ISSN 1440-9828
                                                                  No 336


Beauty is Truth and Truth is Beauty

– and the Holocaust is an ugly, deceptive Lie!

Whenever organized Jews are confronted by universal brilliance and genius, they either try to make it their own, or when this fails, they attempt to destroy it by discrediting such impulses through perverse criticism. This is normal behaviour also adopted by non-Jews who have unresolved identity problems.

The following discussion between well-known former Australian Marxist and now multi-millionaire socialist broadcaster, film-maker and nationally-syndicated columnist, Phillip Adams, and US Columbia University academic Steven Bach, illustrates how these two haters of beauty and perfection attempt to grapple with Leni Riefenstahl’s genius.

Underpinning their own debauched value system is the belief in the >Holocaust lies<, i.e., that Germans systematically exterminated European Jewry in homicidal gas chambers. By adopting this false premise as the foundation stone for their own personal value system, their own world view consists of distortions and fragmentations. Their minds appreciate the brilliant impulses that emerged out of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and that gave rise to extraordinary innovations in all walks of life, but then their minds are compelled to develop elaborate rationalizations that demonize such impulses on account of the Auschwitz lie.

It is obvious that such mental condition produces aberrant behaviour where civilizing impulses –  the deeper and richer life-giving impulses – cannot flourish, where reasoned criticism is regarded as a personal attack on their value system. In today’s fashionable language of buzzwords anyone who voices criticism is considered to be a racist, antisemite, Holocaust denier, hater, xenophobe, and more. If media assassination fails to silence the critic, then persecution through legal prosecution is begun with the aim of destroying an individual’s reputation, family, livelihood, and if that fails, ultimately physically to kill the dissenting voice.

So much for our freedom and democracy.

One other particularly interesting item is the comment made by Joel Greenberg in his article >>Killer Kitsch<<, below, wherein he asserts the following about Germans:

>>Readers of either book will be confronted anew by a peculiarly Teutonic paradox, exemplified also by the composer Richard Wagner: how can great art co-exist with moral squalor, genius with evil? Answers to these profound questions will probably always elude us.<<

Such a comment justifies calling the >Holocaust< a massive lie, deliberately perpetrated to destroy the creative impulse that is the essence of the German mind!

There is no Teutonic paradox! It is pure brilliance on display, something that some minds cannot tolerate and comprehend – and so jealousy and envy get to work and attempt to destroy such original impulses as found in Richard Wagner’s music and Leni Riefenstahl’s films by outright lying about the context that gave rise to such genius – eg. Riefenstahl and the lie of the systematic extermination of European Jews in homicidal gas chambers.

All Hollywood has done since Riefenstahl is a mere copy of her work and most of it pales into insignificant trash.

The psychological criticism made of Leni Riefenstahl applies to anyone and anything that has come out of western Europe, except that Riefenstahl remains unsurpassed in her chosen field.

And so in the following material about Leni Riefenstahl we quite clearly see emerge the base human motives that infest the critical minds in their effort to destroy what Riefenstahl, Hitler and others attempted to create: a new vision of the Germanic world without Jewish influence.

What’s wrong with that? Currently all over the world German influences are excluded, just as they were before WWII. Those not excluded are accepted because they bow to the >Holocaust Lies<.

The obsession with Adolf Hitler by Jewish and non-Jewish writers is understandable because he still stands proud as a unique being. The gas chamber myth deflects from this and is used in an attempt to destroy the Hitler phenomenon, all to no avail.

By the way, excluding Jewish influences did not mean to >exterminate< individual Jews, as is proven by the fact that many thousands of military officers of Jewish background served under Hitler. What Germans attempted to do was become masters in their own home again, much like the Iranian people who, since the 1979 Revolution, have attempted to become masters in their own home.

That’s a normal thing to do. Most citizens in western democracies are NOT masters in their own home because through mortgages their homes belong to the banks and citizens are merely allowed to pay rent for living in what they believe will ultimately be their homes. But that’s another story.

Read on – and perhaps, if you have the time, send us your comments on this particular aspect of >Holocaust< historiography.


Phillip Adams: Late Night Live - ABC Radio National, 18 June 2007

Phillip Adams: Gooday Gladys and poddies, welcome to another week of Late Night Live. Soon I’ll be wandering through the mud of Canberra, through the quagmire with Laura Tingle and Christian Kerr and then without shaking  the mud from the boots,  I’m going to dance on the grave of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s quite appalling art director  … I’ve got to wind this up now because I want to talk to Steven Bach about Leni Riefenstahl. Leni Riefenstahl reminds me of the ultra conservatives in, hee, hee, hee, New South Wales … Leni Riefenstahl after a little bit of music…Well, over the many years I’ve been doing this program we’ve oft discussed Leni Riefenstahl. I regard her as a maker of political pornography and a particularly unpleasant person. In fact I found her and Speer two of the most repulsive people to have come out of the whole Third Reich era, all the more so because people fall for their spiel, their own spin-doctoring, the way both of them subsequent to World War Two managed to clean up their image, and so many people sort of fell for it.

The name, of course, Riefenstahl, best known as Hitler’s film maker with ground-breaking docu-cum-propaganda-piece Triumph of the Will in 1934, which you may recall featured a messianic Adolf descending through dramatic cloudscape to adoring masses below otherwise known as the Nuremberg rallies.

I’m sick to death of attempts to rehabilitate this terrible creature and so in a book called Leni – with a stunning cover shot because she was quite a beautiful creature – arrived on the desk I was concerned that this might be, might be the sort of book I didn’t want to discuss. It’s terrific!

298 pages later I came upon these concluding paragraphs, and I want to read them to you because this is where we’re heading in the discussion I’m about to have with Steven Bach.

>>Thomas Mann once wrote that >art is moral in that it awakens,< but Leni’s art lulled and deceived. It will survive her not because of techniques that are already as often parodied as applauded but because it is the perfect expression of the machinery of manipulation it glorifies. Her films are, in the words of David Thomson, >the most honest and compelling fruit of the fascist temperament – triumphant, certain and dreadful.< When future generations need to understand catastrophe in the twentieth century, they’ll look to Leni’s work after she - >an artist through and through< -  has been forgotten.<<

Now the final words in the book: >>Leni died as she had lived: unrepentant, self-enamoured and armor-clad<<.

Good on you, Steven Bach!

Steven Bach was formerly in charge of Worldwide Productions for United Artists, so he can claim Raging Bull, Manhattan, French Lieutenants Women, Heavens Gate – film I quite enjoyed despite its atrocious performance at the box office, and he’s the author of two previous biographies, one of the actress Marlene Dietrich and the other of Moss Hart, the fascinating playwright and director, and we’ve got him on the dog-and-bone to talk about his latest book, the aforementioned Leni.

I was delighted that you didn’t attempt to clean up her act.

Steven Bach: Well, thank you. I couldn’t have written the book any way other than I did and part of the impulse to write the book was because the great preponderance of literature that was out there since the second world war was a kind of whitewashing the work that Riefenstahl had done for Hitler and for the Nazi party. Of  course, all of this was cheer-led by Miss Riefenstahl herself.

Adams: Yes, it’s not only weak portraits by lesser writers than your good self, it’s also the self-portrait was accepted. I remembered David Putnam, a very close friend of mine–

Bach: - and mine -

Adams: - and yours, and David as you know was contemplating making a feature film on Speer but he found him so overwhelmingly seductive that he withdrew, and I think too many people have been seduced by Riefenstahl.

Bach:  Well, I think that you’re absolutely right and some of the people who have been seduced or were seduced before my book. I hope my book will change some of that. Many of the people were quite responsible, quite decent people who simply were blinded by the manipulative powers of this woman, and those powers were in truth very, very great, and undiminished as she reached 101.

Adams: Ha, ha, ha, yes, and became a parody of herself. She finished up looking like Eschenbach in the final scenes of Death in Venice.

Bach:  Ha, ha, ha…

Adams: The make-up she applied to herself was quite extraordinary.

Bach: She had all those lifts and she had - I used to see her in the streets of Munich, I lived in fact right around the corner from her, and I used to see her in the street wearing this sort of blond showgirl wig and shying away from being recognized on the street.

Adams: Ha –

Bach: But she was, I think we’re not just making fun of an old woman’s foibles here. I think that one of the keys to Leni Riefenstahl’s is that she was a pathological narcissist and that need to present herself as beautiful and in whatever image she held of her innocence – I’ll have the word in quotation marks – persisted in until she died and that she died, as I say in the book, absolutely unrepentant.

