PRINT December 1993


Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir

Leni Riefenstahl, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 669 pages.

It’s terribly difficult knowing what to think about Leni Riefenstahl’s Memoir. She began writing it when she was 80, finished it at 85, and now that she’s 91 the English-language edition has just been issued. While the Memoir concludes in 1982, a new documentary (Ray Müller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl) shows her soldiering on with enough projects to last another lifetime. Together, the film and autobiography should meld into a hymn to the wondrous possibilities of simply, magnificently getting on with the job of living a life.

They don’t. The epic ambiguity that has accrued around Riefenstahl is an impenetrable cloud bank resistant to all forms of conventional navigation. Caught in that vast whiteness, I keep thinking of a line by D. H. Lawrence: “If people lived without accepting lies they would ripen like apples, and be scented like pippins in their old age.” In February of 1932, Leni Riefenstahl forever lost the possibility of becoming a Lawrentian apple. It was then that she heard Adolf Hitler for the first time, and it induced a vision: “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.”

What makes everything such a mess with Riefenstahl is that her greatest achievement was also her greatest offense. Between the ages of 30 and 40, at the height of the Third Reich, she became a legendary filmmaker; and the very authority of her accomplishment forever compromised her reputation and her work.

It is perhaps easiest to begin with what seems most clear. Riefenstahl was a dancer and actress of some renown in prewar Germany. In 1932, she directed and starred in The Blue Light, a film of great technical and esthetic significance. Not long after, she became a highly visible supporter and sometime acquaintance of Hitler. At his behest she made two documentaries, Day of Freedom and Triumph of the Will, both commemorating the Nuremberg Party Convention of 1934. Two years later, at the invitation of the International Olympic Committee, Riefenstahl shot Olympia, her revolutionary documentary on the Berlin Games (released in 1938, after two years of editing). From 1941 to 1943, she produced, directed, and starred in Tiefland, which, by the time it was released, in 1954, was a gorgeous antique.

This superficial narrative might easily lead one to believe the Riefenstahl problem is Hitler. It is not that simple. Like the architect Albert Speer’s, Riefenstahl’s real problem was an esthetic vision every bit as complicated and grandiose as Hitler’s political vision. In Triumph of the Will and Olympia, she created documentaries that not only enhanced reality but aggressively surpassed it. Within the stadiums of Nuremberg and Berlin, Riefenstahl choreographed a world of clockwork precision in which individuality is achieved only by its approximation of perfection. Everything feeds the spectacle; everything is consumed to fuel the final, idealized vision of the creator. And, indeed, the vision is literally ravishing. Nobody ever really caught the allure of fascism like Riefenstahl. She knew instinctively that by building from its imperially classicist underpinnings, she could harmonize its most nihilistic excesses by imposing a hypnotic rhythm that kept everything sailing forward to a Valhalla where hero and herd are as one.

Riefenstahl’s relationship with the Reich appears, as she tells it, to have been one against all. I’m inclined to believe her. Simply being a woman in the midst of Hitler’s all-boy fraternity must have been tricky. Her major grievances are typically directed at an obstreperous, malfunctioning bureaucracy. Hitler is portrayed as a man with his head in the clouds—a pose in which Riefenstahl frequently filmed him. That he was a bad person is concealed, attributed to a hazily defined schizophrenia. Their talk has the leaden cadence of plot filler in an operetta. She says: “If I had been born an Indian or a Jew you wouldn’t even speak to me, so how can I work for someone who makes such distinctions among people?” He says: “I wish the people around me would be as uninhibited as you.” Cut! Cue orchestra!

What Riefenstahl knew about the death camps is, she says, exactly nothing. (After the war she was accused of using Gypsies from one of the camps for crowd scenes in Tiefland; she was found innocent). Given the amount of time she devoted to filming and editing, it is plausible. Even her sexual relations during this period were, like meals, grabbed on the run with the occasional crew member or, during Olympia, athlete. The biggest howl in the book is the inauguration of her affair with the American decathlon champion Glenn Morris: “The dim light prevented any filming of the ceremony, and when Glenn Morris came down the steps, he headed straight towards me. I held out my hand and congratulated him, but he grabbed me in his arms, tore off my blouse, and kissed my breasts, right in the middle of the stadium, in front of a hundred thousand spectators. . . . I never wanted to speak to him again, never go anywhere near him again. But then I couldn’t avoid him because of the pole vault.”

The Memoir is at its best when Riefenstahl is working—is on her way to the next metaphoric pole vault, first on her completed films, then on the films that never were (but became three books of photography). When Riefenstahl isn’t working she makes herself miserable and then reaches out to make those around her miserable. That portion of the book devoted to her inability to work (initially because of her past) is brutal. Riefenstahl recounts her mile-high fall from grace with a relentless reliance on facts. You get the feeling that if, for an instant, she abandoned the neutrality of her reportage, the seams would come apart with the sound of tearing metal. Then, finally, like Melville’s great whale, “bedraggled with trailing ropes, and harpoons, and lances,” Riefenstahl breaks free and heads for Africa.

When, in 1956, Riefenstahl arrives in Khartoum, both she and her book come vividly back to life. She travels to the Nuba tribes of Sudan and, in their culture, finds her kind of theater of plastic exquisiteness. Central to the Nuba is the wrestling festival, which, for Riefenstahl, becomes a visceral grail. I have a suspicion Riefenstahl is in a funny way cleansed by these matches. Year in and year out, the clans gather and a man upends a man, and the people rejoice, and order is maintained, and crops are harvested, and the great stinking waste of a world war becomes smaller and smaller.

For fifteen years Riefenstahl shuttles between Europe and Africa to document the Nuba. Her mother dies, and she is beset by illnesses, lawsuits, and attacks from the media. Movie deals blow up in her face; the rights to her films are constantly in jeopardy. But Riefenstahl chugs along like the little engine that could and, against all odds, gets two remarkable books (The Last of the Nuba and The Nuba of Kau) published. Her career is rehabilitated, her films are rediscovered, and she is culturally de-Nazified.

But, because she is Leni Riefenstahl, there is yet another bomb waiting to explode. This time it is lobbed by Susan Sontag, who, after leafing through The Last of the Nuba, writes an essay for The New York Times called “Fascinating Fascism.” It gets nasty very quickly: “If the photographs are examined carefully, in conjunction with the lengthy text written by Riefenstahl, it becomes clear that they are continuous with her Nazi work.” The impact of Sontag’s attack takes a tremendous toll, and newly opened doors begin slamming shut.

“Fascinating Fascism” was published in 1975, and I get the feeling that it killed any hope Riefenstahl might have seriously entertained about making another film in this lifetime. She takes a chapter to refute Sontag’s charges and then, very quickly, the memoir moves to its conclusion. Things happen, but something has snapped. At 72, she takes up scuba diving and publishes her third book of photographs, Coral Gardens. It’s vaguely depressing, as if Riefenstahl had exiled herself to the very bottom of the sea.

The book’s end is distressingly painful. “My aim was to tackle preconceived ideas and to clear up misunderstandings and I spent five years working on the manuscript. It was not an easy task since I was the only one who could write these memoirs; it did not turn out to be a happy one.” I prefer the conclusion of Ray Müller’s film, which shows Riefenstahl far below the surface of the water watching a giant stingray sweep silently by. As the creature passes her, she drifts up, glides over it, and then propels herself down onto its back. The need to measure herself against that which can destroy her persists. It is the troublesome heart of her art.

Richard Flood is director of the Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York.