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Leni Riefenstahl

BookPage,  March 2007


A woman who played a commanding role in one of history’s darkest chapters, Leni Riefenstahl—Hitler’s favorite filmmaker—went on to deftly rewrite her own history. But lies have a way of catching up with liars. In a pair of new biographies, Riefenstahl, perhaps the single most controversial filmmaker who ever lived, has been found out. Moreover, Jürgen Trimborn’s newly translated Leni Riefenstahl: A Life, first published in 2002 in Germany, and Steven Bach’s Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl share a common theme: To know Riefenstahl is not necessarily to love her or even like her.

So why read about her? Because Riefenstahl, who died at age 101 in 2003, remains one of the most fascinating and important figures of the 20th century. Uncompromising in her personal and professional lives, Riefenstahl used her forceful persona and the politics of the day to further a career that enshrined the Führer and celebrated the strength of the Nazi party. In doing so, she forever expanded the scope of documentary filmmaking. No filmmaker has been more adept at evoking powerful persuasive images than the Third Reich’s Riefenstahl. Any stunningly produced TV or film project about sports is indebted to her aesthetics, including her superb editing skills. Feature filmmakers as diverse as Orson Welles and George Lucas have been influenced by her.

As to which of the two books to read, it depends on your interest. Trimborn is an authority on films of the Third Reich, and his tome is the most assured in examining Riefenstahl’s climb and eventual lofty berth in pre-war and wartime Germany. Trimborn also had the benefit of having interviewed Riefenstahl; at one point he even thought his book would have her cooperation. (He ultimately realized this was not to be, as Riefenstahl’s version of the truth detracted from other versions.) Still, he gives Riefenstahl her artistic due, even tracing her latter years in which she became an acclaimed still photographer. But Trimborn’s translated text isn’t as smooth nor as easily enjoyed as that of Bach. As the biographer of Marlene Dietrich and Moss Hart, and former head of worldwide production for United Artists, which led to his first book, Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists, Bach’s Leni also has a cinematic edge, complete with revelations about Riefenstahl’s secret dealings with Hollywood.

What is underscored by both books is that Riefenstahl was a fiercely independent woman driven by the need to succeed, whatever the cost. A superb lifelong athlete, she parlayed her physicality into an early career as an expressionist dancer. When an injury cut short the dance, she turned to acting—though she would go on to deny a particular bare-breasted bit player role. (Bach offers photographic proof of her undraped participation in Ways to Strength and Beauty.) It was the mountain film, a popular German genre involving nature themes and alpine locales, that enshrined Riefenstahl’s athleticism and beauty, and led to her interest in working behind the camera.

Her life took a fateful turn after she heard Hitler speak at a National Socialist rally in Berlin in 1932. She daringly wrote him a letter to request a meeting. As she later admitted, “I had been infected, no doubt about it.” As her Jewish filmmaking colleagues fled the country, their names erased from film credits, she went on to chronicle Hitler’s rise. Then came her much-studied propaganda spectacle, “Triumph of the Will,” and “Olympia,” her groundbreaking salute to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.

At war’s end, Reifenstahl was more concerned about the ownership of her films than what had transpired under Hitler. She also downplayed her relationship with him and his regime, claiming ignorance of the horrors of the Holocaust. Trimborn and Bach provide documentation to the contrary (including her presence at the Polish front, where she witnessed a Jewish massacre). There is also a thorough examination of her use of Gypsies, found at a forced labor camp, as film extras. Many went on to die at Auschwitz.

Riefenstahl shrewdly used the courts—and litigation—to protect her name and reputation. She claimed she was the one being persecuted. She also went on to be alternately celebrated and damned by film critics and film societies, even as they introduced her work to new generations. (In film schools, the study of Riefenstahl’s work is de rigeur.) Ever-searching artistically, she was doing underwater photography while in her 90s (after having learned to scuba dive at 71). If her moral conflicts were minimal, her artistry knew no limits.

As to which of the two books to read, it depends on your interest.... What is underscored by both is that Riefenstahl was a fiercely independent woman driven by the need to succeed, whatever the cost.