Adams: Yea. Let’s tell the listener something of her early years, something of her childhood. She was born into what is known as humble surroundings?

Bach: Yes, she was the first child of a marriage that had been concluded only five months before the birth. Her father was a plumber who later evolved an important sanitation business which had many dealings, in fact, with Albert Speer during World War Two because he was supplying plumbing and sanitation for concentration camps and other instillations.

Adams: That’s a marvelous piece of research, I commend you on that. I had no idea.

Bach: Yes, it was shocking to me, it was absolutely shocking, and I didn’t realize no-one had followed it through. Leni Riefenstahl had all of her life claimed that she had never joined the Nazi party, which was true, and her parents had not either, which was quite untrue. Her father was a dedicated Nazi. He joined the Nazi party on April 1, 1933, two or three months after Hitler took power. At any rate, Leni was a young girl growing up in a lower middle class circumstances who very early on decided she wanted to be, as she put it, something great. What that something –

Adams: How old is she when she divines this ambition within herself?

Bach: I think that she was a teenager that she, like most pretty girls, she was aware that she could turn heads on the street. This seemed probably a useful attribute to have and the need to overcome her father’s conservative stance and his wish to control her, combined to give her a kind of ferocious ambition to distinguish herself but didn’t seem to have any very clear artistic end. She early on became a dancer, she tried out with dance companies and that was too confining, and she hit on the idea being a solo dancer, an expressionist sot-of dancer, and I think that this is emblematic of the kind of narcicism –

Adams: You know, there are moments in your story –

Bach: Yea –

Adams: - when she reminds me of Madam Mao, you remember who was a minor actress in Shanghai -

Bach: - yea –

Adams: and she attached herself, of course, to the Chairman and finished up, of course, becoming absolutely megalomaniacal in her own right, and down the track, of course, Leni would attack herself to an even more powerful figure but we’ll get onto that later. She was fiercely independent from childhood, wasn’t she? She wrote >How I wish I were a man. It would be so much easier to carry out my plans<, but nothing stopped her.

Bach: Yes, she was an indifferent student. It’s interesting to note that, that it never seems to have occurred to her that industry in school or in any of the traditional paths was the way to go, and she had an ability to latch herself to important or who are useful men–

Adams: - ha, ha -

Bach: - from the time she was twenty and she did that, of course, this all culminated in the most useful of them all - Adolf Hitler.

Adams: Of course, Steve, you would have observed this with many actresses, wouldn’t you?

Bach: Yes –

Adams: - and head in Hollywood –

Bach: Sure, it’s not unusual, it’s not unusual - to be in show business is almost to insist on it. A certain level of opportunism and ability to manipulate others. But the end goal for most of the artists that I’ve worked with over my lifetime, which includes everybody from, I don’t know, Jody Foster as a child to Laurence Olivier near the end. Everyone of those people seemed able ultimately to translate their goal as something beyond themselves.

Adams: Hmm –

Bach: I don’t think Riefenstahl ever was able to do that.

Adams: You know there’s a film - in one of the little stories you tell, I’d like you to share it with the listener. The story of Walter Lebovski. This is such an horendous story.

Bach: Yes, Walter Lebovski was a young Jewish boy that Riefenstahl knew when she was still a school girl and he developed a mad crush on Leni and this made him a target for Leni and for her personal circle of friends, and they tormented this boy. They made him dress up in girls’ clothes, they made him – they – the term was Lenish. She called him her love slave, and poor Walter Lebovski eventually tried to commit suicide in Leni’s house, and Leni stuffed him under the sofa or behind -

Adams: - this is he’s bleading because he’s -

Bach: - he’s bleeding

Adams: - because he’s slashed his wrist.

Bach: - from the wrist. She stashes him behind the sofa so her father won’t see him when he comes by the room – and eventually Walter Lebovski, because he was Jewish, was able to get out of Nazi Germany and he wound up in San Francisco, and in San Francisco, for reasons that we don’t know, he went blind and eventually he died. And in recounting this story, the essence of this story to Leni was >>He never forgot me<<.

Adams: Hm, hm, and yet a couple of chapters later, here she is describing herself as a slave to another man. Tell the story about her deflowering.

Bach: Yes, well she, she was very eager to join the ranks of the experienced young women in Berlin and she chose a man who was a minor celebrity in Germany in that he had been a tennis champion and he had also been a lover of the Polish film and stage actress, Paula Negri. Paula Negri had gone off to Hollywood to become a star at Paramount, and in her absence Leni decided that she wanted this man, his name is Otto Freudshammer, to deflower her, and she arranged with a tennis pro friend of hers to set this up, and very calmly and methodically she went to Freudshammer’s apartment, did the deed, or aloud Freudshammer to do the deed, and then became attached to him in some almost pathological way, at the same time that he was having affairs with other girls and women, and she was too. But she viewed herself as somehow or other captivated, literally, by this man who had de-virginised her.

Adams: Hm, this is jumping ahead, so I’ll ask you this in parenthesis and let’s not dwell on it, was she as hypnotized as with Hitler?

Bach: I don’t think so. She claims that she was. Certainly there are many accounts from many different people having heard Hitler give one of his rabble-rousing speeches and being captivated by them, and Leni did read Mein Kampf, we now know, she thought it was a brilliant book and that it paved the way for the future. She saw Hitler before he was the Führer and she asked to meet him.

Her version of it was that Hitler made a pass at her and that she demurely declined. If so, it’s perhaps the only time she turned down an opportunistic pass in her life. Most people that I talked to who knew her always thought that probable what happened was that she made a pass at him and he turned her down and it became clear to her that he didn’t need, or she didn’t need romantic involvement with Hitler in order to get the favour and opportunities from him –

Adams: - because there was a vacancy to be Hitler’s art director that she was more than ready to fill. I’m talking to Steven Bach, the book is called Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, and this is L and L on ABC Radio National, Radio Australia and the world-wide web, downloadable on your pod. Now, we’ll have to skip over her obsession with her own physicality and simply tell the listener that after being a dancer she started making these alpine movies which lead inevitably, I suppose, to the ethos of physical obsession we see in Triumph of the Will, and later on, of course, Steven, much more recently towards the end of her career, in those quite magnificent I find really disturbing photographs of African men.

Bach: Yes, I find them disturbing too. They’re a combination of being beautiful and appalling at the same time. Appalling because she knew that she was photographing a civilization that was at the edge of extinction in the state that she found it. She once said that she was only interested in what was beautiful, healthy and strong –

Adams: - hmm –

Bach: - and if ever there were a recipe for a master race I think that’s it.

Adams: But she started off with this celebrating physical perfection in herself –

Bach: Yes, yes -

Adams: - and so it feeds into that whole Nazi ethos perfectly.

Bach: Yes, as a dancer and then later in the Alpine films you mentioned, where she taught herself to mountain climb sometimes in bare feet, she taught herself to ski, athleticism was important to her and the body beautiful was something that she cultivated and, I don’t think worshipped is too strong a word, all of her life, and this then finds its expression in the Triumph of the Will: masses of golden-haired Aryan warriors lined up by the hundreds of thousands, and then of course in the Olympic films.

Adams: I’m looking at a photograph of two rather ordinary-looking gentlemen, one of them is Hitler, the other is Goebbels, and it’s taken in Leni’s garden by Hitler’s personal photographer, and this is what your text says:

>>The photograph was taken to scotch rumours that Goebbels and Leni were feuding because the propaganda minister believed she was Jewish – to still this rumour, Leni as a Jew<<.

Bach: Yes. In the Nazi era in order to work at all it was necessary to prove that your line of descent was Arian and did not include Jews. Leni immediately filled out one of the forms that was necessary and falsified entries to disguise the fact that her mother’s mother seems to have been Jewish, which – it’s a matrilinear         

Adams: - of course -

Bach: - line of descent, which would have made Leni herself Jewish. Whatever the case, they were not an observant family. They may have viewed themselves as an assimilated family but the great evidence shows that Leni in fact was Jewish. Many of the close co-workers and friends who worked with her and knew her mother, openly discussed her mother as a Jewess, liked her very much, but that this was obviously something that had to be either concealed or dealt with by a kind of dispensation during the Third Reich.

Adams: I hadn’t realized that amongst her close friends was Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stürmer, which I still regard as the most loathsome newspaper, in fact if you want to describe it thus, in human history.

