Steven Peterson's Reviews > Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl

Leni by Steven Bach
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Nov 25, 09

Read in June, 2007

This biography of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach is compelling reading. It tells the tale of someone with great talent--but also someone who could never come honestly to grips with her role in Nazi Germany. Someone who, in the end, was a mediocre actress and dancer and a very talented filmmaker and photographer. But even with her successes, many felt that with Riefenstahl, she put as much focus on herself as on her works. And, with some of her works, critics noted that they were technically wonderful, but not with much soul or heart.

Her early years featured a strong, almost overbearing father; she early learned how to try to "get around him." Her mother Bertha (whom some suspected of being Jewish) was supportive of her, whereas her father wanted nothing to do with Leni's visions for her future as a dancer. Injury derailed her from dance, and she began acting, with her most prominent genre being the so-called Alpine films. While she saw herself as a terrific actress, outside of some exceptions, she appears to have been rather ordinary. But, as throughout her life, her self-image was far more positive; she never had the ability to be self-critical. One virtue that emerged early in her films was physical courage (page 43), "the only personal quality she possessed that colleagues and even enemies could later praise without reservation."

Through a series of events, she ended up in a position to direct a film featuring Adolf Hitler at the 1933 Nazi party congress, "Victory of Faith." It was not as well done as her later, much better known films, but it provided her experience in developing techniques, coming to understand camera work, and so on. Here, she was clearly working on concert with Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi political machine, although she steadfastly resisted the implication that she was a willing and even enthusiastic partner in her films with the party. Hitler decided that he wanted her to do a follow for the 1934 party congress. The result was one of her classics (and a troubling classic, given its explicit vehicle for Nazi propaganda), "Triumph of the Will." Anyone interested in the art of Riefenstahl must watch this movie; there is an awesome (and awful) grandeur to it. Following this, another of her major works, the film that focused on the 1936 Olympics. Technically, another strong work. Some of the same troubling questions, though, remain, including her ties to the Nazis.

Her work as, at least functionally, a propagandist of the Third Reich essentially ended her film making career, although she made a handful of efforts. Thwarted, she moved to documentaries (in Africa) and photography. At a point later in life, she became one of the oldest scuba divers around and took what are apparently fine photographs underneath the sea. In her 80s and 90s, there was renewed interest in her earlier classic works, including showings at some film festivals. Even at that, though, when interviewed she would deny involvement with the Nazis, with the use of Gypsies as extras (some of whom would perish in the concentration camps), and so on. One of her later statements makes this clear, when she said (page 274) "I have never done anything I didn't want to do, and nothing I've ever been ashamed of."

This is a strong biography of a fascinating character, whose denial of her role in World War II leaves the reader troubled. She was remarkably ambitious and used whatever tools that she had at her disposal to get ahead; she was strong-willed and made enemies. This is a work that illuminates this complex person.
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