Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl

Steven Bach
  • Review
By – November 11, 2011

In a life that spanned more than a cen­tu­ry, Leni Riefen­stahl main­tained that she had lived only for art. Dancer, actress, direc­tor, film­mak­er, and pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Riefen­stahl was pro­pelled to inter­na­tion­al recog­ni­tion by her tal­ent, fierce ambi­tion, iron will— and her com­pelling doc­u­men­taries Tri­umph of the Will and Olympia that embod­ied the ethos of the Third Reich. But to the end of her life, Riefen­stahl insist­ed that her films were apo­lit­i­cal and that she was unaware of the poli­cies of the regime she worked under. 

To these asser­tions Steven Bach brings much new and con­vinc­ing evi­dence, from Joseph Goebbels’ diaries to pre­vi­ous­ly unknown record­ings and pho­tos of Riefen­stahl to per­son­al inter­views with her col­leagues and con­tem­po­raries, indi­cat­ing that Reifen­stahl was a know­ing and enthu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pant in the pro­pa­gan­da arm of the Third Reich. Coun­ter­ing Reifenstahl’s tear­ful and con­stant­ly revised accounts of her wartime activ­i­ty, Bach shows her to have been an ear­ly and ardent admir­er of Hitler. I must meet that man,” she declared after read­ing Mein Kampf.

A for­mer film exec­u­tive, Bach also eval­u­ates Riefenstahl’s pro­fes­sion­al accom­plish­ments with a trained eye, affirm­ing her auda­cious and pio­neer­ing tech­niques, dar­ing pho­tog­ra­phy, and painstak­ing­ly cre­at­ed visions. In the end, how­ev­er, her accom­plish­ments served the goals of an immoral regime. Tech­ni­cal­ly a biog­ra­phy, Leni, more than an account of Riefenstahl’s life, is a well-paced argu­ment for Bach’s the­sis that Riefen­stahl was unswerv­ing­ly loy­al to Hitler and his goals, a pro­pa­gan­dist for the Reich who used its resources to feed her con­sum­ing ambi­tion. In light of the evi­dence against her, Riefenstahl’s great­est cre­ation, Bach con­cludes, was her ever evolv­ing por­tray­al of her­self, indomitable and unre­morse­ful to the end. Acknowl­edg­ments, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, photographs. 

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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