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The definitive biography of Leni Riefenstahl, the woman best known as “Hitler’s filmmaker,” one of the most fascinating and controversial personalities of the twentieth century. It is the story of huge talent and huger ambition, one that probes the sometimes blurred borders dividing art and beauty from truth and humanity.
Two of Riefenstahl’s films, Olympia and Triumph of the Will, are universally regarded as the greatest and most innovative documentaries ever made, but they are also insidious glorifications of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Now, in this masterful new biography, Steven Bach reveals the truths and lies behind this gifted woman’s lifelong self-vindication as an apolitical artist who claimed she knew nothing of the Holocaust and denied her complicity with the criminal regime she both used and sanctified.
The facts and her actions, many unknown until now, bear chilling witness: her passionate enthusiasm for Hitler from her first reading of Mein Kampf; her involvements with Nazi leaders Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher, who advanced her career, and with Hitler, who personally helped finance it; her role as silent eyewitness to wartime atrocities against Jews; and her use of slave labor in the form of concentration camp Gypsies destined for Auschwitz. We see her after the war trying to sell footage to Hollywood under an alias, manipulating a sham “discovery” of the Nuba tribes of Sudan into a career comeback, fighting to disinherit her closest living relatives, and—to the end—unable to express remorse for the millions murdered by the Nazi regime made mythic by her work.
Relying on new sources—including interviews with her colleagues and intimate friends, as well as on previously unknown recordings of Riefenstahl herself—Bach gives us an exceptional work of historical investigation that untangles the past and is also an objective but unsparing appraisal of a woman of spectacular gifts corrupted by ruthless personal ambition.
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Steven Bach is the author of two previous biographies, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend and Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart. He was in charge of worldwide production for United Artists, where he was involved in such films as Raging Bull, Manhattan, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Heaven’s Gate, about which he wrote the bestseller Final Cut. He teaches at Bennington College and Columbia University and divides his time between New England and Europe.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
CHAPTER ONE: METROPOLIS
I want to become something quite great.
Leni Riefenstahl created images from light and shadow, from movement, rhythm, passion, prodigious energy, physical courage, and driving, epic ambition. She had, she said, one subject—beauty—and searched for it in the natural world, mountain high and underwater deep; in the flags and torches of massed multitudes; in the struggle and transcendence of athletic competition; in the physical and erotic perfection of primitive warriors; and—from the beginning—in herself.
She was born Helene Amalia Bertha Riefenstahl on August 22, 1902, in Wedding, a sooty workers’ district on the industrial edges of Berlin. The population of the city was then two million going on four, with growth so rapid that street maps were obsolete before printers could produce them. Disgruntled civic planners disparaged Berlin as a “nowhere city,” a city “always becoming” that “never is,” but advocates of change hailed “progress” and thrilled to restless urban rhythms as full of expectancy as its air—the fabled Berliner Luft—and just as vital and intoxicating.
The onetime river trading post and its mushrooming suburbs would incorporate as Greater Berlin in 1920, by which time the boundaries of “Athens on the Spree” were vast enough to embrace Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Munich put together. It was a parvenu metropolis compared to Paris, London, or Vienna with their Roman roots and ruins, but it was also—quite suddenly—the third largest metropolitan area in the world: loud, aggressive, and going places.
“The fastest city in the world!” they called Berlin when Leni was born there. It had been the capital of Germany, of what was grandly styled the Second Reich, for only thirty years, but empire builders in a hurry boasted of its modernity, unperturbed that horses still pulled trolleys through gaslit streets, that running water (hot or cold) was seldom encountered above the ground floor, and that the Berlin telephone directory was a twenty-six-page pamphlet. Crime and vice were no more rampant and no less colorful than in London, Paris, Buenos Aires, or New York. News of the day—or the minute—rolled off the presses in every political persuasion from the hundred dailies and weeklies that were published there in a babel of languages, making Berlin the liveliest, most densely concentrated center of journalism in all Europe.
Berlin’s boosters were too focused on the future to give more than a backward glance to such slums and laborers’ districts as Wedding or to the workers’ children, like Leni, growing up in them. Civic do-gooders nodded dutifully as Kaiser Wilhelm II reminded them of “the duty to offer to the toiling classes the possibility of elevating themselves to the beautiful.” One had only to point inferiors in the direction of the Hohenzollern Palace, the Tiergarten, the Victory Column, the broad canals and their 957 bridges (more than in Venice), the Pergamon Museum with its antiquities, the Reichstag with its “To the German People” promise carved in stone beneath its sheltering dome of steel and glass; or to the glittering theaters, operas, and hotels, the promenade streets such as tree-canopied Unter den Linden or the racier Kurfürstendamm (Bismarck’s answer to the Champs-Élysées) lined with shops and sidewalk cafés. If the toiling class infrequently abandoned the factory floors for tours of the more elegant venues of imperial Berlin, the kaiser graciously imparted his notions of art and the beautiful to them. “An art which transgresses the laws and barriers outlined by Me,” he explained, “ceases to be an art.” This rang with reassuring certainty to the aesthetically insecure and was a viewpoint that a later leader—a onetime painter of picture postcards and aspiring architect—would echo and that millions would accept with awed docility.
