The tales of a blind eyewitness: Leni Riefenstahl

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The Fuhrer loved movie stars, and Leni Riefenstahl was his favourite. Their many encounters inspired the films that forever identified her as Hitler's cinematographer. Now 90, she has written her autobiography, countering the old accusations with a memoir which may, however, paint a picture closer to myth than the historical record

Leni Riefenstahl, one of the most gifted and notorious women of the century, was 90 years old on 22 August, a day she celebrated in an hotel on the Starnberg lake - home or weekend refuge for some of Bavaria's richest denizens - with about a hundred friends. 'I think there will only be three of the old ones,' she told me earlier this summer. 'The others are all dead. But I'm lucky. I'm surrounded by a world of wonderful younger people.'

We were talking in the living-room of her chalet in Pocking, a small village also on the lake. I first visited her there in 1986, while researching a book on Albert Speer, Hitler's favourite architect and armaments minister. She had just completed five years of 'backbreaking' work on her memoirs, and, looking worn out, was reading the proofs of the book, which was published in Germany the following year and comes out in English this week.

Writing about herself, she told me then, was not her real calling. 'I have suffered a great deal in my life,' she said, 'but perhaps in some respects never as during these five years.'

There is a curious compulsion in her not to admit - perhaps not to allow herself - happiness, except about three things: her 'real work', as she refers to her film-making in the Thirties and Forties; her 'best friend' Horst Kettner, a tall, handsome man 40 years younger than herself, with whom she has worked and lived for the past 22 years; and, finally, her home in a hidden little hollow near the lake, where the combination of carefully preserved 'wild' garden and the meticulously styled harmony of the interior is symbolic of both the woman and the artist.

The chalet - all glass, dark-brown wood and terraces full of flowers - looks like a millionaire's lair. But in fact it was a prefab which she selected from a catalogue, and paid for with a loan from the local bank of half a million marks. She has never had enough money to pay it off and continues to pay the interest. She and 'Horsti' - whom she engaged as her assistant in 1970, when he was 26, and who has since become her partner - moved into the house in 1979. 'I cannot imagine my life without him, or without this house,' she said.

One of the great beauties of her time, she is still beautiful now - not with the spiritual delicacy of old age, but with the challenge of a vital female. Slim and blonde, she wears a satiny white overshirt with blue designs over silk corn-blue leggings, and those legs, quite as famous in her time as those of her contemporary, Marlene Dietrich, are as fantastic as ever.

In 1923, when she was 21, she appeared first as a professional dancer. 'A revelation,' wrote one of Berlin's most respected dance critics. Max Reinhardt, Germany's greatest theatre director-producer, swiftly engaged her as a solo dancer for his famous Deutsches Theater; and by 1932 - when she had not only played the lead in seven important films but had directed the last of them, The Blue Light, which was to win the silver medallion at the 1932 Biennale and was heralded as a great work by no less than Charlie Chaplin - her extraordinary face was known to every cinemagoer in Germany.

Including, evidently, Adolf Hitler. Her dancing was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, he told her when she met him for the first

time in May 1932, and The Blue Light had been the greatest cinema experience of his life.

Sadly, given what her involvement with him later cost her, she wouldn't have needed Hitler in her life to make a success of it: just 30 years old then, she was already at a pinnacle of success. But the truth is - and, rare in Germany, she has always admitted it - that, in a sense, she loved Hitler, and, getting somewhat closer to him than most other women, loved him perhaps even more than they.

SHE HAD ONLY this one day to talk to me. She was in the middle of taking part in a documentary about her life; after that, she and Horst planned to fly to the Maldives for what has become her greatest passion - diving.

We had a problem at the very outset: having read her autobiography, Sieve of Time, I noticed that she repeatedly referred to 'calendar notes' which she had used as reminders. A number of her descriptions of events on these dates, however, appeared to clash with entries in the Goebbels diaries - with which I have worked for several years for my book on Speer. I told Riefenstahl that I very much wanted to see at least some of her old 'calendars'.

'Calendars? What do you mean?'

I explained that I meant the calendars she repeatedly mentions in her book.

