When I was asked at a talk last year about my work in progress and I replied, “a thriller / love story set around the world of Leni Riefenstahl,” I got two reactions. One, mostly from the under-forty audience, was a complete blank. Evidently, the younger generation does not dwell on the tumults of the 1940s. The other, from the older women with longer memories, was a squint of consternation. Then afterwards, I heard it in words.
“What?! Leni Riefenstahl? That Nazi bitch!”
Poor Leni. Brilliantly talented, she created the most powerful propaganda documentary of the 20th century, but alas, it was for Adolf Hitler.
For my novel Tyger Tyger, Burning Bright, set in Nazi Germany, I read Riefenstahl’s autobiography in her rather elegant German. I expected to find her despicable, but she was not. In fact, she was awesome. Narcissistic, too, but how could she not be. Slender and pretty, she started as a dancer, then in the 1920s discovered the infant film industry. In short order, she reinvented herself as an actress. She made mountain climbing movies before the era of the ‘stunt double’ and climbed her own icy cliffs and pinnacles and slid off her own icebergs. By her own report, she allowed herself to be covered by a small avalanche, merely for a good bit of film footage, and it nearly killed her. Audacity was equaled only by her vanity, and both drove her to success in the Berlin film community.
But what she is both remembered and condemned for is her work on the other side of the camera. With little directorial experience, but an instinct for the visually dramatic, she created two of what the cinematic world uniformly acknowledges as masterpieces.
In Triumph of the Will and later Olympiad she astonished the world with new photo angles, distance shots, mobile cameras, ingenious juxtapositions, and an overall compelling vision. She filmed marching troops as if choreographed in geometrical patterns, Hitler’s plane emerging from clouds and casting a shadow ‘blessing’ over the streets of Nuremburg, red party flags flowing like a river of blood onto a field, the Führer himself with sunlight radiating from his face and hands. In Olympiad, she presented fencers as dancing shadows, long distance runners filming their own feet, high divers swooping like dive bombers — all with manual-wind cameras and 1930s technology. Her talent and genius were recognized internationally, but her time of glory lasted only as long as Hitler’s did. After the war, her friendship with Hitler and her complete silence about the crimes of the Nazi state established her as heartless and ruined her professionally.
Can one iconize someone who is so morally compromised? The answer, I think, is yes-no-maybe. Before we condemn her, we must look at the moral compromises that our own current media – and its consumers — have made. If Riefenstahl was morally indifferent, so are millions of us, to the illegality of US drone missile assassinations, to two wars of aggression, to children starving in Africa, to the near enslavement of people who make our designer clothing and laptops, to waterboarding, to the suffering of the animals we eat.
I do condemn Riefenstahl, the ‘friend of Hitler.’ Most certainly. But I also admit to an extreme fascination with her. For starters, you have to admire the sheer stamina of the woman. Tainted by her association with fascism and unable to work in the industry after the war, she went all on her own – in her sixties – to live with and film the Nuba in Africa.
Then, at the age of seventy(!), she learned how to scuba dive and started a fourth career as an underwater photographer. With the help of a young male assistant, she was scuba diving into her 90s and was active artistically until her death at the age of 101 (after partying with Siegfried and Roy and their white tigers).
Rest assured, I would never make her the heroine of my novel. She was brilliant but she was not sexy. For all her creativity and genius, she was too tainted by association with an evil that had no glamor. Her appeal is that she makes an excellent foil for those who do resist, and resistance is very sexy.
A few resisted unequivocally; Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, students in the White Rose organization, partisans in the east, German anti-fascists, and the spies of foreign intelligence. My novel, in fact, is dedicated to three such women spies who died horribly in concentration camps.
In contrast, my novel’s heroines (and its heroes) are not so morally pure. These are Katja Sommer, a “good German” who late in the game discovers honor in treason; Frederica Brandt, active in the highest circles of power; Rudi Lamm, homosexual camp survivor and forced SS killer; and Peter Arnhelm, a half- Jewish terrorist.
I trust my readers will be nuanced in their judgment of them and, for that matter, of Leni Riefenstahl too, for who of us, without benefit of hindsight, could resist such temptation. None of us are media stars, and none of us have been offered the chance to have instant fame by signing on with the Pentagon, so we don’t know.
As a fiction writing media mouse, I hope I will be forgiven for my fascination with Leni, and my envy of her talent. I know for sure I would not sell my soul to a malevolent political party (though millions of Americans apparently have). But I do want to wield a virtual pen the way she wielded a camera and create vivid and compelling works that will last in people’s memory. I want to have a third and fourth career when the first two peter out, and be able to afford a facelift when I am seventy. I want to be scuba diving at the age of ninety, and still look good in a wet suit. I want to party with lions and tigers.
Is that too much to ask?