No city in Europe made such a cult of modernity. Berlin was rushing at the turn of the century to make up in future what it lacked in past, while custodians of nostalgia mourned “a vanished Arcadia” that had never truly been. Velocity, anonymity, and the cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of promise and peril inspired songs, paintings, novels, plays, and—already flickering silently when Leni was born—films. Most of these works inspired awe and alienation, too, as ordinary Berliners wondered uneasily where all this urban energy would lead. Ambivalence would find disturbing graphic expression in the 1920s, but prophetic, ominous visions of city life that were dubbed “degenerate” from the start began appearing in the teens from such painters as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Ludwig Meidner, who labeled his urban paintings “apocalyptic landscapes.”
Berlin-Wedding had scant time for art or musings on modernity. It was a dense warren of factories, foundries, and labor. It was blocks of tenements—called Mietskaserne, rent barracks—crowding blue-collar families into one- or two-room flats stacked five or six stories high around sunless courtyards where life was harsh and suicide a daily occurrence. “Tenement sickness” was shorthand for tuberculosis and rickets in Berlin, where the infant mortality rate was almost 20 percent when the nineteenth century ended and more than double that in Wedding, where it reached a high of 42 percent just after Leni was delivered there.
Wedding was poor but not without altruism and aspiration. Its mean streets offered shelter to the homeless in a spartan doss-house, and there was a small pond for ice-skating. Someone in 1905 rented out part of a courtyard shed as a photographer’s studio, and it wasn’t long before one-reel movies were being shot there. In 1912, Wedding established Berlin’s first crematorium to compensate for the scarcity and cost of open burial ground. Children played in courtyards; geraniums grew on windowsills; music and love got made; and by 1918, nearly 40 percent of all Berliners lived in tenement districts like it. We see their faces in the etchings and prints of Käthe Kollwitz; their bawdy, earthy pleasures titillate still in the sketches of Heinrich Zille, the poetic folk satirist and painter who knew them best and once observed that you can kill a man with his lodgings as well as you can with an ax.
“I hated the class system,” Leni Riefenstahl confided to a friend. She was turning ninety then, living in a sheltered lakeside villa in Bavaria, distant enough in every way from Wedding to give perspective on her birthplace, a basic tenement flat in the two-block-long Prinz-Eugen-Strasse. The rooms were first lodgings for first-time parents who were almost newlyweds, married in a civil ceremony on April 5, 1902, nearly five months before their daughter saw first light in August.
Leni’s father, Alfred Theodor Paul Riefenstahl, was not yet twenty-four when she was born. He was one of three boys and a girl born to Gustav and Amalie (née Lehmann) Riefenstahl in 1878 in the rural Brandenburg district surrounding Berlin. His father had been a blacksmith like his father before him, but Alfred—blond and burly and wearing an upturned Kaiser Wilhelm mustache—had been drawn to Berlin by economic opportunity. He styled himself “salesman” on documents, but in fact he was a plumber. He would in time build his own sanitation and ventilation business as domestic plumbing became standard: niceties turned into necessities, and a plumber into an entrepreneur.
Leni’s mother, Bertha Ida Scherlach Riefenstahl, was almost twenty-two when her daughter was born. Bertha was a willowy beauty with dark eyes, curly dark hair, and a determined jawline, all of which she passed on to her only daughter, who was born cross-eyed. Bertha herself was the eighteenth child of a mother who died giving birth to her in Wloclawek (now in Poland) on October 9, 1880. Shortly after Bertha’s mother died, her father—Leni’s carpenter grandfather—married his children’s nanny and fathered three more children, for a total of twenty-one.
There is a mystery here, one that might amount only to a niggling biographical puzzle were it not a hint of the shifting images of the past that Leni would manipulate as times changed and perspectives with them. Her background unavoidably aroused curiosity in the 1930s among powerful figures of the Third Reich as she rose to prominence among them. Rumors that she was Jewish—or partly so—gained currency in this period and traced an alleged line of Jewish descent through Bertha. Once aired, the rumors gained wide circulation in the European and American press during the early years of the Third Reich, though the allegations were never proved and were officially repudiated by the ultimate Third Reich authority, the Führer himself. Leni brushed the subject aside then and later as the poisoned residue of a malicious campaign orchestrated against her by Nazi propaganda minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels.
While some of the rumors were almost certainly inspired by Goebbels or others jealous of her position and privileges in the 1930s, not all of them were. Some of Leni’s closest friends and colleagues, including Dr. Arnold Fanck, the film director credited with Leni’s discovery, believed that Bertha was Jewish. As Leni’s onetime mentor and lover—and later a Nazi Party member—Fanck’s objectivity and veracity are not beyond challenge. Less equivocal is the testimony of art director Isabella Ploberger, who worked and lived with Leni and Bertha during World War II and took for granted that Bertha—“a lovely person, a fine person”—was Jewish. Ploberger believed that Goebbels knew, which accounted for his animosity.
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