Ends of eras
Edward Teller and Leni Riefenstahl both died yesterday. When I mentioned this to my boss this morning she asked, “Is this symbolic of the end of the Atomic Age or the passing of the Era of Fascism or something?” She answered her own question before I could swallow my coffee, “nah, probably not.” I was about to make the same cynical comment.
However, despite the fact that their leaving changes nothing about the way the rest of us will live our lives, this moment is symbolic of the passing of something.
After success both as a dancer and an actress, Leni Riefenstahl turned to directing at the same moment Hitler was negotiating his rise to power. Soon after he became Chancellor, she requested a meeting with him. As a result she became the official chronicler of the Nazi party’s annual Nuremberg rally. "Triumph of the Will" is almost universally recognized as the greatest propaganda film ever made. Seventy years later it is still breathtaking to watch. In one film, Riefenstahl revolutionized cinematography and sound editing. Her importance to filmmaking places her in a category inhabited by Sergei Eisenstein and few others. However she was a completely amoral artist, indifferent to the purposes for which her product was used.
Edward Teller was the rare physicist whose theoretical brilliance was matched by a practical mechanical brilliance. He was one of the three scientists who wrote the famous letter to Roosevelt that led to the American crash program to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis. At the Manhattan Project, he conceived of an even more powerful method of freeing atomic energy. He is thus simultaneously godfather to the atomic bomb and father to the hydrogen bomb. It was an argument over the latter weapon that led him to denounce Robert Oppenheimer before a security committee. This act, along with his naked enthusiasm for always-bigger weapon systems, caused him to be ostracized by many of his fellow scientists.
While Riefenstahl went into seclusion for a quarter century before reinventing herself as a still photographer in the seventies, Teller stayed in the spotlight. Widely regarded as the model for Dr. Strangelove, Teller continued to shape weapons and energy policy in the U.S. He pushed civilian atomic energy. He wanted to use his hydrogen bombs to build ports, widen the Panama Canal, and drill for oil. He added the neutron bomb and Strategic Defense Initiative to his dubious offspring.
German obituaries today, struggling to come to terms with the death of Riefenstahl, highlighted her twin legacies: enabler of the Reich and one of the seminal film geniuses of the century. Her influence could clearly be seen in “Star Wars.” Teller tried to build a real Star wars weapon. Beyond the semantic coincidence they had a strange ties with each other. Though profoundly controversial, each had a genius that even their most passionate detractors could not deny. Each was a major participant in the birth of two of the horrors that help define the twentieth century. Each remained unbowed by criticism. Each continued to exert a powerful fascination across the political spectrum. Each eventually lived to become icons for their respective horrors.
Riefenstahl and Teller long ago reached the point where their main activities in life were tending to and jealously defending their own legends. Late in their long lives (Riefenstahl was 101 and Teller 95) each produced fascinating yet self-serving autobiographies. They outlived most of the critics and supporters who had any personal knowledge their crimes or virtues.
In some way, with them, the last of their generations are gone, and the twentieth century is finally over.