Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl
Alfred A. Knopf / 386 pages / $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 uber 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 Fuehrer-worship." The would-be Fuehrer 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 cinema verite, 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 is a mystery, given the corruption of their origins.
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 Gruendgens, another of Hitler's several semiconscious cultural ornaments-apologists. 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."
Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography" and "The Essential Chaplin." A longer version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.