Leni Riefenstahl's apologists say she was a pure aesthete who cared nothing for politics. But it was her indifference to how her talents were used that made her so repugnantby Kevin Jackson / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
Leni: the life and work of Leni Riefenstahl, by Steven Bach (Little, Brown, £25)
The career of Leni Riefenstahl looks like a real-life version of the Faust myth. In return for a brief span of worldly riches and artistic glory, the comely young Fraulein Riefenstahl sold her soul to the devil, in the form of Adolf Hitler. Pampered, protected and funded beyond most film directors’ fantasies, she produced the only creative products of Nazi Germany that have any claims to enduring aesthetic merit, the semi-staged documentary Triumph of the Will and the two Olympia films. Midnight nemesis came to her with the arrival of the Allied armies and the opening of the death camps, of which she claimed total ignorance.
Quite a neat parallel thus far, but it fails in key respects. For one thing, Riefenstahl was slippery enough to escape secular damnation by the postwar courts; after brief imprisonment while awaiting trial, she was exonerated, mainly on the grounds that she had never officially joined the party. (The judges merely noted her want of “moral poise.”) More importantly, it is by no means clear that she had a soul to sell in the first place. One of the major revelations to be found in Steven Bach’s first-rate biography is Riefenstahl’s almost awe-inspiring narcissism. Riefenstahl, it soon emerges, would have been a monster of conceit even had she followed the likes of Murnau, Lang, Wilder, Von Sternberg and company in their flight to Hollywood, and reapplied her skills to the cause of democracy, or just light entertainment. Not that vanity and megalomania are uncommon failings among directors; but Riefenstahl’s record for exploiting anyone who might be useful to her and then discarding them when squeezed dry was exceptional even by the standards of the industry.
She was born in humble circumstances, the daughter of a plumber. She was blessed with neither particularly keen intelligence nor obvious abilities, but she did have striking good looks and knew how to use them. “Pretty as a swastika,” Walter Winchell once called her. Jodie Foster once tried to produce a biopic of Leni with herself in the starring role; Riefenstahl objected that Foster was not gorgeous enough, and demanded Sharon Stone. She seduced rich admirers into financing her early attempts to become a star of modern dance, and then a movie actress. A few hops up the ladder of the film industry, and she went within a matter of months from being a minor pin-up to Hitler’s untouchable favourite, and the person charged with making new-born Nazi Germany look dazzling both to itself and to the world.
Physical beauty was her weapon, but it also became her major filmic subject—gloriously honed and chiselled Aryan faces and frames—and, later, her alibi. Nazism? Oh, she cared nothing about all that political stuff and nonsense: she was a pure aesthete, interested only in perfection of form, not of content. (There is a grain of truth here: she did care vastly more about her films than almost anything else, but Bach also demonstrates how congenial she found Hitler’s beliefs.) Having toughed out a couple of lean decades in the postwar period, she managed to reinvent herself in old age with a series of expensive and bestselling coffee-table books of photographs, depicting the warriors of the Nuba tribe in the Sudan. Further proof, said the apologists, that Riefenstahl was both a pure beauty-lover and entirely free of racism.
The whistle was blown by Susan Sontag in a devastating New York Review of Books article, “Fascinating Fascism,” which mapped the stylistic continuities between Riefenstahl’s pre-Nazi, overtly Nazi and post-Nazi work. Bach records Riefenstahl’s rage at this essay, and her undying hatred for its author. The only real flaw in Sontag’s essay is that it did not go far enough, since she was willing to concede that Triumph and Olympia were, perhaps, the greatest documentaries ever made. It was the critic and novelist Gilbert Adair who first challenged this assumption. Triumph of the Will is, he contended, far from a masterpiece—it is bombastic, dull and kitschy.
This may be overstated, but not greatly so. Riefenstahl undoubtedly had gifts: a considerable intuitive flair for the underlying architecture of edited sequences, a perfectionism fuelled by the capacity for intense hard work—16 or more hours a day for month after month—and the invaluable ability to find gifted cameramen and other collaborators. But this no more makes her a great filmmaker than the ability to play fast, complex guitar solos makes a heavy metal axeman a great composer: technique without larger vision is only technique, hollow virtuosity. In the service of barbarism, it becomes worse than meretricious. Bach’s book should be read as a compelling moral fable about the futility of talent unredeemed by humanity.