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(1902 - 2003)





March 25, 2007

Reich Star





The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl.

By Steven Bach.

Illustrated. 386 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.



A Life.

By Jürgen Trimborn. Translated by Edna McCown.

Illustrated. 351 pp. Faber & Faber. $30.


BRAZEN shout from long trumpets held high at the angle of a Hitler salute. Cut to medium close-up of young Aryan faces with puffed cheeks. Dolly back as two new biographies of Leni Riefenstahl appear virtually at once. Jürgen Trimborn’s book, well translated from the German by Edna McCown, has the better pictures. Steven Bach’s book, backed up by his deep personal experience as a high-echelon film executive handling dingbat directors, has the better text. Though neither book is precisely adulatory, put them together and they add up to an awful lot of attention. She might be dead, but she won’t lie down.

The same was true for much of the time she was still alive. Born in 1902, she lived for more than a hundred years. In less than half that time, she acquired a brilliant reputation. But she had to spend the rest of her life mounting a posthumous defense of it.

Already nationally famous in the pre-Nazi period as an actress and director, in the Nazi period she grew world famous by giving the new, globally ambitious political movement a screen image of overwhelming authority, glamorous even to those who sensed its evil.

Some spectators thought even at the time that her cinematic gift had served to legitimize a murderous ideology, but almost nobody belittled her artistic talent. She was thus able, when the Nazis lost, to invoke the principle that art trumps politics. Photographed too often with her raised hand pointed in Hitler’s direction, quoted too often on the subject of his transformative vision, she was unable to deny that she had held her mentor in high regard, but she never stopped denying until her long-postponed last gasp that she had ever known much about what the Nazis were really up to. She had been too busy being a great artist.

To make this line stick, she had the help of her two big movies from the 1930s, “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia.” Though the first now stands revealed

as a gruesomely choreographed hymn to naked power and the second spends too much of its time weighing sport down with a neoclassic gravitas that feels like being hit over the head with the Parthenon, there were, even after the end of the Thousand Year Reich’s 12-year run, plenty of knowledgeable critics in the victorious democracies who called her portentous epics masterpieces. For her cinéaste admirers, the aesthetics left the ethics nowhere. It seemed a fair guess that anyone so wrapped up in creating an imaginary world would be bound to miss the odd detail about what was going on in the real one. The Holocaust? Forget about it.

To assist in the forgetting, Leni also had the help of her histrionic abilities, which might never have been subtle but were always in a good state of training, because there had rarely been a moment of her conscious life when she had not shown her emotions as the only way of having them. (In her early phase as a film star, she hammed it up even in the stills.) She would act indignant when she was asked an awkward question. If you asked it again, she would storm out, fall down, shriek, weep.

Above all, however, she had the help of time. After the trap-door stopped rattling and banging at Nuremberg, it got harder and harder to find a Nazi with a famous name. The ones in Argentina had unlisted telephone numbers. But Leni Riefenstahl’s new shyness was all a pose. She had a way of hiding only where she could be found, and she never ceased to assure the world that although she and Hitler had spent a lot of time talking in private, she never knew anything about what was happening to the Jews.

More than half a century went by and she was still there, popping up at film festivals to keep her cinematic legend in trim, conspicuously disappearing into Africa to build a new career as a photographer, steadily acquiring the validation that comes automatically with endurance. “What am I guilty of?” The martyred look that went with that refrain made it seem as if the suffering had all happened to her. (The dogged Trimborn, a professor at the University of Cologne, is especially good at tracking her through a final phase that lasted longer than the Pleistocene.) She showed no remorse, saying that she had no reason to. Those who were all too well aware that she did have reason to died off faster than she did, so finally there were whole new generations to take her genius for granted.

We might as well do the same, because over the question of her talent it isn’t worth fighting a battle. Among the people who run the movie business anywhere in the world, women are a minority even today, and still under pressure to exercise feminine wiles. When the lowly born Leni was starting out, the minority, even in go-ahead Weimar Germany, was the merest handful. Luckily for her, she had feminine wiles to burn: until she was old and gray, she met few men who didn’t fall for her on the spot. It could be said that she had looks and energy but no real brain. The evidence was overwhelming that she didn’t need one.

As a young actress, she was so beautiful that other women could find nothing bad to say about her except that her eyes were too close together. But her acting on screen was strictly frown, laugh, bubble and jump. She made it as a star because she was good at climbing rocks. There was a whole genre of German movies about clambering around daringly at high altitude. In a string of mountain pictures including “The White Hell of Pitz Palu,” Leni proved that she could do that stuff without a double. There was no peak, however vertiginous, that she could not sprint to the top of wearing very few clothes. On the other hand, there was no director, however illustrious, whom she could not hurl herself beneath wearing no clothes at all. Or at least she gave him the illusion that she might: a power of suggestion that we can usefully regard as her most persuasive thespian gift.

FIXED on becoming a director herself, she applied the same gift when bending producers and studio bigwigs to her triumphant will. Her real originality was in setting her sights high, up there where the men were making the decisions. All the right potentates duly succumbed to her allure. “I must meet that man” was an exhortation often on her lips. Before the Nazis came to power, some of the men she felt compelled to meet were Jews. Afterward, none of them were. It could be said that she never came out as an anti-Semite, but it could also be said that there is a green cheese moon.

Made on the eve of the Weimar Republic’s final agony, her film “The Blue Light” — she was producer, director, writer, editor and star — drew less than universal acclaim. She blamed the Jewish critics. After the Nazis came to power, her co-writer and co-director on the movie, Bela Balazs, was too insistent about getting paid. Balazs was a Jew. She had his name removed from the credits to render the film judenfrei, and eventually found a sure-fire way to keep him out of the picture permanently. She turned his name over to Julius

Streicher. To defuse the significance of an act like that, it wouldn’t be enough to call her ignorant. You would have to call her an idiot. Everybody knew what Streicher stood for. Gauleiter of Franconia, editor of the lethally scurrilous Nazi weekly Der Stürmer, he was the most famous Jew-baiter in Germany.

But she had a bigger buddy than Streicher. Hitler had liked “The Blue Light,” so when she once again said “I must meet that man” her wish was easily answered. Coy for the rest of her endless life on the subject of whether she threw him one, she always wanted it to be thought that only his total dedication to the cause held him back. Given her track record with men, the mere fact that she spent time alone with him was enough to confer on her all the power of the Führer’s public darling. (Hardly anybody knew about Eva Braun. Everybody knew about Leni.) She was given full access to film the 1934 party rally at Nuremberg. After six months of editing — possessing almost no sense of story, she invariably had to dig her movies out of a mountain of footage — the finished product appeared in 1935 as “Triumph of the Will.”

Hitler loved the movie. Critics who still feel the same way are apt to underrate the part played by Albert Speer, who came up with the lighting and décor all on his own. The camera had to look up at Hitler because Speer put him there. But Leni undoubtedly did a thorough job of making what was already frighteningly impressive look more frighteningly impressive still. If 10,000 men marching in lock-step turn you on, Leni could make them look like 20,000.

