Leni Riefenstahl, the Third Reich's great documentary filmmaker, had what a high school coach of mine used to call, when the poetic fit came upon him, testicular fortitude. She combined this virile will and boldness with outrageous feminine wiles to make a dazzling career in one of the most exclusive men's clubs ever. By her own account in the voluminous 1987 Memoir, at her first meeting with Hitler she dressed him down for his anti-Semitism, whereupon he made a clumsy pass at her, which she expertly deflected; she had him in her pocket thereafter. Understanding the value of deftly contrived misapprehension, she also put a host of subordinate Nazis in her pocket by creating the impression that she just might be the Führer's bunkmate. Another party chieftain took a shine to her, and a shot at her, as well. Again according to her telling, Joseph Goebbels, the scaly and sexually promiscuous Minister of National Enlightenment and Propaganda, literally groveled at her feet with lust, while she barely restrained herself from trampling his reptilian person in the dirt. Although she spurned these supreme eminences of the Nazi regime, she was not exactly discriminating about the men she did sleep with. On a movie set early in her acting career, she pretty much serviced the troops, and in descending order of cinematic importance, moving blithely from director to co-stars to cameraman to ski instructor. And yet this Amazon, who lived as freely as any whoring sailor, could weep and tear her hair on cue, instantly turning on the waterworks at the mere hint of manly interference with her artistic integrity. Beauty was her holy grail, she would always insist; politics really did not concern her. She remained a true artist, a perfect innocent, all her life long. Again by her own account.
Two recent biographies put her own account to the test and find it wanting in the extreme. Jürgen Trimborn, a professor of film, theater, and art history at the University of Cologne, the author of Leni Riefenstahl: A Life, and Steven Bach, a former United Artists producer and biographer of Marlene Dietrich, the author of Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, are in agreement on the essential facts: that in telling her own story Leni Riefenstahl paid no heed to the essential facts, which implicated her as a Hitler devotee and an anti-Semite well aware of the monstrosities of the Reich. Yet ideological purity was not her driving force. She turned out propaganda without compunction because serving the Nazi regime was her main chance. Fame, money, and power enticed her into accepting the devil's bargain; there was nothing in her scantly furnished soul to make her resist.
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Leni Riefenstahl was born in a working class district of Berlin in 1902. Her father, Alfred, was a plumbing salesman and a household despot with an imaginary spiked helmet. Her mother, Bertha, prayed while pregnant for a beautiful daughter who would become a famous actress. Leni was one of those uncanny creatures made for stage and screen. At 16 she auditioned for a part as a bare-breasted hoochie-coochie girl in a piece of movie trash called Opium; her failure only spurred her longings. Dancing would be her chosen route to glory, though she had to take lessons behind her father's back; when Alfred found out she was dancing in public, he shipped her off to boarding school. "How I wish I were a man," Leni confided in a letter to a friend, "it would be so much easier to carry out all my plans."
Her plans for independence, featuring dancing and men, proceeded nicely when she returned to Berlin. Beginning a storied career as femme fatale, she turned a malleable Jewish youth into what Bach calls "something of a love slave," demeaning him until he slashed his wrists, at which point she forced the bleeding boy to crawl under the sofa so her father wouldn't see him. He did time in a mental hospital, emigrated to America, and went blind. Informed years later of his misfortunes, Leni seized upon the salient detail: "he never forgot me as long as he lived."
Sadly, one cannot choose which loves to remember and which to forget: Leni's deflowering at 21, by a caddish tennis star pushing 40, was calculated on her part and brutal on his; afterward, he flung an American twenty-dollar bill her way, in case she needed an abortion. She responded to the humiliation by getting engaged to him, though she had the sense not to marry him in the end. This obsessive bondage to an unworthy man warned her off love and taught her to use men for what she could get. These were not perhaps the wisest lessons she could have drawn from the experience.
A subsequent lover and a decent man, the hotshot Jewish banker Harry Sokal, wanted to marry her, but she preferred that he bankroll and promote her solo dance debut. Her career took off in a hurry, abetted by his management behind the scenes, which Leni resented as the meddling of a casual sexual partner she'd had enough of. She later claimed to have loved dancing more than anything else she ever did, but a knee injury cut her career short after only eight months of performing.
