Hitler's image maker

Leni Riefenstahl, the woman who created a monster.

leni book 298 (photo credit: )
leni book 298
(photo credit: )
Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl By Steven Bach Knopf 400 pages; $30 Leni Riefenstahl: A Life By Jurgen Trimborn Translated from the German by Edna McCown Faber and Faber 368 pages; $26 I have always found it monstrous that the two most self-serving sycophants of the Nazi regime, Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl, should have escaped justice. True, Speer spent 20 years in Spandau Prison, from which he smuggled out the diaries that helped make him wealthy; much later he died in bed with a young Nazi groupie in a London hotel, the ultimate last laugh. Speer eventually admitted that he sold his soul to Hitler because it furthered his ambitions as an architect. In 1942 Hitler appointed him armaments minister, and as the second most powerful man in the Third Reich he prolonged the war and his powerful position in it by encouraging Hitler to believe that he was performing production miracles and the war might yet be won. He was directly responsible for causing the needless loss of millions of lives, apart from the lives of the countless slave laborers he worked to death. Speer, plausible and gentlemanly, saved his neck by convincing the Nuremberg judges that he was one of their class. Leni Riefenstahl, equally good-looking and plausible, saved her neck by pleading that she admired Hitler the man, without ever looking at what he stood for. Yet she had made the brilliant propaganda films that glorified her F hrer as the transcendent apotheosis of Nazism, beloved of his people. She died at the age of 103, after a postwar career as a maker of documentaries in Africa, still insistent that she had never espoused Nazism. More than anyone else, it was Speer and Riefenstahl who created the image of Hitler as Germanicus ascendant. Speer stage-managed the settings of the early Nazi mega-rallies, inventing among other things the ring of hundreds of searchlights that formed a dome of light. Riefenstahl recorded these events with innovative cutting techniques and superb coordination of music and cutting, conducting the music herself to fit the tempo of her images. Hitler was delighted with both of them, and their quite separate careers flourished because of their direct access to him and the budgets he always approved. WITH THE curious serendipity of publishing, two new biographies of Riefenstahl have just been published. Are they justified? Well, for one thing, Riefenstahl's documentary adulations of Hitler and his Reich now serve to show young Germans, among others, just what the road to war and mass murder was like. Speer and Riefenstahl were early converts. Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931, and Riefenstahl breathlessly read Mein Kampf after hearing Hitler speak in 1932. She immediately wrote him asking for a meeting. Hitler, who had admired her looks, acting and the first film she directed, The Blue Light, replied at once and took her for a walk at the seaside. "When we are in power," he said, "you must make my movies." He made a tentative move to take her in his arms and, not getting a reaction, turned aside saying that he was wedded only to Germany's destiny. She told him she did not like his racism. As with so many Riefenstahl stories, the only source for all this is Riefenstahl's corrective and constantly adjusted memoirs. The idea of her challenging Hitler is incredible; all her letters and notes to him are sycophantic in the extreme. Although she was thrilled by her reading of Mein Kampf, Riefenstahl owed much to early assistance from several of her Jewish lovers. One was Harry Sokal, who was soon to flee Germany and who had taken a risk to help finance The Blue Light. Another Jew, the brilliant Bela Balazs, had reworked the scenario and script, before leaving Germany. The film was rereleased by the Nazis only after his name had been taken off the credits. The first time round, it had been trashed by all the film critics, most of whom were Jews. Things will be different when Hitler takes over, Riefenstahl promised Harry Sokal. Not incidentally, Riefenstahl was a good friend of the ravening anti-Semite Julius Streicher, but later denied it. She used Streicher to avoid paying Balazs his fee. In her masterly Triumph of the Will, filmed mostly on the zeppelin field at the Nuremberg rally, Riefenstahl created the new face of Germany and its F hrer. Later, following her short militarist film on the newly loyal Wehrmacht (which had replaced the SA after the murder of Ernst Rohm), the athletic Riefenstahl in 1935 secured the commission to make the film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was the pinnacle of her career, thanks to the help of a huge crew headed by two brilliant cameramen who were both former lovers. The budget came from Hitler, securing her against any interference from Goebbels. Riefenstahl managed to seduce the American star, Glenn Morris. In her memoirs, he leaps upon her from the winner's podium, kissing her breasts in