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The Life But Not the Times : LENI RIEFENSTAHL: A Memoir, By Leni Riefenstahl (St. Martin's Press: $35; 669 pp.)

September 26, 1993|Ella Leffland | Ella Leffland's most recent book is "The Knight, Death and the Devil," a novel based on the life of Hermann Goring

In 1989, Leni Riefenstahl's memoir was about to be published by Doubleday when the book's editor and its translator received threatening phone calls and the project was dropped. Now, four years later, St. Martin's Press is bringing out the book under the same editor. No translator is credited on the title page.

It is evident that Leni Riefenstahl, who was in her mid-80s when she wrote the memoir and is now 91, remains a highly charged subject more than half a century after she made "The Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia." These two documentary films, the first depicting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and the second the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, established Riefenstahl's reputation as a director of genius who used her gifts in the service of the Nazis.

After the war, cinematic entrees were closed to Riefenstahl. She never made another film. Her insistence through the decades that she directed the documentaries solely as works of art, that the thought of propaganda never crossed her mind, has had the ring of a bald-faced lie. Yet it may be that her assertion is borne out by her memoir, whose title should be, "The Life But Not the Times of Leni Riefenstahl."

Germany's defeat and revolution in 1918 are experienced by the young Leni "in a cloud of unknowing . . . my mind was turned on a tiny, exclusive world." In 1932, when she first meets Hitler, "I was (politically) so ignorant that I wasn't even quite sure what concepts like 'right' and 'left' were." In 1938 when German troops march into Austria, "I realized that these events would have a bearing on the premiere date (of 'Olympia,' but) I wouldn't hear of delaying it." In 1944 "the inferno of the aerial attacks grew more and more dreadful . . . yet we still wished to complete 'Tiefland,' and in Prague we shot the very expensive final takes." In 1945, asked by an American interrogator if she has never heard of Buchenwald, the answer is "no."

Riefenstahl makes much of the political naivete of the artist preoccupied with her work, but what emerges inadvertently from the book is an even stronger case for the incognizance she claims: that of a total narcissist unaware of anything that doesn't bear directly on herself. She has a kind of driving mindlessness, which makes it feasible that in her worship of power, and of the mystical and sublime, she filmed "The Triumph of the Will" in all the grand subjectivity of her passions. I would venture to guess that she belonged to the tradition of Teutonic romanticism, which dovetailed very smoothly into the blazoned Wagnerian scenario of the Nazis. Like too many others during the first flush of the National Socialist regime, she saw its iniquities--when indeed she took notice of anything--as kinks that would straighten out with time; meanwhile her aesthetic sensibilities marched enthusiastically in step with the regime's need to be seen as something of transcendent beauty. Nor does she deny that Hitler's personality dazzled her.

It is all dazzle and limelight. Regarding the brilliant Berlin festivities surrounding the Olympics, she writes, "I had no inkling of the human tragedies taking place behind all that gaiety." Presumably in possession of an inkling now, she nevertheless makes no attempt in her book to shoulder the responsibility of having contributed artistically to the success of the Nazi machine. The memoir is a chronicle of self-worship and self-pity.

It is also an interesting book, in that hers has been a life marked by the most drastic high and low points and by an inexpungable stamina. Her promising career as a creative dancer having been ended by a badly damaged knee, she became the leading actress in Arnold Fanck's mystical, man-pitted-against-nature mountain films. These productions involved physical rigors amounting to torture, and Riefenstahl showed a fortitude that matched the intensity of her artistic drive, which in 1931 turned to directing. Her first picture, an enormously successful mountain epic, called her to Hitler's attention. Although she says that Hitler had to argue her into making a documentary and that she agreed to do so against her will, feeling that the genre was alien to her, she directed four official Nazi documentaries between 1933 and 1936. Later, on her own, she directed a second mountain film, which was uncompleted at the war's end.

After the war, Riefenstahl entered a long period of poverty and hardship littered with unsuccessful attempts to get various film projects going. In the 1960s she re-established herself as an artist with her photographs of the Sudanese Nubans, a tribe of physically superb warriors untainted by modern civilization. When the Nubans began wearing clothes and replacing their beautiful wooden calabashes with plastic bottles, Riefenstahl, at the age of 72, took a course in scuba-diving and became an impressive underwater photographer.

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