Bach: Absolutely.

Adams: So she was very welcoming,   she was a good networker.

Bach: she was a good networker, and Streicher, of course, I mean your take on Streicher is my take on Streicher, and I quote in the book the British prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials and his comments about Streicher when the sentence that he should he hanged was being delivered. And what he says about Streicher or what he said in Nuremberg that day was that Streicher may not have killed anyone. He may not have been directly responsible for the deaths of anyone during the Third Reich and the Holocaust but that he enables all of that.

Adams: Steven, I, I’m, I feel duty bound to tell the listener I’ve got a very, very old copy of Der Sturmer and in it is a political cartoon, which has to be the worst I’ve ever seen, and it shows hook-nosed old Rabbis, you know, grotesquely, grotesquely exaggerated sort of Jewish archetypes, and they’re drinking blood from a Christian baby through straws.

Bach: Ha, wow!

Adams: Now, this is the sort of poison that this awful man poured into the German minds, which were all too often too receptive, and in her own way so did Riefenstahl. She didn’t do anything as gross as that. She does it through magnificent images rather than pornographic ones, although I think they had their own porno quality. But she, too, cannot escape responsibility for what the Third Reich bloody well did because she was psychologically, dare I suggest, it’s a horrible word to use in this context, spiritually responsible.   

Bach: Yes. This is exactly the point I wanted to make. If Streicher was an enabler of the Holocaust so was Leni Riefenstahl an enabler, and that the spiritual element that attracted many people during the Third Reich, and it is a word that one hesitates to use, but it was real. It was real in the sense that there was alpine films that she made were also, had a kind of spirituality to them that we were climbing mountains to achieve the unattainable and that Hitler was able to sell that notion of human perfection and the unattainable. Of course, the ultimate result of going after the unattainable is death because you can’t attain it. If you attain it, it’s no longer unattainable.

Adams: Hm, hm , hm

Bach: That all this, this kind of misty spirituality is utterly bogus, of course, but all this was what Leni Riefenstahl’s films for Hitler accomplished and, and, and propagated among the people. You called it earlier >political pornography< and I don‘t think that’s a bad term for it at all.

Adams: Let’s now look at some of those films. The first I suppose is Victory of Faith. Tell us about Victory of Faith.

Bach: Victory of Faith was the first of the three Nuremberg films that Leni Riefenstahl made. Most people are familiar only with Triumph of the Will, which is the second film. Victory of Faith, which was her trial run for Triumph of the Will, is an extremely interesting film that was immediately suppressed after it had its initial run because it is a film which focuses on the very close relationship that Adolf Hitler had with Ernst Röhm who was the head of the Storm Troopers, and the reason for suppressing that views of that friendship on the screen – you see the two of them laughing, shoulder-to-shoulder throughout the film – was that within a few months of the release of that film Hitler had him murdered.

Adams – amongst others, yes –

Bach: - amongst many others. This was not a night of fog action, this was not something that was suppressed and kept from the people. It was on the front pages of the world that Hitler simply had a blood purge within the party a little more than a year after he had assumed power. So whatever propagandistic myth-making Victory of Faith had, was now inoperable because that film gave the lie to the notion that Ernst Röhm was an enemy of Hitler or anything like that.

Adams: Steven, let’s move on, we’ve got ten minutes or so left and there’s so much to cover. Let’s move on to Triumph of the Will now, a film which, of course, sets up the immense mental dimensions, the emotional dimensions of Nazism and which, of course, continues to have its echoes in the crack that we see out of a North Korea or that we saw on, say, Red Square with, you know, the epic marches and stuff of the Stalin era. Would you describe to the listener whose name is Gladys incidentally, would you tell Gladys a little bit about Triumph of the Will, the scale, for example.

Bach: Triumph of the Will is a two-hour long full-length film which is about one subject, which is the glorification of Adolf Hitler as the leader of the German people. You mentioned the opening, which is a ten-minute sail through the clouds. We never see Hitler, we never see the airplane, we hear Wagnerian sounding music in the background, to create the impression that Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg for the Nazi rally of 1934 is actually a kind of descent from the heavens.

Adams: You’d think that it would be laughed off the screen, wouldn’t you? But it wasn’t.

Bach: - except that I saw it just a couple of days ago with a group of people in America and it is, it remains spell-binding. It is so spell-binding that the German government forbids its exhibition even today.

Adams: Is that right? Is that right?

Bach: - because it is capable of stirring those kinds of emotions that we all have when faced with the notion of a charismatic leader.

Adams: Poor, poor Jesus had to do, make do with Cecil B de Mill -

Bach: - ha, ha, ha, ha, ha-

 Adams: - Hitler was much better off, wasn’t he, with Riefenstahl.

Bach: Well, I think so. I think so, and what is astonishing about the film is that we’re able to see this one man against a background of somewhere between the 350,000 and 500,000 worshippers, all whom are either dressed in their brown shirts or in their black shirts, or indeed are ordinary men and women and even children -

Adams: Hmm.

Bach: - in the streets who are raising, raising their arms in the Hitler salute. So the notion of the film is simply to present Hitler as this charismatic leader whose call for unity and strength and sacrifice will be something that the German public of that time can heartily endorse and in fact turn their lives over.

Adams: Steven, in its own terms, it is close to perfect, isn’t it? Every frame has been carefully evaluated, the structure, the editing. It’s a, it is a bizarre and obscene masterpiece.

Bach: Yes, it is, and the art director on the film was, of course, Albert Speer who helped to organize the rally itself so that it could be photographed in the most effective way.

Adams: Isn’t it true that he organized a special lift to be built in to that great sort of architectural structure at the back for the simple purpose of giving Riefenstahl the opportunity to do an amazing sort of crane shot.

Bach: Yes. You can actually see it moving.  At the back of the field there are three immense swastika banners and on the flagpoles that support them -

Adams: - that’s right –

Bach: - on one of them is this elevator. You can see it going up and down as a kind of camera car.

Adams: So here’s Speer and here’s Riefenthal working absolutely as a team, as a creative unit.  

Bach: Yes, yes, and filming, doing re-takes in the studio afterwards for shots that didn’t quite work right or to add footage that was not captured at the time, and all the while Leni Riefenstahl, until she died at 101 in 2003, is saying it’s only a documentary.

Adams: Yea, like hell. You’re quite right to talk about Eisenstein’s Potempkin in this context, but it’s a great film, it’s a great propaganda film of course -

Bach:  - yes -

Adams: - but it is totally and utterly ethically different, isn’t it, because he’s looking at a failed revolution of 1905?

Bach: Yes, he – Potempkin - people forget the events in Potempkin. Potempkin is a story film. It’s a look-back twenty years at a failed revolution. Yes, it is heavily propagandistic, but it’s  propagandistic in a totally different way from Triumph of the Will, because while Eisenstein’s film tries to re-interpret the past Riefenstahl’s film intends to influence the present- Adams: - and the future -     

Bach: and the future.

Adams: - yea, absolutely. It’s – there’s no overt – now that’s a clumsy thing to say – I was going to say in Riefenstahl’s film there’s no overt technical politics and yet it’s all entirely political.

Bach: It is entirely political but the point that you’re making is correct. If people look at Triumph of the Will, which is readily available throughout the world, apart from Germany, if you look at it expecting to see or hear a political agenda you will not find one. What you find instead is a charismatic leader delivering buzzwords, and I’m afraid that those buzzwords are not confined to Nazi Germany, they’re not confined to the past, they’re the same ones that we hear unprincipled politicians using today, politicians of every stripe and every political party: unity, courage, patriotism -

Adams: - hmmm -

Bach: - the flag, the fatherland. All these things – and we’re going through a particular period of history, as we know, in which threats from outside activate fears, and it’s the same sort of response that is in Triumph of the Will. There is no literal agenda, there is simply the cause: >Trust Me<.

Adams: OK. She re-constructs herself after the war in the same repulsive way that Speer did and claims to have confronted Hitler over his attitudes to race, to the Jews, but here’s a woman who  again and again – whatever her own background – vilified Jews, had them taken off the credits of her movies, etc, etc.

Bach: Yes. She shed great crocodile tears in her memoir, which was published when she was 85 years old, but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that she regarded the absence of Jews in Nazi Germany as anything but an opportunity for her film making career to move ahead without the competition that great film makers, who were Jewish, had earlier presented.

