Killer kitsch

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Joel Green­berg

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

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