To fol­low Hitler or re­ject him?

A new bi­og­ra­phy ex­plains the mo­men­tous choice of two Ger­man film stars, Mar­lene Di­et­rich and Leni Riefen­stahl

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MICHAEL SRAGOW book­world@wash­post.com Michael Sragow is the West Coast editor and on­line film critic for Film Com­ment and the author of “Vic­tor Flem­ing: An Amer­i­can Movie Master.”

In Billy Wilder’s post­war-Ber­lin com­edy, “A For­eign Af­fair,” Mar­lene Di­et­rich plays a night­club singer who once shared her bed with a high-rank­ing Nazi and let Hitler kiss her hand. Her cur­rent lover, an Amer­i­can of­fi­cer, asks, “How much of a Nazi were you, any­way?” She re­sponds: “What does it mat­ter, a woman’s pol­i­tics? Women pick out what­ever’s in fash­ion and change it like a spring hat.”

Di­et­rich could play that role with rel­ish and im­bue it with ironic elan partly be­cause off-screen she was an adamant anti-Nazi who be­came an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen and a tire­less booster of the Al­lied war ef­fort. Her “For­eign Af­fair” char­ac­ter was closer to Leni Riefen­stahl, who grad­u­ated from star­ring in “moun­tain” films (and di­rected one of her own, “The Blue Light”) to cre­at­ing the Nazi pro­pa­ganda epic “Tri­umph of the Will.”

Ger­man his­to­rian Karin Wieland presents both th­ese women in an ag­ile bi­og­ra­phy ti­tled “Di­et­rich & Riefen­stahl.” It de­picts Riefen­stahl as an am­bi­tious artiste who aimed to achieve suc­cess by any route, Hitler or Hol­ly­wood — and found that Hitler proved the bet­ter fit. She em­braced “Mein Kampf ” and be­friended its author. She re­moved Jewish col­leagues’ names from her di­rec­to­rial de­but and later used Gypsy con­cen­tra­tion-camp in­mates as ex­tras. As Wieland puts it: “Hitler was not a tem­po­ral power in her eyes; he was a mirac­u­lous, in­ex­pli­ca­ble phe­nom­e­non. The artist-ruler Hitler cre­ated a world for which Riefen­stahl, as his court-artist, pro­vided the vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”

“Di­et­rich & Riefen­stahl” was orig­i­nally sub­ti­tled “Der Traum von der neuen Frau.” “The dream of the new woman” sum­ma­rizes this book’s hyp­notic power. It fo­cuses on two young women from tra­di­tional homes who carved out ground­break­ing ca­reers and main­tained un­con­ven­tional pri­vate lives with sim­i­lar au­dac­ity. Both jug­gled mul­ti­ple lovers; the bi­sex­ual Di­et­rich also mar­ried early, raised a daugh­ter and sup­ported her never-di­vorced hus­band through­out their lives. But Di­et­rich and Riefen­stahl di­verged on the cru­cial civic and moral de­ci­sion of their day: to back Hitler or re­nounce him.

In her own white­wash­ing mem­oir, pub­lished in the United States in 1992, Riefen­stahl de­clared that she was ig­no­rant of Na­tional So­cial­ism’s anti-Semitic poli­cies and stayed in­de­pen­dent of the party’s ide­ol­ogy even af­ter the Nazis seized power. Six­teen years later, Steven Bach’s bi­og­ra­phy “Leni” used the rec­ol­lec­tions of con­tem­po­raries and his­tor­i­cal records to take apart her myth of po­lit­i­cal naivete.

Wieland isn’t as bril­liant a pros­e­cu­tor as Bach, and she doesn’t im­me­di­ately zero in on the di­rec­tor’s fas­cist ten­den­cies. But Wieland’s pa­tient de­pic­tion of girls com­ing of age be­tween world wars has its own sneak-at­tack power. You are fas­ci­nated as Riefen­stahl suc­cumbs to the Nazi prom­ise of Ger­man force. You are ap­palled as she de­cides that “only the ad­mi­ra­tion and sup­port of the om­nipo­tent dic­ta­tor would be suit­able for her ge­nius.”

Early on, Riefen­stahl as­pired to be a star­let in the world of “ex­pres­sive dance.” A knee in­jury thwarted her. What con­tin­ued to dis­tin­guish her per­for­mances, though, were strength and phys­i­cal beauty — the qual­i­ties she dis­played as an out­door ad­ven­ture star in films like “The White Hell of Pitz Palu.”