Adams: You’re got evidence, some evidence at least that she did use Gypsies destined for Auschwitz in her films which, of course, she repeatedly denied.

Bach: Yes, there’s no question about this. The evidence is absolutely iron-clad and clear. She used Gypsies who ranged in age from 13 months to 65 years of age. They were used as slave labour, they were not paid. They were delivered to her from barbed wire holding pens in Salzburg and Berlin to her film set. When she was finished with them, they were returned to that barbed wire and shortly after that they were shipped to Auschwitz where many of them, not all, but many of them died in the gas chambers -

Adams: - hmmm -

Bach: - and Leni spent the balance of her life denying that any of this was true until she was confronted with the actual evidence – the death list of Auschwitz – thanks to German record keeping, on the occasion of her one hundredth birthday.

Adams: - when she hinted at a degree of regret having made films for the Third Reich, not because of what they glorified and helped to enable but because they later caused her so much personal troubles, she said.

Bach: Yes. The word that she liked to use was >suffer<, and when she talked about suffering, she was not talking about anyone other than Leni Riefenstahl, and she believed that she had suffered since 1945 and until her death in June 2003 and seemed utterly incapable of understanding that because of her and because of her work other people suffered as well.

Adams: I read that long-standing  plans for a movie about Riefenstahl, starring the aforementioned Jodie Foster, now seems to be nearing fruition. Are you going to throw your hat in the ring to work on this?

Bach: Well, I haven’t been asked. I think that there is a terrific movie to be made about this woman. I think it is a cautionary tale.

Adams: It’s a dangerous film to make, though, isn’t it because –

Bach: It is a dangerous film to make –

Adams: - it can so easily slip into, well, glamourising this.

Bach: Yes. This is the danger, and if that happens, then it will have been a mistake to make the film.

Adams: Ha, she wanted Sharon Stone to play her -

Bach: That was her objection to Jodie Foster. She thought Jodie Foster wasn’t beautiful enough to play her -

Adams: - oh, my God -

Bach: - simple.

Adams: The trouble with films, Steven, is it does glamourise almost anything you point a lense at, no matter how hideous or repulsive. There’s something about film that does that.

Bach: Well, there is something. It’s the size of the screen and the people who get up there. But you know, you can make a film of Richard III and you can come away from it perhaps feeling some kind of sympathy for Richard III, but you’re very clear on the monster that he was –

Adams: - yea –

Bach: - and if a film is to be made about Leni Riefenstahl you may feel sympathy for her long decline but I think it has to be understood that this was a woman who on some level at least was a moral monster.

Adams: Steven, thank you very much for your time. Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, it’s published by Knopf. That’s it for tonight, stick around on ABC Radio National for the news. On our next we’ll be joined by the wondrous Shapiro and in the wake of the latest report on the abuse of children in remote Northern Territory communities, which recommends an education-led solution. We’ll be hearing some good and some bad stories from indigenous communities. Stick around now for the news, and I’ll see you later.



Killer Kitch:  Leni Riefenstahl’s charmed life was suffused with deceit,

writes Joel Greenberg

Weekend Australian, June 16-17, 2007

Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefelstahl

By Steven Bach

Little, Brown, 386pp, $65


Leni Riefelstahl: A Life

By Jürgen Trimborn

Translated by Edith McCown

Faber, 351pp, $47


>>Pretty as a swastika<<: that’s how witty Walter Winchell famed US columnist, described Leni Riefenstahl as she arrived on November 4, 1938 en route to Hollywood, a Nazi public relations trip fully funded by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

Riefelstahl was at that time acknowledged as the world’s leading female filmmaker, the spoiled protégée of Hitler and, some said, his lover (>>I was not Hitler’s girl-friend<< I once heard her exclaim in a postwar radio interview).

Her trip was singularly ill-timed. She’s scarcely set foot on US soil before Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels launched Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a vicious pogrom in which scores of Jews lost their lives and their synagogues, shops and homes were destroyed.

Cold-shouldered by the main, Jewish-run Hollywood studios, Riefelstahl sought comfort with the movie colony’s sizeable contingent of prominent Nazi sympathizers before beating a hasty retreat to Berlin.

She would not revisit the US well into old age, having meantime reinvented herself several times and, despite her close identification with the Nazi hierarchy, been exonerated from criminal liability by no less than four denazification tribunals.

Hers was by any standards an amazing life. By the time she died at 101 on September 8, 2003, she’d run the gamut from celebrity to pariah and, finally, back to celebrity once more, a survivor to the end.

The simultaneous appearance of these two new biographies testifies to her continuing hold on popular imagination. For many, she’s an icon of neo-Nazi chic, as demonstrated by recent remarks extolling Riefenstahl’s films and the Nazi mystique in general, attributed to but denied to crooner Bryan Ferry.

Seen today, her two main works, Triumph of the Will, a record of the monumentally grandiose 1935 Nuremberg Nazi Party rally, and Olympia, a six-hour documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, can still stun us with their pictorial beauty and technical virtuosity while also repelling us with their heartless fascist aesthetics and their sycophantic celebration of the Fuhrer cult.

Hitler was, indeed, Riefenstahl’s lifelong obsession; meeting him for the first time in 1932 was, she later declared, >>like being struck by lightning<<. From there it didn’t take her long to become an intimate of the Nazi power elite and eventually their semi-official filmmaker, her movies secretly funded by the party.

Nevertheless, she didn’t actually join it, and her post-1945 protestations that she never subscribed to its viciously racist philosophy may even have had elements of truth [{racist developed after war by enemy of Germans]} , despite the anti-Semitism she displayed throughout her life in a less virulent form.

Her enthusiasm for Hitler was driven by naked ambition rather than philosophical conviction, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to advance her career and practice her art without normal studio and budget restraints. The Nazi Party looked like a winner, and Riefenstahl simply went along for the ride.

>>What is undeniable,<< Steven Bach convincingly argues in Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, >>is that she used her century’s most powerful art form to make and propagate a vision that eased the path of a murderous dictator who fascinated her and shaped a criminal regime she found both inspiring and personally useful.<<

The late 1930s witnessed Riefenstahl’s apotheosis as the most celebrated woman in Germany and the world’s most famous female documentarist. Before that, she’d been a noted solo dancer, all-round athlete and minor movie star, appearing in a series of so-called >>mountain films<< directed by her discoverer and mentor Arnold Franck, who taught her everything she knew about film editing and lived to see his pupil refine that skill beyond anything he could have dreamed possible.

In contrast to her professional activities, Riefenstahl’s private life was characterized by an overactive libido that resulted in countless casual affairs. One colleague called her a >>man-eating plant<<;another a >>nymphomaniac<<. Even the club-footed serial seducer Goebbels succumbed to her charms, on one occasion making a clumsy – and indignantly rebuffed – grab for her breasts. Briefly married in the 40s, she’s said to have retained her sex drive well into her 90s.

Riefenstahl’s wartime record was deplorable: she spent the rest of her long life vainly trying to live it down.

On Hitler’s direct orders, her Special Film Troop, Riefenstahl followed his conquering troops into Poland where, on September 12, 1939, she saw them murder the Jewish population of Konskie, a fact she later denied in her self-serving memoirs published in 1987.

Worse was to come. Further indulged by Hitler, Riefenstahl in 1940 embarked on production of her pet project, an ambitious feature film, Tiefland, starring herself as a Gypsy siren. Not released until 1954, the film described by Bach as >>kitsch with castanets<<, was a commercial disaster, a monument to the colossal vanity of its director-star. An obsessive perfectionist, she’d insisted on engaging genuine Gypsies as extras and had no moral qualms about forcibly recruiting them from the nearby internment camps of Marzahn and Maxglan.

Filming completed, they were returned to captivity and, for many, that meant extermination in Auschwitz.

Nothing Riefenstahl subsequently accomplished, not even her astonishing re-emergence in extreme old age as a best-selling ethnographic photographer, underwater filmmaker and talk-show and film festival celebrity, could expunge her disgraceful wartime conduct from the record, despite the approximately 50 lawsuits she waged to do so.

Jürgen Trimborn notes with distaste the almost cult status she achieved towards the end of her life, particularly in the US, as if sheer longevity could have somehow trivialized her behaviour during the Nazi heyday.

His biography, for which he had the dubious advantage of personal interviews with his less than candid subject, first appeared in German in 2002. Bach’s, which cites Trimborne’s original text in its bibliography, was evidently written during the five years it had inexplicably taken for Trimborn’s to appear in English.

