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Leni Riefenstahl: A Lifeby Jurgen Trimborn
Synopses & Reviews
Dancer, actress, mountaineer, and director Leni Riefenstahls uncompromising will and audacious talent for self-promotion appeared unmatched—until 1932, when she introduced herself to her future protector and patron: Adolf Hitler. Known internationally for two of the films she made for him, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, Riefenstahls demanding and obsessive style introduced unusual angles, new approaches to tracking shots, and highly symbolic montages. Despite her lifelong claim to be an apolitical artist, Riefenstahls monumental and nationalistic vision of Germanys traditions and landscape served to idealize the cause of one of the worlds most violent and racist regimes.
Riefenstahl ardently cast herself as a passionate young director who caved to the pressure to serve an all-powerful Führer, so focused on reinventing the cinema that she didnt recognize the goals of the Third Reich until too late. Jürgen Trimborns revelatory biography celebrates this charismatic and adventurous woman who lived to 101, while also taking on the myths surrounding her. With refreshing distance and detailed research, Trimborn presents the story of a stubborn and intimidating filmmaker who refused to be held accountable for her role in the Holocaust but continued to inspire countless photographers and filmmakers with her artistry.
"Nothing tests Keats's adage that beauty is truth more severely than the work of the Third Reich's leading filmmaker, whose notorious documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia cloaked the hideousness of Nazi Germany in grand, gorgeous, emotionally overpowering imagery. In this soberly critical biography, film historian Trimborn analyzes the brilliant techniques with which Riefenstahl 'replace[d] politics with aesthetics' and made Hitler 'an almost erotic object' to the adoring German masses. (Her mystically monumental style, he notes, lived on to influence Hollywood blockbusters like Star Wars and The Lion King, as well as Mick Jagger's stage shows.) He also dissects the lesser falsehoods Riefenstahl propagated to downplay her close relationship with Hitler and complicity with the Nazis. He reprints examples of her fawning praise of the fuehrer and reconstructs her erasure of a Jewish collaborator from the credits of one of her films, her use of Gypsies interned in a forced labor camp as extras (many of whom were later sent to Auschwitz) and her witnessing of a massacre of Jews in Poland, which she protested but which didn't dilute her enthusiasm for Hitler. Trimborn's brisk, lucid account gives the director her artistic due while sternly correcting her evasive mythology, and makes for an illuminating look at a fascinating, troubling figure. Photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Leni Riefenstahl was a liar. She was many other things: a dancer, an athlete, an actress, a feminist, an explorer, a best-selling author and even the world's oldest licensed scuba diver. But she was also Adolf Hitler's favorite filmmaker. Hence the lies. And hence two new biographies of Riefenstahl, one by German film scholar Jurgen Trimborn, the other by former film producer Steven Bach, who has... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) also written biographies of Marlene Dietrich and Moss Hart. She's an irresistible subject for biography. She directed 'Triumph of the Will,' the most powerful of all Nazi propaganda films. Her two-part documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 'Olympia,' was filled with celebrations of German athleticism, echoing Hitler's desire to produce a 'master race.' While working on a never-completed documentary about the Wehrmacht, she had been present at one of the war's first massacres, when Jews digging a burial pit were gunned down in the Polish town of Konskie. She was accused of using slave labor — Gypsies from a detention camp — as extras in her film 'Tiefland,' then abandoning them to their fate when they were shipped to Auschwitz. Moreover, although she never joined the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl was the only woman in Hitler's inner circle, leading to suspicions that she was his mistress. She was on record with many effusions of praise for the Fuhrer, and even late in life she recalled her first glimpse of him at a Nazi rally as 'like being struck by lightning,' and as 'an apocalyptic vision ... like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.' Bach calls that image 'ecstatic and erotic, baptismal and orgasmic,' which is putting it mildly. But neither Bach nor Trimborn finds any convincing evidence that Riefenstahl was Hitler's mistress. When she was in her 80s, she told a friend that she never had sex with Hitler, but 'had he asked, it would have been inevitable. I'm so glad he didn't.' She also insisted that she treated with kindness the Gypsies who worked on 'Tiefland' and that she tried to prevent their being shipped to concentration camps — an assertion that camp survivors disputed. As for the massacre in Konskie, Riefenstahl was photographed with an expression of horror on her face as the shooting began and claimed that she ended her work on the Wehrmacht documentary in protest against the killings. Bach and Trimborn show, however, that she continued working on it for some time afterward. Despite the charges against her, she was given a clean bill by a series of de-Nazification hearings after the war. The notoriety of 'Triumph of the Will' and 'Olympia' remained, however. In later years, some critics were able to divorce form from content, to praise the cinematic power of her images of the 1933 Nuremberg rally and the 1936 Olympic Games while