Leni Riefenstahl may have been slight in build, but she was big in everything else. She was a giant of her generation, with so many talents it was hard to conceive of their all being in one person. Before the advent of the talkies, she had been a silent-film star in Germany; prior to that she had been a brilliant dancer. She then went on to become a formidable sportswoman, an amazing photographer and a film-maker of prodigious scope and ability. She always had a highly perceptive eye, was a stickler for the minutest detail and a perfectionist in whatever assignment she took on. Her single-mindedness could be both a strength and an irritation. Difficult to handle, impossible to shift from any set course, she embodied the Aryan discipline with a steely resolve to have her own way, whatever that might entail.
The first time I set eyes on her was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in the German section. Many years before that chance encounter I had tried with no success to make contact after seeing some of her films on television. The impact of her work had completely bowled me over with its artistry and power. Tracking her down turned out to be an extremely difficult process. Eventually, through a highly reliable German source, I did secure an address for her in Munich. But though I wrote, I received no reply. This was perhaps not surprising, but when I saw her in Frankfurt and introduced myself, her eyes flashed as she casually informed me she remembered getting my letter. No explanation was forthcoming as to why she had never replied, but she was friendly and suggested I submit a written proposal for what I had in mind. With that, our cooperation began, and led in due course to the publication of her memoirs, The Sieve of Time, on her ninetieth birthday. ‘My aim,’ wrote Leni, ‘was to tackle preconceived ideas, to clear up misunderstandings. I spent five years working on the manuscript; it was not an easy task since I was the only one who could write these memoirs. The book did not turn out to be a happy one.’
In fact, to mark her seventy-fifth birthday back in 1977, Stern magazine had wanted to write up her life story, but Leni Riefenstahl had refused to sanction the project in the belief that she was the only one who could do justice to her own life. Her career began on the stage in the early 1920s, working as a ballet dancer for Max Reinhardt among others. Her début as a film actress came in 1925 with Der heiliger Berg (The Holy Mountain), filmed in the Alps by Arnold Fanck, her mentor, who was the father of the vaguely pantheistic mountain cult in Weimar cinema. In the late 1920s, Riefenstahl became the high priestess of this cult, starring in, among other films, Die weisser Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Piz Palu, 1929), directed by Fanck in collaboration with G. W. Pabst; and Stürme über dem Montblanc (Storm over Mont Blanc, 1930), directed by Fanck. Her last film with Fanck was SOS Eisberg (1933), but a year earlier she had laid the foundations for her own company and co-authored, directed and produced, besides playing the leading role in, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), which the critic David Thomson has called ‘the pre-eminent work of mountain mysticism’.
Hitler admired her artistry, and despite her loathing for Joseph Goebbels and the fact she was never a party member, commissioned her to make a film record of the 1934 Nazi rallies at Nuremberg. Premièred in Berlin in 1935, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will – Hitler had suggested the title) won a gold medal at the Venice Film Festival and established Riefenstahl as Germany’s foremost film director. The next year she filmed the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. This was not a Nazi party commission, but came from the International Olympics Committee. The gala performance of Olympia in Berlin in April 1938 marked Hitler’s forty-ninth birthday, and it took the prize for best film at Venice. The power of the imagery in these two films and the virtuosic way they were cut and assembled make them unforgettable, though, given their historic context, their aesthetics were destined never be disentangled from the political polemic of their background. In the words of David Thomson, Leni Riefenstahl became ‘arguably the most talented woman ever to make a film’, but was ‘still neglected in an age of feminist militancy’. Jean Cocteau had hailed her with the words, ‘How could I not admire you, for you are the genius of film and have raised it to heights seldom achieved?’ The pioneer of the British documentary movement, John Grierson – a committed man of the left – gave it as his opinion that, ‘Leni Riefenstahl is one of the great film-makers in history’, likening his salute to the one Churchill gave to Rommel:
Leni Riefenstahl was the propagandist for Germany. I was a propagandist on the other side . . . I took Leni Riefenstahl’s films and cut them into strips to turn German propaganda against itself; but I never made the mistake of forgetting how great she was. Across the devastation of the war, I salute a very great captain of the cinema. There has been only one true masterpiece of the Olympiad and that is of course Leni Riefenstahl’s in 1936.
