Leni Riefenstahl: Female Movie Mogul

03zagrFormer United Artists’ chief Steven Bach spoke at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities yesterday about his new book on the infamous Nazi propagandist filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. When asked what most surprised him about Riefenstahl, Bach mentioned two things: first, that she really did dig Mein Kampf (she always claimed that she barely read it) and second, that she was, without a doubt, the most powerful filmmaker in the history of show business.

Yep, you heard right: the most powerful filmmaker — male or female– ever. According to Bach, neither D.W. Griffith nor Steven Spielberg wielded the same kind of power that she had in the 1940’s. With Adolf Hitler in her pocket, Riefenstahl was good to go. Hitler loved her work and gave her more and more financial support as he realized how effective her propaganda films really were. After Triumph of the Will, he gave her a gray Mercedes convertible (not bad); for Olympiad, whose exorbitant budget covered five years of shooting, he bought her a house (even better!); then, to top it all off, he promised her a 300,000 square foot studio in a posh suburb of Berlin. Her good buddy Albert Speer created the plans for her deluxe, state of the art studio, and demolition of existing buildings had already begun when the project was put on hold — right before Hitler invaded Poland.

Bach acknowledged how astounding this really was: how on earth did a female filmmaker achieve this unparalleled artistic independence in a notoriously misogynist industry and under the auspices of an intolerant political regime? Certainly, this required more than a little chutzpah.

Every December, I look forward to the Hollywood Reporter’s Women In Entertainment issue, and hope that the situation has finally improved — that more women have moved into leadership positions behind the scenes and that more women would appear front and center on screens near you (the Annenberg School’s See Jane project found that male characters outnumber female characters 3 to 1 in top G-rated movies). Unfortunately, the 2006 issue was pretty grim. San Diego State University professor Martha Lauzen issues an annual report on the status of women in entertainment, and she found that the percentage of women who are working directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors hadn’t budged since 1998. In fact, the number of women directors had actually decreased since 2001.

So what’s it going to take for another woman to impose her vision on the film industry? Although women such as Sherry Lansing, Dawn Steel, Amy Pascal, Laura Ziskin, Stacey Snider and, long before them, Mary Pickford, have managed to climb to unprecedented heights, they remain the exceptions, not the rule. Without a profound structural change, I’m afraid the Women in Entertainment issue is going to tell the same story, year after year.

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