midfield. Riefenstahl created her films in the cutting room. She had 250 hours of raw Olympic material out of which, over nearly two years, she put together a film that was praised around the world (and protested by anti-Nazis, as she refused to edit Hitler out of what she insisted were his games). She appeared with Olympia in 19 foreign capitals, all at Nazi expense, and had been anyway handsomely paid as producer-director. Hitler had made her rich. In 1938 Riefenstahl took Olympia to the United States, but her arrival was followed by the terrible pogroms of Kristallnacht. Hollywood's studios (with the exception of Nazi admirer Walt Disney) would not receive her and distributors would not screen Olympia. When Hitler invaded Poland, Riefenstahl took a small and specially uniformed film unit to the front, where she was a horrified eyewitness to a massacre of Jews in Konskie at the hands of the Wehrmacht. Her version of the events is picked to pieces in both these books. She then happily joined the victorious Hitler in Danzig. During the war she spent years and Nazi millions working on a new feature film, Tiefland, playing the lead role as a gypsy girl and using gypsies and their children plucked from concentration camps as extras. She later withdrew her claim that she had encountered them all after the war, but the fact was that all but two lost their lives in Nazi camps. As the Reich crumbled around her, Riefenstahl still insisted on completing the film. It was a failure and she herself realized that she was miscast as the young gypsy heroine. AS THE Reich began to collapse, so did Leni's world. The day Stauffenberg's bomb exploded in Hitler's conference room, her father died and her beloved younger brother Heinz was blown to unburiable bits on the Russian front. Her sole comfort was her marriage to a dashing Wehrmacht ski instructor, Major Peter Jacob. She had slept with innumerable young men but had avoided falling in love ever since she had been jilted by her ace cameraman, Heinz Schneeberger. But Jacob, though he loved her, was a serial cheat and broke her heart. Riefenstahl broke down when she heard of Hitler's death; she could not believe he was a suicide. Speer had risked his life to fly into Berlin to take leave of his mentor. But with Hitler dead he wrote, "The scales fell from my eyes." Henceforth Speer would claim that he was guilty only of placing his trust in a mass murderer. Riefenstahl however, never repudiated her F hrer, not then and not later. He remained for her the greatest man of his time, if not of all time. Then she was on the run and tried to follow her first great love Schneeberger and his half-Jewish wife Gisela into the mountains. But she was the last person they wanted to be caught with. She was stunned when Gisela called her a Nazi slut and threw her out. Riefenstahl was captured in the French zone. Somehow she survived a series of arrests and interrogations by French officers and was eventually classed a "follower," the least invidious form of Nazi and allowed to go free. She fled to the American zone with the ever-helpful Jacob, no longer her husband but termed her handyman. The Americans were friendlier to her than the Germans. In newly anti-Nazi Germany and Austria, she was now a pariah. The Germans knew her better than anyone else. The remains of her beautiful Berlin villa, built with the reichmarks she had received directly from Hitler, had been confiscated. She retrieved and sold it, using the money to finish and launch her only remaining asset, Tiefland, but by 1954 the film was just a mawkish, old-fashioned stylization - and a flop. The critics were scathing, just as the mostly Jewish ones had been of The Blue Light. Miscast as the young gypsy, Riefenstahl herself was dismayed by her appearance and never acted again. After turning 71, Reifenstahl found some late life joy and recognition as a maker of documentaries in East Africa and the Sudan and beneath the surface of the Red Sea. Not all the critics liked them; one called the plotless underwater poem Triumph of the Gill. Riefenstahl admired the handsome Nuba tribe of the Upper Nile and distributed prints of herself joyously hugging very black infants. Africa was a long way from German ostracism, and I suspect that the black infants were also a way of showing that she really wasn't a racist. In the last decades of her life, she found comfort in the tireless support of a young German Man Friday. Injured when her helicopter was shot down over Sudan, she died shortly afterward aged 103. Both of these generally similar books are relentlessly critical of Reifenstahl and her constant rewriting of her history, while refuting one self-serving lie after another. Jurgen Trimborn is a German professor of film history. His book is the more concise and has received an excellent translation by Edna McCown. Steven Bach, who has written biographies of Marlene Dietrich and Moss Hart and was once world production chief for United Artists, teaches at Harvard and Bennington. His book is replete with vivid details and further enlivened by many damning photographs.