The Real Leni Riefenstahl

Nonfiction

By Juliet Lapidos

Published March 23, 2007, issue of March 23, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl
By Steven Bach
Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $30.

Leni Riefenstahl’s 1987 autobiography begins with an epigraph borrowed from Albert Einstein: “So many things have been written about me, masses of insolent lies and inventions.” Apparently, the woman best known as “Hitler’s filmmaker” had no misgivings about quoting a Jew who had his citizenship stripped by the Nazis. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that in her 700-page memoir, Riefenstahl spins her own “insolent lies” — namely, that she was an apolitical artist who knew nothing of the Holocaust.

Far more surprising is that reputable critics, such as John Simon, were taken in by Riefenstahl’s fabrications. In a 1993 New York Times article, Simon brushed aside political considerations to characterize the world’s most famous female cineaste as a pure aesthete who never compromised “her artistic integrity.”

It is, of course, spurious formalism to defend Riefenstahl by separating politics from art since, as Steven Bach points out in “Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl,” few filmmakers have “so successfully commingled the two.” In his engaging biography, Bach puts the lie to Riefenstahl’s self-vindication and to the whitewashing campaign undertaken by sympathetic reviewers.

Using new primary sources, Bach proves that Riefenstahl was not compelled to make “Triumph of the Will,” as she maintained until her death in 2003. Rather, she specifically requested permission to direct the film that institutionalized the so-called “fascist aesthetic.” Furthermore, although Riefenstahl was adamant about the purely documentary nature of her work, Bach argues convincingly that “Triumph” is not a straightforward depiction of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally.

The famous call-and-response Labor Service sequence in which workers proudly state their hometowns (Q: “Where do you come from, comrade?” A: “I come from Friesland”) was carefully choreographed and rehearsed upward of 50 times. Hitler’s arrival by air lacks, in Bach’s words, “any objective authenticity”: After introductory titles proclaim the “rebirth of Germany,” a small plane glides through the sky and cloud banks drift apart as sunlight floods the screen.

Bach also puts to rest the notion that Riefenstahl knew nothing of the racial policies that led to the Final Solution. After Hitler invaded Poland, Riefenstahl obtained war-correspondent status and traveled to Konskie, where she witnessed the murder of unarmed Jewish civilians. In September 1942 she visited Maxglan, a Gypsy internment camp, and requisitioned 23 prisoners to serve as unpaid extras in “Tiefland,” an epic film financed by the Reich.

Riefenstahl, it seems clear, was not a virulent antisemite. As she mentioned whenever the opportunity arose, she had Jewish friends, colleagues and even, in her youth, a Jewish lover. Bach makes the case that Riefenstahl was not motivated by political or racist zeal. Rather, she glorified Hitler because she was an opportunist with no moral compass. It was her lifelong ambition to become a famous artist — and if cozying up to the Führer was her best chance at fame, then ethics be damned.

In 1949, the Baden State Commission on Political Purgation classified Riefenstahl as a “fellow traveler” (Mitläuferin) who had willingly served the Reich. It was a slap on the wrist that carried no prohibitions or penalties, the next-to-lowest of the five degrees of complicity. She never suffered for her work, and never acknowledged that her work had caused suffering. Without the onus of a more severe political classification, she was free to characterize herself as a guiltless naïf, and free to accuse skeptics of slander.

Bach accomplishes what the Baden Commission did not: He shows Riefenstahl as she really was. She was not a mere “fellow traveler,” not the object of “insolent lies,” but a pathological narcissist who used her talents to lionize Hitler and thus ease the path of the Nazi regime.

Juliet Lapidos is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.