Leni who? Oh, that one. Eeek!

by Justine Saracen

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?

18 Responses to “Leni who? Oh, that one. Eeek!”

  1. 1 Kim February 28, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    Brava for educating each and everyone of us about this fascinating individual.


  2. 2 VK February 28, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    This sounds like a great story. Your work makes me enjoy history for the first time in my life…maybe it’s your unique twists. 🙂


  3. 3 Wendy Levy February 28, 2012 at 11:29 AM

    I remember watching her amazing film of the Olympiad as a schoolgirl (probably just before the 1956 Games in Melbourne) and thinking how wonderful it was. I don’t think we were told about her background at that time, but of course I’ve read about her very full life since then.

    I look forward to reading your novel.



  4. 5 Debra February 28, 2012 at 12:13 PM

    Yet again, so eager for your next book.
    (and great ‘history lesson’ here too)


  5. 6 Morgayne February 28, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    You make me want to be a better writer. Thank you.


  6. 7 jfaraday February 28, 2012 at 12:59 PM

    I absolutely love your books. This one sounds like a great story as well as a study of moral complexities. I can’t wait to read it.


    • 8 Justine Saracen March 6, 2012 at 6:16 PM

      Thanks for the compliment. Yes, this one does deal with moral complexities, the kind that make your head spin. Hope you like it.


  7. 9 Ze February 28, 2012 at 1:13 PM

    I love Leni’s work – she was a brilliant cinematographer and a brilliant (if racist) photographer.

    I own a copy of Triumph des Willens on dvd and a box-set of vhs tapes of Olympiad. Fantastic work.

    Her politics sucked, her personal beliefs make me very uncomfortable but her work is unbelievably good.

    (Jac H)


  8. 10 Bonnie February 28, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    She was a fascinating and talented woman, one of the best photographers. I enjoy seeing her work. And, yes, I am over forty!


  9. 11 Colin Dunnigan February 28, 2012 at 2:28 PM


    I don’t know if you knew this, but you might find it useful in your research. Riefenstahl and her film crew went to Poland when the Germans invaded to make a movie account of the campaign. In the town of Konskie she witnessed the shooting of twenty-two Jews by a Wehrmacht unit. There is a picture of her there, visibly upset at what she is witnessing. The film was never completed.

    Source: Alexander B. Rossino; Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology and Atrocity. Lawrence, University Press of Kansas. pp. 186-190.


    • 12 Justine Saracen March 6, 2012 at 6:11 PM

      Hi Colin, Yes, this episode was in her autobiography and I used it quite faithfully in my novel. You will recognize it immediately.


  10. 13 Carol February 28, 2012 at 5:34 PM

    I very much look forward to reading this.


  11. 14 Baxter February 29, 2012 at 9:40 AM

    Looks like a fascinating read!


  12. 15 Jenn March 2, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Thank you for sharing this brief bio on what appears to be a fascinating woman. I look forward to your book release. And, I’m just shy of thirty so you’d have received a blank look from me followed by, “tell me more.”


    • 16 Justine Saracen March 6, 2012 at 6:17 PM

      The book will definitely ‘tell more’ and i think will make you appreciate the ‘wonderful, terrible’ person who was Leni Riefenstahl.


  13. 17 bookgeek March 4, 2012 at 5:29 PM

    Hi Saracen, I about to start your book and I absolutely loved the Mephisto Aria and how you showed that there is a large area of moral “grey” at any time when you care to look closer! I look forward to Tyger and Leni …
    Cheers, Henriette

    P.S.: Art can be really myopic as witnessed by Furtwängler …


  1. 1 Lesbrary Link Round Up « The Lesbrary Trackback on March 1, 2012 at 9:17 PM

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