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

<i> Ella Leffland's most recent book is "The Knight, Death and the Devil," a novel based on the life of Hermann Goring</i>

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.

It is a life jangling from the start with crises. Plans of all sorts catastrophically fall through. Her love affairs are many and turbulent. She is prone to excruciating illnesses and severe accidents--narrow escapes from death that are added to by the dangers of the mountain films with their driving blizzards and crashing avalanches. Her adventures in the Sudan are no less perilous, and in addition she has trouble with her crew. They abandon her. But the Nubans--or “my Nubans,” as she calls them--adore her. This is a fugue throughout the book: People are either Riefenstahl’s worshipers or her enemies. Her life is a “continual rise and fall of triumph and attack.”

The reference to attack is not entirely unjustified. The press has at times been scurrilous. A German newspaper in 1976 described her as photographing very tall Negroes with enormous genitals, suggestively remarked that her assistant cameraman was also very tall and implied that she was at an age when she should be thinking about “a plot six feet deep, with a stone upon it.” Other attacks are quoted in the book, but Riefenstahl’s definition of journalistic attack extends beyond sleaze to all references to her past connection with the Nazis. Why must that subject always be brought up? she asks. Why must people keep throwing Hitler in her face?

She was rumored to have been Hitler’s mistress. This she denies in the memoir, and I am inclined to believe her. She was his pet film director, and he was the embodiment, the symbol, of a world divorced from the ordinary--a world higher, grander, mightier. Riefenstahl writes that when she first met him she made a distinction between his strong personality and his political notions, rejecting his racist ideas while hoping they were campaign rhetoric. This type of thinking continued within her after the symbol came to power and showed his colors clearly enough for anyone willing to see.

Perhaps if Leni Riefenstahl admitted that she took the wrong fork in the road, she would not keep having the past thrown up at her so unpleasantly. But there is no admitting when there is no understanding. If there are any expectations that in her memoir she does some soul-searching, they will be disappointed.