Leni, The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl

Steven Bach,
Leni, The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
ISBN: 978 0 375 40400 9
US$30.00 (hb)
Gerd Gemunden and Mary R. Desjardins (eds.),
Dietrich Icon.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
ISBN: 978 0 8223 3819 2
US$25.00 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

1967. New York City. My sophomore year in college. A turbulent, terrifying and radical moment. I am in my Psychology 101 course. The very ‘with it’ professor wheels in a film projector and tells us that he is showing one of the most important documents in mass psychology and film propaganda ever made. The lights go out and the film begins. I am completely mesmerized by what I am seeing: the Nuremberg rallies of the 1930’s complete with Nazi banners, uniforms, soldiers, adoring crowds. Herr Hitler and his henchmen are the stars of this most compelling production. A phantasmagoria of sight and sound, alternatingly hypnotic and arousing, awful yet so visually exciting that I momentarily forget that I am watching a film that is glorifying National Socialism.

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of The Will (Germany 1934) literally, ‘blew me away’. I was completely seduced by her visual magic to such a degree that I found myself actively ignoring its horrific content. Entranced by her heroic classicism, I ignored what was troublesome and over-esteemed what was aesthetically pleasing.

Steven Bach in his most interesting biography, Leni, The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, engages in a rigorous interrogation of his subject. He charts the course of Riefenstahl’s life from dancer to aspiring actress to film maker with great detail and insight. He asks the big question, just how much of a Nazi was Leni? Over the course of 386 pages, he attempts to answer this question as well as raise several other important questions involving art, aesthetics and politics.

Drawing on new materials, legal documents, and interviews, he manages to show Leni in all her complexity. She is revealed as someone who saw life through the narrow lens of self-interest. Unconcerned with morality or ethics, she pursued her goals regardless of the cost to others. Her sole interest appeared to be the pursuit of beauty. Her driving ambitions: fame and immortality.

Although Leni did not become a member of the Nazi party, she did become its most ardent visual interpreter. She pushed the limits of photographic techniques and camera work to completely new levels. Her documentary of the 1936, Olympic games, Olympia (Germany 1938) is a visual ballet, rich in allusions to classical art as well as a masterpiece of political propaganda designed to promote the values of a heroic fascist aesthetic.

Bach discusses in his last chapters the controversies that followed Leni in her later life involving her photography of the Nuba, her socializing with Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol as well as attempts to re-vision her as a feminist filmmaking pioneer. Not to mention, those who would position her as an ‘auteur’ film maker whose art transcends the political.

At the end of the book, Bach states, “when future generations need to understand catastrophe in the twentieth century, they will look at Leni’s work after she – ‘an artist through and through’ – has been forgotten” (298). He goes on to conclude, “Leni died as she had lived: unrepentant, self-enamored, armor clad” (299).

To this day, I vividly remember my first encounter with Riefenstahl’s vision. I continue to be haunted by her packaging of fascism. Her impossible legacy leaves us contemplating the question: how is it possible for something so beautiful to be so evil? A dilemma for all times!

On the other hand, we have Marlene Dietrich. Coincidentally, the same year that I saw Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will I viewed my first Dietrich movie, Morocco (USA 1930). I was smitten by this sexy, gender bending, stunning woman. She seemed surreal to me, a confection designed to titillate and tantalize the imagination. I wanted to be her, have her, and have her have me!
But, I have now found out that I am not alone in my desires. Dietrich Icon edited by Gerd Gemunden and Mary R. Desjardins has put together a collection of essays that, “contributes to the ongoing dialogue on the Dietrich star persona that has spanned a variety of discursive genres and artistic modes across continents in two different centuries” (Introduction, 23).

The book is divided into a Prelude and four sections: Section I: The Icon; Section II: Establishing The Star Persona; Section III: “Marlene Has Sex But No Gender”; and Section IV: “(Auto-) Biography And The Archive”. Within this volume there are several very interesting essays on Marlene. However, some of the writing is heavily theoretical and academic with an overemphasis placed on some very tired and at times, dense, psychoanalytic discourse. Although many authors attempt to deal with Dietrich and her relationship to Germany, the reader was left wanting more in the way of just what Dietrich meant to Nazi Germany as well as to the allies.

Erica Carter’s essay, ‘Marlene Dietrich, Prodigal Daughter’, provides a persuasive argument as to how Dietrich’s refusal to return to Germany and act in films made by the Reich undermined Nazi ideas about the necessity for all Germans to come back to the ‘fatherland’, to serve Germany and so unite all Germans under the umbrella of racial unity. Her remaining an outsider was disruptive to Nazism’s collective fantasy that there was such a thing as an integrated and unified German aesthetic.

The ‘Gender bender Dietrich’ is discussed in the essay by Alice A. Kuzniar, “It’s Not Often That I Want A Man, Reading For A Queer Marlene.” Kuzniar focuses on Dietrich’s theatricality and how she uses ‘the masquerade’ to play with gender and sexuality. She points out that for Marlene, “… it is the theatre – in her most public persona – where Dietrich seems to be genuinely happy. Like a drag king or queen is liberated by the stage” (246). Nora M. Alter in her essay, “The Legs of Marlene Dietrich,” uses Freudian theories to connect the fetishization of Marlene’s legs with amputee veterans and castration anxiety. She notes that Dietrich’s legs were seen as “… notorious, scandalous, incendiary…” (61).

One of my favorite essays in the collection is Judith Mayne’s, “‘Life Goes on without Me,’ Marlene Dietrich, Old Age and the Archive,” wherein the author asks, “When did Marlene become an old woman?” (346). Mayne’s focuses is on Dietrich’s relationship to her aging process as well as how her audiences and fans responded to her aging. Mayne points out that, “Dietrich was acutely aware of … … time and decline” (362). She goes on to describe Marlene as “the most assiduous curator of her career” (362). Although this collection of essays on the Dietrich phenomena is at times ponderous, there is much to admire in this volume. This is an excellent book to be used in the classroom as well as a resource for any Dietrich aficionado.

What is so amazing to me about the lives of Leni Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich is that they were born eight months apart, in the same city, and yet, no two people could have taken such different paths in their lives. Daughters of Weimar, Germany’s ‘new women’, they represent the best and the worst of their culture. One thing is most certain: neither woman will be forgotten by history.

Irene Javors,

Created on: Sunday, 9 December 2007

About the Author

Irene Jarvos

About the Author

Irene Jarvos

Irene Javors is a psychotherapist in NYC.View all posts by Irene Jarvos →