A swastika in the camera lens

A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl by Audrey Salkeld Cape, pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
There exists a card game called Liar (that, at least, is the name by which I have always known it) in which each player, in clockwise succession, places two, three or four cards face-down on the table and calls out, "Three Queens", "Four fives", or whatever. The player succeeding him may either let this pass or cry, "Liar!" If the three Queens actually do turn out to be, as claimed, three Queens, then the accuser picks up all the cards on the table; if not, the accused picks them up. The winner is the first player to dispose of all his cards. And the piquancy of the game is that, though everyone lies most of the time, at any given instant someone may, perfidiously, be telling the truth.

That, I venture to suggest, is a perfect allegory for the curious case of Leni Riefenstahl. That Riefenstahl, still alive, litigious and snorkelling in the Maldives at 94, has lied about her past no one any longer can reasonably doubt; there are just too many stories in circulation. But when a single charge is levelled against her - that she consciously transformed her notorious reportage of the 1936 Nuremberg Rally, Triumph of the Will, into a deification of Hitler; that, by the late Thirties, she was already fully aware of the existence and genocidal function of the death camps; that she knowingly employed doomed gypsy slave labour in a subsequent film, Tiefland - the lady herself always has a plausible refutation.

Any one of these refutations may be true, of course. But given the weight of counter-evidence (her own testimony often conflicts with that of Goebbels, who, if hardly the ideal witness, had no reason to lie in this particular instance), it is hard to believe that all of them are. She is like one of those people who are always unpunctual and yet who always contrive to have an excuse.

The fundamental question, then, to be addressed in a biography of this extraordinary woman is: What did Riefenstahl (or "Leni", as her biographer queasy-makingly refers to her) know and when did she know it? And the answer, at so late a stage, and especially in view of the director's own foxy reticence on precisely where she was on such-and-such a date, with whom and for what purpose, is that the truth is now never likely to out. Audrey Salkeld convincingly exposes as malignant slander the most scurrilous of the rumours which still surround Riefenstahl (that she became Hitler's mistress, that she accepted a commission to film inside Auschwitz) and she easily exculpates her magnificent post-war photographs of the Nuba tribespeople of the "crypto-Fascist" connotations that Susan Sontag, notably, has ascribed to them. But, bending over backwards to be fair to her subject (almost too fair, it sometimes feels), she falls flat on her back in a deplorable last chapter that mars an otherwise fascinating book. Summing up, she has the gall to lend serious consideration to the argument of "more than one critic that Triumph of the Will can be seen as conscious treachery against the regime it purports to exalt, plainly demonstrating the grotesqueness and overriding insanity of what was happening within Germany".

Given that that grotesqueness and insanity was just as visible to anyone present at the rally itself, one might equally well maintain that it was Hitler's conscious intention, too, to reveal to the world the delirium behind the spectacle.

Where Salkeld excels is in the gradual, painstaking construction of a cumulative portrait. Riefenstahl is a game old bird and she was a game young bird, performing her own stunts in the Bergfilme (or mountain films) in which she made her reputation as an actress. In her flannel slacks and peaked jockey caps, she was, despite beady piglet eyes and an elongated slash of a mouth that age accentuated to freakish proportions, ravishingly chic and sexy, "pretty as a swastika", in Walter Winchell's disgusting phrase. And if she made three or four catastrophic decisions in the first part of her life, she certainly paid for them later. She was obscenely calumnied in Eva Braun's forged but nevertheless published diaries. A hundred rolls of film which she had shot in the Sudan were ruined by a feckless assistant. Her Japanese backers for a projected feature film on the Nuba withdrew their support when the Berlin Wall was erected. A delayed telegram caused her to miss her adored mother's funeral.

Indeed, by the end of the book, I confess I felt something I never dreamt I could feel. I felt sympathy for Leni Riefenstahl.