The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl
By Steven Bach
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780375404009, 400pp.)
Publication Date: March 13, 2007
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The definitive biography of Leni Riefenstahl, the woman best known as “Hitler’s filmmaker,” one of the most fascinating and controversial personalities of the twentieth century. It is the story of huge talent and huger ambition, one that probes the sometimes blurred borders dividing art and beauty from truth and humanity.
Two of Riefenstahl’s films, Olympia and Triumph of the Will, are universally regarded as the greatest and most innovative documentaries ever made, but they are also insidious glorifications of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Now, in this masterful new biography, Steven Bach reveals the truths and lies behind this gifted woman’s lifelong self-vindication as an apolitical artist who claimed she knew nothing of the Holocaust and denied her complicity with the criminal regime she both used and sanctified.
The facts and her actions, many unknown until now, bear chilling witness: her passionate enthusiasm for Hitler from her first reading of Mein Kampf; her involvements with Nazi leaders Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann, Albert Speer, and Julius Streicher, who advanced her career, and with Hitler, who personally helped finance it; her role as silent eyewitness to wartime atrocities against Jews; and her use of slave labor in the form of concentration camp Gypsies destined for Auschwitz. We see her after the war trying to sell footage to Hollywood under an alias, manipulating a sham “discovery” of the Nuba tribes of Sudan into a career comeback, fighting to disinherit her closest living relatives, and—to the end—unable to express remorse for the millions murdered by the Nazi regime made mythic by her work.
Relying on new sources—including interviews with her colleagues and intimate friends, as well as on previously unknown recordings of Riefenstahl herself—Bach gives us an exceptional work of historical investigation that untangles the past and is also an objective but unsparing appraisal of a woman of spectacular gifts corrupted by ruthless personal ambition.
Steven Bach is the author of two previous biographies, Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend and Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart. He was in charge of worldwide production for United Artists, where he was involved in such films as Raging Bull, Manhattan, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Heaven’s Gate, about which he wrote the bestseller Final Cut. He teaches at Bennington College and Columbia University and divides his time between New England and Europe.