Most audiences have found Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries more memorable than her fictional films. Although such works as Das blaue licht (1932; The Blue Light) and Tiefland (1954) suffer from a maudlin tone and turgid acting, Riefenstahl’s influential documentaries such as Triumph des Willens (1935; Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (1938) are commonly cited as models of cinematography because of their dramatic images, crisp editing, and innovative camera placements. Riefenstahl, it seems, was at her best when assembling images, not narratives, and she made her greatest contribution by reshaping depictions of actual events until they reflected her mental image of how the world “should” look. In Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, Steven Bach argues that Riefenstahl approached life in the same way that she approached her films: She continually “reedited” and reinvented images of herself, creating what can only be called a compelling fiction out of images drawn from reality.
Steven Bach, the author of Final Cut (1985), The Life and Legend of Marlene Dietrich (1992), and Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart (2002), has brought a new interpretation to the life of a figure who is revered by some because of her influence on modern filmmaking, reviled by others for creating works that glorified Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship, and grudgingly admired by still others as a survivor and a woman who rose to dominate a society and industry largely controlled by men. Bach brings his experience as former senior vice president and head of worldwide productions for United Artists studios and as professor of film studies at Columbia University and Bennington College to his analysis of not only Riefenstahl’s life but also her creations. Just as in Final Cut Bach cast a critical eye on the inflated egos, errors of judgment, and misdirected optimism involved in Michael Cimino’s financially disastrous Heaven’s Gate (1980), so in Leni does he challenge Riefenstahl’s interpretation of her life as it appears in her 1987 autobiography, Memoiren (Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, 1993), and in numerous interviews that she gave after World War II. Bach presents Riefenstahl as an opportunist who took full advantage of the doors that were opened for her by Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Albert Speer when it was beneficial to do so and who then denounced them only when the political climate had changed.
Bach presents Riefenstahl as learning early in life to obtain what she wanted by enduring the wrath of men, cajoling them when necessary, and, in many cases, seducing them. Her father, Alfred, forbade her from pursuing a career as a dancer, a restriction that Riefenstahl overcame through false promises, minor concessions, a string of deceptions, and eventually outright lies. When confronted by Alfred’s tirades, Leni would simply endure them with a look of false penitence, promise to change, and then continue doing whatever she wished, a pattern of passive aggression that would continue throughout her life. Her work as a dancer brought her some early offers to appear in silent films, such as the now-forgotten Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (1925; Ways to Strength and Beauty), and to serve as a photographic model. Nevertheless, it was the cinematic style of Arnold Fanck, with its glorification of rugged athleticism and idealized image of morally pure Alpine peasants, that proved to be a real turning point for Riefenstahl. She began by befriending Fanck, appearing in his films such as Der heilige Berg (1926; The Holy Mountain) and S.O.S. Eisberg (1933; S.O.S. Iceberg), and imitating his visual style in her own tentative efforts at directing. By the end of her life, however, she would come to deny that Fanck had any influence on her work whatsoever and refuse to be interviewed by any reporter who had first spoken to her onetime mentor.
The visual style that Fanck inspired can be clearly seen in Riefenstahl’s early works, such as The Blue Light and Der Sieg des Glaubens (1933; Victory of Faith). In The Blue Light, for instance, she combined green and red filters for a visual effect that she was assured would be disastrous, but that nevertheless created spectacular images. Throughout her life,...
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