02. 01. 2013. 11:20

Literary lovers: Béla Balázs and Leni Riefenstahl

It was by mere chance that the Führer's favourite film director made "Triumph of the Will" for the Nazis rather than the Bolsheviks.

Béla Balázs (1884–1949) had been living in emigration for several years when he was offered a job in 1931 in Berlin. Though he was one of the founders of Nyugat, the most influential Hungarian literary magazine of the first half of the 20th century, he was not allowed to write in his mother tongue. So he turned towards another art: film. By the time this particular job was offered, he was already one of the most successful scriptwriters, and producer Harry Sokal asked him to write the script for Blue Light. The fairy tale-like story about the conquest of the mountains was directed by a talented young actress, Leni Riefenstahl. Initially, Balázs wanted to refuse the job, because he was planning to go to Moscow. However, when Sokal went out of his way to praise the talent of his ex-lover, the 28-year-old Leni, Balázs agreed to at least listen to what Leni had to say, because he was intrigued to find out why an actress would want to direct a film. He was immediately fascinated by Riefenstahl, who showed him on the spot how she would play the part of Junta, the woman of the mountains.

Who knows what attracted him more: the fact that for the first time since Bluebeard's Castle he could participate in the creation of a tale for adults again, or the beauty of this woman, who was taller than him by half a head. In any case, he finally gave in. Balázs was a great lover of women. He lived in an open marriage, so he may have thought of Leni as a woman to be conquered. However, in the weeks of shooting it turned out that this would be more than the usual light adventure. Balázs, who directed the scenes in which Leni was acting, fell in love with his co-creator. By that time Leni formed an intimate relationship with the cameraman. So in order to make himself noticed, Béla started to woo the other main actress, Martha. The stratagem worked: Leni became jealous of their liaison. She convinced Béla to delete Martha's role from the script – she effectively killed the character played by Martha, so her rival had to go home. Béla and Leni got what they wanted: each other. They decided on the spot that they would move to Moscow to make films together with Eisenstein. Leni, who was afraid that their unusual film would not be well received by German critics, promised to follow Balázs after the post-production work. But the film turned out a great success: it was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the first film festival ever. Charlie Chaplin personally congratulated to Leni.

In the meantime, Béla Balázs had left for Moscow where he was offered a post at the world famous film academy. Eventually, Leni did not follow him; she chose a career in Germany rather than Russia. They were both extremely talented people, even if one of them served Stalin, the other Hitler with their art. It was by mere chance that the Führer's favourite film director made Triumph of the Will for the Nazis rather than the Bolsheviks.

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Béla Balázs is the author of Theory of the Film, one of the earliest books on film as an art, also available in English. He wrote the libretto for Béla Bartók's Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1910), and The Wooden Prince (1917), as well as poems, fairytales, plays and novellas.

Krisztián Nyáry

Tags: Béla Balázs, Leni Riefenstahl