"Playing Leni,' by Madhouse Theater

The doyenne of denial

DaPonte, Grove: Hitler's cat and her Jewish captor. (Photo: P. Nogueras.)
DaPonte, Grove: Hitler's cat and her Jewish captor. (Photo: P. Nogueras.)

A beautiful young woman, clutching her film reel like a Torah, is fighting to defend her work against an arresting American officer in occupied Austria in 1946. Reluctantly, with a pistol in her face, she hands over the canister. Then, in a demanding voice, she says, "Cut! We'll do it again."

Playing Leni, by David Robson and John Stanton, directed by the innovative Seth Reichgott, looks at the manipulations of Leni Riefenstahl, the führer's most influential filmmaker, her many propaganda films and her denial that she glorified the Nazi empire, numbing millions to the horrors to come.

Playing Leni focuses on Riefenstahl's vehement rejections of accusations that her heroic propaganda films contributed to the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

During the play, the audiences witness an excerpt from Riefenstahl's original film Tiefland (Lowland), in which gypsies were cast as Spanish peasant extras. The American soldier tries to get Riefenstahl to confess that the actors were assembled from a forced labor camp and that she made a contract with the SS to hire them, despite knowing that most of them would end up murdered in Auschwitz shortly after the film was shot.

Riefenstahl, doyenne of denial, claims that she still maintains a wonderful correspondence with many of them. However, the soldier tries to tear down her web of fabrication: "All of those extras have been exterminated!"

Riefenstahl shrugs off the accusation: "I am a director, not a casting agent." The soldier, unimpressed, pushes on: "What did you know about the systematic murders of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies—?" The woman who was closer to Hitler and Goebbels than anyone outside the Nazi hierarchy renounces all accusation of involvement, adamantly declaring, "This won't be in my film or any film!"

Cat-and-mouse games

Audiences of Riefenstahl's works, like Triumph of the Will or her two famous 1936 Olympic films, may not have realized that they got played and sucked into toxic, persuasive propaganda.

Similarly, Riefenstahl, the mistress of power and control (compellingly portrayed here by Amanda Grove), goes all-out to seduce the arresting U.S. soldier (the multi-talented Robert DaPonte) by browbeating him— and the audience— into submission: "No Leni, no movie," and "This is my story and my arrest! So stop screwing around with B-movie shit!"

Always the performer, she manages to turn her brief incarceration into a scene in which she coaxes the American officer into acting various parts, forcing him to play her role while interacting with Goebbels. She even manages to get him to play a German officer who kills prisoners in Poland while she films the scene.

The soldier, unwillingly dragged into Riefenstahl's cat-and-mouse game, tries to turn the situation to his advantage by working on her script as his ruse to get her cooperation in revealing information before the Nuremberg trials.

Just when the soldier thinks he has caught Leni in his trap, confronting her with the impact of her films on countless lives, she brushes him off: "Life is too short for regrets."

'Don't joke about the Jews'

The soldier, modeled on Budd Schulberg, the writer who actually arrested and interrogated Riefenstahl, reveals himself as Jewish. The stubborn anti-Semite, who clearly hasn't learned anything, ridicules him. He then warns her, "First rule of the interrogation: Don't joke about the Jews."

In an almost Pavlovian fashion, Riefenstahl declares that she has nothing against anyone; "As far as I'm concerned, people are all the same." Yet, she employs euphemisms to avoid the term "Jews." The interrogator has to beat it out of her before, referencing Hitler, she admits to prejudices against "people unlike himself." The soldier spells it out for her: "Jews you mean."

Apparently unaware of the presence of a significant Jewish community in Los Angeles, Hitler's filmmaker dreams of making movies in Hollywood— the height of chutzpah. The soldier reacts sardonically, "I'm not sure the Jews on Rodeo Drive have gotten past it yet." The audience at the Adrienne roared with delight.

My friend's painful memories

My friend and guest, Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust, didn't laugh. The Riefenstahl play brought back many painful memories of her childhood in occupied Poland.

Judging from the derisive laughter in the theater, often directed at Leni, I wasn't sure whether those in the audience went home feeling enlightened or merely entertained by schadenfreude— whether they saw Riefenstahl as the "Inglorious Bitch," akin to Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds— or whether they went home in self-reflection.

"'We are the same'

Playing Leni, a drama about a power-hungry filmmaker willing to walk over bodies, encourages the American audience to discover not only some of the inner workings of a Third Reich mind, but also our own: "You're doing this for you!" Riefenstahl tells the audience. "We are the same you and I."

Through the American soldier and the German filmmaker, we may recognize our own ambiguities in our pursuit of personal fulfillment. As Robson puts it, Riefenstahl was "an opportunist extraordinaire. Life is full of people willing to do anything to become famous. Where does the conscience go in all that?"

Entering the theater, Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will fills the screen. Leaving the theater, where we had just witnessed the unbearable Riefenstahl, did we look critically at the triumph of the will—within ourselves?

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