×

Leni: The Life And Work Of Leni Riefenstahl; Leni Riefenstahl: A Life

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.

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.

More Reviews

  • The Loudest Voice Review

    TV Review: 'The Loudest Voice'

    Roger Ailes, the late Fox News chief and one of the most consequential figures in the history of media, saw and used two seemingly incompatible sides of television. A traditionalist entertainer who came up in the industry at “The Mike Douglas Show,” Ailes rooted himself in certain rock-solid fundamentals of attracting and retaining audience attention; [...]

  • Concert Review: Lady Gaga Dazzles Pride-Week

    Concert Review: Lady Gaga Dazzles Pride-Week Crowd With Hit-Packed Show at Apollo Theater

    “It’s been a decade since I played to an audience this size,” Lady Gaga said, in one of many look-how-far-I’ve-come moments during this invite-only hometown concert. “I went from playing for 30 people to 300 people to fifteen hundred people,” she continued, adding on even more zeroes before concluding, “and that’s down to one thing: [...]

  • 'Annabelle Comes Home' Review: This Grab

    Film Review: 'Annabelle Comes Home'

    In a country that should probably think about renaming itself the American Entertainment State, fan culture now produces an obsessive level of pop scholasticism, one that can parse the rules and details of movies and TV shows as if they were fine points of law. In a review of a horror movie, I once called [...]

  • The Other Story

    Film Review: 'The Other Story'

    Family disputes and conspiracies take center stage in “The Other Story,” veteran helmer Avi Nesher’s lively drama exploring a hot button issue: the divide between Israel’s secular Jews and the ultra-Orthodox. The fluid narrative plays out against the backdrop of a Jerusalem riven by multiple conflicts as two dysfunctional families separately arrive at an understanding [...]

  • The Wolf Hour

    Shanghai Film Review: 'The Wolf Hour'

    Run a finger along any of the surfaces in Alistair Banks Griffin’s sophomore feature “The Wolf Hour,” and it will come up slicked with sweat, grime and the residual soot of the city. It is the summer of 1977,  and it’s hotter than hell. June Leigh (Naomi Watts) perches on the window sill of the [...]

  • Vortex

    Shanghai Film Review: 'Vortex'

    Official statistics imply that violent crime is close to an all-time low across China today, but you would hardly guess as much from the glut of commercial-leaning crime and gangster movies that the Middle Kingdom is producing and, as often as not, given the accessibility of the genre and the historical pedigree of Asian action [...]

  • Fruit Bats

    Album Review: Fruit Bats' 'Gold Past Life'

    Who says nostalgia ain’t what it used to be? It’s back and better than ever, as they say, in Fruit Bats’ terrific eighth album, “Gold Past Life,” which, as the title would suggest, has a lot to say about the bittersweet pull of memories of simpler and easier times. Nearly every song is its own [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content