Fascinating Fascism

SS Regalia

by Jack Pia
Ballantine Books, 158 pp., $2.95 (paper)
Leni Riefenstahl
Leni Riefenstahl; drawing by David Levine

I

First Exhibit. Here is a book of 126 splendid color photographs by Leni Riefenstahl, certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years. In the intractable desert of the southern Sudan live about eight thousand aloof, godlike Nuba, emblems of physical perfection, with large, well-shaped, partly shaven heads, expressive faces, and muscular bodies which are depilated and decorated with scars; smeared with sacred gray-white ash, the men prance, squat, brood, wrestle in the arid sand. And here is a fascinating layout of twelve black-and-white photographs of Leni Riefenstahl on the back cover of the book, also ravishing, a chronological sequence of expressions (from sultry inwardness to the grin of a Texas matron on safari) vanquishing the intractable march of aging.

The first photograph was taken in 1927 when she was twenty-five and already a movie star, the most recent are dated 1969 (she is cuddling a naked African baby) and 1972 (she is holding a camera), and each of them shows some version of an ideal presence, a kind of imperishable beauty, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s, that only gets gayer and more metallic and healthier-looking with old age. And here is a biographical sketch of Riefenstahl on the dust jacket, and an introduction (unsigned) entitled “How Leni Riefenstahl came to study the Mesakin Nuba of Kordofan”—full of disquieting lies.

The introduction, which gives a detailed account of Riefenstahl’s pilgrimage to the Sudan (inspired, we are told, by reading Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa “one sleepless night in the mid-1950s”), laconically identifies the photographer as “something of a mythical figure as a film-maker before the war, half-forgotten by a nation which chose to wipe from its memory an era of its history.” Who but Riefenstahl herself could have thought up this fable about what is mistily referred to as “a nation” which for some unnamed reason “chose” to perform the deplorable act of cowardice of forgetting “an era”—tactfully left unspecified—“of its history”? Presumably, at least some readers will be startled by this coy allusion to Germany and to the Third Reich. (It does, however, dare more than the all-concealing brevity of Harper & Row’s ads for The Last of the Nuba, which identify Riefenstahl simply as “the renowned film maker.”)

Compared with the introduction, the jacket of the book is positively expansive on the subject of the photographer’s career, parroting the misinformation that Riefenstahl has been dispensing for the last twenty years.

It was during Germany’s blighted and momentous 1930s that Leni Riefenstahl sprang to international fame as a film director. She was born in 1902, and her first devotion was to creative dancing. This led to her participation in silent films, and soon she was herself making—and starring in—her own talkies, such as The Mountain (1929).

These tensely romantic productions were widely admired, not least by Adolf Hitler who, having attained power in 1933, commissioned Riefenstahl…


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