Hardcore Riefenstahl aficionados will certainly want both. Others should go for Bach, altogether more probing and stylish and offering more acute critical insights about the films.

Readers of either book will be confronted anew by a peculiarly Teutonic paradox, exemplified also by the composer Richard Wagner: how can great art co-exist with moral squalor, genius with evil?[– emphasis added]. Answers to these profound questions will probably always elude us.


Joel Greenberg’s writings on film history and the cinema include co-authorship of Hollywood in the Forties and The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak.

Low friends in high places: Leni Riefenstahl flanked by Goebbels and Hitler



The starboard overbalance:

Leftists once dominated the opinion and conservatives were virtually unseen.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way

Phillip Adams, The Australian, June 19 2007

Apart from their physical beauty, profound spirituality and extraordinary grace, what do these people have in common: Piers Akerman, Janet Albrechtsen, Frank Devine, Andrew Bolt, Michael Duffy, Paddy McGuinness, Miranda Devine, Christopher Pearson, Tim Blair and Gerard Henderson?

Do they share the same blood group? Religion? Astrological sign? No, they don’t. And I doubt they went to the same school, although it’s remotely possible they came from the same laboratory, products of a catastrophic experiment in genetic engineering.

Dear reader, the link (and they’re all linked, like charms on a bracelet) is their political proclivities as pundits. These towering intellects recall that famous tower of Pisa in that they have a perilous tilt and all in the same direction.

Were they boats, they’d list alarmingly to starboard. If aircraft, their lack of left wings would have them plummeting to earth. Indeed, some people of my political proclivity think many of them have crashed and burned. Repeatedly.

We – that is, lefties such as Robert Manne, David Marr and me – have been greatly outnumbered by the right-minded for many a year. Not just an endangered species, our population in the press is so small as to constitute extinction.

We are dead parrots, pining for the Fabian fjords, giving the illusion of life because we are nailed to our perches. Yet not so long ago the vice was versa. After years of being nurtured by The Australian, young Adams was suddenly personally sacked by Rupert Murdoch. (For the details, read John Menadue’s autobiography Things You Learn Along the Way. At the time, Menadue was Murdoch’s second-in-command and he insists my marching orders represented one of the only two direct proprietorial interventions in his era.) The same day I was proffered political asylum at Melbourne’s The Age, known both affectionally and pejoratively as the Spencer Street Soviet. The term could equally be applied to the paper’s list to port, and to a degree the place was congenial to lefties.

The editor at the time was the legendary Graham Perkin, regarded as th4e antipodean counterpart to The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee, and I write of a time when newspapers were undergoing profound change. As I said Perkin, >>We’re changing from newspaper to viewspaper.<< Unable to compete with the instantaneousness of electronic news, the papers, particularly the broadsheets, were opening their pages to more interpretation and opinion. While investigative journalism was enjoying its heyday, punditry was on the march. The era of the columnist had arrived.

However, you couldn’t help but notice something odd. Almost all my columnist and cartoonist colleagues at The Age shared the same views. Thus the paper couldn’t have been more congenial. And the reader seemed just as agreeable. Circulation was booming.

But our food for thought lacked condiments, the salt and pepper of dissent. Perkin and I often discussed it. >>What The Age needs,<< I said, >>is a conservative columnist.<< Though himself conservative on some social issues, the editor gave a little shudder.

What sort of writer did I have in mind? >>A local William F Buckley Jr<< I suggested, a reference to the doyen of US conservatives, a veteran 25 years ago, still soldiering on. I always enjoyed being annoyed by Buckley’s stuff. The old duffer wrote right-wing rot with remarkable elegance.

(Is it too late, incidentally, to recommend the aristocratic Buckley as a role model to Akerman or Henderson? The antithesis of the neo-cons, he has been known to make a lot of sense. Indeed, he and I often agree, as when he declared the war on drugs totally and utterly lost. This was more than 15 years ago and Buckley called for a complete rethink on the policies of prohibition and criminalisation. Lately he hasn’t hesitated to read George W Bush the riot act.)

Perkin considered the proposition and agreed, but only >>if you can find a conservative with a sense of humour<<. As this proved impossible, the matter lapsed.

I recall these halcyon days, this golden era of progressive-leftie domination of punditry, with mixed feelings, among them affection and despair. But I also hope my present crop of colleagues, those conservative choristers, will turn down the triumphalism. Perhaps they’ll realize things change. Tides, winds, minds, eras.

Let’s go back to Pisa. In that glorious domed building besides the tilting tower, young Galileo conducted his classic experiments with pendulums, on the timing of their swings. As you know, Piers, Andrew, Miranda, Janet and co, political pendulums swing as well. And perhaps, just perhaps, a big swing is under way now that the era of Bush and John Howard appears to be over. If so, the free-market forces, which apply as, much to ideas and opinions as anything else, will lead to a time when editors will want once again, to recruit a few lefties. But only, one hopes, if they’ve got a sense of humour.


FT comments: But both left and right believe in the great Holocaust lie – that Germans systematically exterminated European Jewry in homicidal gas chambers….

The supposition – the premise – on which the current political divide is united is that the Holocaust has reality in time and space…



Asking the painful questions:

Torture has proved counterproductive, so why does the West continue to use it in the war on terror,

asks Sally Neighbour, The Weekend Australian, June 16-17 2007

In the third century AD, the imperial court of Rome adopted a practice known as quaestio to punish and extract information from errant slaves. The imperial jurist Ulpian explained: >>By quaestio we are to understand the torment and suffering of the body in order to elicit truth.<< Today we call it torture.

Even in ancient Rome, the use of torture stirred controversy over its morality and its efficacy as a means of eliciting the truth. >>It is a delicate, dangerous and deceptive thing,<< Ulpian advised. >>For many persons have such strength of body and soul that they heed pain very little, so that there is no means of obtaining the truth from them. While others are so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it.<<

As the West grapples with a new phenomenon of Islamist terrorism, the millennia-old debate over ethics and utility of torture has been revived and the questions that vexed Ulpian are being asked again: Does torture work? What do you get from it? Can it be justified? These were the questions we set out in a Four Corners program that grew into a two-part special on torture.

The role of devils advocate in the debate has been played by Harvard Law School academic and criminal lawyer Alan Dershowitz. His argument is based on the so-called ticking time-bomb scenario. A massive bomb has been set to go off in downtown New York or Sydney. A member of the terrorist cell has been captured. It’s believed he has information that could avert the attack, saving hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives. Should he be tortured to get that information?

>>Right now we have no debate about what kind of torture should be acceptable,<< Dershowitz says. >>I’ll give you an example: a sterilized needle under the nails causing excruciating pain but no permanent damage. Let’s debate that.<<

Dershowitz stresses that he is >>not a supporter of torture<<. His point is that in the present conflict, any government that believed it could avert a catastrophe would use torture, and therefore should be made to do so in an accountable, transparent way. He proposes a system of torture warrants, whereby US President George W Bush or Prime Minister John Howard would have to sign off on a warrant issued by a judge to authorize torture.

Dershowitz’s polemic is clearly aimed at foreign governments and communities, including ours, to confront the reality of torture. >>We live in a world where we have to chose evils,<< he argues. >>We can’t just declare suddenly, >let’s not have torture<, the way some human rights organizations do, and hope it will go away. It’s not going away.<<

The debate over torture >>encompasses the most profound ambiguities of our age over the questions of liberty versus security<<, in the words of historian and author Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. McCoy has chronicled the history of torture and, in particular, the US’s evolving attitude to it since World War II, in his book A Question of Torture: CIA interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

The book documents how the diabolical methods pioneered by the Russian KGB spurred the US to embark on an extensive secret research program in the 1950s and ‘60s that included experiments with LSD and >truth serums< and led to the development what McCoy calls >>modern torture<<: relying not on physical brutality but on sophisticated psychological techniques.

>>The KGB’s most effective technique was not obvious brutality or beatings or anything of that sort, but simply making the victim stand motionless for days at a time,<< says McCoy. This became known as self-inflicted pain, imposed through enforced standing or contortions now known as stress positions that cause the subject to blame himself, rather than his captor, for his suffering. The other key finding of the research program was the devastating impact of sensory deprivation.

