"LENI RIEFENSTAHL: A LIFE," by Jurgen Trimborn, translated by Edna McCown, Faber and Faber, 333 pages, $26
"LENI: THE LIFE AND WORK OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL," by Steven Bach, Knopf, 384 pages, $30
"The borderline between life and film is in constant flux with Leni Riefenstahl," German filmmaker Ray Muller said after interviewing his legendary colleague for a documentary in 1992 when she was 90 years old.
The reader of these two biographies can only agree: The woman known as "Hitler's filmmaker" and "the world's most famous female film director" strove for seven decades to make the facts of her life fit the way she wanted her life — and her films — to be interpreted.
Steven Bach writes that Riefenstahl's lifelong manipulations "served the construction of a romantic image of instant stardom and spontaneous self-generation that she would refine and advance until she died in 2003 at the age of 101."
Jurgen Trimborn, whose book was originally published in German in 2002 before Leni died, writes, "Until the end of her life she never showed any willingness to honestly confront her past."
Both books center on refuting Riefenstahl's denials concerning her involvement with Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Both can be strongly recommended as compact yet highly informative studies of an extraordinarily long and event-filled life.
Bach, author of biographies of Marlene Dietrich and Moss Hart, provides more detail (in his endnotes he corrects Trimborn on a couple of errors of fact). But Trimborn, a German film historian who interviewed Riefenstahl, is somewhat more incisive in analyzing key incidents in her career.
Bertha Helene Amalie Riefenstahl was born Aug. 22, 1902, in Berlin. Bach documents a strong possibility that Riefenstahl's mother's birth mother was Jewish, which under Nazi race laws would have forestalled any career, not to mention normal life, for Riefenstahl. For this reason, Bach maintains, Riefenstahl always presented her mother's stepmother as her (Riefenstahl's) real grandmother.
Riefenstahl's fame — notoriety — rests, of course, on making what has been praised as the greatest documentary and damned as the most pestiferous propaganda film of all time, "Triumph des Willens" ("Triumph of the Will"), her account of the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. Bach and Trimborn lean strongly toward the "propaganda" camp but concede that even at that, it is a brilliant work.
Her international renown was heightened with two films of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that likewise have been praised for their artistry, castigated for glorifying fascism and disputed as true documentaries.
Riefenstahl had made her name in Nazi circles with a party-commissioned film about the 1933 party rally. Still earlier she made her name as an actress, after a highly successful but brief stint as a stage dancer, in the curiously German phenomenon of "alpine films," stirring mountain epics directed by Arnold Fanck. He became one in a long series of Riefenstahls lovers.
Alpine films were extremely popular, but even at that time critics saw in them themes — anti-rationalism, inflated sentiments — that prefigured the Nazi spirit. Trimborn believes this view is simplistic and ignores the many roots of alpine films.
If, as Riefenstahl said, discovering alpine films was a turning point in her life, another was discovering Hitler. "Fate smiled on her in the person of Adolf Hitler," Bach writes, "and she smiled back."
Riefenstahl ceaselessly denied that two-way "smile." The authors demonstrate otherwise:
She first met Hitler in May 1932, a meeting she sought, though she said it was the other way around. Indeed, Riefenstahl said Hitler tried to put the moves on her, when in fact she tried to vamp him (though no one was less vampable).
Her denials of being anti-Semitic are more than suspect. An ambitious opportunist, she was not averse to stepping on Jews or taking advantage of their persecution. She blamed setbacks on "Jew critics." Her 1938 tour of the United States was a disaster, especially in Hollywood; upon her return she complained of "the smear campaigns of the Jews."
She claimed to be apolitical (she never joined the Nazi Party), interested only in art and only reluctantly made films for the fuehrer. To the contrary, she went after opportunities. Bach says, "What is undeniable is that she used her century's most powerful art form to make and propagate a vision that eased the path of a murderous dictator who fascinated her and shaped a criminal regime she found both inspiring and personally useful. Her lifelong pose of naivete about them is not credible." After making "Triumph" she was subject to the orders of no one but Hitler — nearly unheard-of preferential treatment.
During the financially lean postwar years, Riefenstahl kept busy filing more than 50 lawsuits against individuals and publications that tried to tell the truth about her past; as Bach puts it, "her self-exoneration was on permanent display."
Yet what could never be taken away from her was her enormous energy, physical courage and tolerance for pain. She learned scuba diving at age 70. She suffered serious injuries in a car crash in her 60s, a broken hip while skiing at 79, and broken bones in a helicopter crash at 98.
With Horst Kettner, the 24-year-old assistant who joined her in 1968 and remained with her for the rest of her life, she produced books of photos of the Nuba tribes in the Sudan that received worldwide acclaim. Some critics demurred, most notably Susan Sontag; she called the Nuba studies an extension of Riefenstahl's "Fascinating Fascism." A later book of stunning underwater photos received less adulterated acclaim.
Trimborn points out that a new view of Riefenstahl's vigorous life began arising in her 90s, that of an "icon of vitality," further noting that, as she neared her 100th birthday she also was "nearing a general absolution."
Leni Riefenstahl, who insisted on having — and usually got — her own way in life, may also get it in death.
Roger K. Miller, a journalist for many years, is a freelance writer and reviewer for several publications and a frequent contributor to the Deseret Morning News.