Triumph of the Shill

Reviewed by Charles Matthews
Sunday, March 4, 2007


A Life

By Jürgen Trimborn

Translated from the German by Edna McCown

Faber and Faber. 351 pp. $30


The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl

By Steven Bach

Knopf. 386 pp. $30

Leni Riefenstahl was a liar. She was many other things: a dancer, an athlete, an actress, a feminist, an explorer, a bestselling author and even the world's oldest licensed scuba diver. But she was also Adolf Hitler's favorite filmmaker. Hence the lies. And hence two new biographies of Riefenstahl, one by German film scholar Jürgen Trimborn, the other by former film producer Steven Bach, who has also written biographies of Marlene Dietrich and Moss Hart.

She's an irresistible subject for biography. She directed "Triumph of the Will," the most powerful of all Nazi propaganda films. Her two-part documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, "Olympia," was filled with celebrations of German athleticism, echoing Hitler's desire to produce a "master race." While working on a never-completed documentary about the Wehrmacht, she had been present at one of the war's first massacres, when Jews digging a burial pit were gunned down in the Polish town of Konskie. She was accused of using slave labor -- Gypsies from a detention camp -- as extras in her film "Tiefland," then abandoning them to their fate when they were shipped to Auschwitz.

Moreover, although she never joined the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl was the only woman in Hitler's inner circle, leading to suspicions that she was his mistress. She was on record with many effusions of praise for the Führer, and even late in life she recalled her first glimpse of him at a Nazi rally as "like being struck by lightning," and as "an apocalyptic vision . . . like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth." Bach calls that image "ecstatic and erotic, baptismal and orgasmic," which is putting it mildly.

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