Canadian psychologists Donald Hebb paid student volunteers to lie in a padded isolation cubicle wearing goggles, earmuffs and thick gloves. After 48-hours the students suffered hallucinations and extreme anguish. Hebb reported that the sheer monotony of isolation caused the activity of the cortext to be impaired >>so that the brain behaves abnormally<<. Within two or three days, he found, >>the subject’s very identity had begun to disintegrate<<. The ground breaking research led to what McCoy calls the CIA’s psychological torture paradigm<<, a combination of self-inflicted pain, or stress positions, and sensory deprivation. It’s an approach that has endured for 50 years, as evidenced in the techniques used at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib prison in Baghdad.

McCoy cites the iconic photo of the hooded detainee standing on a box with outstretched arms. >>I looked at that photograph and I saw the two CIA foundational techniques. He was hooded for sensory disorientation and deprivation and his arms were extended for self-inflicted pain,<< McCoy tells Four Corners.

The CIA’s research was also put to use by British forces in Northern Ireland in the ‘70s, when they adopted five techniques against detained IRA militants, who were forced to stand with their arms outstretched, leaning on their fingertips against a wall, a stress position known as >>wall standing<<. They were also hooded, deprived of food and sleep and subjected to continued loud noise.

A British psychologist who studied the effects of these measures found that some of the prisoners became psychotic within 24 hours, suffering hallucinations, depression, and delusional beliefs.

A report by the European Human Rights Commission found the five techniques constituted >>a modern system of torture<<. After an outcry, the British government announced that they would not be used again under any circumstances as an aid to interrogation.  The five techniques no doubt led to some useful information being extracted. But they also served to stiffen the resolve of the IRA, whose violent struggle continued for another 30 years.

>>Torture might have some short-term advantages from a military standpoint<< says the former chief lawyer for the US Navy, Alberto J Mora. >>But in the long term, torture is likely to stiffen and broaden the resistance rather than facilitate a solution of the war.<<

It was Mora who blew the whistle on the >>enhanced interrogation techniques<< being used at Guantanamo Bay, authorized by former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They included forced standing, interrogation for up to 16 hours a day, the use of extreme cold, and the exploitation of detainees individual phobias, which were identified by military psychologists.     

>>That could entail any one of a million things,<< Mora says, <<including the use of, say, locking somebody in a coffin until the person became deranged, or employing dogs or snakes or other techniques induce severe fear<<. Mora believes these methods combined could easily rise to the level of torture.

The approval of these methods was signaled in a series of advisories issued by the Bush administration, now known as >>the torture memos<<. The most infamous of them was a memo produced by the US Justice Department in August 2002, which decreed that for physical pain to amount to torture, it >>must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.<<

>>The memo was a disgrace,<< Mora says. His objections contributed to the advice being withdrawn. But the man who sent the memo to the White House, presidential legal advisor Alberto Gonzales has, since been promoted to Attorney-General of the US.

According to numerous experts, the use of such techniques at Guantanamo has done little to reduce the terrorist threat. The majority of detainees held in Guantanamo were Taliban fighters with no knowledge of inside workings of al-Qa’ida. The FBI, which has constantly opposed the use of torture, says interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo has >>produced no intelligence of a threat-neutralisation nature<<.

So, if torture is so unreliable and has proved to be counter productive, why do governments continue to use it?

McCoy writes that torture is about >>the psychic balm of empowerment<<, making the perpetrators feel better because at least they are doing something. However, counter-terrorism professionals such as Michael Scheuer, former head of CIA’s bin Laden unit, believe that desperate times call for desperate measures. Although Scheuer does not condone torture, he argues that techniques in the >>grey zone<<, such as sleep and sensory deprivation or exposure to loud noise, are legitimate weapons in the armory. >>We’re in an era of pre-emption,<< Scheuer says. >>We’re not in an era of waiting for something to happen and then trying to convict someone. We don’t know if these things work, but they are tools we have to use.<<

Another tool the US has relied on is the transfer of prisoners to another country for imprisonment and interrogation under the CIA’s secret rendition program.  Scheuer calls rendition the single most effective weapon in the history of US counter terrorism. It’s detractors, including former CIA field officer Bob Baer, call it >>outsourcing torture<<. An example is the case of Sydney man Mamdouh Habib, captured in Pakistan in October 2001, moved to Egypt and tortured mercilessly for six months, then released without charge after three years in Guantanamo Bay.

Four Corners didn’t set out to make a program on Habib. Our intention was just to interview him as one Australian who had experienced torture. I approached him in January this year, I felt that I knew his story, having compiled a profile on him in 2004 while he was still in Guantanamo Bay. Without having met him, I had the impression, as I expect do many Australians, that he was a maverick, a loose cannon who’d got himself into trouble and possibly deserved at least some of what he’d got, though of course no one deserves torture. But over the space of four months and ten meetings – the time it took me to win the trust of Habib, who is traumatized and deeply suspicious – I heard a profoundly disturbing story. It shocked me that a human being could be subjected to such an ordeal. Just as shocking was that an Australian government could apparently acquiesce to this, then claim it knew nothing about it.

After being sent to Egypt by the CIA’s rendition team, Habib was held for six months in a tiny, windowless, cell infested with rats and cockroaches. He was beaten, given electric shocks, put in rooms that were slowly flooded with water, placed in a box smaller than a coffin, had cigarettes stubbed out on him, and had all his nails pulled out, on-by-one.

His account has since been corroborated by other detainees and in court testimony in the US. His case was cited by US District Court judge Joyce Hens Green in her landmark ruling in January 2005 that the combatant status review tribunals in Guantanamo were illegal, in part because they relied on evidence obtained under torture. Habib was diagnosed in Guantanamo with post-traumatic stress disorder, attributed to his torture. The false confessions extracted from him in Egypt were the only evidence presented publicly against him.

During estimates hearings in the Australian Senate in 2004 and 2005, a number of senior government officials insisted they knew nothing of Habib’s rendition and had never been given formal confirmation by the Egyptian authorities that Habib was in Egypt. But a series of intelligence veterans with direct knowledge of the rendition program, including its founder Scheuer, say that Canberra would have been informed.

A former senior agent in the FBI’s bin Laden unit, Jack Cloonan, says: >>It’s impossible for me to believe that the Australian government did not know. Somebody is just not telling you the truth if they are denying this.<< Internal government cables and memos support this assertion, showing that within days of Habib’s rendition, the government knew he was in Egypt and >>in the custody of an Egyptian agency.<<

His presence there was confirmed definitely in February 2002, when two ASIO agents traveled to Cairo and discussed Habib’s case with Egyptian intelligence. The Government put out a statement saying it had obtained >>credible advice<< that Habib was >>well and being treated well.<< That was simply false. And even after this the Government continued to maintain that it had been unable to confirm Habib’s detention in Egypt. Attorney-General, Philip Rudock told the SBS current affairs program Dateline: >>We were seeking access to him, if he was there. It was never obtained. I think that’s the end of the matter. We have no knowledge of him being there.<<

Rudock declined to be interviewed by Four Corners because Habib is suing the Government, accusing it of complicity to his kidnapping, imprisonment and torture. The Government denies this. As for Habib’s claim that the Government failed in its duty to protect him, the Commonwealth in its defence, >>denies that any such duty exists<<.

On Thursday, the president of the Senate, Paul Calvert, wrote to Greens Senator Kerry Nettle, indicating support for her call for an enquiry into whether false or misleading evidence had been given to the Senate about the Government’s knowledge of Habib’s time in Egypt. Calvert wrote that he believed it would be appropriate for a preliminary enquiry to be held. >>There is an implication in the Four Corners program that misleading evidence has been given to a Senate committee, and the Senate should not leave such an implication on the record without taking some action to deal with it.<<

Sally Neighbour is a senior reporter with The Australian, and ABC’s Four Corners. Her two-part series on torture was made with Morag Ramsay, Peter Cronau, Alison McClymont, and Sally Virgo.


Dissenting dons out in the cold

A film accused of mocking the disabled has caused a storm at a Queensland university,

 writes Andrew Fraser

The Weekend Australian June 16-17 2007

One man’s exercise of his freedom of speech is another man’s vicious, unwarranted and inaccurate personal attack. That’s the >>two sides of the story<< that has led to the suspension without pay for six months of two Queensland University of Technology academics, Gary MacLennan and John Hookham.

The saga began on the afternoon of March 20 at the Creative Industries precinct of QUT, where a group of about 20 people had gathered in a lecture hall for the initial presentation of a film by Michael Noonan, a sessional lecturer at the university and a PhD candidate.