'Oh,' she said, manifestly taken by surprise. 'You know, it would be very difficult to find any of this. If you saw the room where we have stowed away all these papers and things . . . it would take hours to find anything specific.'

I suggested that while we talked, Horst and her secretary, Gisela, could just have a look.

'Oh, now I know what you mean . . . no, no, there aren't any 'calendars' like that . . . all that has been lost long ago.'

I could have argued, of course, for it worried me: either she had told an untruth in her book, or she was being evasive now. But I let it go in favour of continuing our talk.

She wanted to know what I proposed to ask her.

Well, I said, we would have to talk about the Hitler period - there was no getting away from it. 'Of course,' she replied. 'I understand. It's what everybody wants to know.' She laughed bitterly. 'That lie about me as Hitler's bride or mistress . . .'

We were sitting quite close together, and I could almost feel her relief when I suggested we leave that subject until after supper, and talk first about her childhoood, which I thought she had romanticised in her book.

She looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. 'What do you feel I didn't say?'

She had made herself sound blissfully happy, I said, but in the photographs of her as a little girl, and of her younger brother, too, they did not look like happy children. Heinz, a thin and rather wan boy who was later killed in Russia, seemed vulnerable and clinging, and she almost invariably looked sad. What I didn't say was that both these lithe children looked exceptionally unlike their father, a massive man with a blunt face.

'It is true,' she said. 'It was not a happy childhood, but good. Not happy, because my father was a despot, toward all of us - my mother, me and Heinz. I don't doubt he loved and wished to protect us, but it was an incredibly repressive love, taking away from us almost any semblance of freedom. My mother was not allowed money of her own and had to get his permission to go out for cake and coffee with her friends. I wasn't allowed out without a chaperone even at 20. It created an incredible resistance in me, a screaming resistance.'

You screamed at him? I asked.

'At him?' She sounded astonished at the thought. 'No, of course not. But, from when I was 13 to perhaps 19, every so often I'd go to my room and scream. Shall I show you?'

And, 90 years old, she put up her hands and screamed at the top of her lungs - an extraordinary sound in this wonderful quiet drawing- room full of lovely things. (I remember thinking it odd that Horst didn't rush in to see what was the matter and, although I had never seen it mentioned, wondered whether it was perhaps a not unusual part of her interviews.)

The crisis came when she was 16. Years before, her mother had allowed her to take dancing lessons in secret. 'That's what I meant when I said that my childhood, though not happy, was good. She was a dream mother. I loved her to distraction to the day she died.' But then one day, she danced in a school performance and her father learned of it.

'He was so horribly angry, we feared he would have a stroke. From that day on, for several weeks, he didn't speak a word with either my mother or me.'

After this, she was sent to a boarding school, with instructions to the headmistress to treat her with the utmost severity - instructions which that enlightened woman chose to ignore. 'In fact, she almost immediately allowed me to direct and act in plays. And I had packed my ballet shoes, too, and I practised every day.'

At the end of that year, her father gave in: as long as she lived at home, and obeyed his rules, she could study dancing. ' 'But if you ever allow your name to be seen in public, you will feel my anger,' he said. The funny thing was that when I then appeared on a stage for the first time, in October 1923, he cried with joy.'

She was to become famous not only for her work, but also for her love affairs. 'But not then,' she said. 'I was a very late developer. No breasts, you know, and my cycle only began when I was 21. Of course, I was always in love, from heaven knows when. The first one was a boy I saw in a street near our home - for a whole year I walked along it at the same time every day, just to see him, but it was 10 years until I actually met him - and by then, of course, I was quite uninterested in him.'

Her first real sexual experience was at 21, with a tennis champion, 18 years older than she. 'He was wildly handsome, the lover of Pola Negri, and I was in love with him for two years before I dared confront him.' But, although in retrospect she thinks he might have been the only man she has ever known with whom she would have liked to have a child, this first experience was disappointing.

'I think I was too innocent.' she said. 'But, you know, it taught me an important lesson - the great difference between illusion and reality. I had fallen in love with what I wanted him to be, not what he was, and although we eventually became engaged, I finally broke it off.'

