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Fascinating Narcissism

Leni Riefenstahl: A Life

by Jürgen Trimborn, translated from the German by Edna McCown
Faber and Faber, 351 pp., $30.00


That Leni Riefenstahl was rather a monster is not really in dispute. And if it ever was, two new biographies provide enough information to nail her. Bad behavior began early. Steven Bach, in his excellent Leni, tells the story of Walter Lubovski, a Jewish boy in Berlin who fell madly in love with Riefenstahl after meeting her at a skating rink. In a fit of teenage cruelty, Leni and her girlfriends tormented the boy so badly that he slashed his wrists at the summer cottage of Riefenstahl’s family. To stop her father from discovering what had happened, she shoved the bleeding boy under the sofa. He survived and ended up in a mental institution before escaping to America, where he went blind. All Riefenstahl had to say when she heard was: “He never forgot me as long as he lived.”

Always a romantic about herself, Riefenstahl promoted the idea that all men were slavishly in love with her. Enough were, it seems. Working in a man’s world, Riefenstahl made the most of her charms, and her tantrums; tears came easily to this tough operator. But in her casual and, it seems, often callous promiscuity she behaved more like a typical man than a woman of her time. Whether or not Béla Balázs, the Hungarian critic and screenwriter, was one of her love slaves, he was smitten enough to write much of the screenplay for The Blue Light, Riefenstahl’s first film as a director, and to direct several scenes as well. He even agreed to defer payment until the film earned money.

The movie, an overblown romance about a wild-eyed woman (Riefenstahl) scrambling up a mountain and communing with crystals above the swirling Alpine clouds, was dismissed in 1932 by Berlin critics as protofascist kitsch. Riefenstahl was furious: “What do these Jewish critics understand about our mentality? They have no right to criticize our work.” Perhaps she had forgotten that Balázs was Jewish too; in any case, she would soon claim sole credit for the film. After 1933, her critics, Jewish or not, were silenced. Hitler hailed the film as a sublime manifestation of the German spirit, and it became a success. For the sake of racial purity, Balázs’s name had by then been removed from the credits, and the man himself had relocated to Moscow. When he demanded his cut, Riefenstahl asked her friend Julius Streicher, editor of Der Stürmer, to handle the matter. Balázs never saw a pfennig.

Still, great artists don’t have to be nice. The question is whether Leni Riefenstahl was really a great artist, as she claimed, and as many others, by no means all Nazi sympathizers, still believe. Or was her work so tainted by bad politics that it could never be regarded as good art, however technically inventive? This raises other questions: Can fascist or Nazi art ever be good? And what about the work Riefenstahl did before and after the Third Reich? If The Blue Light and other Alpine fantasies about the German sublime could be condemned by the eminent critic Siegfried Kracauer as “heroic idealism” that was “kindred to Nazi spirit,” what about Riefenstahl’s postwar photography of African tribesmen and marine life in the Indian Ocean? Susan Sontag famously detected a continuous sensibility in all Riefenstahl’s work, including the African pictures, which she described in these pages as “fascinating fascism.”1

Sontag’s argument was as much about the reception of Riefenstahl’s work as the art itself. Enthusiasts, she believed, were attracted to a kind of kinky fascism, to the allure of hard men and black leather. Rock stars seem particularly susceptible to this kind of thing. The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once turned up in an SS uniform while Leni was photographing Mick Jagger. In a recent interview for a German newspaper, the British singer Brian Ferry rhapsodized:

The way in which the Nazis stage-managed and presented themselves…! I’m talking about Leni Riefenstahl films and Albert Speer’s buildings and the mass rallies and the flags—simply fantastic. Really lovely.2

QED, Susan. But might it still be possible, nonetheless, to separate the best of Riefenstahl’s art from its sinister setting?


Leni Riefenstahl was born in 1902 in Wedding, a low-rent area of Berlin. Her father, Alfred, ran a plumbing business, was a despot at home, and strongly disapproved of his daughter’s early artistic yearnings. Her mother, Bertha, was more encouraging. She may have been partly Jewish. As with other Nazi figures, such rumors have been circulated. But if so, it was well disguised in the various documents of racial provenance that could be a matter of life and death for citizens of the Third Reich.

Leni’s early yearnings ran to expressionist dancing. She was enrolled in a dance school which boasted Anita Berber as a former student. Berber liked to dance in the nude, in pieces with such titles as Cocaine or Suicide. These dances demanded great dramatic gestures of ecstasy and death. The young Leni once replaced Berber in a recital. The style would stay with her. Three Dances of Eros, Surrender, and Oriental Fairy Tale were the titles of her earliest dance performances.

Riefenstahl’s sponsor in the early 1920s was Harry Sokal, a Jewish banker. He showered her with fur coats and money, and begged her to marry him. There were fights, threats of suicide (Sokal’s), but the partnership was fruitful, until Sokal, like Balázs, was compelled to leave Germany (his name, too, disappeared from the credits of The Blue Light). Riefenstahl’s dance performances, put on all over Germany and beyond, were admired for their enthusiasm and beauty. But one critic, John Schikowski, wrote in the Berlin Vorwärts: “All in all, a very strong artistic nature, that within its own territory is perfectly adequate. But that territory is severely limited and lacks the highest, most important quality: that of the soul.”

