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 …