The top Nazis were delighted. They included Joseph Goebbels, whom Leni, after the war, found it expedient to characterize as a dangerous enemy jealous of his bailiwick as the supreme studio executive nominally in charge of Nazi movies. In fact Goebbels, generously overlooking her rejection of his advances — and for the idea that he ever made a pounce, we have only her notoriously unreliable word — thought highly of her artistic prowess, blowing his top only when she showed signs, in his view, of spending the Reich’s money as if it were her own. (Bach, who wrote “Final Cut,” the best-ever book about a film director — Michael Cimino of “Heaven’s Gate” — on the rampage, is especially good on the subject of how Leni treated a budget as the merest letter of intent.)

After “Triumph of the Will,” the road was open for Leni to do what she wanted. What she wanted was to turn the 1936 Berlin Olympics into a celluloid masterpiece. By far her most palatable cinematic achievement, “Olympia” was, and remains, crucial to her later reputation. Even more crucial is that the film is not notably a Nazi one. Hitler the arch-nationalist didn’t enjoy being stuck with staging an international event, but while he was at it he had enough sense to go light on the ideology. Few restrictions were placed on what Leni could film. Not many Jewish athletes were there to be filmed anyway, but there were black athletes present, and one of them was Jesse Owens, whom Leni didn’t hesitate to caress with her lenses as if he were a godlike figure.

SHE wasn’t having a thing with Owens. She was having that with another American, the decathlete Glenn Morris, whom she obliged to add an 11th discipline to his event. But she filmed Owens with loving appreciation. It’s a shameful consideration that no Hollywood director would have been encouraged to do the same, at the time. Owens in repose looked lovely anyway, and on the move he was poetic, but it took a fine eye and a lot of knowledge to get the poetry on film, and Leni knew how to do that with him and with many another athlete. It was only logical for the camera to climb the tower with the diver, for example, but she figured out how to do it.

Susan Sontag later made a serious mistake in arguing that “Olympia” was entirely steeped in fascist worship of the beautiful body. But it’s nature that worships the beautiful body. Fascism is natural. That’s what’s wrong with it: it’s nothing else. Despite the too often prevailing calisthenic mass maneuvers, as if Busby Berkeley had met Praxiteles, much of the reputation “Olympia” has for beauty can thus safely be endorsed, but always with the proviso that a lot of the athletic events were beautiful anyway, and that her technical inventions for capturing them would eventually suffer the fate of all technical inventions and be superseded: everything she did in Berlin in 1936 was topped by what Kon Ichikawa did in Tokyo in 1964. Nevertheless, Leni, with her raw material handed to her on a plate, and unhampered by those requirements of invented narrative that she could never manage, had made quite a movie for its time.

IN November 1938, Leni, who had probably always had one eye on Hollywood, flew the Nazi flag to America. She had every reason to expect that she was heading for a big welcome, and she initially had the beginnings of one, but five days after her ship docked in New York, Kristallnacht happened in Germany. If ever there was a time to play the artist, that was it. But she blew the scene with what she said. She said that nothing had happened, and that to suggest such a thing was a slander.

Walt Disney gave her a tour of his studios, but the rest of Hollywood gave her the freeze. Almost nobody else in America except Henry Ford even invited her for drinks. Back in Germany, she reported to Goebbels, who was suitably indignant on behalf of his thwarted artist. “The Jews,” he wrote in his diary, “rule by terror and bribery.” When the Nazi counterterror against the Jews went rolling into the East, Leni, in sole command of her own film unit, was along for the ride, but she saw something in Poland that stopped her in her tracks, even if it didn’t stop the Nazis. She was accidentally present at a mass shooting in the town square of Konskie. According to her later testimony — or rather, according to the lack of it — she was the only eyewitness to the occasion who managed not to notice that all the victims were Jews. Nevertheless, she was photographed looking distraught.

As a general rule, any expression on Leni’s face when a camera was pointing in her direction was adopted at her own command, but in this case it might have been possible that her distress was genuine. Whatever the truth of this permanently controversial moment, however, it seems probable that Leni, when she next saw Hitler, asked permission to be excused from the war. She didn’t opt out of the Nazi Party’s inexorable conquest of the world — she was there to film Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw, the only time he lent his presence to such an event — but she never again went near a battle. Instead, she resumed filming “Tiefland,” the dramatic blockbuster that she had abandoned after the Nazis came to power. Here was the chance for her to prove, to the full satisfaction of her postwar admirers, that she was indeed an artist who had no knowledge of what the Nazis were really doing.

Once again she blew it. Financed on a no-budget basis at Hitler’s personal orders, “Tiefland” had unlimited resources, including an infinitely flexible schedule. Bach, no doubt still haunted by memories of Michael Cimino’s plausible extravagance, is well set to evoke the consequences, one of which wasn’t funny at all. Her pet project needed some Spanish-looking extras, so Leni shipped in some Gypsies from a holding camp where they were waiting for a train to Auschwitz. In 1982, long after the war, the tirelessly litigious Leni sued a documentary maker who suggested that she had known about Auschwitz. She probably didn’t know. But she certainly did know that she was employing forced labor; and her claim that she met almost all of the extras after the war was a flat lie.

She lied about everything. She just went on lying until people got tired, or old, or died. One of her most telling lies was the one she told about Streicher. She said that she had loathed him. But there is preserved correspondence to prove that she invited his company and treated him as a close friend until quite late in the war. The idea that Streicher would never mention to her what was happening to the Jews is preposterous. He was proud of it, and was eventually hanged for it.

Leni, although she never managed regret, had enough sense to feign ignorance. But one of her closer questioners got the admission out of her that really mattered. He was Budd Schulberg. His famous days as a screenwriter were still ahead of him, but he would never dream up a neater scene than the one he played out with Leni when he interviewed her in 1945, shortly after her arrest by American soldiers. After unrolling her usual impatient rigmarole about having known nothing about any Nazi atrocities, Leni made the mistake of saying that she sometimes, against her will, had to do what Goebbels wanted, because she was afraid of being sent to a concentration camp. Schulberg asked why she should have been afraid of that, if she didn’t know that concentration camps existed.

So there was the whole story. For anyone with a memory for recent events, the question of Leni’s moral status was settled. What came next, stretching on to the end of the millennium and now beyond, was the question of her artistic stature, supposedly a different thing. She built another career photographing tribesmen in Africa, and then another one, filming life below the waves in yet another new role as the oldest diver in the world. And as the people with a memory for the real world grew fewer, those who knew about nothing except the movies gradually redefined the issue.

At the end of the first “Star Wars” movie, George Lucas copied the ambience of “Triumph of the Will” with no apparent sense of how he was really proving that the cause in which Luke Skywalker and his friends had just triumphed could not have been worth fighting for. Lucas wasn’t alone: Trimborn does a useful job of rounding up the unusual suspects. Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and Madonna all enrolled themselves on the growing list of Leni’s fans. So did Siegfried and Roy. Francis Ford Coppola said he admired her. Steven Spielberg said he wanted to meet her. If he had made “Schindler’s List” 10 times, he could not have undone the portent of such a wish, because he was really saying that there can be art without a human framework, and that a movie can be made out of nothing but impressive images. Some of Leni’s images were indeed impressive. But the question is never about whether or not you are impressed. The question is about whether you can keep your head when you are. Leni Riefenstahl was impressed by the Nazis, and look what happened.

