Who, me?

Philip Purser

  • The Sieve of Time: Memoirs by Leni Riefenstahl
    Quartet, 669 pp, £30.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 7043 7021 2

Does anyone remember Little Me – a fictional autobiography published by Patrick Dennis 30 years ago in mockery of the self-adulatory memoirs which gushed, as they still gush, from actor-dramatists and other multi-talented luvvies? Little Me would not only conduct the symphony he had composed for the inaugural concert in the splendid new concert hall, he was also the architect who had designed the splendid new concert hall. On free afternoons he was a brain surgeon as well, or have I pinched that from later jokes? By page six of The Sieve of Time Leni Riefenstahl is a competitive swimmer and gymnast, aged 12. On page ten she is designing passenger aircraft for when peace should come (the year is 1918), and drawing up detailed timetables for services to link important German cities. ‘I estimated the cost of plane manufacture, airfield construction and fuel in order to calculate the possible price of tickets. I found this work fascinating and noted there was in me some organisational talent struggling to emerge.’

Her father thinks the same and says, not for the first time, that it’s too bad Leni isn’t the boy and her brother the girl. Papa is less pleased when his daughter-son dreams of becoming a dancer; her dancing lessons (p.12) have to be kept secret from him, but her first public appearance (p.16) brings applause so loud and insistent that she is obliged to furnish several encores and eventually (p.22) Papa gives in. On page 28 Leni comes second (to a film star called Lee Parry) in a beauty contest. By page 35 she is choreographing her own dances to music from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Schubert’s Unfinished. Then waiting for a train one day, she spies a poster for one of the ‘mountain’ films that were so popular in silent days, especially in Germany. She lets the train depart without her, heads for the cinema and emerges from it spellbound. The film was Mountain of Destiny, directed by Dr Arnold Fanck and starring the Tyrolean heartthrob Luis Trenker. Leni accosts Trenker at another showing of the movie. She’s going to be in his next picture, she tells him. ‘Trenker eyed me in astonishment and began to laugh: “Can you mountain-climb? An elegant little lady like you shouldn’t be traipsing around mountains.’ ” Poor sap, he isn’t to know what he’s up against. Within another page and a half Leni has tracked down and charmed Dr Fanck. A few mornings later she receives a parcel. Inside is a scenario: ‘The Holy Mountain, written for the dancer Leni Riefenstahl.’

And we’re still only at page 45. Another 625 pages and seventy years to go! On the eve of the Nazis’ accession to power she falls under Hitler’s spell, and he (if she is to be believed) under hers. He asks her to make the film of the 1933 Party Rally, Victory of the Faith, and the more ambitious one the following year which he called Triumph of the Will. She may not be the star of these (he is), but she is everything else. On the day of Triumph’s grand premiere before the Nazi big-wigs they are still dubbing the music, and guess what? ‘Despite hours of practice, neither the conductor nor Herr Windt’ – Herbert Windt, the composer – was able to synchronise the music correctly ... So I myself took over the task of conducting the 80-man orchestra.’ Kleine Mich with oak leaves, swords and diamonds!

She goes on to make the 1936 Olympics film, still reckoned to be the supreme cinematic expression of the athletic ideal. She is decked with honours from all over the world. But then comes World War Two and, when it is over, the little matter of what Leni did or did not do in the war, or for that matter in support of the Nazis before the war. Little Me turns into Who, Me? From her very first sight of Hitler ranting to a Sportpalast crowd, she insists, her feelings about him were divided. Already she rejects his racist ideas, she says; it was for this reason that she never joined the Party. But the socialism of National Socialism appeals to her: if Hitler can do something to help the six million unemployed, that is surely worth trying. And people say the racism is only campaign rhetoric ...

All of which is unexceptional. Enough Germans already felt the same way to vote Hitler into power in 1933. Many more were converted in the days of hope and enthusiasm which followed. If Leni Riefenstahl was guilty of Nazi sympathies on this count, then so was 90 per cent of the German population. As for her personal relationships with the Nazi leaders, they are strictly Mills und Boon, unless my impression is distorted by Quartet’s dire translation of her text. Here is Leni by the sea with Adolf:

We walked silently, side by side until, after a long silence he halted, looked at me, slowly put his arms around me, and drew me to him. I had certainly not wished for such a development. He stared at me in some excitement but when he noticed my lack of response he instantly let go and turned away. Then I saw him raise his hands beseechingly: ‘How can I love a woman until I have completed my task?’ Bewildered, I made no reply.