On a trip to New York, I was invited to lunch by Tina Brown, who was then editor of Vanity Fair. During the course of our conversation, I happened to mention the proposed memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl. Sharp as ever, Tina wasted no time in extracting from me a commitment to give a Vanity Fair contributor, Stephen Schiff, the first exclusive coverage of the book prior to its publication in the UK, by arranging for him an interview with Leni. In my wild exuberance at the prospects of gaining a heightened profile for the book, I readily agreed but omitted to ask Tina for any kind of financial consideration. Unbeknown to me at the time, the Sunday Times had already interviewed Leni under the impression that their interview would be run as an exclusive prior to the book’s publication. While Leni acknowledged that she gave the interview to someone she knew at the Sunday Times, she was adamant she had never given the newspaper the right to publish it before the Vanity Fair article. The Sunday Times then became equally entrenched in their position and a legal battle ensued that cost Quartet a great deal of money. In this Quartet found itself having to protect what were essentially the interests of Vanity Fair. By the time the litigation was over, and Vanity Fair had published their long-awaited interview ahead of the field, Quartet found itself deeply out of pocket for having kept its word to the magazine. Yet when I applied to Vanity Fair for reimbursement of the legal fees incurred on their behalf, they washed their hands of the matter completely. The affair, they claimed, had not been of their making and consequently they admitted no responsibility. Given that Vanity Fair had not paid Quartet any fees for what were, essentially, first serial rights, I was in my view justified in feeling aggrieved. My goodwill gesture towards Tina Brown had misfired badly on this occasion, and I resolved afterwards that journalistic favours were hardly ever likely to bear fruit. In retrospect the magazine was guilty in my opinion of unethical behaviour, and I have often wondered whether Tina was aware of the turn taken by events after she had extracted my promise. I was too proud to broach the subject with her, for I have always believed in the honour of a commitment irrespective of any commercial consideration.
The launch party for the book was held appropriately at the Museum of the Moving Image on London’s South Bank. A comprehensive invitation list was sent out, but very few people turned up for the occasion. Those who stayed away did so as a sign of protest, claiming that Leni had been a Nazi who collaborated with the Third Reich, and that having any truck with her would compromise their own strongly held anti-fascist convictions. They were not even prepared to be attracted by the extraordinary fact that she had just returned from diving in the Maldives to film underwater in her ninetieth year, and that her next stop would be New Guinea. ‘The only dangerous animals are the journalists who turn up,’ she said.
Among the guests were Auberon Waugh, who happily posed with Leni, the newscaster Gordon Honeycombe, and Claus von Bulow, who was sporting a newly grown beard. Von Bulow stalked around the museum, the Sunday Telegraph reported, casting a quizzical eye at the television screens that were showing clips from some of Leni’s work. ‘These films have extraordinary power,’ he said, ‘but now some of them send shivers down my spine. They make such horrible things seem so attractive.’
Notwithstanding the general boycott of the launch party, the book itself received phenomenal review coverage, Celina Sippy, Quartet’s publicity manager, having done a fabulous job with the promotion. None of the critics could resist the urge to write about the book and Leni’s picture was splashed across many a front cover, including that of The Times Literary Supplement. Both critics and media observers were almost unanimous in acknowledging her genius as a film-maker, but the label that claimed she had been a propagandist for Hitler and his ideology continued to stick in general. Her denials that she had simply been pursuing her artistic endeavours fell on deaf ears and failed to convince any of them. She was to remain the bête noir of the media until her death at the age of over a hundred.
