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History Never Forgets

Two Documentaries Forever Defined German Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl

Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl

Author:Steven Bach
Release Date:2007

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 5/16/2007

For some individuals, history always offers the final verdict on their lives. Despite evidence to the contrary, these select few can never escape the shadow of their own--usually negative--reputation. Whatever artistic ideals she hoped to aspire to, whatever rationale was behind the decisions she made in her life or the films she crafted, Leni Riefenstahl always and forever will be known as a Nazi filmmaker, a propagandist in service of a tyrannical regime whose power was only further cemented by the documentaries and iconic images she committed to public memory.

This idea is the driving force behind scholar and historian Steven Bach's biography of the infamous auteur, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. If Riefenstahl spent the first half of her life struggling to emerge into the limelight of the German film industry, then the second half was spent retreating from all that she had achieved. In Riefenstahl's mind, she was merely a filmmaker in the wrong place at the wrong time. "She made documentaries, not propaganda," Bach writes of the summary of a post-war denazification hearing that pronounced her free of political incrimination. "She was coerced by Hitler into making Triumph of the Will; she was not responsible for uses the party made of her work . . . she had many Jewish friends but no party associates beyond the professional."

All these claims, as Bach's work makes perfectly clear, are the furthest thing from the truth--or whatever truth can be gleaned from the life of a woman whose own memories shifted to whatever would offer her the best advantage. A subsequent commission in July 1949 determined that Riefenstahl, "though innocent of specific crimes, had consciously and willingly served the Reich." In terms of history's view of Riefenstahl, the case was definitively closed: file her away in the same drawer with Joseph Goebbels, Albert Speer, mad doctor Josef Mengele, and all the other mindless servants of der Führer.

Were it not for a critical and artistic reappraisal of her work by scholars and film buffs, Riefenstahl might have remained in history's dustbin for eternity. The critic Andrew Sarris, according to Bach, viewed Riefenstahl as an artist "imprisoned by the horror of history," an auteur whose works could be studied under the rubric of cinematic art without being bogged down in the moral implications of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. Leni devotes ample time to the development and reception of the filmmaker's two most important documentaries--Triumph of the Will and Olympia, both of which were, of course, deeply entrenched in Nazi politics. The first, capturing the orgiastic glory of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, is even today a perfect example of propaganda at its most potent, orchestrating masses of individuals in a way that puts the CGI armies of today's swords-and-sandals epics to shame. The second presents the 1936 Munich Olympics as proof positive that Hitler's twisted ideas on physiognomy were examples for the world.

Bach brackets this discussion with a lively exploration of Riefenstahl's life behind the camera. She was--as the numerous pictures in the book attest to--an exceptional beauty whose varied professional and personal relationships with powerful men (including many Jews whose associations she denied when Hitler rose to power) were often the springboard for future opportunities. Her acting career in tawdry mountain adventure films was a brief success, and her dancing career lasted only eight months. It was her first movie as director, 1932's The Blue Light, that brought her attention to Germany's future dictator--a film that arguably sealed her fate.

Bach has no shame in characterizing Riefenstahl as a less than exemplary woman who continually dodged the legacy she left behind by denying the "employment" of imprisoned Gypsies for one of her movies and her presence at the site of a massacre in Poland, denials that continued even when testimony and photographic evidence said otherwise. Her final decades, spent in Sudan photographing Nuba warriors and continually trying to re-establish her reputation as an artist while denying her complicity with Nazi politics, are enough to make you wince with their desperation.

If her movies are troublesome models for artistry, Riefenstahl herself is an even more troublesome model for truth and personal accountability. Any frustrations in reading Leni stem not from Bach's scholarship but the elusive nature of his subject. Few moments read like genuine confessions of truth; one rare nugget is Riefenstahl's first encounter with Mein Kampf, a moment she likens to being "struck by lightning . . . It seemed as if the earth's surface were spreading out in front of me . . . like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth."

Confessions such as these, however genuine their passions, serve as incriminating evidence for Bach, who, despite his thorough knowledge of Riefenstahl and her life, doesn't fall for blind enthusiasm or victimization. For him, as for history, Leni Riefenstahl was Hitler's filmmaker first. All suggestions of her artistry and technical mastery, however deserved, are ultimately mere ephemera.

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