It is an interesting observation, which might be applied to much of Riefenstahl’s subsequent work in the cinema, even when, or perhaps especially when, it strived to express nothing but soul, the soul of mystical heroines on mountaintops, of the German nation, of the Führer and his paladins. Riefenstahl’s mentor in soulful mountain movies was the specialist in this genre, Dr. Arnold Fanck. But her debut was in a film entitled Ways to Strength and Beauty, in which she appeared as a classical nude figure in the ancient world. The film, released in 1925, was in line with the German fashion for healthy naturalism, nude calisthenics, tough sports, male bonding, and the cult of “Germanness” (Deutschtum). The guiding idea, Bach informs us, was nothing less than the “regeneration of the human race.”

Fanck’s films are very much in this mold. In 1925, Riefenstahl starred in The Holy Mountain as a beautiful young woman caught in a love triangle on a mountaintop (“her life is her dance, the expression of her stormy soul”). Female temptation in this type of film is a danger that must be defied by a heroic act of male sacrifice. The two rivals for her affections choose to die as comrades, tumbling together into an icy abyss.

Why Fanck cast Riefenstahl as the star is not entirely clear. She herself never doubted the magic of her personal appeal. Fanck, too, allegedly threatened suicide when Riefenstahl shifted her amorous attentions to the leading man, Luis Trenker (Sokal had already been left pining in the cold, despite his largesse). “All of them were in love with me,” she recalled. “Oh, it was a drama always!” But the fact that Harry Sokal offered to finance the movie must have helped her get the part. More than that, Sokal bought out Fanck’s company. After The Holy Mountain, Riefenstahl starred in The Great Leap (1927), The White Hell of Piz Palü (1929), and Storm over Mont Blanc (1930).

Although none of these films rose above crude melodrama, Fanck had a real talent for visual effects. He was a great experimenter with different lenses, camera angles, and filters. Working with such superb cameramen as Hans Schneeberger (another Riefenstahl conquest), he was a master of dramatic cloud effects and backlighting that gave human figures as well as Alpine landscapes a mystical aura. The hyped-up drama of expressionism was fused in his work with a quasi-religious mood of German Romanticism. Susan Sontag used the phrase “pop-Wagnerian,” which seems about right.

Fanck himself became a keen Nazi, and the Nazis borrowed heavily from the same aesthetic sources. None of these, however, neither the Romanticism, nor the expressionism, nor the Wagnerism, let alone the avant-garde visuals of the Weimar period, can be called inherently fascistic. To be sure, the stress on physical perfection, heroic sacrifice, male discipline, power, purity, and the grandeur of nature lent themselves very well to the Nazi or fascist style. But so did the clean classical lines of some Bauhaus architecture. Joseph Goebbels, the author of a truly awful expressionist novel entitled Michael, initially favored expressionism as the most suitable style for the Third Reich. Hitler, whose taste ran more to sentimental nineteenth-century kitsch, quashed that idea. He liked heroic nudes, Wagnerian bombast, and monumental classicist architecture.

It is tempting to see a direct link between Fanck’s The Holy Mountain and Riefenstahl’s quasi documentary of the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will. Of the two authors under review, Steven Bach comes closer to this view. Jürgen Trimborn, a young German film historian, whose book is more earnest and less amusing, but well worth reading, is almost painfully nuanced. Yes, “the Darwinism underlying many of Fanck’s films placed them in dangerous proximity to National Socialist propaganda.” Yes, in the context of the “nationalistic elevation of alpinism, the films of Arnold Fanck were praised as a ‘profession of the faith of many Germans.’” But, Trimborn writes,

despite such arguments, it would be an oversimplification to consider the mountain films exclusively as prefascist creations, as this does not take into consideration the complex roots of the genre, including the literature of Romanticism, the alpinist movement, and the nature cult of the early twentieth century.

If this is right—and I think it is—it doesn’t help to make the case for Riefenstahl. With her considerable talent, energy, and opportunism, she absorbed Fanck’s technical innovations in camera work and editing and used them to produce works of pure Nazi propaganda. What makes The Triumph of the Will such a poisonous film is not the classicism and crude Romanticism of Weimar-period Deutschtumelei, but the political manipulation of such aesthetics by Riefenstahl and Albert Speer, who designed the parade grounds at Nuremberg for the party rally.

They were much alike, Hitler’s favorite architect and favorite filmmaker: young, ambitious, intoxicated by power, and more than a little unscrupulous. This doesn’t mean that they were convinced Nazi ideologues. Speer wasn’t the only architect who saw a main chance in German totalitarianism. Greater men than he, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, fished for commissions from the Nazis. Just as there was an aesthetic link between Fanck’s mystical mountains and the Nazi style, the cold, perfectionist modernism of Mies could lend itself to totalitarian aims. But happily for Mies, Hitler did not warm to his projects. He not only preferred Speer and Riefenstahl, but insofar as he had an emotional life at all, he seems to have adored them. Even though there is no evidence, in the case of Riefenstahl, that his feelings led to any physical entanglement, she did nothing to quell the rumors that they had.

  1. 1

    The New York Review, February 6, 1975. Reprinted in Under the Sign of Saturn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972).

  2. 2

    Quoted in The Guardian, April 16, 2007.

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