Noonan had previously made Unlikely Travellers, a film about a group of disabled people who had gone to the Sahara Desert, which has been purchased by the ABC and will be screened later this year.

To the five-member panel supervising his doctorate – all of whom were present that afternoon along with other faculty members – Noonan had provided a 50-page outline of his new project, plus a screening of Unlikely Travellers, along with rushes from his new film, which was meant to be the basis of his PhD.

The new project had initially been titled Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains. It’s a provocative title, but Noonan argues that it needs to be put in context.

>>Increasingly, comedy writers and program makers are drawing on strategies which confront and shock an audience so that the hunour arises from a mixture of audacious surprise, outrage and even embarrassment,<< he says in the outline. >>Such humour drives [films and programs] such as Borat, The Chasers’ War on Everything, The Office, and Extras. In our laughter we often laugh at those affected, but at times a line is crossed and we can find ourselves laughing at the characters, their predicaments and the crass impact they are having on others. This study is about that line and the difficulties that program makers have in negotiating it.<<

The idea is not a new one. In the comedy show Little Britain, one of the running gags concerning Lou and Andy, with Andy in a wheelchair and Lou his carer. The ongoing gag is that it is the disabled Andy who is the exploiter, while Lou – the man looking after him – is the exploited. It turns on its head the standard relationship between a disabled person and their carer.

The rushes from the film shown on March 20 consisted of a series of sketches based around two disabled men one aged 21, with Asperger’s syndrome, and the other aged 40 with a learning disability.

The project had been developed in conjunction with a disability group Big Spectrum and the two men depicted in it as well as their parents were comfortable with the idea, having had experience with Noonan in the making of Unlikely Travellers. In addition, the university’s ethics committee had cleared the project.

But after seeing the rushes, MacLennan, a lecturer at the university said: >>I have a handicapped child and I pray to God that my child never comes into contact with someone like you.<< Also present was Hookham, who questioned the use of disabled people.

That night, Noonan emailed MacLennan and Hookham, asking them to expand on their responses. MacLennan emailed back, saying:>>It’s quite simple, Michael, I was brought up by my mother – one of the uneducated peasantry. She was the best human being I have ever met. She taught me not to mock the afflicted. I had to go a university to see the mocking of the afflicted being celebrated under the spurious rubric of >post-structuralism< <<.

A few weeks later, Noonan gave a lecture that involved scenes from Unlikely Travelers, and at the end of his lecture he explained that the two disabled men involved in the film were present. Indeed they were, and they answered questions from the class. What happened next depends on who you listened to.

According to various blog entries written by students, some of them found the experience positively challenging their views of the disabled, as here were two men quite open about their disabilities and prepared to speak openly and honestly. But others claimed the experience shocked and embarrassed them.

In early April, Hookham and MacLennan wrote an article for The Australian’s Higher Education Supplement in which they attacked Noonan’s work, saying: >>We don’t think it’s funny to mock and ridicule to intellectually disabled boys.<<

Next came a formal complaint from a staff member from a  student – it is assumed one of them was Noonan – about the behaviour of MacLennan and Hookham. In response, vice-chancellor Peter Coledrake established a committee of three to look into the complaints. The three were former industrial commissioner Barry Nuttern plus two QUT academics. They unanimously upheld the charges.

MacLennan and Hookham claim they have been penalized for speaking out against a project that is clearly disrespectful towards disabled people, and they are trying to restore some dignity. As they were in the communications faculty, there has been an outpouring of protest, including a short film on YouTube, in which MacLennan says: >>What sort of message are we sending out? You speak out, you get cut down.<<

MacLennan and Hookham, plus is now a sizeable support group in Brisbane and on the Internet, claim they are victims of an establishment that can’t take criticism.

Noonan and his supporters respond that the work needs to be viewed in context, something that MacLennan and Hookham have not done.

Coldrake points out that the university did not act against the pair, rather it acted in response to complaints about them from a staff member and a student and he simply set up a process to adjudicate. But to use a court analogy, while the three-person committee headed by Nutter may have been the jury that found them guilty, Coldrake was the judge who pronounced the sentence.

A six-month suspension without pay seems very severe for a couple of tough comments and an aggressive email. These things are part and parcel of everyday life in many business and academic situations.

The dean of the arts faculty at the University of Queensland, Richard Fotheringham, pushed a student during a rowdy public meeting concerning the restructuring of the faculty. He was counseled and the incident was noted in his file, but that was the end of the matter.

By contrast, MacLennan and Hookham have suffered a financial loss of about $40,000 each and at the age of 64, it is questionable whether MacLennan has the stomach to return to the university.  

As for Noonan, who has been portrayed nationally as an exploiter of the disabled, his reputation has hardly been enhanced.

Free speech, for all concerned, has come at a high cost.



Window On The Ghetto

Petr Ginz survived the Holocaust long enough to leave a remarkable record,

writes Elliot Perlman

The Weekend Australian June 16-17 2007

On September 7, 1943, Rudolf Vraba saw something that astonished him. Given who he was and where he was at the time, his capacity to be astonished should have been long exhausted. Vrba, a Slovakian Jew, was a prisoner at Birkenau, by far the largest of the component camps that made up Auschwitz. It was at Birkenau, housing as it did crematoriums II-V and their accompanying gas chambers, that more Jews died at the hands of the Nazis than any other place. By then it was already on its way to becoming the largest cemetery on earth.

As a registrar of prisoners arrivals Vrba was used to seeing thousands of Jews arrive every day on cattle cars from all over Europe being tricked and coerced into the gas chambers, their corpses to be burned by the prisoners of the Sonderkommando.

Having seen all this on a daily basis, what sight could possibly have astonished him?

On September 7, 1943, Vrba saw a new kind of prisoner pour into the camp by the thousand, the likes of which he had never seen during his time there.

Not only were these prisoners being allowed to retain their civilian clothes and to keep their hair, but [their] families were being kept intact.

Vrba knew this was unprecedented in Auschwitz. Ordinarily if families were together on arrival they were soon split up by a selection. Men were separated from women, children from adults, the old from the young, the infirm from the healthy.

Depending on the need for slave labour at the time, upwards of 70 per cent would be gassed and burned within hours of arrival.

Sometimes 100 per cent of the transport would be killed immediately. But on this day some 4000 relatively healthy-looking Jews of varying ages arrived at Birkenau apparently to be housed, not killed. Vrba and his fellow prisoners did not know what to make of it.

What he was observing was the establishment of what would become known as the >>Czech family camp<<. Comprising prisoners who had arrived from the show camp, Theresienstadt, it was merely the continuation of an elaborate ruse that had begun there.

Theresienstadt, established by the Nazis in 1941 in the old Czech garrison town of Teresin, was a ghetto and transit camp housing Jews predominantly from Germany, Czechoslovakia and The Netherlands. From there Jews were sent either first to the ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz, Bialystock or Minsk or else directly to the death camps of Majdanek, Treblinka or Auschwitz.

Between 1941 and 1945, 140,000 Jews were transported to Theresienstadt; 90,000 of them were transported farther east to be killed and 33,000 died during the incarceration in Theresienstadt.

But Theresienstadt has significance in the Holocaust that derives not only from these statistics. It provides an important insight into the lengths to which the Nazis would go to deceive their victims and anybody else concerned about the fate of the Jews. At Theresienstadt, unlike at any other concentration camp, they permitted academics, writers and musicians from among the prisoners to give lectures, concerts and performances, some of which were witnessed by invited foreign officials.

Although not officially sanctioned, a school established there was attended by the 15,000 Jewish children who eventually passed through the camp gates.   

One of these children was the 14-year-old Czech Petr Ginz. By any measure, Ginz was a remarkable boy. In Theresienstadt, against all odds, he managed to edit a magazine to which he also contributed articles and stories. While still with his family in the Prague ghetto, he made himself exercise books out of discarded paper in which he could write, draw and keep a diary.

One entry records: >>I started my new book, The Wizard from the Attay Mountains…<<. It was not a new book he had started reading but rather one he had started writing. Nor was it his first novel.

One by one, as each of life’s options closed to him, we see him and his faithful friend, Popper, going for walks in the ghetto almost every day, looking for mischief, intrigue and, most of all, knowledge. Gradually the circumference of their walks gets ever smaller. Still he retains that mix of cynicism, intellectual curiosity and naivety so often found in bright young people.

