Monthly Archive for: ‘March, 2017’

‘Leni’ probes the psyche of Hitler propagandist

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★½☆

In the title role of “Leni,” Stacy Ross mulls her relationship with Hitler (projected behind her) and whether her films were art or propaganda. Photo by David Allen.

In the title role of “Leni,” Stacy Ross mulls her relationship with Hitler (projected behind her) and whether her films were art or propaganda. Photo by David Allen.

When a play’s run is extended before it opens, that’s generally a hopeful sign.

Case in point — “Leni,” the latest offering at the cozy Harry’s UpStage in the Aurora Theatre, which has added two weeks of performances through May 7.

If I’d been looking only for the sheer dissection of a controversial character’s psyche and being, my optimism would have been fully realized. But I was also seeking dramatic power and was supplied, instead, word power — in fact, a veritable avalanche of words.

I was looking, too, for answers that apparently weren’t to be had.

I’d previously dipped into the 669-page autobiography of Leni Riefenstahl, innovative German filmmaker forever linked with Adolf Hitler, her financial benefactor and possible puppeteer, for being his shameless propagandist.

I’d read several other books on her, and I’d watched a couple of documentaries.

Questions had always lingered.

If Leni weren’t cajoled or coerced by Hitler and his sidekicks, was she conned by her own ambition and insatiable quest for beauty and excellence?

Unfortunately, after seeing Sarah Greenman’s “Leni” at the Aurora, my vision didn’t clear.

That said, the 80-minute show — superbly directed by Jon Tracy — is still a must-see. Because its two stars — Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham, who respectively play older and younger versions of the filmmaker, are marvelous, intuitive actors.

The major conceit is that Riefenstahl — dead at 101 — is revisiting her life and trying to explain/defend/justify it by filming it in flashbacks.

While projections (by sound and video designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker) from her monumental cinematic successes — “Triumph of the Will” (about a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1934) and the two-part “Olympia” (about the Berlin games in 1936) — flash dramatically on screens on two sides of the stage.

The projections, in fact, provide the lion’s share of the play’s action.

And clearly show some of Riefenstahl’s innovative techniques — like the utilization of moving cameras that provided panoramic views, the perfection of slo-mo and music without narration, frequent use of close-ups — and footage of Hitler shot from below eye level.

Which in turn clearly shows how she deified Hitler and the German athletes.

The two versions of Riefenstahl frequently squabble over some infinitesimally minor points. And some major ones.

She ducks answering, for instance, what and when she knew about the Nazis — and why she could never admit to what many saw as her apparent collusion.

Refusing to confirm or deny, she dodges the question of whether she slept with The Führer; Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s propaganda minister; or any of Hitler’s henchmen.

Feminism is also addressed.

After all, Riefenstahl — who repeatedly denied she was a member of the National Socialist party — was one of 113 filmmakers chosen by Hitler to forward his Third Reich but the sole female.

The drama of “Leni” is heightened, exponentially, by Kurt Landisman’s lighting.

Shadows in effect become an additional character.

The play opens with a silhouetted Leni reading her own obit and noting, “Death has turned out to be an extraordinary boost to my career.”

A rare moment of humor in a drama fraught with hyper- seriousness.

Such as Leni repeatedly disavowing any political affiliation, insisting she only filmed “the existing reality,” and claiming that “perfectionism is the only thing I’ve ever been guilty of.”

Hitler, she proclaims, “turned [‘Triumph of the Will’] into a weapon, not me.”

The older, more evasive version of Leni occasionally bursts into German, despite having broken the fourth wall and finding the audience prefers English. The younger, more sexualized Leni tends to be profoundly controlled, except for a brilliant sequence in which she rhythmically pounds on a desk.

When all’s said and done, though, I realize my answer and Leni’s would most likely differ when she asks rhetorically, “Am I an accomplice to genocide?”

“Leni” runs at Harry’s UpStage in the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, through May 7. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $45 to $55. Information: (510) 843-4822 or