Clive James’s latest book, “Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts,” has just been published.



March 11, 2007




She overlooked the evils and emphasized the romance of Nazi power.


By Richard Schickel


Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl
Steven Bach
Alfred A. Knopf: 386 pp., $30

Leni Riefenstahl was a slut. Steven Bach is too graceful a writer and too nuanced a psychologist to summarize this life so bluntly, but, for the reader of his brilliant biography of the Nazi filmmaker, that conclusion is inescapable.

We are not speaking primarily of her sexual life, though it was relentlessly busy (her taste ran to hunky jock types and, equally, to men who could advance her career). That epithet applies also to her blind — and blinding — ambition. There was no one she would not try to seduce, in one way or another, in pursuit of fame, fortune and power — including, of course, smitten, impotent Adolf Hitler, who was über alles among her admirers.

With "Triumph of the Will" (about the Nazi party rally at Nuremberg in 1934) and "Olympiad" (about the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games), Riefenstahl, it's not an exaggeration to say, created almost every significant visual image that we now retain of National Socialism in all its evil pomp. Later, when the Thousand-Year Reich turned out to have a rather shorter life span than its propagandists predicted and she lived rather longer than normal (she died at the age of 101 in 2003), she devoted most of her energy to litigious self-justification of her years as Hitler's willing executioner of imagery. In essence, she fought her 58-year defensive battle in the same way that she had pursued her more meteoric advance to global fame — under the flag of artistic purity. As she would have it, she aspired only to the sublime, and that shining light blinded her to rumors of concentration camps, Gestapo torture chambers and the gas ovens.

Riefenstahl claimed, probably truthfully, that she was never a Nazi party member and evaded the worst punishments of the postwar denazification process, though she never again made a significant film. Over these later years, she attracted the support of gaga cinephiles, who inanely insisted, as one of them put it, that "politics and art must never be confused." It is biographer Bach's business to demolish that nonsense while also creating an almost novelistically compelling narrative of a life endlessly obfuscated by lies.

The daughter of a plumber, Riefenstahl began her public life as an "interpretive" dancer in the Modernist vein and then did a turn (which she later denied) dancing semi-nude in the film "Ways to Strength and Beauty." She achieved eminence first as a star, then as a director, of "mountain films," a popular, peculiarly Germanic genre in which wild, primitive people dare to scale beautiful yet menacing Alpine peaks, achieving death and transfiguration at the end of their exertions. At the time, most people viewed these movies as escapist, though Siegfried Kracauer (a mere critic at the time, not yet the eminent historian of German film he would become) saw in these films something "symptomatic of an antirationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize."

There was perhaps more to it than that. As Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal essay "Fascinating Fascism," the mountain films offered "a visually irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führer-worship." The would-be Führer saw this. And Riefenstahl, his would-be acolyte, was paying attention too. She read "Mein Kampf" and, typically, pressed that noxious rant upon a Jewish lover, saying, "Harry, you must read this book. This is the coming man."

Adolf and Leni were mutually enthralled from the moment they met — to the point that the world's tabloid press kept ludicrously hinting at a sexual liaison. They had something better; they were soul mates. To her dying day, she insisted that "Triumph of the Will" was cinéma vérité, a morally neutral record of a great historical event. But Albert Speer, Hitler's kept architect, was essentially her art director, the occasion was staged with her camera positions always in mind, and the film was financed entirely with government funds. The same was true of her Olympic film. She always claimed that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, was her enemy, but Bach is particularly good at unraveling that whopper. Goebbels resented her direct line to Hitler — she was the only German director not obliged to submit to his dictates — but their squabbles were mainly bureaucratic, and Goebbels' diary entries about her are mostly admiring.

Why would they have been otherwise? "Triumph" and "Olympiad" celebrate the official Nazi message: "Strength Through Joy." The former offers heroic shots of young Aryans larkishly bathing in their encampments before assembling into impressive masses, their individuality welded into anonymous yet strangely glamorous menace. The Olympic movie was more in the spirit of the mountain films: In company with a beamish Hitler, gorgeous and graceful athletes (Leni, incidentally, was having an affair with an American decathlon winner) idealistically strain for metaphorical mountaintops. The "purity" of their efforts sends an anti-intellectual, or blood and iron, message to sausage-stuffed flatlanders — and, of course, to Jews, who were viciously scorned by Goebbels and company.

In short, Riefenstahl's two major films aestheticized and romanticized fascist values. The dazzling geometries of masses on the march may have been in the cinematic air just then: Look for Riefenstahl's sources in Busby Berkeley's musical extravaganzas as well as in the 1932 German communist film "Kuhle Wampe" (co-written by Bertolt Brecht). But backed by the full faith and credit of an evil government providing thousands of malleable extras, she could provide grand spectacle on an unprecedented scale. Why Riefenstahl's work would continue to impress critics — even Sontag, Riefenstahl's most implacable critical enemy, calls them the two greatest documentaries ever made — is a mystery, given the corruption of their origins and the fact that they are visibly not documentaries at all.

With world war looming, the international film community was titillated but ultimately shunned Riefenstahl's gifts while her chief patron was, shall we say, distracted by more pressing matters. She was a silent witness to an atrocity in Poland early in the war (though she later claimed to have protested the massacre), and during the filming of "Tiefland" blithely employed as extras some Gypsy slave laborers who later perished in death camps. It was a sort of neo-mountain film, personally financed by Hitler but released after the war to a numbed response. By then, she was fighting tigerishly to distance herself from Hitler, though Bach has uncovered much damning gush from her to him. At the end of her life, Riefenstahl discovered a primitive African tribe, the Nubia, and found in them the noble savagery she had celebrated in the Alpine films. She published a beautiful, disturbing picture book about them which had a certain rehabilitative effect on her reputation — though not for Bach or this reader.

It is difficult to overpraise Bach's efforts: Living the biographer's nightmare, trapped for a decade with a loathsome subject, Bach is determined to present her coolly, ironically, without loss of his own moral vector. What emerges is a compulsively readable and scrupulously crafted work, not unlike Klaus Mann's "Mephisto," that devastating novel about the actor Gustav Gründgens, another of Hitler's several semiconscious cultural ornaments-apologists. I do not believe this fundamentally ignorant woman ever perceived the inherent evil in Nazism. Her anti-Semitism was less virulent than reflexive — the common coin of many realms (including the United States) at the time. The disguise she wrapped around her ambition was that absurd, often unpleasant and peculiarly European one of the Grand Maestro, all art for art's sake — hysteria and narcissism mixed with contempt for her collaborators, grandiose graciousness to her groveling fans and patrons, and a talent that was all technique, no soul. She stood deluded at the center of evil and saw it only as a source of funding.

Bach ends his book with a quotation from Simone Weil: "The only people who can give the impression of having risen to a higher plane, who seem superior to ordinary human misery, are people who resort to the aids of illusion, exaltation, fanaticism, to conceal the harshness of destiny from their own eyes. The man who does not wear the armor of the lie cannot experience force without being touched by it to his very soul."

