A former movie producer and, subsequently, chronicler of Hollywood legends (Marlene Dietrich, 1992) and legendary fiascos (Final Cut, 1985) revisits what a documentary filmmaker once called “the wonderful, horrible life” of cinema’s most controversial figure.
This second recent biography of Riefenstahl focuses a bit more on her cinematic style than its predecessor, Jürgen Trimborn’s Leni Riefenstahl (Jan. 2007). Trimborn had the advantages (and frustrations) of interviews with Riefenstahl (who died in 2003 at 101), but Bach has an insider’s view of how films are produced. Still, the two books cover much the same ground and issue many of the same judgments. Bach begins with a snapshot of the Berlin film world of 1925, then returns to the birth and childhood of Helene Amalia Bertha Riefenstahl, born 1902. (Cross-eyed as an infant, Leni would in a metaphorical sense never lose that disability.) Young Leni desperately wanted a career in the arts. She tried dance, sustained an injury, segued smoothly into the nascent film industry, where she acted in some popular alpine films, then moved behind the camera. Her great assets were her stunning beauty, her ferocious work ethic and her ability to curry favor. In 1930s Germany, she found the most powerful patron of all, Adolf Hitler. Bach carefully reconstructs their relationship (he does not believe the two were ever sexually involved) and shows her varied relations with other Nazi notables (Goebbels, Speer, Bormann). Bach looks with a filmmaker’s eye at Riefenstahl’s great popular successes (Triumph of the Will, Olympia), as well as her lesser known and aborted films (Tiefland, Black Cargo). He skips quickly over her later years—her books of African photographs, her underwater film (he calls Underwater Impressions “soporific”). On his subject’s considerable moral failings, Bach is unrelenting. She knew she was in the presence of evil; she found it attractive—and lucrative.
A sad Faustian story that features the artistic triumphs of a woman who figuratively climbed a roof at Auschwitz to get a closer look at the clouds.