No one can be neutral about Leni Riefenstahl. She was a great artist of the moving picture whose two masterpieces, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, demonstrate a powerful visual aesthetic instantly identifiable as her own. She was a hiking, flying, scuba-diving, free-loving exemplar of feminist independence and vigorous longevity. (She died in 2003 at age 101.) For a time, she was one of the most famous directors in the world.
She is also forever known as Hitler’s filmmaker, a propagandist whose looming, monumental imagery is eternally associated with glorifying the evil machinery of Nazism. Yet after World War II, Riefenstahl spent the rest of her long life insisting she was an apolitical artist with no knowledge of her Führer patron’s heinous activities. All she wanted, she insisted, was to ”decide things only according to my own will.”
Now two different biographers have decided they want to do the same. While both conclude their subject had to know more than she admitted, the individuality of their approaches is instructive. Leni Riefenstahl: A Life, by 36-year-old German academic Jürgen Trimborn, is precise and orderly; Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, to be released in March by Hollywood insider Steven Bach, is colorful and arch. It’s irresistible to read national character and history into each book.
If I prefer Trimborn’s direct, clear-eyed take, it’s because the author, a specialist in the films of the Third Reich, presents a graceful, self-aware organizing theory: that Riefenstahl was first and foremost a careerist, and that all the choices in her life and work, however maddeningly self-deluded, were in service to that career, ”the breaches and contradictions of which are not atypical of many Germans of the twentieth century.” A-