The historian Ian Buruma was allotted the task of assessing the book for The Times Literary Supplement. He began by looking at some of her main claims: that she had never been a Nazi, that she had never heard of Hitler before 1932, and that she had no idea what happened to the Jews until she was told in 1945. Yet, he said, this was Hitler’s greatest propagandist, who when she heard of his death ‘threw herself on her bed and “wept all night”’. Perhaps she had been lying for so long that she believed ‘her own fibs’. Nevertheless he was prepared overall to give her the benefit of the doubt, granting credence to a ‘rich, poetic inner life’. ‘But the mind that looks in, naturally sometimes fails to look out, and is bound, therefore, to miss a few things – the rise of Hitler, for example, or millions of people disappearing into cattle-trucks.’
[With] her experience of rapturous mountain films, starring pure, clean, heroic German youths seeking the sublime on moonlit nights, the step towards becoming Hitler’s propagandist was not a big one. She was, one might say, exactly the right woman in the right place at the right time. Was she an opportunist? Let us say that career and faith formed a seamless whole. The reason she continues to fascinate us is that she lifted Nazi propaganda to something approaching excellence.
Buruma’s feeling was that her claim that Triumph of the Will was not propaganda, but purely and simply a documentary, was absurd and did not bear scrutiny. She had repeated the assertion that it had ‘nothing ideological in it’ to Gitta Sereny in an interview in the Independent on Sunday, but this too was ‘nonsensical’.
In speech after speech, the Nazi ideals, woolly and murderous, are extolled. If Riefenstahl missed the point of her own most famous work, her boss certainly did not . . . The film, Hitler wrote [in a preface to a book called Hinter den Kulissen des Reichparteitag-Films (Behind the Scenes of the Nuremberg Rally Film)], was ‘a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our movement’.
If Riefenstahl really thinks that her film is nothing but a dispassionate chronicle, her simulation of great passion, indeed worship, is the product of a deeply cynical mind, or else she is the truest of coins, the believer in whom the faith simply is reality. Again my inclination is to give her the benefit of the doubt. Triumph of the Will is a work of passionate engagement. Riefenstahl is intoxicated by the sheer beauty of it all.
A fellow film-maker, Lindsay Anderson, added his comments in the European, saying that even more memorable than Triumph of the Will was Olympia:
Its power and poetry have never been surpassed. Riefenstahl’s account of its preparations, shooting and above all editing, shows the meticulous concentration of the true film artist. It won the Grand Prix at the last Venice Festival before the war. But its identification with the Nazi myth cast a shadow over its director for the rest of her life. And it put an end to her career as a film- maker. One cannot help feeling that this condemnation and the continual repression that went with it were largely unjustified. Riefenstahl was naïve and certainly unwise to accept Nazi patronage. But she was not the first artist to sacrifice her good name for the opportunity to practise her art.
Helena Pinkerton wrote a very level-headed notice for the Jewish Chronicle.
That these two films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, were also the artistic masterworks of a huge talent might not be seen as a redeeming factor. Yet her hefty book of memoirs, timed to coincide with her ninetieth birthday, portrays a woman whose greatest sins were political naïveté, self-absorption and a measure of cowardice. She was never a Nazi party member. Nor, she says, did she share the Nazis’ views on race and Aryan supremacy . . . And an objective viewing of Olympia leads to the conclusion that its most exalted star is the black American athlete Jessie Owens.
Why, therefore, had she not left Germany when the Nazis attained power, but stayed on ‘despite the repressions which she claims to have abhorred’? Here it had to be remembered that many stayed ‘who could and should have left, including indeed many Jews, who had better reason that Riefenstahl did to jump ship’. These had stayed ‘because they felt themselves to be, above all, Germans’. Her book was worth reading to correct the many misconceptions there had been about her, for ‘hers was an independent artistic vision’, though she ‘did allow her art to serve an evil master, and for that she must take the rap. She was certainly not heroic. But how many were?’
During an interview for The Times with Christian Tyler, he suggested that, ‘like Marlene Dietrich, she could have gone to America’.
Riefenstahl corrected me. Dietrich had to go to the US for her career and denounced the Nazis from there because she had been better informed of the truth by her circle.
Riefenstahl’s own Jewish friends – they loyally defended her later – had initially been impressed by Hitler and had advised her not to leave Germany, she said.
