A Thought About Leni Riefenstahl, Maya Deren,
and Gay and Lesbian Film

Sarah Schulman

Printed in MFJ No. 41 (Fall 2003) Lesbian and Gay Experimental Cinema/Stan Brakhage Remembrances


I was recently working on a syllabus for a course at the City University of New York Graduate Center on Gay and Lesbian Experimental Film from Edison to Haynes. After making my selections, I decided to watch them all in chronological order to see what was revealed.

I began with Dickson Experimental Sound Film, an 1895 short of two men dancing. This product of the Edison empire is a romantic evocative film, entirely unaware of the meaning it would have for a gay viewer. Then I watched Watson and Webber’s Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a deliberately Gothic work about the power of forbidden sexuality to distort form as well as character. The men in Dickson had nothing to hide, didn’t have to hide, and so just danced. The men in Usher didn’t want to hide, but needed to, and so relied on melodramatic surrealism to make expression possible.

Next on my list was Alla Nazimova’s Salome ( 1922), directed by and starring the lesbian icon and silent film star. After appearing in the first ever production of Chekhov’s The Seagull at The Moscow Art Theater in Russia, Nazimova was forced out of the troupe for being a Jew. She came to New York, performed in a Yiddish stage company, on the lower Eastside, whose stage manager was Emma Goldman. Nazimova was the first person to bring the Method to America, in a production of an Ibsen play. She worked at Eva La Gallienne’s Theater. The woman had a fascinating life. She ended up living in Los Angeles with her lover, who happened to be Nancy Reagan’s godmother. Salome is mythic camp—a precursor to the theater of Charles Ludlam. It winks, but it’s not silly. And even though Nazimova was a triple-threat filmmaker, her camera looks at more than herself. I paired it with Willard Maas’ Geography of the Body (1943), a tortured homosexual film that daringly focuses on a male nude with desire, precision, and longing.

At this point, I could identify some foundational forms for lesbian and gay cinema. There was unconscious realism, conscious artifice, the courageous portrait, and lesbian authority imposed on a biblical classic.

But it was in the next round of viewing that a shocking revelation came to me about the history of our cinema. I watched Leni Riefenstahl’s’ Triumph of the Will (1935), then Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1944), and I realized that the two most significant aesthetic trends in gay and lesbian cinema came from the work of two straight women.

Riefenstahl, of course, was Hitler’s great propagandist. Triumph of the Will is a documentary of the Nazi party Congress in Nuremberg. With stark, clean camera work and tight, persuasive editing, it highlights the perfect beauty, order, precision, and power of the Aryan male. In fact, Triumph of the Will uses male beauty to propagandize for fascism. Watching the film makes clear that the fascist aesthetic that Riefenstahl pioneered in cinema may be the single greatest influence, since the Greeks, on gay male representation.

What makes Triumph of the Will so deceptively homoerotic is that it represents an all male world. The film takes place in a utopia of male bodies, sensibilities, and most importantly, male camaraderie (i.e., patriarchy, the foundational principle of fascism). Beautiful Aryan men pledge loyalty to each other, sweat together, and then shower together. And yet, the film is shot with a heterosexual woman’s eye. She is the one “gazing” at these young men. She is establishing the camera’s values, and it is her desire and admiration that transcend the age. And yet, because we don’t think of women being behind a camera, and because she is never visible, the viewer becomes engaged, simultaneously, in an all male world, and an invisible heterosexual woman’s erotic eye, resulting in a male homosexual dream—more powerfully surfacing in the context of National Socialism, which was simultaneously homosocial and anti-homosexual. Ironically, because Riefenstahl is both heterosexual and a particularly bold iconoclast, Triumph of the Will and her other great Nazi propaganda film, Olympiad, were the most daring, overtly sexual, cinematic idolizations of the Aryan male that had ever been seen. Contrasting them with the hidden aesthetics of camp, the Gothic, arch stylization, or hesitancy (as in Maas’ film, in which he can look but never touch), Riefenstahl’s never furtive or demeaned homosexual world provides a kind of aesthetic liberation for gay men. Yes, fascism has a homoerotic component, but Riefenstahl’s heterosexual femininity brings it to a proactive foreground—one that changed history forever, and can be seen in the clean shaven, muscular young men, with short haircuts who people much of gay male narrative cinema, photography, advertising, pornography, and neighborhoods created in the eighty years since. In fact, gay male experimental film may be one of the very few venues of the gay male visual that does not emphasize this aesthetic. Gay male experimental film is also one of the few areas of gay male culture that has never been successfully capitalized. The aesthetic of normalcy is never as attractive as the aesthetic of supremacy.

Deren was equally provocative, but in dramatically different directions. This Russian immigrant (Eleanora Derenkowsky) was the prototypical New York Jewish bohemian. Many of the women we know in the art world today look like her. With wild, kinky black hair, ethnic clothing, fascination with modern dance, refusal of the religious but invested in the spiritual, Deren’s beauty is far from the all-American standard, and it is accompanied by an open sexuality that is also familiar but rarely represented. She is the classical bohemian goddess. Curious, educated, energetic, a wild woman and a multidisciplinary artist with global interests, Deren is the female intellectual you’d like to fuck and be. And that’s what makes her such a lesbian icon, even with her flagrant heterosexuality. Part of the lesbian aesthetic is the dynamic between being and doing. Do you want to be Patti Smith or do you want to have Patti Smith? Meshes of the Afternoon offers both.

Like Nazimova, also a Russian Jew, Deren is director and star. But the camera/actress relationship is very, very intimate. It is one woman wildly, sexually, desiringly, provocatively, looking at another through a camera. The fact that they are the same person is beside the point. For the lesbian viewer, we see—for the first time—a camera in erotic movement itself, a shooting and that offer and satisfy pleasure between a female eye and a female object. What’s more, like Riefenstahl’s desire for men, Deren’s desire for herself is unmitigated, not careful or wanting. It’s not closeted because it doesn’t have to be. She’s only filming herself after all, and she is straight, and she, too, is an original. So, the wild excitement of making a film becomes this refreshingly, intoxicatingly erotic relationship between camera and viewer. It is the most exciting representation of a woman by a woman on film for its time. Watching it, I could see Deren’s profound influence on iconic lesbian filmmakers like Su Friedrich, and Barbara Hammer. But even more extensively, in Deren’s work, we can see the wild-woman sensibility that has come down through four generations of lesbian artists as a badge of honor and attraction. It’s a liberating image: sensual composition, expressive camera work, and a sexy alive relationship between female viewer and object. Meshes of the Afternoon is, ironically, the first masterpiece of lesbian cinema.

So what does it mean that two preeminent aesthetic features: the fascist aesthetic in gay male film, and the bad girl heroine of lesbian film—both came from heterosexual innovators? First of all, they were both geniuses. Second, they felt free enough to express what we could not express. Third, they were outsiders for being women, but not so outside that their lives could not be represented. And that freedom provided us with aesthetic framework that has spoken deeply and fundamentally to gay and lesbian filmmakers and viewers, lo these many years.