When she was 23, she finally moved into a flat of her own. 'Oddly enough,' she said, 'in the same building as Marlene Dietrich.'

Watching Riefenstahl, listening to her, and also reading the imaginative and romanticised account she provides in her book about many of her relationships - among them some men who had been or were to become lovers of Dietrich - one notes the early parallels and competition between them. Not for parts, which they both found easy to come by, but for attention.

'I could have gone to America,' Riefenstahl says. 'I had many invitations, many opportunities. Later I often wished I had.'

America was where Dietrich went, and where Josef von Sternberg made her into a great star. But it was not Sternberg who forced her publicly to denounce the rising Nazis, or, later, to reject Goebbels' repeated invitations to return to Germany - it was her own conviction. And although Riefenstahl didn't - couldn't - admit to it, I think it may be this stand that she now envies, a stand which she couldn't take. If I am right, then that would, after all, be an honourable afterthought.

I asked about her parents. Were they political? They didn't belong to any party, she replied. They read the liberal newspaper, Berliner Tageblatt, owned by a Jew until 1933.

Was it possible not to be interested in politics in the cauldron of Germany in the late Twenties and early Thirties?

'Of course it was,' she said. 'Now, with TV, everything is known practically the moment it happens. But then there were only local newspapers. I didn't even hear radio until 1938.'

I said that although I was a child in the early Thirties, I certainly noticed radios.

'Well, I didn't,' she said briskly. Certain circles were interested in politics, but most people weren't, she said. 'I never heard my parents speak of politics . . . only when - yes, just about that time - things were so bad, my father had to give up his business and they had to move out of our big flat into a small one. Then he did complain. But I never heard him mention a name - such as Hitler.'

But surely, I said, by 1930 that's what it had begun to be about - Hitler or not Hitler?

'What, in retrospect, it is about,' she said, 'was whether one took an active part or not. And that my father never did - he never went to any demonstration or meeting, none of us ever saw such a thing.'

But by this time, she was adult, an intelligent young woman in public life. Didn't she ever ask any questions?

'All I thought about was my small circle, my own life. I was terribly busy.'

By now she was so tense that I was afraid for her. Her voice had gone up an octave; her hand, when I touched it, was ice-cold.

DURING our break - the smoked salmon and pate sandwiches Horst and Gisela had prepared - we had talked about love, and her first famous affair. Louis Trenker, her partner in her early mountain films, was a skiing champion and climber with a face that looked hewn of stone and the mind of a peasant. Thirty-five years later he would come close to ruining her for the proverbial 30 pieces of silver, when he sold a fake diary of Eva Braun with horrible allegations against her to a newspaper. Riefenstahl sued and won. 'But what's the good?' she said. 'I've fought 50 libel suits and won every one. But the lies always stick.'

The most important and long-lasting of those early relationships was with her cameraman, Hans Schneeberger. 'We were totally besotted,' she said. 'Couldn't keep our hands off each other. When he left me, I was devastated - I couldn't understand it at all. It took me five years before I even began to heal.' From 1938 to 1940 she had the quietest and gentlest of her relationships - with her sound engineer, Hermann Storr. 'He was the best in the world,' she said. 'Rene Clair called him to Paris for his films, too.' Their relationship broke up during the work on what essentially became the last film she made, Tiefland, which she produced and directed as well as starring in. 'This he couldn't take,' she said. 'He wanted to sleep with me the nights before the biggest takes . . . it was impossible.'

And then she met the man she finally married, Peter Jakob, a career officer in the German army. 'My fate,' she said, 'my greatest love and greatest emotional tragedy.'

He was, she said, a nymphomaniac (never mind the mistake in gender - it was quite clear what she meant). 'He knew it, suffered under it, loved me, but couldn't change. I was prepared to make any sacrifice, tried and tried to live with it . . . but finally couldn't. We were divorced in 1946, but really we were together until about '52. It took me 16 years to get over him, and finally it only happened when I fell in love with Africa . . . the Nubas . . .'

