A Last Refuge: Tiefland on Screen
Riefenstahl’s feature-length adaptation of Tiefland is a project understandably overshadowed by its own gestational history. As much as Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935) confirmed for posterity its director’s deep complicity in the propaganda machine of National Socialism, it was Tiefland that would open and re-open the most tender wounds. The controversy centers on the fate of the Sinta and Roma extras recruited to play Catalan villagers during shooting in southern Bavaria in 1941. Sourced as unpaid labor from nearby holding camps where they were detained awaiting transport to the concentration camps in the East, many of the extras would not live to see the end of the war. No responsible engagement with this film ought to displace or marginalize its dark history and foreground it as an aesthetic object. To do so would affirm Riefenstahl’s own belief: that the subject-matter of Tiefland was apolitical, that art is by nature apolitical anyway.1 At the same time, I have no wish to rehearse well-tried arguments concerning Riefenstahl’s knowledge of the status of her extras. My concern, in keeping with the aims of this book, is broader: that the aesthetic values encoded in Tiefland should be examined not for their own sake but precisely because they stage within the film the very ideology that would offer to secure its autonomous status. In this chapter I reflect on the cinematic response to the questions raised by autonomy, both geographical and aesthetic. In doing so I revisit, as Riefenstahl’s film revisits, the operatic Tiefland to ask what the journey between opera and cinema might tell us about each.