‘You could have followed your instinct and kept away from those men.’ ‘But it was too late.’
‘Riefenstahl is a tough old bird,’ concluded Philip Purser in an article in the London Review of Books.
When nearly sixty she began a new career as a photographer specializing in anthropological studies, notably of the Nuba people in the Sudan. At seventy-one she qualified as a scuba diver and added underwater photography to her portfolio. She has never been short of professional admirers . . . Nor, of course does she lack detractors; the latest has been Susan Sontag, who traced a line of fascist exaltation right through the oeuvre . . . Obsessed by these extremes of approval or censure, Riefenstahl seems unable to look back on the things she did with any objectivity or even to recognize ordinary cause and effect.
In a review in The Times, Mark Almond said Riefenstahl was a film genius, but predicted that her ‘overlong self-defence’, as represented in the memoirs, would ‘do little to lift the shadows from her reputation’:
It fits too easily into the catalogue of gifted Germans who went along with Hitler, preferring to promote their own careers and genius under his patronage and remaining wilfully ignorant of the nature of his regime until too late . . .
Her films will remain her legacy, arousing ambivalent admiration.
Although she had written her memoirs ‘to tackle preconceived ideas and to clear up misunderstandings’, Janet Watts found in an interview conducted for the Observer that she was not proud of the result, admitting that she was ‘not gifted in writing’. She had felt it was a necessary duty, and sure enough ‘the book has already been rubbished’.
Yet many people have loved Leni Riefenstahl, too. The Nuba people of the southern Sudan, for example: and they have played a part in her survival. When she finally admitted (after many struggles) that her film career was over, she went to Africa, discovered the Nuba and – almost by accident – began a new career by photographing them . . .
In all her tribulations, Leni Riefenstahl vibrates with life. For many people she will never be able to pay for her great mistake . . .
‘I am not happy. But if I have not an interview . . . if I have nothing to do with the press . . . If I see my Nuba, if I dive . . . I fight against depression. Even if it is hard, I say to the life, yes.’
Quartet was to publish two more books of Leni Riefenstahl’s. One of them, Olympia, covered the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The other was Wonders of the Sea. Both were photographic books to take the breath away. Olympia was all in black and white, its stunning photographs documenting the spectacular games for future generations. Wonders of the Sea contained photographs she had shot in beautiful colour at the age of eighty-five during spectacular dives she made in the Red Sea, the Caribbean, the Maldives and the Indian Ocean. These images of great natural beauty depicted the fantastic variety of marine life: minuscule prawns, sponges, bivalves, coral in bloom and the wonderful world of fish. The splendours of their shapes and colours were again caught on film for posterity. Leni’s patient, tireless efforts had resulted in a photographic collection of outstanding beauty, each intricate composition as delicate as a painting.
With her death at the age of a hundred and one in 2003, the world said farewell not only to a remarkable woman who had made her mark on history, but also to one who had evoked in unforgettable imagery the time when Germany’s colossal renewal of power was poised to inflict human misery and slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Her detractors understandably continue to argue that her work is a celebration of that power – unwittingly perhaps, but undeniably. When, however, her creative contribution is viewed through an artistic perspective, devoid of its moral equivocacy, then it seems to transcend these considerations.
There was no doubting that Leni herself continued to struggle with her inner demons till the end. She survived a helicopter crash when she was ninety-eight, on her last trip to visit the Nuba. The film-maker Ray Müller visited her in hospital and asked what in her life she regretted. There had been many, many mistakes, she said. What mistakes did she mean, he asked. ‘Well . . . ,’ she responded, ‘I mean, this relationship with the Third Reich.’ For a film he made in 1993, Müller had previously made the point bluntly to her: ‘I feel this country [Germany] is still waiting for you to say publicly: “I made a mistake, I’m sorry . . . ” ’ Leni replied:
Being sorry isn’t nearly enough, but I can’t tear myself apart or destroy myself. It’s so terrible. I’ve suffered anyway for over half a century and it will never end, until I die. It’s such an incredible burden that to say sorry … it’s inadequate, it expresses too little.