Riefenstahl was a liar and a manipulator long before she met Hitler. A headstrong child whose authoritarian father could be worn down only by tears and tantrums, she learned early on that she could get her way in any situation. Her ability to pick up complicated skills — as a dancer, mountain climber, film director, photographer — would make her the envy of any artist or athlete, but she was no less well versed in suppressing dissent or selectively editing reviews, brandishing the expurgated versions to all who would listen (“her hopping about is here and there hardly bearable” is one of many hostile notices Bach has unearthed). And for all her technical innovations, the most remarkable aspects of Triumph and Olympia are Speer’s “sets” and the dazzling diving sequences photographed by Hans Ertl. Leni, like the Nazi war machine, had a breathtaking command of logistics management, but others were left to make the art. Even in the 1920s, her dance was dismissed as having good technique but no soul whatsoever, and the same could be said of her kitschy, saccharine Reich-era movies and her exploitative, racist photographs of Somalia’s Nuba tribesmen (The Last of the Nuba and People of Kau) in the 1960s. “My Nuba,” she patronizingly called them, and the intense interest she aroused in their profoundly isolated, untouched way of life was, claims Bach, instrumental in hastening its rapid decline.
Like all egomaniacs, she was good at credit theft and the delegation of blame, erasing the names of her Jewish collaborators from later prints of her prewar “mountain” movies (that genre of proto-fascist ice capades ably spoofed in Guy Maddin’s Careful) and even setting the ghoulish anti-Semite Julius Streicher on screenwriter Bela Balazs when he demanded payment. Her life was dominated by her extreme narcissism, which insulated her from any measure of doubt or self-reproach, by her absolute moral myopia in the face of Hitler’s crimes, by her social autism (“You must read this book!” she once cried, pushing Mein Kampf on a nauseated Jewish colleague) and, most gravely, by her inability to take moral responsibility for anything she had ever done. Even her proto-feminist belief in sexual parity between men and women seems like further evidence of her egomania, as she usually chose pliant, disposable employees for her bedmates. “As long as I lived,” she later crowed in her memoirs, “I would never allow myself to become dependent on another human being.”
Except, of course, for The Strongman himself, for whom she did such sterling service. No doubt, the Führer would have strongly approved of a disgusting vignette disinterred by Bach that illustrates the demagogic power and gutter squalor of Riefenstahl’s filmmaking. In Heilbron in 1934, a high school class (Aryans plus three Jewish pupils) and their teachers attended a showing of her Victory of Faith, a dry run for Triumph that later vanished for half a century. One of the three Jewish boys, James May, recalls being forced to sit up front. “ ‘While [after the credits] all stood up and sang patriotic German songs, we three had to remain seated. After the performance, and in front of our professors, we were beaten up.’ When classmates climaxed the beating by urinating on the Jewish students, the professors refrained from registering disapproval.”
There, its mask cast off for all to see, is Leni Riefenstahl’s Greater Reich in brutal, frenzied miniature.
LENI RIEFENSTAHL: A Life | By JÜRGEN TRIMBORN | Translated by Edna McCown | Faber and Faber | 368 pages | $30 hardcover
LENI: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl | By STEVEN BACH | Knopf | 400 pages | $30 hardcover