Di­et­rich found her niche in Weimar Ber­lin’s boom­ing the­atri­cal bo­hemia, which “mim­icked and mocked high so­ci­ety” while top­pling sex­ual norms. She in­stinc­tively and imag­i­na­tively fit into its cabaret cul­ture. She as­sem­bled sig­na­ture props, such as a mon­o­cle, us­ing this “former sym­bol of class su­pe­ri­or­ity as an ac­ces­sory for a femme fa­tale who knew the wishes and rules of men and would not let any gen­tle­man play her for a fool.”

The Vi­enna-born Amer­i­can di­rec­tor Josef von Stern­berg sensed Di­et­rich’s po­ten­tial and turned her into a tan­ta­liz­ing cam­era sub­ject as Lola-Lola, the amoral, pre­ma­turely world-weary club singer in “The Blue An­gel.” Di­et­rich sky­rock­eted to in­ter­na­tional fame. Von Stern­berg be­came her artis­tic guru and lover.

As the nar­ra­tive bounces be­tween Ber­lin and Hol­ly­wood, Wieland deftly por­trays Di­et­rich and von Stern­berg as the Trilby and Sven­gali of the movies. They cre­ated films that ranged from the erotic mile­stone of “Morocco” to the mes­mer­iz­ing camp of “Shang­hai Ex­press” un­til their amorous and cre­ative part­ner­ship wore thin and fol­lies like “The Scar­let Em­press” alien­ated their au­di­ences. Wieland gets some de­tails wrong, and her taste is high­fa­lutin’. She doesn’t re­al­ize that Di­et­rich’s sen­sa­tional come­back film, Ge­orge Mar­shall’s “Destry Rides Again,” is a com­edy. But Wieland does un­der­stand that Di­et­rich took every­thing she learned from von Stern­berg and em­ployed it spirit­edly for other au­teurs.

Mean­while, Riefen­stahl hitched her­self to Hitler’s dark star. “Tri­umph of the Will,” her chron­i­cle of the 1934 Nurem­berg Party Rally, em­ployed rhyth­mic edit­ing and mas­sive com­po­si­tions to achieve an over­whelm­ing vis­ceral ef­fect. It also epit­o­mized what Mi­lan Kun­dera calls “to­tal­i­tar­ian kitsch,” which ban­ishes “ev­ery dis­play of in­di­vid­u­al­ism . . . ev­ery doubt . . . all irony.”

By depict­ing the Third Re­ich as a sub­lime set­ting for the 1936 Olympics, “Olympia” also func­tioned as Nazi pro­pa­ganda. But in this film, Riefen­stahl’s love for ath­letes tran­scended her po­lit­i­cal in­tent. She re­spected them as in­di­vid­u­als and, be­tween shots of her beam­ing Führer, re­sponded to their feats with knock­out artistry.

Wieland’s writ­ing can be too ab­stract. She says that when Di­et­rich died in 1992, “the im­age out­lived her; art had pre­vailed,” and when Riefen­stahl died in 2002, “death had re­leased her from art.” Such state­ments are more melo­dra­matic than il­lu­mi­nat­ing.

Wieland sees both women as pris­on­ers of their art. In this bi­og­ra­pher’s view, “Mar­lene Di­et­rich” — the ide­al­ized im­age of her­self — be­came Di­et­rich’s true mas­ter­piece. In old age she re­fused to un­der­cut it by go­ing out or be­ing pho­tographed. Riefen­stahl’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to cap­ture pri­mal beauty with so­phis­ti­cated tech­niques, whether shoot­ing African tribes or un­der­wa­ter species, be­came a form of es­capism — a way to evade ques­tions about her past.

Bach wrote in “Leni” that there was lit­tle “mean­ing­ful com­par­i­son” be­tween the beloved star and the no­to­ri­ous di­rec­tor. Wieland’s book proves him wrong. She uses th­ese two vir­tu­osos’ lives to gen­er­ate pierc­ing in­sights about am­bi­tion, ego, cre­ativ­ity and the life-chang­ing, world-al­ter­ing reper­cus­sions of a mo­men­tous choice.

HAR­VARD ART MU­SE­UMS/BUSCH-REISINGER MU­SEUM, GIFT OF LUFTHANSA

From left, ac­tress Mar­lene Di­et­rich, ac­tress Anna May Wong and di­rec­tor Leni Riefen­stahl at the Ber­lin Ball in 1928.

DI­ET­RICH & RIEFEN­STAHL Hol­ly­wood, Ber­lin, and a Cen­tury in Two Lives By Karin Wieland Trans­lated from the Ger­man by Shel­ley Frisch Liveright. 612 pp. $35

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