In a Time magazine essay on recently deceased Nazi film maker Leni Riefenstahl, Richard Corliss ends a sycophantic eulogy with the following
"Riefenstahl was always nervy - talking her way into movies; deciding
to direct when, dear girl, it just wasn't done; creating films that,
nearly seventy years later, the world still can't get out of its head; seeking
new forbidden adventures with Nuba and Scuba. Her lifelong camera love
took her on a journey downward and inward, from sky to sea, from the
Alps to underwater caverns. What fascinating creatures - beautiful and
ugly - she found. And none more beguiling, complicated, compromised,
none more human than her unique, unrepentant self."
-- (Time, September 22/03, p. 60, Canadian edition)
Now I'm not writing to refute Corliss's open admiration for this
"beguiling" old fascist, admiration he has also expressed elsewhere in the
bourgeois media. The fact that Riefenstahl made Triumph of the Will (1935), a powerfully pro-Nazi film, and that she never apologized
for it, more than negates for me any spectacular feats of "nerve," sport, or
what have you. (How decades of sporting activity make up for one's
invaluable assistance in building the road to the gas chambers is unclear.
Nor have I yet met a feminist so desperate for a heroine that she sought
inspiration in Leni Riefenstahl.) No, what I'm really interested in here is
the rhetoric in this last sentence, especially Corliss's fatuous but all too
common use of the word "human." I call this usage the 'homo sapiens'
One often finds that an apologist for some odious character or other tries
to rescue the person in question by referring to him or her as "human."
What does this use of this word mean?
The trouble with the term "human" in such a context is that it throws
together three possible meanings in a mushy soup of confusion. The first
meaning is that the person in question is of the species 'homo sapiens' as
opposed to being a cow, a donkey, a salamander, or a runcible spoon. The
second possible meaning is that the person has the human characteristic of
having flaws and weaknesses of one sort or another, of not being perfect.
The third possible meaning of "human" in this context is the opposite of
"inhumane." That is, the person in question is not very wicked, is, in fact,
Using the word "human," therefore, in such a way, and in reference to
such a person as Leni Riefenstahl is a kind of rhetorical brain fuck. Like
storm troopers, the first and second meanings break down the door of
consciousness with Leni Riefenstahl's inalienable right to be designated a
member of the 'homo sapiens' species and the indisputable claim that she
was less than perfect. Then, behind these two meanings, like the
Einsatzkommandos committing murder behind the front lines, there
sneaks in the third meaning: Leni Riefenstahl was a good person. Deny
this third meaning, and you claim she was a runcible spoon or that she had
the capacity for superhuman perfection and should have used it.
With a neat manoeuvre of one two three, criticism of the "complicated"
old fascist is deflected away from her and onto her detractors: if all the
supposedly lovely things Corliss says about her seem less significant to
you than that she willingly aided the Nazi regime and never apologized for
this, then you are yourself an inhumane pharisee, a histrionic mad person,
who insanely thinks poor old Leni was something other than a 'homo
sapiens' and who is pettily critical of her merely because she was not
Was Corliss consciously and clearly thinking out this tripartite confusion
in the word "human" when he decided to whitewash and praise Leni
Riefenstahl with that word? It is hardly likely. So what was he thinking?
We are in the realm of Ruskin's "masked words" where careless,
thoughtless, or dishonest people drift in the direction their dubious
motives take them, letting their integrity fall asleep, lulled by whatever
rhetoric allows them to say what they really want to say, without having to
question too closely if it's true or not. Corliss wants to champion the
character of someone whose character can not honestly be championed.
Fudging about with the word "human," already a fudgey word, is one way
to do it.
(By the way, all those other adjectives Corliss uses in the last sentence of
the paragraph I quoted above, the pirouette of his encomium, "beguiling,"
"complicated," "compromised," "unique," "unrepentant," apply quite
nicely as well to the star of Riefenstahl's best known film, Adolf Hitler.)
But then, you can't expect people who admire unrepentant Nazis to think
very clearly when it doesn't suit them.