Theater note: “Amazons and Their Men” dramatizes the life of Leni Riefenstahl


Amazons and Their Men, a play by Jordan Harrison, is a richly-layered piece that involves bits and pieces of an imaginary screenplay, production notes, history, and a great deal of speculation. What’s being speculated about is the life and work of director Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will, Olympia), although the playwright notes that it is not a historical play. Riefenstahl and the war are never named. Even Berlin is not mentioned by name, referred to instead as the Great City.

And yet, we know exactly what’s going on.

Amazons and Their Men, a play written by Jordan Harrison and directed by Amy Rummenie. Presented by Walking Shadow Theatre Company through November 1 at Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis. For tickets ($16) and information, see

Walking Shadow Theatre Company, currently staging Amazons at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, offers up a tightly crafted production that is a testament to both the strength of the material and to the talented actors.

The cast of four immediately transports the audience into the middle of the production of the Frau’s film Penthesilea, an epic love story about an Amazon queen who falls in love with Achilles. The Frau (played with power by Zoe Benston) strives for beauty in the shadow of mounting war. She paid her debt to the Party, creating propaganda films that surpassed expectations with their focus on art, not politics. In return, she has been rewarded with production funding even as her nation funnels money into the war effort and rationing is put into place. In a sense, she is a slave to her art, doing whatever it takes to be able to go off into the mountains to pursue beauty and art. Next to beauty, her greatest love is of herself—a love that seems to know no bounds. In her films, she is producer, director, and star.

Her male lead, known simply as Man (Erik Hoover), plays Achilles. He was selected because he was dark, sexy, and in need of rescuing—a Jew, he takes refuge in the production. Things become complicated when there is need for a beautiful actor to play Patroclus and the Boy (Grant Sorenson), a messenger who appears with telegrams from the Minister of Culture in Berlin, is pressed into service. Soon his lips are pressed to the Man’s in a clandestine affair. Can the Frau handle not being the center of her own drama? As you might have guessed, no.

What takes the story to another level is the presence of the Extra, played by Christine Weber. She narrates the film’s action and lets us in on the Frau’s deepest desires and motivations. She knows the Frau on a very intimate level—she’s her sister. A reluctant participant with a secret of her own, she has appeared in all of the Frau’s films, dying beautifully in each one.

True to the life of Riefenstahl, the play creates more questions than it presents answers. What does the Frau really know about what’s happening in Germany? Is her obsession with her art a response to the horrific Nazi party or a way of simply burying her head in work, hoping that this too shall pass and she will be able to get on with the business of creating beauty? She is a perfectionist, a glorious visionary, and a self-centered monster. She plays God with her actors’ lives; Riefenstahl went to her grave denying any knowledge that the Gypsies used as extras in her last production were sent to her from the camps.

After World War II, Reifenstahl was tried as a Nazi but found guilty of being a sympathizer. For the rest of her life she was shunned; she never made another film. She continued to deny any direct involvement—she never joined the Party, after all—and went on with other projects, like traveling to Africa in the 1960s to photograph the Nuba tribes. Her documentaries are still considered to be among the best ever made. What we never knew, and can’t know, is what was going on behind the eyes that looked into the camera. What were her deepest regrets? Did she even have any?

We never quite find out with the Frau, either. She invites the cameras in, closer and closer to her deathbed, but what do they see? Monster or genius?

Rebecca Collins is a writer and thing-maker who lives in South Minneapolis. She is also the communications coordinator for the Minnesota Film and TV Board and edits the blog MNDialog.

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