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Her resourcefulness and ambition never wavered. She got a part in the film Ways to Strength and Beauty, which promised "regeneration of the human race" through athletic excellence; Leni appeared stripped to the waist, after the Weimar skin-flick conception of a Greek or Roman (they weren't particular) serving-woman. Then in the subway one day, she saw a poster for the movie Mountain of Destiny, the latest offering in the peculiarly German genre of Alpine films, which showed mountaineers and skiers exhibiting their prowess and refining their Teutonic souls on the snowy heights. Leni knew this was for her, and she sought out the film's director, Dr. Arnold Fanck. He pronounced her "the most beautiful woman in Europe" and declared he would make her "the most famous woman in Germany." Innovative surgery restored her knee to working order, and Fanck wrote a screenplay in three days and presented it to her in the hospital. The Holy Mountain featured Leni as the dancer Diotima, with whom two climbers and best friends fall tragically in love. "What do you seek up here—in nature?" one of the doomed lovers asks Diotima. "Beauty!" she enthuses. The right-wing press shared the enthusiasm for Teutonic men and women in high places, and great politics was clearly a prime ingredient in the witches' brew. As one critic wrote, "THIS WAY, GERMAN FILM, TO THE HOLY MOUNTAIN OF YOUR REBIRTH AND THAT OF THE GERMAN PEOPLE!" Before his first meeting with Leni, Hitler would say, "The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a film was Riefenstahl's dance on the sea in The Holy Mountain."
Success built on success, and Leni became an established star of the Alpine films, making several more with Fanck before venturing on her own as screenwriter, director, and leading lady in The Blue Light. The film tells the story of the beauteous peasant Junta, who brings back lovely, preternaturally glowing crystals from a mountain cavern, while the young men of her village who seek the crystals fall to their deaths. The crystals astonish all who see them, but only Junta can get them until an expert mountaineer, an outsider, reaches the cavern and turns Junta's wondrous treasure into a commercial concern for the village; her world is denuded of magic, and with the light from the cavern no longer there to guide her, Junta falls and is killed. As an actress, Leni is one of the most physically daring women ever to appear on screen, climbing sheer rock faces without a rope. As a director, the novice displays an instinctive sense of alpine romanticism: the mountaintops in the moonlight ravishingly evoke a woman's gleaming breasts. But the critics of the liberal Berlin newspapers rightly found the movie so much hokum, and Leni reacted after the manner of her place and time: she blamed the Jews—overlooking the fact that her co-producer and co-writer were both Jewish. In November 1932 the Jewish psychologist and aesthetician Rudolf Arnheim interviewed her on the radio, and she told him, "As long as the Jews are film critics, I'll never have a success. But watch out, when Hitler takes the rudder everything will change."
She had met Hitler earlier that year. A mass rally at the Berlin Sportpalast, where Hitler had spoken, electrified her:
I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. 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. I felt quite paralysed.
This psychic orgasm moved her to write Hitler a fan letter, and he responded by inviting her to drop by. It turned out Hitler was a fan of hers, and as they promenaded on a North Sea beach the talk turned to her movies, all of which he had seen. "Once we come to power, you must make my films," he insisted. She demurred, protesting her need to follow her own inspiration and exercise complete creative control; moreover, if we are to believe her version of events, she deplored his "racial prejudices" and said she could not "work for someone who makes such distinctions among people." Then came the abortive romantic clinch, followed by Hitler's hangdog reclamation of his dignity: "How can I love a woman until I have completed my task?"
Despite Leni's professed recoil from the Hitlerian touch, other observers later in their relationship, such as Putzi Hanfstaengl, the Führer's pianist and confidant, say Leni all but offered herself on a platter for Hitler's taking, and it was he who refused the sweets. (Hanfstaengl thought his master impotent and perhaps homosexual.) Leni made the most of her friendship with Hitler by leading people to believe they were sexually intimate: the cachet this gave her got her whatever she wanted for her films.