Which brings me back to the point at which I began. Leni Riefenstahl used and was used heedlessly and amorally. That would have been true even if she had functioned in a liberal democracy, where she would have acted just as she did in Hitler's Germany, insisting that her aspirations were for only the finest things. What she received for her efforts were the metaphorical mink coats and diamond bracelets of the whoredom that never speaks its name — because it cannot imagine the word applying to an artiste of such impeccable idealism.

Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography" and "The Essential Chaplin."



Sunday, March 25, 2007


Riefenstahl Made Hitler's Films; New Biographies Ask: Did She Share His Beliefs?

Reviewed by Saul Austerlitz


Leni Riefenstahl

A Life

By Jürgen Trimborn, translated by Edna McCown




The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl

By Steven Bach

KNOPF; 386 PAGES; $30


Riefenstahl's life in the service of the false began with honorable intentions. Having trained as a dancer, young Leni, in her debut performance, sparked predictions of an illustrious career to come. A few months later, Riefenstahl's dancing career came to an abrupt end when she injured her left knee. Casting a restless eye around, Riefenstahl wangled introductions to the leading figures of the German mountain-film genre -- a Teutonic equivalent to the Western, albeit one weighed down, even in the 1920s, with a proto-fascist sensibility. A master of "impetuous calculation," Riefenstahl turned her attractt-autospace: ideograph-numeric ideograph-other; margin-left: 15px; margin-top: 5px; margin-bottom: 5px"> Riefenstahl's eye for sumptuous imagery was in evidence even at this early date, but some German critics were less than enthusiastic about her work. In what would become a Riefenstahl trademark, she saw evidence of a dark hand in such disapproval. As she noted to film critic Rudolf Arnheim (himself a Jew, soon forced to flee his native country): "As long as Jews are film critics, I'll never have a success. But watch out, when Hitler takes the rudder everything will change." And in fact, Riefenstahl's account of her first meeting with the future German chancellor reveals a near-sexual release, an orgasmic sensation of abandon. "It was as if the earth opened up before me. ... I had been infected, no doubt about it." Hitler, equally smitten, offered the young filmmaker the devil's own deal: "If we come to power, you must make my films."

Riefenstahl's Faustian bargain with the Nazis reaped her, at first, enormous rewards. She was selected by Hitler to film the 1934 Nuremberg rally, "Victory of Faith," seen by an estimated 20 million Germans. When that film was pulled from exhibition after the sudden fall from grace (and murder) of Nazi militia chief Ernst Rohm, another party rally film was called for, and "Triumph of the Will" was born. Neither Trimborn nor Bach expend much time on the details of Riefenstahl's filmmaking, so we get only a minimal understanding of her groundbreaking technique. Most important for Riefenstahl, it was her show, from start to finish, with the entire rally site "transformed into a huge, perfectly organized film studio."

"Triumph of the Will" was rapturously received: by the Nazi Party, by average Germans swayed by the film's treatment of Hitler as a god descended from the clouds to lead them, and by film buffs worldwide. The cold truth of this film, as with the bulk of Riefenstahl's work (with "Olympia" serving as the major exception), is that its perfection is also its downfall. Watch any 10 minutes of "Triumph," and walk away convinced that no filmmaker could ever touch Riefenstahl; watch the whole thing, and the ceaseless parade of flawlessly executed shots and loving close-ups of Hitler is numbing, and horrifying. Charlie Chaplin reportedly based his Hitler parody in "The Great Dictator" on "Triumph," and the impulse seems right. The film is more laughable than brilliant, Riefenstahl's infection having spread to the celluloid she worked on. "Triumph of the Will" did serve, though, as the ultimate vindication of Walter Benjamin's notion that fascism demanded the aestheticization of politics, for here was the brute seizure of power in Germany rendered as inert, orderly spectacle.

Riefenstahl would go on to even greater success as the director of the 1936 Olympics documentary "Olympia" (secretly bankrolled by the National Socialists), but the process of aestheticizing her own politics began even before the war's conclusion. Leni 2.0 was, by her deeply flawed reckoning, a politically indifferent artist, interested only in her art, and never a full-fledged Nazi. Riefenstahl convinced a denazification tribunal but spent the rest of her life fending off (mostly true) accusations of anti-Semitism, Machiavellian machinations and callous indifference to the sufferings of others. She sought, and found, acclaim from cineastes more interested in aesthetics than politics, and American feminists who championed her as a proto-feminist icon. But buried secrets had an unfortunate way of popping back up to the surface. Jewish collaborators whose names had been removed from their cinematic efforts re-emerged, interviewers documented Riefenstahl's remarks decrying a Jewish blacklist against her and, most seriously, Gypsies who had been interned in a Nazi concentration camp accused the director of using them as forced laborers on her film "Tiefland" ("kitsch with castanets," in Bach's assessment).

With all her masks stripped off, Riefenstahl stands bare as what she ultimately was: a shameless collaborator with the Nazis, a risible opportunist who abandoned all her friends and collaborators when it suited her, a vicious anti-Semite and an unrepentant admirer of Hitler's who saw nothing wrong with leaping on the Nazi bandwagon to benefit her own work. Trimborn is the more agitated by Riefenstahl's unapologetic stance, and he works himself into a (completely understandable) tizzy over her bullishness, while Bach assumes that the facts will more than speak for themselves.

In her postwar career, Riefenstahl remade herself as a cinematic elder stateswoman and a photographer of some repute, shooting the Nuba people of Sudan and the lusciously colorful landscapes of the ocean, where she was driven to deep anger by the senseless death of fish. To the last, she insisted she had known nothing of the death camps, or any of the other Nazi horrors. Both of these solid biographies tell the same story, one of enormous ambition, outsize egotism and a life dedicated to propagating a lie. Regardless of her talent, her cinematic bravura or her 60-year effort to whitewash her name, Riefenstahl will ultimately be remembered as exactly what she was: the Nazis' filmmaker. She deserves little more.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of "Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video From the Beatles to the White Stripes."




April 15, 2007

Ruthless ambition

John Carey

LENI: The Life & Work of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach

Little, Brown £25


What the Leni Riefenstahl story inspires is not adulation or anger or contempt, although she aroused plenty of all three, but exasperation at her refusal to acknowledge what she had done. She was 43 when her adored Führer shot himself amid the ruins of the Third Reich, and she lived on until 2002, when she was 101. In all that time she never ceased to protest her innocence. The Nazis, she insisted, had forced her to make films, but they were pure art, not propaganda. She did not have the “slightest idea” about Hitler’s racist policies, and had no contact with any party official except Goebbels, who was “cold and forbidding” towards her. As an artist, she could not be expected to know what was happening in the world at large. These lies are so breathtaking that you wonder how anyone can have believed her. The answer seems to be that several of those who might have testified against her were implicated in her guilt, or dead, while in the chaos at the war’s end vital pieces of evidence disappeared, and have come to light only relatively recently.

Steven Bach’s biography might be called exemplary, except that that word is too cold for the excitement he generates as he dexterously slots together the ugly jigsaw that was Riefenstahl’s career. His book is no witch-hunt. He concedes that she had a tough start in life, which helps to explain her ruthlessness. A plumber’s daughter, born in one of Berlin’s grimmer industrial suburbs, she survived during Germany’s post-first-world-war hyper-inflation by selling picture postcards in tourist cafes. She trained as a dancer, but a knee injury intervened. Undaunted, she learnt to ski and climb and took part in several “alpine” films. These were Nietzschean melodramas, set amid snow and ice, which celebrated heroic idealism and prefigured Nazi master-race aesthetics. The reactions of Jewish critics disappointed her. Jews, she protested, had no right to criticise “our mentality” and had no right to criticise “our work”. As long as there were Jewish film critics, she despaired of having a success. “But watch out. When Hitler takes the rudder everything will change.”

