Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland, translated by Shelley Frisch, book review

One woman loved Hitler, the other rejected him. A joint biography of two indomitable artists is a triumph

Michael Coveney
Thursday 03 December 2015 16:47
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Parallel lives: Marlene Dietrich (left) and Leni Riefenstahl (right), in 1928, in a rare picture together
Parallel lives: Marlene Dietrich (left) and Leni Riefenstahl (right), in 1928, in a rare picture together

There is a photograph in this epic, enthralling tome about two of the 20th century's most compelling artists – Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl, Berliners both – showing them posing either side of Anna May Wong at a ball in 1928.

This must be one of few times Dietrich and Riefenstahl were in the same room, though they lived briefly on the same block in Berlin. Their professional lives ran in parallel across the 20th century, in the aftermath of the First World War and in the thick of the Second, though they both hoped to be cast as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930). Dietrich won that role, indelibly defining the image of herself as the singer who's seen it all and lived every minute, while Riefenstahl literally climbed mountains in a series of outdoor genre German movies – she was an athlete, gymnast, free-form dancer – before taking up a director's position behind the camera and making propaganda films for Hitler's Third Reich. Dietrich remained a hold-over from the Weimar Republic and took American citizenship, entertaining US troops in North Africa and Europe. The two women represent a fascinating bifurcation of German identity and experience from the 1930s onwards.

I was sceptical, when first contemplating historian Karin Wieland's exhaustive study (which feels under-illustrated with only eight pages of pictures), of the dual biography form. But she alternates the stories in long, richly detailed chunks, leaving the reader to makes connections and draw conclusions, and you enjoy the company of each extraordinary woman – triumphs, set-backs and, my God, lovers, who are legion – while always glad to return to the other after 20, sometimes 50, pages.

The literature surrounding them both is prodigious, and they both wrote autobiographies. Wieland weighs and considers every contradictory claim and assertion without clogging her narrative with nit-picking argument. Her tone is even and fair-minded – and well-served, I reckon, in Shelley Frisch's fluent translation from the German – though she's merciless when Riefenstahl gets in a tangle over denying all knowledge of the death camps and that extras in one of her films, Lowlands, were Gypsies en route to Auschwitz. They both lived to great ages – Riefenstahl was 101 when she died in 2003, the oldest certified deep sea diver in the world, survivor of a helicopter crash, claiming she had better legs than Dietrich when photographed, aged 97, by Helmut Newton; Dietrich died aged 90 in Paris in 1992, virtually a recluse, long retired since her post-war cabaret tours in the trademark pearl-beaded Jean Louis sheath gowns and having played her last leading role, as the widow of a Wehrmacht general executed for war crimes in Stanley Kramer's mesmerising Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

The irony of Riefenstahl making two Nuremberg rally films starring Adolf Hitler – Victory of Faith (1933) and Triumph of the Will (1935) – is allowed to speak for itself. Instead of point-scoring, Wieland is more interested in taking Riefenstahl at her own assessment as an artist who made her way by using Hitler's patronage (she doubts she slept with him), admittedly spellbound by his charm and charisma, and as someone whose technical prowess as a filmmaker was comparable to that of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Like the critic Pauline Kael, Wieland accepts that Triumph of the Will and Olympia (1938), her film of the Berlin Olympic Games, which set the bar dizzyingly high for all subsequent sports documentaries, are the two greatest films ever directed by a woman.

This is the point. Wieland quotes the Austrian writer Robert Musil, author of The Man Without Qualities, as saying that, between the wars, "Woman is tired of being the ideal of the man who no longer has sufficient energy to idealise, and she has taken over the task of thinking herself through as her own ideal image." This was true of Riefenstahl and, to a lesser degree, of Dietrich, whose image was moulded in the seven great movies she made with Josef von Sternberg, her lover, but whose personality was entirely her own: "She has sex," said Kenneth Tynan, who became a friend in the 1960s, "but no particular gender."

Riefenstahl's last lover and second husband, Horst Kettner, was 40 years her junior. Dietrich, married to but separated from the Czech film producer Rudolf Sieber (they had one daughter, the actress Maria Riva; Riefenstahl had no children), was obsessed over long periods not only with Von Sternberg (there was a "phantom pain" for the rest of their lives when they separated in 1935, says Wieland), but also Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front; the French film star Jean Gabin; James Stewart (her co-star in Destry Rides Again); Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Yul Brynner. Both survived illness –Riefenstahl cervical cancer, Dietrich various injuries and alcoholism – and both defied old age with cell therapy treatment.

And both moved in the upper echelons of political, as well as artistic, society. Riefenstahl was close to all the SS top brass, though she disliked Goebbels intensely. Dietrich was hugely admired by President Roosevelt – she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honour – and admitted to a half-hour "quickie" in the White House with President Kennedy in 1962. More importantly, Wieland sets both careers in the great march of history in Europe, and she does so with style and some deftness. In the last quarter of their lives, both were fêted anew throughout Europe and America: Riefenstahl as a photographer–she was inspired to find and record the Nuba tribe in Sudan after reading Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa – and oceanic plant and fish life, making her final film, Impressions of the Deep, as a centenarian; while Dietrich embarked on her world tour, the only artist allowed to sing in German in Tel Aviv, sumptuously clothed not only in the Jean Louis gowns, but also in the magical lighting of Joe Davis and the gorgeous musical arrangements of Burt Bacharach, who accompanied her on the tour.

Riefenstahl fought many court cases (usually winning them) as grumbling about her closeness to Hitler continued after de-Nazification. She insisted that the only party to which she had ever belonged was Greenpeace. Dietrich always knew what the boys in the back room would have, but she also knew where all the flowers had gone and was, said Tynan, "nobody's fool and every dead soldier's widow".

Liveright, £22.99. Order at £20.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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