Leni: The Life & Work of Leni Riefenstahl
By Steven Bach. 400 pp. Knopf, 2007. $30.
In famous (or infamous) works like Triumph of the Will and Olympia, the twentieth century’s most notorious woman filmmaker found beauty in the ecstatic Aryan faces and endlessly flowing swastikas of Nazi processions. So it’s fitting that this excellently researched reconsideration of Leni Riefenstahl starts by focusing on two little-known images whose circumstances she denied until her death in 2003, at age 101.
The first is a blowup of a frame of film that catches her as a bare-breasted twenty-three-year-old entering 1920s Berlin’s polymorphous culture industry. Kitschy costume (and costume-less) dramas like Ways to Strength and Beauty appealed to prurience, love of sport and die Volk, and the German desire to regain potency after the ignominy of the Versailles Treaty. But Steven Bach sees a young girl from a tenement district, the object of male attentions and her mother’s hopes, yearning to achieve stardom by whatever means. He revealingly interprets Riefenstahl’s denial of knowledge of the film not as embarrassment on her part but as an effort to reinstate her auteur status while she unsuccessfully tried to rebuild her career after her Weimar and Nazi admirers were obliterated. So he insightfully surmises that she was afraid the film’s similarities to her directorial aesthetic, which showcased classic-featured humanity and cloth moving in patterns, would undercut her claims to artistic originality.
The second image, by an amateur photographer in the Polish town of Konskie during the German invasion, shows Leni, with a look of shock, observing something outside the frame, along with Wehrmacht troops. Other photos reveal the scene she was likely viewing: the massacre of local Jews in the town square, in one of the earliest atrocities of the war. Riefenstahl later testified she had not seen bodies, just a breakdown of troop discipline so disturbing that she quit her filming commission in the campaign.
By reshaping the truth, Bach says, she tried to seem a “good German” and deny knowledge of her Nazi patrons’ horrors. Thus she could portray herself as a visionary artist who remained friendly with Hitler to get his regime’s backing for fictional features, one of which used Roma actors destined for Auschwitz. The ploy mostly worked. After the war, she was officially cleared of complicity with Nazi war crimes, but blacklisted; she did not make another film until 2002.
In depicting how Riefenstahl managed her career, Bach reminds us that historians must pay heed to pure, amoral ambition as well as powerful ideologies. Strivers can use any creed to push themselves to the foreground, leaving the bodies to stack up in the background while reshaping their histories to appeal to the moment’s powers and patrons. Riefenstahl, for one, never quit. By the 1970s, she had a morally cleansed vocation as a photographer of Africa and underwater marvels, and celebrity friends like Mick Jagger and Siegfried and Roy; in her 1987 memoir, The Sieve of Time, she reasserted her self-serving perspective. In 1993 a German documentary about her, The Power of the Image a.k.a. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, won an Emmy. A final irony: her heroic, incisive editing style shapes documentaries and sports coverage even today.
Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.