When she read Mein Kampf she was bowled over. It was a “beautiful” book, and its fascist message was utterly convincing. “You'll see, they are right”, she told friends, “I’ll work for them.” At a 1932 Nazi-party rally in Berlin, she got her first sight of the Führer. It was “like being struck by lightning”, an “almost apocalyptic vision”. She wrote to him and was granted a private audience at which, she said, he attempted a romantic embrace. He visited her in her flat, and took her to Goebbels’s house as his guest. She let it be thought she was Hitler’s mistress, because then nobody dared refuse her anything she wanted for her films. Victory of Faith, her film celebrating the 1933 Nuremberg rally, was made in collaboration with Albert Speer, later Hitler’s minister for armaments, and contained a speech by the arch anti-semite Julius Streicher. At the premiere, Hitler presented her with a diva-sized bouquet, and she swooned. His thank-you gift was a grey Mercedes convertible.

Her two later films glorifying Hitler, Triumph of the Will (1934) and Day of Freedom (1935), were, like Victory of Faith, financed entirely by the Nazi party. Nobody dared question the vast sums that Riefenstahl lavished on herself and her projects, since they had the Führer’s personal approval. They typified his sumptuous generosity towards artists he approved of, as outlined in Frederic Spotts’s revelatory book Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2002) — an absentee from Bach’s formidable bibliography. Day of Freedom had the specific propaganda purpose of celebrating Hitler’s rearmament of Germany in repudiation of the Versailles treaty. By contrast, it has been argued, her film of the 1936 Olympics was independently made and free of propaganda. Bach shows that neither claim is true. The film was party-funded, and when Riefenstahl’s extravagance raised charges of embezzlement, she went weeping to the Führer and emerged triumphant. When an official at the games complained that her film crew was impeding an event, she threatened to drag him by the ears to Hitler’s box. The film’s propaganda purpose was to camouflage Germany’s aggressive foreign policy and project a peaceful, health-loving image. To the same end, gypsies and vagrants were rounded up from Berlin’s streets before the games began and relocated on sewage-disposal sites, and “Jews Keep Out” notices were temporarily taken down. The prominence the film gives to Jesse Owens and other black athletes, often cited in its exoneration, was in keeping with Goebbels’s instructions. He calculated, rightly, that it would have a “favourable effect” abroad.

Kristallnacht, two years later, had a less favourable effect. Synagogues throughout Germany were torched, and 30,000 Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps. Riefenstahl, in America at the time hoping for a Hollywood breakthrough, dismissed the press furore as a “slander” on her homeland and on “the greatest man who ever lived”. “If only this damned Jewish question would get out of the headlines,” she snapped, the Americans would soon forget it. In September 1939, her special film unit, financed by the Reich, was on hand to record the conquest of Poland, and in the Polish town of Konskie, she witnessed the killing by German troops of 30 Jewish civilians, who had been forced to dig a mass grave in the town square and had tried to escape. She denied being present, but snapshots taken by a German soldier show that she was there. A year later, when she wanted gypsy extras for a film she was making, she had the gypsy internees in a transit camp paraded before her by the SS guards and chose 23, of whom 15 were children, the youngest 13 months old. They worked unpaid, as forced labour under armed guard, and in strict isolation from the rest of the cast, and were returned to the camp when filming ended. Riefenstahl declared that she saw “nearly all of them” after the war, and nothing happened to “a single one of them”. In fact, it has been proved that nearly all of them perished in Auschwitz.

After the war, her art-photo work among the Nuba people in Sudan was meant to show she was no racist. But, Bach finds, she remained her old exploitative self. She drove her Land Rover over Nuba burial sites, spied on secret rites with a telephoto lens, and displayed near-naked black warriors as curiosities for the West. “Obscene and racist” was the verdict of a scholarly expert on the Nuba, whose help she sought.

Her work for the Nazis did not mean, of course, that she was a monster. It was just that her talents allowed her to do more harm than most of her compatriots. As Bach succinctly puts it, she used the century’s most powerful art form to glorify a murderous dictator. But her worship of Hitler was shared by millions of Germans, otherwise he would have had no power. Her fault was simply that she believed art more important than people, particularly if those people were Jews or gypsies. That belief is still powerful today. It is frequently said that art enshrines our “highest” ideals, or, even more foolishly, that art is “what makes us human”. Those who harbour such illusions would do well to read Bach’s powerful and enlightening book.




April 15, 2007


Hitler's image maker
by Metr Ronnen


Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl
By Steven Bach
400 pages; $30

Leni Riefenstahl: A Life
By Jurgen Trimborn
Translated from the German by Edna McCown
Faber and Faber
368 pages; $26


I have always found it monstrous that the two most self-serving sycophants of the Nazi regime, Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl, should have escaped justice.

True, Speer spent 20 years in Spandau Prison, from which he smuggled out the diaries that helped make him wealthy; much later he died in bed with a young Nazi groupie in a London hotel, the ultimate last laugh.

Speer eventually admitted that he sold his soul to Hitler because it furthered his ambitions as an architect. In 1942 Hitler appointed him armaments minister, and as the second most powerful man in the Third Reich he prolonged the war and his powerful position in it by encouraging Hitler to believe that he was performing production miracles and the war might yet be won. He was directly responsible for causing the needless loss of millions of lives, apart from the lives of the countless slave laborers he worked to death.

Speer, plausible and gentlemanly, saved his neck by convincing the Nuremberg judges that he was one of their class. Leni Riefenstahl, equally good-looking and plausible, saved her neck by pleading that she admired Hitler the man, without ever looking at what he stood for. Yet she had made the brilliant propaganda films that glorified her Führer as the transcendent apotheosis of Nazism, beloved of his people. She died at the age of 103, after a postwar career as a maker of documentaries in Africa, still insistent that she had never espoused Nazism.

More than anyone else, it was Speer and Riefenstahl who created the image of Hitler as Germanicus ascendant. Speer stage-managed the settings of the early Nazi mega-rallies, inventing among other things the ring of hundreds of searchlights that formed a dome of light. Riefenstahl recorded these events with innovative cutting techniques and superb coordination of music and cutting, conducting the music herself to fit the tempo of her images. Hitler was delighted with both of them, and their quite separate careers flourished because of their direct access to him and the budgets he always approved.

WITH THE curious serendipity of publishing, two new biographies of Riefenstahl have just been published. Are they justified? Well, for one thing, Riefenstahl's documentary adulations of Hitler and his Reich now serve to show young Germans, among others, just what the road to war and mass murder was like.

Speer and Riefenstahl were early converts. Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931, and Riefenstahl breathlessly read Mein Kampf after hearing Hitler speak in 1932. She immediately wrote him asking for a meeting.

