Two icons and their turbulent times.
Contemporaries growing up in Weimar Berlin, Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) and Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) both aspired to careers in entertainment: Dietrich as a concert violinist, Riefenstahl as a dancer. In her engrossing, richly detailed debut book, Wieland, a historian of political theory at the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Culture, offers parallel biographies of the two women, tracing their vastly divergent trajectories. Riefenstahl championed Nazis and exalted Hitler, while Dietrich left Germany for Hollywood stardom. When her future as a violinist was thwarted by tendinitis, Dietrich turned to acting, where her discipline and drive overcame her “modest gifts.” “I had no special talent and I knew it. Everyone knew it,” she confessed. Nevertheless, when Josef von Sternberg saw her in a revue, he decided he had found the star of his new project, The Blue Angel (1930). She would play Lola Lola, “a sassy, savvy, honky-tonk B-girl,” a role that launched her career. Wieland documents her affair with von Sternberg and her many subsequent lovers, including Erich Maria Remarque, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Jean Gabin, American Army Gen. James M. Gavin, Yul Brynner, Fritz Lang, and John F. Kennedy. She also had an intense, though platonic, friendship with Ernest Hemingway. A beloved entertainer of American troops, Dietrich later reinvented herself as a nightclub singer, but her career spiraled downward, and she often was beset by financial worries. Riefenstahl also diverted from dancing to acting, using her training in gymnastics and boxing for roles in mountain films, popular in prewar Germany. By the 1930s, she was not only acting, but producing, directing, and writing screenplays. Hitler, she learned, was a fan “and an anti-capitalist feminist to boot.” She was entranced. Egotistical and self-promoting but nevertheless talented, Riefenstahl won accolades in Germany; managed to be acquitted of Nazi collaboration; and reinvented herself as a photographer. Wieland deftly traces both lives through their many ups and downs.
A sweeping, revelatory dual biography.