Leni Riefenstahl’s career poses an ongoing challenge for anyone who believes artists must bear responsibility for the consequences of their work. Her docus broke new ground, but they were created to celebrate the Nazi Party’s 1934 rally at Nuremberg and the notorious 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Later in life — she died at age 101 in 2003 — Riefenstahl refused to admit her movies enabled the genocidal regime. UA exec turned author Steven Bach and German film historian Jurgen Trimborn render the same judgment: Riefenstahl wasn’t a monster, but she was the ultimate opportunist.
Bach’s biography is better written and displays more personal hostility; Trimborn’s prose is slightly dry (at least in translation) and his attitude more detached, though he actually interviewed Riefenstahl, then 95 years old, and had some further contact before concluding she could make no useful contribution to “a balanced and objective account.”
The books differ only in nuance as they sketch her childhood battling with an authoritarian father and her youthful stardom in Alpine films, the nature-worshipping genre many see as expressing a proto-Nazi mindset. Clear from the start is Riefenstahl’s driving ambition, her desire to excel and succeed in something, anything. She certainly succumbed to Hitler’s personal magnetism, but what she really loved was the unlimited budget and total artistic freedom he provided.
She had as much money, time, film stock and personnel as she wanted, and operated independently of increasingly irritated propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
She managed to convince several postwar denazification tribunals that she was so wrapped up in her work she had no idea what was going on in the outside world — though photos later surfaced of her witnessing a massacre in Poland — and she escaped any immediate punishment for her enthusiastic embrace of the Nazis.
Ironically, it was the artistic power of movies like “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” that destroyed any chance of a subsequent career for Riefenstahl. (Trimborn has the edge in evoking the techniques that made Riefenstahl’s films so visually extraordinary.)
She could, and did, obtain legal injunctions against anyone who publicly charged her with collaboration, but no commercial studio anywhere would touch a director whose glorification of fascism was on film for all to see.
Bach and Trimborn follow her through decades of failed projects before she found new inspiration in Africa and a second profession as the author of glossy photography books depicting the Nuba tribe. These, too, came under attack from anthropologists and, most influentially, Susan Sontag in a 1975 article entitled “Fascinating Fascism.”
Riefenstahl’s swooning admiration of physical beauty and strength and her highly romantic view of nature never changed; nor did she ever remove the moral blinders.
“Leni died as she had lived: armor-clad,” writes Bach. It’s a fitting epitaph.