Hitler, who had admired her looks, acting and the first film she directed, The Blue Light, replied at once and took her for a walk at the seaside. "When we are in power," he said, "you must make my movies." He made a tentative move to take her in his arms and, not getting a reaction, turned aside saying that he was wedded only to Germany's destiny. She told him she did not like his racism. As with so many Riefenstahl stories, the only source for all this is Riefenstahl's corrective and constantly adjusted memoirs. The idea of her challenging Hitler is incredible; all her letters and notes to him are sycophantic in the extreme.

Although she was thrilled by her reading of Mein Kampf, Riefenstahl owed much to early assistance from several of her Jewish lovers. One was Harry Sokal, who was soon to flee Germany and who had taken a risk to help finance The Blue Light. Another Jew, the brilliant Bela Balazs, had reworked the scenario and script, before leaving Germany. The film was rereleased by the Nazis only after his name had been taken off the credits. The first time round, it had been trashed by all the film critics, most of whom were Jews. Things will be different when Hitler takes over, Riefenstahl promised Harry Sokal. Not incidentally, Riefenstahl was a good friend of the ravening anti-Semite Julius Streicher, but later denied it. She used Streicher to avoid paying Balazs his fee.

In her masterly Triumph of the Will, filmed mostly on the zeppelin field at the Nuremberg rally, Riefenstahl created the new face of Germany and its Führer. Later, following her short militarist film on the newly loyal Wehrmacht (which had replaced the SA after the murder of Ernst Rohm), the athletic Riefenstahl in 1935 secured the commission to make the film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was the pinnacle of her career, thanks to the help of a huge crew headed by two brilliant cameramen who were both former lovers. The budget came from Hitler, securing her against any interference from Goebbels. Riefenstahl managed to seduce the American star, Glenn Morris. In her memoirs, he leaps upon her from the winner's podium, kissing her breasts in midfield.

Riefenstahl created her films in the cutting room. She had 250 hours of raw Olympic material out of which, over nearly two years, she put together a film that was praised around the world (and protested by anti-Nazis, as she refused to edit Hitler out of what she insisted were his games). She appeared with Olympia in 19 foreign capitals, all at Nazi expense, and had been anyway handsomely paid as producer-director. Hitler had made her rich.

In 1938 Riefenstahl took Olympia to the United States, but her arrival was followed by the terrible pogroms of Kristallnacht. Hollywood's studios (with the exception of Nazi admirer Walt Disney) would not receive her and distributors would not screen Olympia.

When Hitler invaded Poland, Riefenstahl took a small and specially uniformed film unit to the front, where she was a horrified eyewitness to a massacre of Jews in Konskie at the hands of the Wehrmacht. Her version of the events is picked to pieces in both these books. She then happily joined the victorious Hitler in Danzig. During the war she spent years and Nazi millions working on a new feature film, Tiefland, playing the lead role as a gypsy girl and using gypsies and their children plucked from concentration camps as extras. She later withdrew her claim that she had encountered them all after the war, but the fact was that all but two lost their lives in Nazi camps.

As the Reich crumbled around her, Riefenstahl still insisted on completing the film. It was a failure and she herself realized that she was miscast as the young gypsy heroine.

AS THE Reich began to collapse, so did Leni's world. The day Stauffenberg's bomb exploded in Hitler's conference room, her father died and her beloved younger brother Heinz was blown to unburiable bits on the Russian front. Her sole comfort was her marriage to a dashing Wehrmacht ski instructor, Major Peter Jacob. She had slept with innumerable young men but had avoided falling in love ever since she had been jilted by her ace cameraman, Heinz Schneeberger. But Jacob, though he loved her, was a serial cheat and broke her heart.

Riefenstahl broke down when she heard of Hitler's death; she could not believe he was a suicide. Speer had risked his life to fly into Berlin to take leave of his mentor. But with Hitler dead he wrote, "The scales fell from my eyes." Henceforth Speer would claim that he was guilty only of placing his trust in a mass murderer. Riefenstahl however, never repudiated her Führer, not then and not later. He remained for her the greatest man of his time, if not of all time.

Then she was on the run and tried to follow her first great love Schneeberger and his half-Jewish wife Gisela into the mountains. But she was the last person they wanted to be caught with. She was stunned when Gisela called her a Nazi slut and threw her out.

Riefenstahl was captured in the French zone. Somehow she survived a series of arrests and interrogations by French officers and was eventually classed a "follower," the least invidious form of Nazi and allowed to go free. She fled to the American zone with the ever-helpful Jacob, no longer her husband but termed her handyman. The Americans were friendlier to her than the Germans. In newly anti-Nazi Germany and Austria, she was now a pariah. The Germans knew her better than anyone else.

The remains of her beautiful Berlin villa, built with the reichmarks she had received directly from Hitler, had been confiscated. She retrieved and sold it, using the money to finish and launch her only remaining asset, Tiefland, but by 1954 the film was just a mawkish, old-fashioned stylization - and a flop. The critics were scathing, just as the mostly Jewish ones had been of The Blue Light. Miscast as the young gypsy, Riefenstahl herself was dismayed by her appearance and never acted again.

After turning 71, Reifenstahl found some late life joy and recognition as a maker of documentaries in East Africa and the Sudan and beneath the surface of the Red Sea. Not all the critics liked them; one called the plotless underwater poem Triumph of the Gill.

Riefenstahl admired the handsome Nuba tribe of the Upper Nile and distributed prints of herself joyously hugging very black infants. Africa was a long way from German ostracism, and I suspect that the black infants were also a way of showing that she really wasn't a racist.

In the last decades of her life, she found comfort in the tireless support of a young German Man Friday. Injured when her helicopter was shot down over Sudan, she died shortly afterward aged 103.

Both of these generally similar books are relentlessly critical of Reifenstahl and her constant rewriting of her history, while refuting one self-serving lie after another. Jurgen Trimborn is a German professor of film history. His book is the more concise and has received an excellent translation by Edna McCown. Steven Bach, who has written biographies of Marlene Dietrich and Moss Hart and was once world production chief for United Artists, teaches at Harvard and Bennington. His book is replete with vivid details and further enlivened by many damning photographs.



April 21, 2007

Tied to the sins of her youth

Leni Riefenstahl was charming, brilliant, a staunch friend and the Nazis’ favourite documentary maker. It is not easy to capture her life, Gitta Sereny says


LENI: The Life & Work of Leni Riefenstahl
by Steven Bach

Little, Brown, £25; 400pp £22.50


THE TITLE OF STEVEN BACH’S biography, Leni, is a natural for Leni Riefenstahl readily offered familiarity to whoever came along. “Call me Leni,” she said before I even sat down to talk to her for my book on Albert Speer, with whom she had shared not only a deep interest in art and music but a total devotion to Hitler.

She and “Horsti” — as she called the Sudeten German Horst Kettner, who became her assistant in 1970 when he was 26 to her 66 — had lived together as of 1979 in her enchanting wood-and-glass chalet on the Starnberg Lake.

When I visited her there in 1986, I sensed considerable nostalgia for bygone days, particularly in their obviously shared antiSemitic sentiments. “How can you accuse me of antiSemitism,” she said. “After all,” she added, loading coal on to fire, “I’ve always lived in the film world.”

