Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Leni": Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler's Film-maker)

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs
Author:Stephen Bach
"Leni Riefenstahl symbolizes a German artist’s fate in the 20th Century both in her revolutionary artistic vision and in her political blindness and infatuation. No one would deny that with her talent she developed cinematic methods that have since become part of an aesthetic canon. Her career also shows that one cannot lead an honest life in service of the false, and that art is never apolitical."--Stephen Bach (page 297)

"Shortly after he came to power Hitler called me to see him and explained that he wanted a film about a Party Congress, and wanted me to make it. My first reaction was to say that I did not know anything about the way such a thing worked or the organization of the Party, so that I would obviously photograph all the wrong things and please nobody - even supposing that I could make a documentary, which I had never yet done. Hitler said that this was exactly why he wanted me to do it:."— Leni Riefenstahl, her own memoirs. (1992)

Stephen Bach (1938-1909) was an American film executive who wrote this extensive biography of one of the most talented and controversial film actor/director/documentarians of the 20th Century, Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003).

I remember seeing both "Triumph of the Will" (1935) and "Olympia" (1938) in the 1980's, the latter film--a documentary on the first great Nuremberg Rally of Hitler and his mass forces of "race and blood". One senses the real ominous terror of those times and how aesthetics like this added so much to the Nazi mystique. It is a chilling two hours to witness, especially on a big screen as I did in a college auditorium. The film "Olympia" is over three hours long--depending on what print of the film you see--is not quite as ominous (at least in the English language versions) but still blends together Riefenstahl's ability to blend art in the motion of bodies and the adulation of mass crowds.

Here's a famous scene from "Olympia" (1938): the diving competition:

It is these two films (and a feature film see did in 1941 called "Tiefland") which were her most famous and notorious works on screen. Gypsy extras used in the latter film were later taken to a death camp to be murdered. I haven't that one in complete but I would recommend anyone intersted in this subject should see a documentary called "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl", (1993) a film which she participated in and tried to obfuscate (as she does in the quote above) her role in making The Third Reich look all polished and perfect on screen. The film-makers did not thankfully give Leni the final cut or the final say in the film so it's worth seeing.

Bach's book explores how Leni went from being a provincial girl interested in art to great fame. It was summarized well by Simon Callow in his review of the book for The Guardian:

"Her background was perfectly ordinary. She was born in 1902 in a working-class suburb of Berlin (a city which Bach evokes, as he does everything else in the book, with vivid economy) to a severe father and a stage-struck mother. She and her mum were a team, secretly visiting cinemas and gate-crashing fancy-dress balls. By sheer willpower and the generosity of a lover who longed to marry her, she became a successful solo dancer in the avant-garde style of Mary Wigman, but, said a critic, "She lacks the highest, most important quality: soul." Her life found its focus when she saw Arnold Fanck's location-shot film The Mountain of Destiny. "I have to meet that man," she told her still adoring, still matrimonially hopeful lover. It was, he said, the refrain of her life. She uttered it for the last time when Hitler appeared on her horizon, with momentous consequences for them both.

"Struck by her vitality and beauty, Fanck wrote Holy Mountain for her, shooting it in Alpine locations over a gruelling two years. In what would become a familiar pattern, she took her co-star, Luis Trenker, into her bed, and then worked her way round the crew and cast, unleashing erotic mayhem in the isolated location. All her life, she changed men regularly, like the paintings on the wall. Many, if not most of them, were mountaineers, athletes and cameramen; quite a number were all three. Her essentially masculine sexual behaviour is almost exhilarating. When, for once, one left her - rather than her dismissing him - she slashed her arms, legs, hips.

"She became a director by default. After failing to secure the Marlene Dietrich role in The Blue Angel, she determined to direct a vehicle for herself: The Blue Light. The experienced scenarist Béla Balázs wrote and co-directed with her; one of her former lovers shot it. Unschooled in film technique, she invented and experimented, eagerly accepting suggestions from her partners. This was her Citizen Kane: she empowered her colleagues, who rose to greater heights for her than they had ever previously managed. Her rough cut, none the less, was a catastrophe; Fanck rapidly re-edited it, saving the movie, which was highly successful, despite poor reviews in the largely leftwing Berlin press. For these Riefenstahl blamed the Jews, even though her two chief collaborators were Jewish."

