Not in black & white

A PORTRAIT OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL by Audrey Salkeld Cape pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
As one of the most famous German film stars of the 1930s, Leni Riefenstahl might easily have been lured away to Hollywood. Her great rival, Marlene Dietrich, made the move, denouncing Nazism as she went, and so did many of Riefenstahl's Jewish friends and associates. How would Riefenstahl's career have developed if she had? Her champions argue that she would now be heralded as the greatest woman director of the century. To detractors like Susan Sontag, her work is inherently fascist: not just the films she made for the Nazis in the 1930s, but the mountaineering action pictures with which she was associated before Hitler, and her photography of the Nuba of the post-war decades.

Here, it seems to me, her fans have the stronger case - or, at least, her critics go too far. Riefenstahl's interest in idealised and romantic poses, above all in strong, pure and beautiful bodies, might not be to everyone's taste, but it is in a tradition with a long history. Looking through the Nuba photographs, they do not seem any more fascist than an issue of Vogue. At the very least it is extremely hard to give them a single fixed identity. They have an ambiguity that Mein Kampf lacks.

The real case against "Leni" (as Salkeld calls her) is, of course, that she stayed behind to work with another artist who liked romantic myths - Adolf Hitler. The words "whatever is purely realistic, slice of life, average, everyday does not interest me

Riefenstahl claims never to have been particularly interested in politics. The First World War made no impression on her: she was 16 when it ended and still spent her pocket money on the weekly Fairy Tale World. She spent her twenties working as a dancer, actress, and film director, and in the arms of a succession of strong, famous men. Then, at least as she and Salkeld tell it, people began talking about Hitler and so she went, in a spirit of objective inquiry, to one of his rallies. Enthralled by his performance, she wrote to him immediately asking whether they could meet. Hitler took to her immediately; she was glamorous, passionate and strong- willed - an ideal Nazi woman - though the story put around after the war that she was his mistress was a lie. She might, she once admitted, have slept with him, but she was not his type.

Riefenstahl's decision to write straight to Hitler might sound strange, but as Salkeld suggests, it was entirely characteristic. If she wanted something, she went directly for it. Salkeld says almost nothing about Riefenstahl's family or childhood, but we know her tyrannical father forbade her to dance, and yet she became a dancer. She introduced herself to her first boyfriend, the tennis ace Otto Froitzheim, and launched herself into cinema by approaching the mountaineering film star Louis Trenker; they were soon lovers. Her pre-war career, in fact, was a triumph of the will. After the Allied victory, however, she became an object of loathing and many old friends betrayed her. She was never allowed to return to film-making, her greatest passion, and had a series of physical and nervous breakdowns. At the end of the 1960s she fell in love with a cameraman 40 years younger than herself, and they devoted themselves first to Africa and then to underwater photography. She was still diving in her nineties.

Salkeld came to Riefenstahl through a book she, Salkeld, wrote on mountain films. It is not surprising then, that she admires Riefenstahl's art, and while honestly pointing out her failings, she treats her as sympathetically as the facts allow. A number of courts have failed to find "Leni" guilty of any punishable offence: she never joined the Nazi party. Still, Salkeld is sometimes just too kind: she has done next to no primary research of her own, and relies very heavily on Leni Riefenstahl's own self-serving memoirs, The Sieve of Time.

An American film-maker, Robet Gardner, once described Riefenstahl as "a somewhat lop-sided personality" - it was "as if the abundance of her creative gift simply obstructed growth in other respects". Despite claims that it is simply a documentary, Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl's record of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, is a Nazi film: it presented Hitler as he wanted to be seen. The case of Olympia, her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is slightly different - here she had some independence - but there is no doubt that she worked more closely with Goebbels than she has since admitted. Yet these films were also technically and artistically brilliant.

Wrapped up as she was in her own grandiose projects, it is not hard to believe that Riefenstahl remained blind to a lot of what was going on around her. She certainly never knew what was planned for the Jews, and continued to work with them long after it was prudent. She sent a telegram to Hitler after his forces had seized Paris in 1940, in which, with "indescribable joy" and "deep emotion", she congratulated him on "Germany's greatest victory"; but then again, she has said, it was only because she thought it meant peace.