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.
“It is difficult to overpraise Bach’s efforts . . . Bach is determined to present [Leni Riefenstahl] coolly, ironically, without loss of his own moral vector. What emerges is a compulsively readable and scrupulously crafted work . . . an almost novelistically compelling narrative of a life endlessly obfuscated by lies . . . graceful . . . nuanced . . . brilliant.”
-Richard Schickel, The Los Angeles Times (March 11, 2007)
“First-rate . . . [a] richly fleshed-out portraiture and social history”
- Judith Thurman, The New Yorker (March 19, 2007)
“Energetic . . . Serves as [a] much needed corrective to all the spin, evasions and distortions of the record purveyed by Riefenstahl.”
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times (March 13, 2007)
“Reading Steven Bach’s excellent biography of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, Iwas struck at how timely her life is today . . . Bach’s book demystifies her . . . brilliant.”
-Baltimore Jewish Times
“Like all of the best film books, Leni describes the times as well as the largest figures in the landscape.”
“Excellent . . .”
-Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books
“Meticulous and revealing . . . Bach writes almost as if he were a personal witness . . . it may be a cliché, but it was hard to put down this book . . . Bach provides the most complete and interesting account of her life and work to date.”
“A fuller, rounder portrait . . . Bach writes well and researches well . . . [with] a knack for the pithy phrase.”
“It is a tribute to Bach’s storytelling skill and sparkling prose that every page of this book fascinates.”
-The First Post
“A model of careful research and interpretation, portraying the filmmaker in a completely new light.”
-Deseret Mountain News
“A fantastic job . . .”
-Walter Reichert, Entertainment World
“Frank, authoritative and dishy . . . well written and unsparing . . .”
-David Walton, The Dallas Morning News
“Direct, forceful and admirably restrained in rhetoric and hyperbole . . . a short, sharp, hard jab at the Leni Legend.”
-Duane David, Rocky Mountain News (March 16, 2007)
“Fascinating . . . the definitive new biography from Steven Bach should silence any lingering Riefenstahl apologists . . . Bach bravely sorts through the mountain of falsehoods . . . carefully researched.”
-Andrea Hoag, Film Comment (March-April 2007)
“Briskly readable prose that never lets up . . . his gossipy page-turner is a riveting account of aesthetic beauty put to the ugliest of ends, and of the brilliant, monstrous woman who survived the Third Reich, but could never outrun the long shadow it cast over her life and career.”
-Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (March 15, 2007)
“Tells a riveting story . . . impressive detail . . . written with showbiz glee.”
“Bach makes the vivid and exasperating Riefenstahl come back to life and stand before us to be judged . . . Meticulous . . . Bach unearths the buried facts, finds the truth behind the lies.”
-Book World (March 4, 2007)
“Penetrating and superbly well-written . . . As Bach expertly elucidates the opportunistic Riefenstahl’s exploits . . . he takes measure, as no one else has, of her ruthless ambition . . . Riefenstahl loved fairy tales, and, as Bach so perceptively and artistically reveals, she succeeded in living one, however insidious.”
-Donna Seaman, Booklist (February 15, 2007)
"Steven Bach's Leni finally presents Riefenstahl as she genuinely was: not as we have seen her so far but as Hitler's self-serving and mendacious p.r. handmaiden. If you haven't thought of 'Nazi artist' as a noxious and corrupting oxymoron, Bach's scrupulous account of a zealously masked life may persuade you otherwise."
-- Cynthia Ozick
"In this lively, engaging biography of the legendary Leni Riefenstahl, Steven Bach finally separates fact from fiction to give the powerful filmmaker, manipulative narcissist and friend of Hitler her due."