In a life that spanned more than a century, Leni Riefenstahl maintained that she had lived only for art. Dancer, actress, director, filmmaker, and photographer, Riefenstahl was propelled to international recognition by her talent, fierce ambition, iron will— and her compelling documentaries Triumph of the Will and Olympia that embodied the ethos of the Third Reich. But to the end of her life, Riefenstahl insisted that her films were apolitical and that she was unaware of the policies of the régime she worked under.
To these assertions Steven Bach brings much new and convincing evidence, from Joseph Goebbels’ diaries to previously unknown recordings and photos of Riefenstahl to personal interviews with her colleagues and contemporaries, indicating that Reifenstahl was a knowing and enthusiastic participant in the propaganda arm of the Third Reich. Countering Reifenstahl’s tearful and constantly revised accounts of her wartime activity, Bach shows her to have been an early and ardent admirer of Hitler. “I must meet that man,” she declared after reading Mein Kampf.
A former film executive, Bach also evaluates Riefenstahl’s professional accomplishments with a trained eye, affirming her audacious and pioneering techniques, daring photography, and painstakingly created visions. In the end, however, her accomplishments served the goals of an immoral régime. Technically a biography, Leni, more than an account of Riefenstahl’s life, is a well-paced argument for Bach’s thesis that Riefenstahl was unswervingly loyal to Hitler and his goals, a propagandist for the Reich who used its resources to feed her consuming ambition. In light of the evidence against her, Riefenstahl’s greatest creation, Bach concludes, was her ever evolving portrayal of herself, indomitable and unremorseful to the end. Acknowledgments, bibliography, index, notes, photographs.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.