The ordinances grew harsher. Every day teachers, school friends and their families were being transferred from the ghetto to Theresienstadt. Not knowing what was in store for them, people speculated. But not even someone with a profoundly energetic imagination of Ginz could imagine that one group of people would plan and implement the systematic gassing and burning of another group of people.

Whatever it was he imagined might be in store for him, the entries grow chilling before they stop.

No doubt dreaming of a world beyond his incarceration young Ginz saw himself variously as a novelist, publisher, journalist, artist and even a scientist.

A drawing of his of the moon, which survived the war, was taken into space by the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle. The publicity attendant on the space shuttle disaster indirectly led to the discovery of Ginz’s diary. The diary is now available in English, sensitively translated by Elena Lappin and painstakingly edited by Chava Pressburger, Ginz’s sister.

When, two years after his deportation to Theresienstadt, she was also deported there, she got to hear the reverence with which the other children spoke of her brother when they learned she was the sister of Petr Ginz.

His sister writes that she was transferred there just to see him briefly and to say goodbye. She was able to hug him for just a moment before he was made to board a train to Auschwitz. Two years older, taller, thinner, he was quiet and he looked unwell. Through the bars she managed to touch his hand. She slipped him some bread and held the tips of his fingers until chased away by a policeman amid the chaos of a crying, pushing, hysterical crowd.

On September 28, 1944, she let go of her brother’s fingers through the bars as he started the journey to Auschwitz.

The special little boy’s diary deserves a place alongside The Diary of Anne Frank. Through it we see not only his talent, his hopes and the development of an ambitious boy into a serious young man but we also get a detailed portrait of a community, on the way to its annihilation, struggling to make sense of its increasingly desperate circumstances.

The published diary includes samples of Petr’s art so that as we read his thoughts, from the prosaic and the humorous to the surprisingly profound, we can see the Prague he remembered and the Theresienstadt he knew before being transported to Auschwitz.

Six months after witnessing the Jews from Theresienstadt begin to arrive at Auschwitz, Vrba saw the first of >>Czech family camp<< placed on trucks. They had written their letters and met the Red Cross representatives they were meant to meet. As they boarded the trucks they were assured they were being transferred to a place called Heidebreck. Vrba knew that once at the gate of the camp the trucks would leave for the outside world by turning right. If the trucks turned left it could mean only one thing. That evening he watched as each of the trucks turned left. They traveled a mere 500m. This was where the crematoriums were. (Much later, on April 7, 1944, together with his friend, Alfred Wetzler, Vrba managed to escape from Auschwitz. Their subsequent report – the Vrba-Wetzler Report – for the first time provided the allies with the precise details of the mechanics of the process of mass murder at Auschwitz.)

It is not possible to remember six million people. We can remember the number but not the people. So it matters that we can remember that there was once a remarkable boy called Petr Ginz who was funny and thoughtful and enquiring and who had so much he wanted to do with his life. It is likely at any given moment that somewhere on earth a child also recording his or her hopes, dreams, pain or fears. Maybe it’s happening to Darfur as you read this. Given all the knowledge that Ginz managed to acquire in his short life, perhaps we should be ashamed of how little we’ve learned in the years since he was murdered along with the other 1.5 million Jewish children whose diaries we won’t ever see.

Diary of Petr Ginz, edited by Chava Pressburger and translated by Elena Lappin, is published by Picadore, $39.95.



My Journal: Discipline can take the fun out of history

Jonathan Walker, The Weekend Australian June 16-17 2007

It took me about 3 ½ years to obtain a doctoral thesis. It took me the next 3 ½ years to unlearn all the bad habits I acquired in the process. So why did writing a PhD feel like learning to suppress everything that attracted me to history in the first place?

Hayden White has argued that the transformation of a subject or a literary genre – in this case history – into a university discipline is principally a matter of deciding what is illegitimate: that is, making a list of all the things you are not allowed to do if you want to be considered respectable, qualified and – most important of all – employable. That is a far more important part of the process than establishing a positive set of skills and investigative techniques appropriate to the subject.

By definition, the transformation of history defined as a literary pursuit into history defined as a university subject involved the establishment of professional examinations and qualifications. Anyone who could not pass these exams was then by definition not a real historian. Whether failure implied an excess of imagination or a lack of skill was beside the point.

Postgraduates are taught valuable lessons; for example, paleography (how to read handwritten historical documents), which is only the most basic of the critical skills required for the interpretation of sources written in alien historical contexts. Students are also exposed to a rich body of work written by their predecessors, which contain valuable practical and theoretical insights that prevent them from having to reinvent the wheel. But at the same time they are acculturated (to borrow a piece of jargon from anthropology) into academic life. I used to watch it happen in seminars in Cambridge, which I single out not because Cambridge is inherently stuffier or cleverer institution than any other university but because there are a lot more students and seminars there, and so the indoctrination is much more blatant. Students listen carefully to their elders and betters and practice asking the right kind of question, one that reveals their erudition rather than their ignorance and does not betray any emotional involvement in the subject (although political commitment is acceptable at times).

Despite the variations in technique and approach among different disciplines in the humanities, there is an identifiable academic style to all of them, an acceptable vocabulary, a way of phrasing questions and structuring papers, a shared understanding of what constitutes an intellectually serious argument, along with some more obvious formal elements such as the use of footnotes and referencing conventions. The precise nature of this shared set of values and conventions evolves from generation to generation, but the primary function of each generation’s members is to pass on as much of their cultural inheritance to their successors as they can, to ensure that the culture survives and thus secure the place in its canon.

These academic conventions – and the related practice of using anonymous referees to review work submitted to presses and journals – are ostensibly intended to preserve minimum acceptable standards, which they do.

But they also encourage rigid conformity. Anonymous refereeing is a particularly vicious process for those who genuinely wish to try something different, as the writer has absolutely no means of defending themselves against attack from an unidentifiable quarter and no opportunity to bring pilloried work into the public arena for discussion. As a result, experiments are strangled at birth as my book would have been but for the intervention of several generous editors (especially those of Rethinking History) who took the unusual step of overruling peer reviews.

As a graduate student, we are led to believe that the academic voice is a universal language, a guarantee of comprehension among the world-wide community. Actually it is more like a dialect. Now, there is nothing wrong with that. Obscure languages and dialects have particular powers of expression that make them ideal for analyzing previously undreamed-of nuances in subjects that seem self-evidently simple to outsiders. The most famous (and possibly mythical) example is the generous number of words for snow in certain Inuit tongues. Similarly, even the most abstruse article in the most obscure journal may contain important insights, but that does not mean its style should be adopted as a universal standard of judgment.

In essence, I have no problem with the way we are taught to write and think as graduate students. It is the equivalent of learning how to draw and model at art school. I sue that analogy deliberately because in art school the purpose of that training is to prepare you to move beyond the limits of this basic education and find your own voice. I agree with whoever said that you have the right to break the rules only if you are capable of keeping them. Indeed, I make a point of periodically writing and publishing entirely conventional academic articles in peer-refereed journals just to prove that I can do it, so that if and when I chose to do something different it is clear that it is a deliberate choice and not a question of incompetence. I value the training I received, but why would I want to re-write my thesis over and over again for the rest of my career? One of the most basic insights of cultural history is to argue that many practices and beliefs are constructed and not naturally given, but historians are seemingly unwilling to apply this obvious insight to their writing.

The academy is the only place in which the entrance examination – the thesis – marks a definitive statement of the values and techniques that are supposed to define your future written production. This conservatism masks a deep-rooted insecurity that is revealed most clearly by the intolerance of anonymous referees for jokes. I think jokes are useful as a form of criticism, as a way of encouraging greater self-consciousness and skepticism. But to referees not taking oneself – and, my extension, them – seriously is an unforgivable sin.

So, do I long for a return of the days when history was left in the hands of gentlemen amateurs who were more concerned with crafting an elegant phrase than racking up the required number of refereed publications irrespective whether anyone read them (and nobody does, not if they can help it)? No. After all, I hold a post within an academic institution and I hope to continue to hold productive debates with my colleagues there for many years to come. Rather, I would like more of us to acknowledge that imagination, creativity, playfulness and, above all, risk-taking and formal experimentation are essential to the survival and growth of history and the humanities in general. As a discipline, we need to become more undisciplined.

Jonathan Walker wrote Pistols! Treason! Murder! MUP


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