WHEN WE returned to our working corner after supper it was dusk outside. It had rained and when we opened the glass doors, the garden smelled wonderfully of flowers.

'The first time I heard about Hitler,' she said, 'was after my big success with The Blue Light - April 1932. I noticed how emotional people became when they spoke for or against him, so I got interested and went to hear him. Well, it was like being struck by lightning. In that speech, he only spoke of peace, and work, and the evils of a class society - not a word about racism. It wasn't that I understood anything, but the simple way he said all the things I had been feeling without knowing that I did. I responded to that. I hated the class system; I hated the idea of war; and as I loved working and was sure others did, too, I deplored the sight of all the beggars in our streets.

'When I heard him, I became immediately convinced that he could save us from the abyss we seemed to face. And so, on an impulse, just before I was to leave for several months' work in Greenland, I wrote to him. Amazingly, almost immediately I had this phone call from a man who claimed to be his adjutant, Wilhelm Bruckner, and who said the Fuhrer had got my letter, was a fan of my films and would like me to come to see him the next day - the day before my departure.'

This would be the beginning of her much- discussed relationship with Hitler - which, contrary to many allegations, without doubt never became intimate. Hitler liked film stars, enjoyed being seen with beautiful women and had an almost disproportionate respect for artistic talent. Sexually, however, he responded to rather different women.

Goebbels no doubt desired her: he was compulsive in his sexual appetites, and most female film careers in those years began to bud on his office couch. Riefenstahl assures her readers over and over again of the fervency with which she loathed him. Does she protest too much? We cannot know and don't much care. But certainly in his diaries Goebbels writes very often about her over the years, confirming time and again his own and Hitler's regard for her.

Hitler's appreciation of her talents emerges clearly in her report of this first meeting in her book: knowing a good deal about Hitler, I found her description of his courtesy, his energy and his almost schoolboyish enthusiasm about films - and, indeed, about her - exactly right. Less so some of her other stories about her conversations with him after he had come to power: he was an almost compulsively private man - it is hard to believe that he would have discussed his love life with her, or that, as she claims, she would have dared reprimand him about his attitude toward the Jews. Still, while certainly unlikely, nothing in human relations is entirely impossible. A young woman as beautiful and famous as she just might have been able to risk a naive comment - as she quotes it - about his anti-Semitism. What is impossible, however, is that Hitler would have discussed political plans and strategy with her.

Her 700-page book - which is devoid of any literary proficiency, style or, singularly, any suspicion of humour - is a wearying recital of endless betrayals by lovers, colleagues and friends (why, one wonders, did so many turn against her?); of her many nervous and physical breakdowns (hard to believe when one notes her iron constitution now); and of her 'terrible sufferings' at the hands of the Allies after the end of the war (the terrible Americans showed her pictures of concentration camps and the terrible French gave her several months' 'house arrest' in her own country house, in the company of her doting mother and loving secretary). None of it ever manages to evoke compassion, only embarrassment.

Worst of all, not unexpectedly, are her tales of being Hitler's confidante, told perhaps less for the sake of potential publicity than to satisfy still-existent needs of her own. The most indicative is probably her description of a meeting with Hitler on the night of 8 December, 1932 - which, as it happened, was during the 24 hours of his gravest political crisis.

At lunchtime that day, Hitler had received a letter from one of his oldest friends and 'comrades', Gregor Strasser, the Nazi party's second in command, renouncing him and the party. As was his habit in those years, Hitler had spent that evening at the Goebbels home. 'We are all very depressed,' notes Goebbels in his diary, 'but we must keep our chins up . . . we will find ways and means to come through this desperate time. Dr Ley telephones: the situation is becoming more critical every hour and the Fuhrer must return to the (Hotel) Kaiserhof (at that time the meeting-place of the party chiefs). (Soon afterwards . . .) at 2am, I am called to join them; on arrival find (him with) Rohm and Himmler and we continue our deliberations till dawn . . .'

Riefenstahl had by then met Hitler briefly (so she tells us) two or three times. Here is her description of that night.