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And her artistic independence and putative revulsion at Nazi anti-Semitism did not hold out for long against Hitler's enticements to make his films. She did turn down his offer to make a biopic about Horst Wessel, in Bach's description "the Nazi pimp whose murder in a drunken brawl had been mythologized as political martyrdom," but in short order she signed on to direct a film of the 1933 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg. Victory of Faith soon found its audience. A Jewish Gymnasium student in Heilbronn recalled having to attend a screening with his schoolmates: the good Germans stood and sang patriotic songs while the Jews were required to stay seated; then they beat the Jews and urinated on them while their professors watched. Yet even such smashing successes could not disguise the film's shortcomings, in Leni's own eyes as well as others'. "Victory of Faith is technically unsure," writes Bach, "and exposes the rally as a messy, amateurish affair rather than the demonstration of precision and efficiency it was meant to be."
Precision and efficiency would come with practice. Triumph of the Will, Leni's film of the monumental 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg, has rightly been called by just about any critic who matters the greatest propaganda film ever made. Its potency stems from its command of tones that range from Wagnerian grandeur to homely innocence to breathless rapture to flaming demonolatry. The film conjures up a German Volk that is as ordinary and peaceable as any other people and that is exalted to martial sublimity by the touch of a spellbinding master. As Hitler's motorcade makes its way through the streets of Nuremberg, there is no raving exultation from the multitudes lining the route; these are the unexceptionable joyous faces of regular folks on a holiday outing or at a sporting event; a cat watching from a windowsill provides the decisive homespun touch. Similarly, when the camera turns to the soldiers preparing for the rally, the pride of the Reich tends to be made up of unremarkable human specimens, running toward the wan and spindly; anything but fearsome in physique or demeanor, they engage in slaphappy horseplay, like the boys they are. At the rally, still younger boys strain on tiptoe to see over the crowd; there is nothing more cinematically wholesome and winning than pubescent Hitler youth. The Führer himself appears only too human at times, sympathetic, approachable. During Rudolf Hess's introductory speech, Hitler gives a hurried perfunctory salute, as though embarrassed by the attention. When the cavalry and armored cars speed on in tight formation, he obviously enjoys the whirring spectacle, like a NASCAR buff at the racetrack.
Of course, malevolence seethes just below the placid surface, and erupts under oratorical pressure. The voices of speechmakers are pitched toward frenzy, in the now familiar manner of totalitarian hypnotism. The high priests scream Sieg Heil! as a release into madness; the choral response is feral baying. Hitler himself is as stagy in his rants and rages as a B-movie potentate. Trimborn notes that when Charlie Chaplin saw an abbreviated version of Triumph of the Will, he fell about laughing, and found his inspiration for The Great Dictator.
It is hard to imagine a civilized people watching Leni's film with a thrill, or indeed without contempt. As the camera cuts from Hitler speaking to attentive schoolboys listening, one cannot but think him as corrupting as a child molester, and more destructive: he is readying the 14-year-olds to die for him on the Russian front, and one does not need hindsight to see it. Most of the Nazi grandees preaching heroic virility are fat-marbled slabs of prime beef, and those who are not blatantly bovine tend to the porcine or rodential or even amphibian. And as the goose-stepping millipede of SA and SS and Wehrmacht marches on and on and on, one suffers the totalitarian tedium unto death. Any irony on Leni's part is unthinkable, however. She believed the whole thing, and helped make her countrymen believe. No one can deny her that distinction.
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Hitler was so pleased with the result that he wanted more and more. "Who else but you could make a film of the Olympics?" he entreated her, about the 1936 Games to be held in Berlin, a prospective showpiece for Aryan strength and beauty. Goebbels's propaganda ministry financed Leni's undertaking and set up a dummy corporation, Olympia-Film GmbH, "because the Reich does not wish to be seen openly as the maker of the film," in the words of an internal memo. Leni would later protest that she understood nothing of the financial arrangements, and would eternally uphold the aesthetic purity of her film, which like Triumph of the Will was art and not propaganda. It is true enough that Olympia does not celebrate the flagrantly sinister, unlike Triumph of the Will, and that it does celebrate strength and beauty even when they come in ideologically impure form, such as the person of the black American track star Jesse Owens. Yet one sees some of the tricks Leni picked up in making the earlier film at work here as well. German innocence undergirds German superiority. German sports fans are not political fanatics, but cheer for German victors—and German athletes dominate the Games—just like fans anywhere; after all, one also hears Finns in the stands chanting Suomi for their triumphant distance runners, and sees straw boaters flying in the air when Americans win. Hitler is just a big kid having the time of his life, by turns hopeful, anxious, ardent, revved-up; when the anchorwoman for the German 4x100 relay drops the baton with a big lead, he is crestfallen, totally caught up in the moment. Yet flashes of militant darkness remind us where we really are. German modern pentathletes ride horses and fire pistols in Wehrmacht officers' uniforms. Mass calisthenics outside the stadium, with thousands bending and flexing in unison, suggest less peaceable rites. The political message is subtler in Olympia than in Triumph of the Will but nevertheless unmistakable: Nazi Germany is a force, and will teach the world more about strength than about beauty. Leni, characteristically, grabbed what she could of both, enjoying the most torrid affair of her life with the American decathlon champion, Glenn Morris, who in the throes of victory tore off her blouse and kissed her breasts in front of the packed stadium.
