Leni Riefenstahl was a German film director, actress, producer, and photographer who is best known for her documentary films of the 1930s dramatizing the power and pageantry of the Nazi movement12. She was also Hitler’s favorite film-maker and faced controversy and criticism for her role in producing Nazi propaganda34.
The Last of the Nuba is a book of photographs by Leni Riefenstahl published in 1973. It depicts the life and culture of the Nuba people, an ethnic group living in Sudan. The book was an international bestseller and was praised for its artistic quality, but also criticized for its primitivist and exoticizing portrayal of the Nuba.
One might say that her work is technically impressive and visually stunning, but also morally problematic and ethically questionable. Some people may think that her work is a valuable contribution to the history of cinema and photography, while others may think that her work is a shameful glorification of fascism and racism.
Susan Sontag was an American writer, critic, and activist who wrote an influential essay titled “Fascinating Fascism” in 1975. In this essay, she analyzed Leni Riefenstahl’s work and argued that it was a continuation of her fascist aesthetics and ideology. She criticized The Last of the Nuba as a primitivist and exoticizing portrayal of the Nuba people that celebrated their physical strength, beauty, and purity123. She also accused Riefenstahl of ignoring the political and social context of Sudan and exploiting the Nuba for her own artistic purposes4. She concluded that Riefenstahl’s work was a dangerous example of fascist art that appealed to irrational emotions and fantasies
Leni Riefenstahl did not directly respond to Susan Sontag’s essay, but she did defend herself against similar accusations of being a fascist and a racist in various interviews and statements. She claimed that she was not a Nazi sympathizer, but a naive artist who was fascinated by Hitler’s charisma and power12. She also denied that her work had any political or ideological agenda, and that she was only interested in beauty, form, and expression34. She argued that her photographs of the Nuba people were a tribute to their culture and dignity, and that she had no intention of exoticizing or exploiting them
Some of the rituals and ceremonies that Riefenstahl photographed are:
Sibir: a range of festive ceremonies that mark the beginning of different seasons of human activities in the Nuba Mountains, such as fire, cultivation, wrestling, hunting, sowayba (a store for crops), and kambala dance.
Wrestling: a popular sport and cultural activity among the Nuba that involves physical strength, skill, and endurance. It is also a way of expressing identity, pride, and solidarity among different clans and village .
Body painting: a form of artistic expression and adornment among the Nuba that reflects their aesthetic preferences, social status, and religious beliefs. The colors and patterns vary according to gender, age, occasion, and personal taste.
Rainmaking: a ritual performed by priests or specialists who are believed to have supernatural powers to control the weather and ensure successful crops. They use various methods such as prayers, sacrifices, dances, or magic objects54.
The Nuba people’s reaction to Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs is not very well documented, but there are some indications that they had mixed feelings about her presence and work. Some of them welcomed her as a friend and a guest, and allowed her to participate in their rituals and ceremonies12. Others were suspicious of her motives and questioned her authenticity and respect for their culture34. Some of them also suffered from the civil war and famine that ravaged Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s, and felt betrayed by Riefenstahl’s silence and indifference to their plight.