She has been to a concert, she writes, and on her way home on foot she buys the special editions of the newspapers and stops off in the 'hall' of the Kaiserhof to read them. She is discovered here by Hitler's adjutant, Bruckner, who tells her that Hitler wants to see her. Arriving in his drawing-room, she finds a 'wan' Hitler who, 'breathing heavily and clenching his hands', threatens to kill himself and then proceeds to tell her all his troubles. 'I understood,' she writes, '(that) he obviously needed someone in whom he could confide.'

It is, of course, almost grotesque to imagine that Hitler, busy with constant conferences about the handling of his worst political crisis so far, would sense a need or find the time to confide his political concerns to this film star he so far barely knew.

But, except for my question about the 'calendars', I deliberately did not discuss the book with Riefenstahl. Given the extent of my distaste for it - and my interest in talking to her about more interesting things - it seemed pointless to challenge her on its deficiencies.

And finally, those eight hours of conversation seemed to justify my restraint, for she did in fact try to be honest with me: when she is honest, she is very likeable.

We discussed the film-maker Hans Jurgen Syberberg's question to Winifred Wagner, Richard Wagner's daughter-in-law: what would she have done if Hitler had survived and had knocked on her door? Frau Wagner replied that she would have opened her arms to him. Albert Speer told me he would have called the police. And Riefenstahl?

She thought for a long moment. 'I don't know,' she said. 'I honestly don't know. Albert, you know, was an activist; I'm a thinker, or dreamer. And of course, I'm a woman.'

And what - as a woman - did she feel about Hitler?

'That is difficult, too,' she said. 'I can tell you, easily, what I felt about Goebbels, who drove me crazy for years sniffing around me and begging me to be his 'second wife' - disgusting. But Hitler? Certainly, I too, like so many millions, was intoxicated by him. Socially, he was charming. Very informal, unpretentious. One drank tea or coffee, sat, talked, no pressure - though no fun, either. In a way it was lucky I was not his type: he really only liked 'little creatures'. People like me, he liked to talk to, be seen with. But I suppose had he wanted to, I would have become his mistress; had he asked, it would have been inevitable. I'm so glad he didn't' (This is what I mean by her trying to be honest with me: in her book, alas, she describes an entirely unbelievable occasion when he takes her into his arms, finally tearing himself away, saying that he just couldn't allow himself to love a woman . . .)

And now - did she believe that he was not a monster? 'Now I think he was schizophrenic,' she said. 'But then I knew nothing. And, you know, people simply will not believe that one knew nothing.'

IT IS ONLY fair to say here that I have no doubt that she knew nothing of what was planned and of what finally happened to the Jews. But what were her feelings about Jews?

'Good heavens,' she said. 'I was in films. I had many Jewish friends and, for that matter, two doctors who were Jews and who saved my life. But it's true, all of them were lucky: none of them ended up in concentration camps . . . they went abroad. But - what my enemies will, of course, never say - every one of them remained my friend.'

This is quite true: they were loyal friends, just as she had been loyal to them when keeping faith with Jewish friends was not healthy. This emerged clearly after the war, when several of them testified in her favour. But, against that, there are dozens of remarks by Goebbels in his diaries over the years about social occasions with Riefenstahl - who, however much she assures us of her loathing for him, in fact saw a great deal of him.

On 5 February 1939, for instance, just back from a trip to America, Riefenstahl spends the evening with him. He writes: 'She reports about her trip (and) provides an exhaustive description which is anything but pleasant. We have no business over there. The Jews rule with terror and boycott. For how much longer, I wonder? Late and tired to bed.'

I asked her about this. 'Well, yes,' she said. 'He'd probably heard of the terrible time I had . . . horrible things in the press about me, posters and demonstrations in the streets. It was a nightmare.'

Had she told him it was due to 'the Jews'?

'I don't think he needed me to tell him that,' she replied drily.

We talked about the party film she was commissioned to make. Her account in the book is diametrically opposed to that of Goebbels - who, however sceptical we need to be about some of his later statements, had no reason to lie on 17 May 1933, four months after the Nazis' triumphant accession to power.