ignoring the contribution they made to the glorification of Hitler and his Reich. Bach and Trimborn point out the quotations from 'Triumph' in such movies as 'Star Wars' and 'The Lion King,' and anyone who has seen 'Olympia' knows how profound an influence her innovative camera placements and editing tricks have had on the coverage of sports, especially on TV. As evidence that she had no sympathy with the Nazi theories of racial superiority, Riefenstahl would point to the fact that 'Olympia' documented the achievements of non-Aryan athletes, particularly the African-American Jesse Owens. Later, she would similarly cite her expeditions among the Nuba in Sudan, her photographs of whom drew critical acclaim. They also drew a shrewd riposte from Susan Sontag, who wrote an essay linking the photographs of the Nuba with the images in 'Triumph of the Will' and 'Olympia' as examples of 'fascist art.' Trimborn underscores the point: 'In her work before, during, and after the Third Reich, there was as little room for human imperfection as there was in the racial constructs of the "Aryan master race," and so there are no old, ill, or disabled Nuba to be found in her published photographs.' Trimborn's biography is in part a response to Riefenstahl's memoirs, which were published in Germany in 1987. (The American edition, trimmed by 300 pages, appeared in 1993.) She portrays herself as an innocent, apolitical artist who just happened to be roped into the service of an evil regime. Moreover, Trimborn notes, she had begun to earn a kind of sentimental deference for her longevity — she died in 2003, at age 101. 'She became the icon of her own aged vitality,' Trimborn puts it. His book is an attempt to forestall the 'watering down of the discussion ... to prevent people from capitulating uncritically and ... granting the fascinating figure of Leni Riefenstahl more significance than the historical and biographical facts.' Like Trimborn, Bach unearths the buried facts, finds the truth behind the lies. But he also gives us a better sense of the swirling drama of her life than the more ploddingly academic Trimborn does. Bach makes the vivid and exasperating Riefenstahl come back to life and stand before us to be judged. His research is deeper and his sourcing more meticulous than Trimborn's. Without citing a source, Trimborn tells us that when Riefenstahl visited Hollywood in 1938, one of the few studio heads willing to meet with her was Walt Disney, 'who was friendly with the Nazis ... and regularly participated in meetings of the American Nazi party.' Bach makes no such assertions about Disney's Nazi sympathies and notes only Riefenstahl's claim that Disney wanted to screen 'Olympia' at the studio but decided not to because he was afraid of 'a boycott of his films by left-wing union projectionists should the screening become public knowledge.' Bach's version is in line with Neal Gabler's recent and authoritative biography of Disney. Gabler asserts that at the time of Riefenstahl's visit, Disney was fairly apolitical. The chief source of the allegations that he attended Nazi meetings, according to Gabler, was disgruntled animator Art Babbitt, who led the bruising strike against the Disney studio in 1941 that converted Disney into a hard-line right-winger. One thing is clear from both of these books: Whatever her crimes, the ism with which Riefenstahl should most be identified is neither Nazism nor fascism. Trimborn calls it careerism, Bach narcissism. When Jodie Foster approached Riefenstahl about a movie based on her life, which Foster would both direct and star in, Riefenstahl protested that Foster wasn't beautiful enough for the part. Riefenstahl's choice was someone more fierce, glamorous, foolish and irrepressible: Sharon Stone. Charles Matthews, the former book section editor of the San Jose Mercury News, is a writer and editor in northern California." Reviewed by Howard NormanMichael DirdaJohn McQuaidMargaret MacMillanJonathan YardleyDaniel GrossRobert PinskySusan JacobyMatt SchudelMartin FletcherCharles Matthews, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Dancer, actress, mountaineer, and director Leni Riefenstahl's uncompromising will and audacious talent for self-promotion appeared unmatched--until 1932, when she introduced herself to her future protector and patron: Adolf Hitler. Known internationally for two of the films she made for him, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, Riefenstahl's demanding and obsessive style introduced unusual angles, new approaches to tracking shots, and highly symbolic montages. Despite her lifelong claim to be an apolitical artist, Riefenstahl's monumental and nationalistic vision of Germany's traditions and landscape served to idealize the cause of one of the world's most violent and racist regimes.
Riefenstahl ardently cast herself as a passionate young director who caved to the pressure to serve an all-powerful Führer, so focused on reinventing the cinema that she didn't recognize the goals of the Third Reich until too late. Jürgen Trimborn's revelatory biography celebrates this charismatic and adventurous woman who lived to 101, while also taking on the myths surrounding her. With refreshing distance and detailed research, Trimborn presents the story of a stubborn and intimidating filmmaker who refused to be held accountable for her role in the Holocaust but continued to inspire countless photographers and filmmakers with her artistry.
About the Author
Jürgen Trimborn, born in 1971, is a professor of film, theater, and art history at the University of Cologne and serves as a consultant on films of the Third Reich for the German and American film industry. He lives and writes in Cologne and east Belgium.
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