Leni Riefenstahl’s charmed life was suffused with deceit, writes Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl By Steven Bach Little, Brown, 386pp, $ 65
RETTY as a swastika’’: that’s how witty Walter Winchell, famed US columnist, described Leni Riefenstahl as she arrived in New York on November 4, 1938, en route to Hollywood, a Nazi public relations trip fully funded by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
Riefenstahl was at that time acknowledged as the world’s leading female filmmaker, the spoiled protegee of Hitler and, some said, his lover (‘‘ I was not Hitler’s friend- girl!’’ I once heard her exclaim in a postwar radio interview).
Her trip was singularly ill- timed. She’d 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, Riefenstahl sought comfort with the movie colony’s sizeable contingent of prominent Nazi sympathisers before beating a hasty retreat to Berlin.
She would not revisit the US until 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 the 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 by 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, despite the antiSemitism 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 practise 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
Pfound 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 Fanck, 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 characterised 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 selfserving 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 talkshow and film festival celebrity, could expunge her disgraceful wartime conduct from the record, despite the approximately 50 lawsuits she waged to do so.
Jurgen 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 trivialised her behaviour during her 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 Trimborn’s original text in its bibliography, was evidently written during the five years it has 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? 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