'Afternoon, Leni Riefenstahl: she tells me of her plans. I suggest she should make a Hitler film. She is over the moon about the idea . . .'

Over the next weeks the idea grows: on 12 June 1933, a happy evening 'at the Schaumburgs. Discussed with Riefenstahl her new film. She is the only one of all the stars who understands us . . .'

What is being discussed here is, in fact, two films: in September 1933 she is to film that year's party rally. She calls this Victory of Faith; the following year, with great preparations and enormous expertise, she makes the famous

Triumph of the Will. Although Hitler, for a number of reasons, was eventually to transfer the responsibility for her to his deputy, Rudolf Hess, Goebbels was the initiator and the financial backer of both these projects.

On 14 June, Goebbels reports: 'Riefenstahl has spoken with Hitler: she is now starting (work on) her film.' On 16 June: 'With Hitler drive through the dusk. Later at his house (with) Philipp von Hessen and L Riefenstahl. Very nice. Late to bed. Four hours' sleep . . .'

And so it goes on, outing after outing, all through that happy summer, and again with chats or discussions about 'the film'.

In her book Riefenstahl tells us she is invited to lunch at the Chancellery 'in the last week of August', and that Hitler, taking her to another room, asks how she is doing with the preparations for the 'party film'. She is 'dumbfounded', she tells us, hasn't heard a word of any such commission, and tells Hitler that she couldn't possibly undertake such an assignment . . . why didn't he ask someone politically more suited to such a task?

Hitler is furious. 'What? Dr Goebbels didn't convey my wishes to you?' he says. 'How is that possible?'

Indeed, how would it have been possible? Aside from the fact that Hitler's surviving schedule for that August hardly has him in Berlin, it wasn't possible anyway. But like many people writing 'imaginatively' about the past, Riefenstahl relies throughout her book on her readers' ignorance - which is how historical myths are created.

'When I was asked to make a film about the Nuremberg Party Day,' she said, 'I said I couldn't . . . What I did finally make when Hitler so insisted - Triumph of the Will - is not a party film; there is nothing ideological in it. It is a film of peace: Hess spoke only of peace . . . and work . . . against unemployment . . . not a word about Jews or anything ideological . . .'

She is defensive here, for it is not so: the Nuremberg party congress was always the most carefully planned and most powerful demonstration of Nazi ideology. And her film - doubtless the finest documentary of its kind - reflected perfectly and with enormous power the theme each speaker and Hitler, above all, hammered home: that a society based on harmony and inner 'belonging' (Zusammengehorigkeit) must obviously reject those who do not belong - who, because of their origins, cannot be in harmony with it. The applause which followed Hitler's unmistakable allusion to the Untermenschen was allowed to continue for minutes - in the film, too. And Riefenstahl's unprecedented camerawork there powerfully demonstrated the principal tenet of the Nazi faith: that beauty and order was harmony and as such, rather than being an aesthetic inspiration, was a moral imperative.

I think that Riefenstahl knows this now, but she cannot admit it, just as none of those close - or even not so close - to Hitler can admit to having known about his murders. ('If one admits it, one cannot go on living,' Speer's daughter said to me 15 years ago.)

'I really don't care what people think of me at my age,' said Riefenstahl, not quite believably but now sounding very weary. 'And I really cannot bear to talk any more about what happened to the Jews. It is so dreadful, so beyond-belief awful, it even now spoils life for me. To think that I believed in something that was so corrupt, that produced this horror - for a long time I envied people who had died.

'I don't like the world any more: nature being spoiled, people killing each other everywhere . . . for nothing, it seems to me - haven't there been enough dead in our time?'

What are you happy about now?

'The happiest times of my life were my stays in Africa with the Nubas, because, though so terribly poor, their joy in being was so beautiful. They were so good to me. I wanted to stay with them and die there.

'And then, of course, I am happy that I can still have love and passion in my life. Love because I have Horsti. Passion because I can still dive: underwater I am in another world. What I see there reflects and even explains the true miracle - the genius of creation. It has allowed me, for the first time, to understand religious faith, and that is the film . . . yes, perhaps the last one . . . I want to make.'