Friday, April 27, 2007 | return to: arts


Unrepentant to the last: Author explores life of Hitler’s filmmaker

by dan pine, staff writer

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She was Hitler's personal mythmaker, a talented beauty with a movie camera and an outsized ego. And to her dying day -- which was long in coming -- Leni Riefenstahl maintained both her innocence and her artistic purity.

Not so fast, says author Steven Bach. In his newly published biography, "Leni," Bach sheds light on the auteur of Nazi propaganda films like "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia," revealing her for the petulant queen of denial she was.

Oh, by the way, she might have been Jewish.

Bach will appear in the Bay Area as part of a national book tour. That means for a while longer he will continue to dwell on the woman that both fascinates and repels him.

"Her energy and determination are somehow admirable," said Bach of Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at the age of 101. "But I can do nothing but deplore the uses to which she put them. She was so tone deaf to morality and remorse."

Bach spent years researching the book, gaining access to long-sealed German and Polish documents and audiotapes. He was inspired to delve into the life of Riefenstahl while writing a biography of entertainer Marlene Dietrich, a woman who was in many ways Leni's mirror image.

"Both were born in [Berlin]," he said, "within eight months of each other. Both grew up in the exact same environment, both were beautiful, sexually liberated, ambitious, and yet ended up on opposite ends of a kind of moral continuum. It had to do with their reactions to the Third Reich."

While Dietrich sided with America, Riefenstahl stayed in Germany, working her way up from dancer, serial seducer, model and bit actress to pioneering filmmaker. She never joined the Nazi party, but she was willing to sidle up to Hitler's to further her career.

Riefenstahl is best known as the director of "Triumph of the Will," a chronicle of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, and "Olympia," a record of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (during which African American sprinter Jesse Owens single-footedly disproved the Nazi theory of Aryan superiority).

Even detractors concede Riefenstahl was a brilliant filmmaker. Bach noted that she applied "fiction film techniques into documentaries in a way that caused a basic newsreel form to take on very powerful emotional and artistic qualities. Rather than going to the objectivity, she packed ['Triumph of the Will'] with emotion and romanticism."

In "Olympia," Riefenstahl brought "extraordinary imagination on how to best photograph the human body in motion. There's not a sports photographer alive who isn't in her debt in some way."

That's about all the praise Bach can muster for his subject.

Not only was Riefenstahl a world-class egotist who cozied up to the uppermost echelons of the Nazi party (there were rumors she was Hitler's mistress), but she also spent the rest of her life denying any wrongdoing. Her favorite refrain in interview after interview was: "Of what am I guilty?"

Ask Bach, who is not Jewish, and he says she's guilty of plenty.

Though she denied it, Riefenstahl used Gypsy slave laborers as extras in one of her films. She also had her mother's birth records falsified. There could be only one reason for that, theorized Bach: Leni Riefenstahl had Jewish ancestors.

"Intimate friends who knew her mother swore that she was Jewish," said the author. "It shows the depths of her ambition, if true, that nothing, not even her own genetic heritage, could stand in the way of that ambition. She was not a deeply emotional anti-Semite, but she was most definitely an opportunistic anti-Semite: One of those people who goes along wholeheartedly once it became the temper of the times."

One aspect of her career Bach finds galling is the fact that Riefenstahl collected royalties from her propaganda films throughout her life. As he put it, she made money off the Nazi party until the day she died.

After years of research, writing and, now, lecturing, Bach says he's ready finally to let go of Leni Riefenstahl. But he believes there are lessons to be learned from her story.

"It's never too late to remind people that uncontrolled ambition can lead to the most immoral acts," he says. "You don't have to actually turn on the gas to kill someone."

Steven Bach
will appear 7 p.m. Monday, April 30, at Cody's Books, 1730 Fourth St., Berkeley; and 7 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., S.F.

"Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl"
by Steven Bach (386 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, $30).


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