They were totally at ease talking about their age difference. “Just look at her,” Horst said, slightly overenthusiastically. “She is beautiful as ever, phenomenally multi-talented and she was always fun.”

“He has built us a laboratory,” she said, “and he organises my working life. I couldn’t imagine being without him.”

Of course, actually the age difference was very visible. “Where do you sleep?” I asked Horst a bit naively when, during a tour of the house, I noticed the large bed in the one bedroom, unmade as it was the maid’s day off. “Why, here!” he said sounding puzzled while Leni, standing behind me laughed and, her hand on my back, gently moved me on. Leni often lied in her many interviews, but when she was frank she was very likeable.

Alas, honesty was not her greatest virtue and the descriptions of her private life in her 700-page memoir, published in Britain in 2000, were as much fantasy as fact.

This is not really a problem for Bach, whose Leni is an informative catalogue of an extraordinary woman’s long working life as a dancer, actress and, finally, as the most controversial documentary-maker of the 20th century. However, although Leni offers a lot about her affairs, there is little about the complexity of her personality, which led to her constant search for someone with whom she could not only expand her emotional, physical and creative energy but through whom she could, perhaps, vanquish her worst deficiency, an incapacity for giving total love.

Bach repeatedly lauds her beauty, but identifies only a few of her legion of paramours, beginning when she was 20 with the 39-year-old Olympic tennis star Otto Froitzheim, whom she decided, before even meeting him, should deflower her. Apparently he did — efficiently but not memorably.

But Bach offers little about the sometimes lifelong relationships she formed with some of her early lovers. These included, besides Froitzheim, the producers Harry Sokal and Arnold Fanck, and more importantly Luis Trenker, Germany’s favourite ever-tanned mountain-climbing actor.

Bach acknowledges her love for mountains, one of the principal features of her personality, but, manifestly not liking her, somehow succeeds in making even that — possibly her most honest passion throughout her life — sound self-serving. He gleefully reports that her sleeping around, soon the talk of the film world, earned her a particularly nasty label, as “the nation’s glacial crevasse”. We hear a lot about her ego-centricity, but virtually nothing about her charm, to which I can testify from the lively days I spent with her in 1986.

Albert Speer, whom she met in 1933, was a puritanical man and rejected her advances, as she told me with disarming honesty — she made no secret of having been the initiator in almost all her affairs. “But he became my best friend,” she said. “He was an extraordinarily attractive man and certainly . . . the most interesting man in Germany after Hitler.”

Riefenstahl was admirably frank about the Nazis at a time when most of her surviving compatriots disclaimed them. “When I heard Hitler speak the first time,” she told me, “I became immediately convinced that he could save us from the abyss we seemed to face.” That had been in 1932, shortly after the first showing of her hugely successful first film The Blue Light, which Hitler, too, admired. What did she feel about him, I asked her.

“It’s difficult,” she said. “I can tell you easily what I felt about Goebbels, who drove me crazy for years sniffing around me and begging me to be his ‘second wife’ — disgusting. But Hitler? Certainly, I too, like so many millions, was intoxicated by him. Socially he was charming, very informal, unpretentious . . . Luckily for me, I was not his type: he really only liked ‘little creatures’, you know, first like his niece Geli and then Eva Braun, who both killed themselves for him. People like me, he liked to be seen with. But . . . had he wanted, I suppose I would have become his mistress; it would have been inevitable. I’m so glad he didn’t.”

Bach’s book covers all the main events in her life. Her determination from childhood on to become “somebody”, supported by her beloved mother (rumoured to have Jewish antecedents); her discovery, after seeing two mountain films, of the glory of mountains; the enthusiasm for the Nazis she subsequently denied; and indeed, as she would tell me later, her “love” for Hitler. “Not as a man,” she said, “as the saviour of my country.”

In 1934 she made Triumph of the Will, a paean to Nazism, and in 1938 she made Olympia, suggested by Hitler and financed by Goebbels (but, to her fury, denied distribution in Britain).

Her claims to have cried when she saw the Nazi killings of Jews in a Polish town in September 1939 is confirmed by some who were present. She doesn’t deny her “ Du” relations with the Jew-hater Julius Streicher (though she describes him as “loathsome” in her memoirs!) nor — a remarkable sign of courage in postwar years — her admiration for Hitler.

From 1954 she was busy fighting some of the 50 libel suits that were brought against her and had little time left for photography. But 20 years later she was fully back in public view and, in 1974, her extraordinary pictures of the Nuba tribe made a sensation when they were published worldwide.

Another 20 years later — she was then 92 and would live another nine years — her underwater documentaries, made diving with Horst in the Maldives, reconfirmed her reputation as one of the greatest documentary makers of the century.



Last Updated: 12:01am BST 21/04/2007


The first lady of fascist film

Christopher Bray reviews Leni: the Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach

Goethe said that a poet interested in political influence wasn't a poet. Leni Riefenstahl was hired by Adolf Hitler to glorify the Third Reich on the silver screen.

It sounds like a bad career move, but Riefenstahl, whose obstinately pretty movies had always looked like bad poems, had nothing to lose. Without the Nazi connection, her name would have been long forgotten. As it is, she is film's most famous fascist.

The Third Reich granted Riefenstahl top billing not just because she got to film the biggest show in town, but because it made her the only show in town.

The Nazis outlawed Jews from working in the film industry. Overnight, the bulk of the talent became unavailable. Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Fritz Lang: the list of cinematic big shots who had to skip town is long. Hollywood's golden age wouldn't have been half as golden without Hitler's help.

Riefenstahl was born in Berlin in 1902, and she grew into a leggy lovely keen on dance and gymnastics. In 1923, Max Reinhardt saw her pirouette and promptly signed her up for the Deutsches Theater, but a year later she injured a knee and her dancing days were done.

While recuperating, she chanced on Arnold Fanck's latest picture. Entranced by its mountain scenery, she hunted Fanck down and entranced him in turn. He gave her the lead role in his next movie. Before long, she was involving herself in the camera work and even helping out with the direction.

By 1931, she had set up her own production company, and the next year she directed her first feature, The Blue Light, in which she also starred as an outcast child of nature. At the end she got to die a big death. Hitler, always a sucker for romantic bombast, saw the movie and suggested he and Riefenstahl do business together.

To her last gasp (which came a few weeks after her 101st birthday, in 2003), Riefenstahl insisted she hadn't been a Nazi.

More interestingly, she denied having been morally compromised by working for the Nazis. She bore no responsibility, she always argued, for what went on under Hitler. She had just been making movies.

Well, she would say that, wouldn't she? But, over the years, too many loopy film buffs (and Bryan Ferry) have sided with her. Riefenstahl's aesthetic achievements, they say, have been overlooked because of her links with the Third Reich.

The trouble is, as Steven Bach's meticulous biography reminds us, there were no aesthetic achievements to overlook.

Olympia, her record of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, is little better than an expensive home movie - ponderous, repetitive and arrhythmic.

Triumph of the Will, her film of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, looks a lot like the musicals Busby Berkeley was shooting around the same time, except that it dawdles rather than dances and seems to last almost as long as the thousand-year Reich Hitler believed himself to have just inaugurated.

Sure, the film looks good, but so what? Riefenstahl might have had an eye, but all she had an eye for was Hitler.