The Nazi regime feted Leni as a national heroine, but good democrats were finding her less charming. Her trip to America in 1938 came at an inopportune time: Kristallnacht, which occurred shortly after her arrival, shocked the American people, and Leni unthinkingly—perhaps madly—denounced the reports of the pogrom as "slander" against Germany and "the greatest man who ever lived." The Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy saw to it that Olympia would not be distributed in the United States.
Other nations were more generous. Mussolini called Leni to Rome, and unsuccessfully tried to persuade her to make a film about Fascist heroes draining the swamps. When German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop returned from signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow in August 1939, he delivered a handwritten appreciation of Olympia from Stalin.
War brought fresh opportunities, which would contribute to Leni's postwar trials. On September 11, 1939, the Special Riefenstahl Film Unit arrived in the largely Jewish town of Konskie, Poland. The next day Polish partisans killed and mutilated five German soldiers there, and the Nazis forced a group of Jews to dig a grave for them; at some point, the Nazis started shooting, massacred 30 or 40 Polish civilians, and set the synagogue on fire. A photograph of Leni on the spot, her face contorted with weeping, appeared after the war as evidence that, in Bach's words, "she had witnessed murders of unarmed civilians prefiguring murders that would number in the millions." Maintaining to the end of her life that "In Poland, I never saw a corpse, not of a soldier, not of a civilian," she would file the first of many suits for libel that asserted her ignorance of Nazi atrocities.
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Unwelcome controversy had a way of seeking her out. From 1940 through 1943, during the shooting of her ambitious but failed feature film Tiefland, which called for a Spanish touch, Leni requisitioned Gypsies from the transit camps of Maxglan and Marzahn to serve as extras in the movie-unpaid forced labor, by people whose next stop would be Auschwitz. "We saw nearly all of [the Gypsies] after the war," Leni would declare, though in fact most of them had been exterminated.
After the war, everyone expected contrition and atonement from her, but she persistently eschewed remorse or even regret for anything she had done. "I would have committed suicide had I felt that I shared the responsibility for these crimes," she said, but she was free of any misgivings on that score. At the same time, she was given to muttering about "the Jewish element" as the source of her troubles, which were many. A rash marriage to a man more promiscuous than herself collapsed, and she wound up in a mental hospital for several months. Denazification hearings cleared her of criminality, but the press and public were less forgiving. Breakneck litigiousness became her defense against the numerous attacks on her reputation.
Somehow she rode out the storm. In 1962 she joined an expedition to the Sudan that changed her life; she would return several times, and the photographs she took of the primitive Nuba tribesmen over the next 15 years had people talking of her excellence once again. In 1968 she took up with a man 42 years younger than she, and they remained together the rest of her life. She became the oldest certified scuba diver in the world, practicing the sport well into her 90s, and a brilliant underwater photographer. When she died in 2003 at the age of 101, the public's response equivocated between praise for her genius and condemnation of her Nazi past. But anyone who reads Trimborn's and Bach's fascinating biographies (Bach's is the one to read if you're reading only one) and watches Triumph of the Will can have no doubt: Leni Riefenstahl was the cut-rate female version of Doctor Faustus come to life, pliable, malignant, and foolish, who gave evil a beautiful face and claimed innocent beauty was all she lived for.