Later when Hitler was coming to power she read "Mein Kampf" and said "I have to meet this man." How far she and he got together is a source of speculation, but it's clear that Riefenstahl is lying when she says she was coy about making "Triumph of the Will" or, later, that she didn't know about the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. She knew about them sooner than most Germans in fact since she covered Hitler's victory parade in Warsaw in October of 1939 and photographic evidence shows her present at the slaughter of Jews in a near-by town.

It's clear that Leni was more than a little attracted to power and a career and, despite her post-war obfuscation and attempts to soft-pedal herself as a naive camera operator, she was in the inner recesses of Hitler's enclave up to her collarbone.

After the war ended, Riefenstahl was detained first by the Americans and then by the French. Upon release she was found not culpable for any sentencing due in part to her ability to put on a good act--according to the book--and the fact that she never joined the Nazi Party. (A hedging of bets?) Most of the rest of her life she spent in her apartment in Munich--restored to her in 1953--where she managed to make several journeys to Africa to film and photograph a tribe of people called the Nuba, a group of people who prided themselves in aesthetic glorification of the human body. In a way, Leni was right at home!

She was still making films at age 99 in the Sudan region, and was also scuba diving into her 90's.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were reading about how Leni went to Hollywood intending to make a film. She had garnered some interest by Universal Studios in her pre-Nazi days but her German "Alpine" films (one of which was shot in Greenland) generated less interest due to her limitations as an actress. Petitions by anti-Nazi artists and business-people in Hollywood (some of whom were refugees of Hitler and almost all know friends who were) gave her cause to return to her fatherland.

She later visited America again as a guest of Andy Warhol, and was reportedly involved in a photo shoot of Mick and Bianca Jagger--a meeting of art and commerce that I would rather not have read about. Bach's book is very interesting in refuting a lot of lies this woman told and is extensively researched with hundreds of interviews and citations.

A clip from a 1926 film featuring Leni as a actress: "The Holy Mountain".

The book was published in 2007.


  1. I think the book would be very interesting, in spite of my opinion...from what I've so far read, that she was a manipulator, dishonest & conceited. I don't like this woman.

    "Olympia" is beautifully filmed to the very end. The human body a work of art as they fly & turn gracefully in space. The clip, "The Blue Mountain" is a 'vanity:' It's quite fatuous, in fact...silly. Just this clip sets a tone for the rest of it, I'm fairly certain.

    I've never heard of her, but because of the time in which she lived, & the people in her life...some of whose names I actually remember!...I'd like to read it.

    As to Leni ..."She lacks the highest, most important quality: soul," as the critic said, but this wouldn't deter me. If it did, there are many books I never would have read!

    Doug, have you known about her for long, or just discover her yourself?

  2. Neither do I, Lucija. I avoided reading her memoirs for that reason.

    I remember a Jewish friend of mine saying "Do you mean that b---- is still alive?" when she found out one of Riefenstahl's films were being shown in the San Francisco Film Festival in 1996 and this lady was "tentatively scheduled" to appear. (She didn't.) I hope she had visa problems. Big ones.

    I later saw "The Wonderful, Terrible Life..." film she was in. It was clear to me she was in total denial mode and that angered me, but I also was intrigued.

    I haven't seen any of these German Wiemar-Era "Alpine" movies, but from the clips and the descriptions in the books I've read I suppose they were very melodramatic and yes, silly. The main thing that drove these films was a formula like the old American westerns---bravery and overcoming adversity. The films were made under difficult conditions, filming on crevasses and glaciers. People risked their lives to make them. That likely is the most interesting thing about the films. Leni was brave but she was morally blind and, worse, a propagandist for evil.

    I became interested in Riefenstahl's work in college. The irony is that many of the best film-makers in Germany left the country when the Nazis took over. That probably helped her career--one of the few cases where a woman caught a break in a European or Ameican film industry in those days. But at what a cost to others!

  3. Thank you, Doug. for your further thoughts on this. I didn't want to be too harsh at that point, but if I used such words, this would apply: "Do you mean that b---- is still alive?"

    You summed it up for me: "...she was in total denial mode and that angered me, but I also was intrigued."

  4. Yes, it was a rueful exclaimation on my friend Judith's part.

    Thank you for adding good questions and thoughts to the discussion, Lujica.