
After Hitler’s defeat, when confronted with her friendship with Hitler and role as disseminator of his message, Riefenstahl insisted “Triumph of the Will” was a “documentary, not propaganda.” She also claimed ignorance of the Nazi genocide of millions of Jews and others.
Only after seeing the recent film biography “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl” did Greenman realize Riefenstahl was a woman.
“Then I got really interested in the question,” she says, “of how you separate your work from the time you live in. The play just grew from there. It became about what artistic responsibility means — for me, as well as her, because I wrote about Leni after she died [in 2003, at age 91] and could no longer speak for herself.”
Struck by Riefenstahl’s conflicting statements about her work and life over the years, Greenman created a dialectic between two Lenis. “I love the idea that as an older woman, you could talk to your younger self. And your younger and older selves can’t agree on the facts of your own life.”
Completed in 2006, “Leni” attracted interest quickly, and has been seen in the Bay Area, Portland and at the New York International Fringe Festival. Greenman says a backer’s audition for an extended New York run will be held soon.
Rhonda J. Soikowski is directing Strawberry Theatre Company’s production at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, with top Seattle thesps as the younger Riefenstahl (Alexandra Tavares) and her older self (Amy Thone).
Don’t know Riefenstahl’s films? No worries. Excerpts of “Triumph of the Will” and her “Olympiad” (about the 1936 Berlin Olympics) are part of the show.