Save for its adoring close-ups of her hero, Triumph turns Nuremberg into a distant, abstract flurry. High-angle, long-lens shots compress enormous crowds into the frame. Tiny and squashed, the people making up those crowds look less like human beings than elements in a composition. No wonder Hitler rated Riefenstahl. She made the kind of films he would have made himself.

Its probing of the parallels between aesthetic flim-flam and nationalistic flummery aside, the chief virtue of Bach's book is the evidence it adduces of Riefenstahl's complicity with the Reich. Post-production work on The Blue Light (1932) took place as the Nazis became the biggest single party in the Reichstag.

Riefenstahl, who had been reading Mein Kampf and told a lover "This is the coming man... I must meet that man", had the name of Béla Balázs - her co-writer and director - removed from the credits because he was a Jew. When the movie did less than big business, Riefenstahl was quick to blame Jewish critics.

In 1938, she sailed to America to promote Olympia. Back home, Hitler's men set about torching synagogues and smashing up shops.

Asked to comment on the butchery of Kristallnacht, Riefenstahl pronounced herself shocked at this "slander" on "the greatest man who ever lived".

No less did Hitler adore Riefenstahl. Goebbels, who regarded her as a promiscuous, spendthrift Jew, was forever denouncing her to the boss (the rumours of Riefenstahl's ethnic origins persisted throughout her life and, despite assiduous research, Bach has failed to resolve the confusion).

But the boss wouldn't have any of it. One flutter of those lashes and he was putty. Those women who have claimed Riefenstahl as film's first feminist ought to weep as they read of the waterworks their heroine could turn on whenever her more obvious charms failed to win Hitler round.

After reading Bach's exposé, any exculpatory thoughts you ever had about Riefenstahl as just another victim of history can be safely put to rest. She was an enemy of life, and her deathly movies were but grace notes to her nihilism.

Back in the 1970s, when Riefenstahl was trying to make a new name for herself as a photographer, she told an interviewer she "didn't want to have anything to do with reality". Thanks to Bach's efforts, reality can return the compliment.



Leni: The life and work of Leni Riefenstahl, by Steven Bach

So much talent in the service of pain

By Tom Dewe Mathews

Published: 29 April 2007

Just before America entered the war in 1941 Nelson Rockefeller invited two master film-makers to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to view Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 documentary, Triumph of the Will. The millionaire philanthropist wanted to know if Riefenstahl's obvious support in the film for the Nazis could be turned on its head and through editing be transformed into an anti-Nazi polemic. The Surrealist film-maker Luis Bunuel said the film's spell-binding, processional shots of fluttering flags and swastikas, stamping boots and adoring up-and-under shots of Nazi leaders could not be altered. After Charlie Chaplin came to MOMA a week later, Rockefeller asked the projectionist what the silent comic's reaction had been. Chaplin, apparently, laughed throughout.

These two reactions have framed the debate over Leni Riefenstahl's work: a wary appreciation of cinematic skills devoted to an inappropriate subject, and ridicule for a bombastic style devoted to messianic orators such as Hitler and Josef Goebbels.

But in the first English language biography of Riefenstahl, Steven Bach ventures further to insist that Riefenstahl's skills lent credibility to a horrific regime and that she is therefore morally culpable, if not for the actions of the Nazis, then at least in part for their visceral appeal.

Bach certainly makes the case that Riefenstahl was a sharp-elbowed operator who held a perpetual belief in her own charms and artistic vision. She left a trawl of bruised lovers - some Jewish, later to be disclaimed - in her wake as she clawed up the production ladder as a star of "Alpine" films - a romantic sub-genre that held little appeal outside Germany. By 1933, Reifenstahl's career had stalled and, though she had co-directed one of her mountain melodramas, she was desperately in need of a film subject to maintain her star status. Fortunately for her, she then met Adolf Hitler.

"Once we come to power," he suggested, "you must make my films." She said she couldn't join the Party because "you have racial prejudices." Yet, far from antagonising the would-be dictator, her reply provoked an amorous attack. But the leader noted her coolness and pleaded, "How can I love a woman until I have completed my task?" Hitler's press agent, Ernst Hanfstaengl, who observed one of these romantic interludes between the two, remarked that actually "Leni was giving him the works, a real summer sale of feminine charms" and, if Leni couldn't "manage this, no one can." But Hitler was asexual, as Hanfstaengl suspected, so he wasn't surprised that Leni's advances only threw the Führer "into a panic".

Despite his romantic qualms, Hitler retained a belief in Riefenstahl's cinematic ideas and within a month of becoming Chancellor in January, 1933 he personally gave her the surprising commission of filming the vast Nazi Rally which would take place in Nuremberg the following June. That film, in fact, was a try-out for the next year's rally, which would be filmed under the title of Triumph of the Will. Bach drives home that Riefenstahl knew exactly what was expected of her and her documentary from the new government. In her own words: "The bond between the Führer and the people was of supreme importance. Showing it, expressing it, is one of the tasks I have set myself." In the opinion of Goebbels the film achieved its exact purpose. "It documents the transition of the Party into a State."

Bach, who has written several outstanding studies of Hollywood, expertly explains the cinematic technique which underlies Triumph of the Will's power to entrance. Riefenstahl's flair, he notes, "for visual moods and motifs, for dynamic compositions, for rhythmic counter-points of picture and sound" transformed "images into myth and aestheticised [Nazi] power".

Riefenstahl went on, again at Hitler's behest, to film Olympia, her recording of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Less overtly political and more poetic in tone the documentary aggrandises Aryan beauty. But it also features the now famous footage of the black American athlete Jesse Owens repeatedly winning gold medals to the consternation of Hitler. Yet, despite its acclamation and gala premieres throughout the world, the film marked the apex of its maker's career and, though she continued to be financed by Goebbel's Propaganda Ministry, Riefenstahl never made another film.

From then onwards and up until her death in 2003, Riefenstahl denied that she had cast a sheen of artistic glamour over the Nazis and became one of the many Germans who insisted they "didn't know what happened" during the war. Bach more than makes the case that she did know. He places her at a Wehrmacht massacre of Jews in Poland during the fourth week of the war and produces evidence that she used gypsies as unpaid, forced labour for one of her unfinished films.

Lucidly written and thoroughly researched, Bach's biography is magisterial with every lie and obfuscation that Riefenstahl resorted to nailed down and rebutted. But the author commits one sin of omission. Why, over the past 60 years has his subject been singled out for quite so much attention?

After all, she didn't make films like the anti-semitic rant Jud Süss which was shown to SS soldiers before they rounded up Jews. She didn't produce newsreels that intercut infestations of rats with huddled Jews who had been crowded into ghettoes. But she did create two of the greatest documentaries in the history of cinema. Maybe that is why Bach heaps so much blame on her. Riefenstahl subverted so much talent in the service of so much pain.



Volume 54, Number 10 · June 14, 2007




Fascinating Narcissism

By Ian Buruma


Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl
by Steven Bach

Knopf, 386 pp., $30.00


Leni Riefenstahl: A Life
by Jürgen Trimborn, translated from the German by Edna McCown

Faber and Faber, 351 pp., $30.00


Read this article here