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Leni and Elia

Another decent dead genius gets lumped in with Leni Riefenstahl.

12:00 AM, Oct 10, 2003 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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JOINING NPR in the proud tradition of obituary relativism, the Philadelphia Inquirer offers up thoughts on the death of Elia Kazan--and his equivalency with Leni Riefenstahl.

A Saturday feature, titled Kazan and Riefenstahl: Brilliant yet blemished, opens: "In an interesting coincidence, two artists whose private conduct marred their prodigious achievements died last month." This sentence is the only direct comparison between the two filmmakers in the piece, but there's lots to read between the lines. Kazan, we learn, was the Oscar-winning director of "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and "On the Waterfront." Riefenstahl directed "Triumph of the Will."

Then we get to Kazan's "blemish": "Testifying before a congressional committee, he revealed the names of colleagues who had joined the Communist Party and helped end their careers." And as for his colleague? "Riefenstahl used 30 cameras and shot 61 hours of footage deifying Hitler and Nazism at the 1934 Nuremberg rallies. The film is a ghastly masterpiece."

This side-by-side resume match-up doesn't offer an explanation for why we should equate the two--it takes for granted that the reader agrees Kazan and Riefenstahl's achievements and failings are the same in kind, if not in degree.

But perhaps the writer simply assumes that we read the Inquirer's unsigned editorial of last Tuesday. Kazan's obits, the editors inform us, are studded with reminders of his "infamous role in the anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s" when he named associates from his past as members of the Communist party to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan's reputation "remains tarnished by his betrayals." The lesson: "It is best to avoid infamy in life lest it follow you past the grave."

Then the editors offer up a bit of history: "In post-war America of the '50s, Communism was seen as the great threat," they write. "There was some reason for that sense of threat. With the benefit of hindsight, though, it seems clear that an exaggerated concern about Communism metastasized into paranoia and repression. Today, in another post-war America, the threat comes from terrorism. . . . America's liberties, in the name of anti-terrorism, are being pared away. Unless America steadies itself, the obituaries of the future may cast a critical light on the fervor of today."

Perhaps they will. But those future obituaries will be just as wrong-headed as the Inquirer is today.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.