Meanwhile Dr Goebbels gets short shrift when he grabs her breast, pins her against the wall of his office and tries to kiss her. Leni resourcefully edges along until she can press her back against a bell-push summoning an adjutant. ‘When I left his offices,’ she reflects, ‘I knew that the Propaganda Minister was now my enemy for sure.’ Which doesn’t prevent her from being chosen – she would say forced – to make the two Nuremberg Rally films.

From now on, the protestation becomes increasingly wearisome. She enumerates the Jewish or left-wing or otherwise endangered colleagues she employs. She recalls verbatim every conversation that will confirm the purity of her motives. She is cagey about Berchtesgaden, implying that she paid only a couple of brief visits there and making no mention of a 60-minute film about the place which she is supposed to have shot for Hitler around 1937.

Two graver wartime stories against Riefenstahl crop up time and time again. The first is that she was shooting propaganda newsfilm in Poland on the heels of the German invaders, and had seen for herself Jews being shot down; secondly, that she used Gypsies from a concentration camp as extras in the turgid feature film Tiefland on which she worked intermittently throughout the war years and, indeed, for many years afterwards (it was finally ready in 1954). The Gypsies, according to the press stories, subsequently went to the gas-chambers. Thanks to one of her Gypsy families which survived the war, and whose members are willing to testify on her behalf, she has no trouble in disposing of the Tiefland accusations, even if there is some elaboration of the defence which sends shivers down the spine. The Gypsy camp at Salzburg was not ‘at that time’ a concentration camp. The Gypsies ate the same food as everyone else, plus sheep and two calves slaughtered for them over and above the ration stamps. Breakfast included whole milk, butter and marmalade, and when the weather turned cold they were even served hot wine. They were guarded, yes, but only because they stole things otherwise. It can’t help sounding like earnest accounts of life in Theresienstadt, or Terezin, the Disneyghetto which the Nazis set up in Czechoslovakia solely to be visited by the International Red Cross.

Poland in September 1939 is grimmer ground. It was Riefenstahl’s idea to chase along in the wake of the invading armies. It was she who persuaded the Wehrmacht to accept the proposal, and who recruited a squad of cameramen. She did cover an event which turned into a massacre of innocent civilians, if not necessarily Jewish. It was the funeral, as she describes it, of a high-ranking German officer and four soldiers who had been killed by Polish ‘partisans’. The civilians had been ordered to dig the pit in which these victims were to be buried. Feelings were running high among the Germans – this was the second such incident within two days – and the Poles looked terrified. As they emerged from the pit, they were kicked and manhandled. When Leni remonstrated with the troops, they turned on her and threatened her. Then some way off a shot was fired by mistake, everyone started to run in that direction and, out of Leni’s sight, the fighting broke out which led to the deaths of 30 Poles and injuries to four soldiers. Leni is so horrified that she rushes back to Berlin, contriving on the way to be invited to lunch with Hitler in the Baltic town of Zoppot. He tells her that he knows all about the incident, and the guilty soldiers will be court-martialled.

With respect to Riefenstahl, this is nonsense. She has let slip that the bodies of six soldiers killed in the first incident had been sent back to Germany for burial. Why should these five, who include a ‘high-ranking officer’, be treated differently? Even harder to believe is that their remains were about to be tumbled into a common grave. What Leni must have seen, and known she saw, was an early instance of the standard German reprisal practice of rounding up a random selection of males and forcing them to dig their own grave, either to scare the shit out of them or, increasingly as the war went on, for real.

Riefenstahl is a tough old bird. When nearly sixty she began a new career as a photographer specialising in anthropological studies, notably of the Nuba people in Sudan. At 71 she qualified as a scuba diver and added underwater photography to her portfolio. She has never been short of professional admirers. Jean Cocteau and John Grierson are fulsome in their praise. Mick Jagger tells her he has seen some of her films 15 times. Nor, of course, does she lack detractors; the fiercest in recent years has been Susan Sontag, who traced a line of Fascist exaltation right through the oeuvre, from The Blue Light via Triumph of the Will to the photographic essays on the Nuba. Obsessed by these extremes of approval or censure, Riefenstahl seems unable to look back on the things she did with any objectivity, or even to recognise ordinary cause and effect. Towards the end of her story she revisits the Nuba, whose initiation and mating rituals, not to mention their nakedness, had given her so much material. She is bitterly disappointed to find them changed. They are wearing clothes, even glasses, and demand payment to stage their rituals. While she is still registering this, another two coach-loads of tourists drive up. Might their arrival have anything to do with her spreads in Stern, the Sunday Times, the National Geographic and dozens of other magazines, with her two books about the Nuba or the film she made of them? Little Me hasn’t been able to resist boasting of the circulation of her magazine pieces, or of the bookshop windows filled with copies of The Last of the Nuba. Who, Me? sets the record straight one last time. Islamism, as Riefenstahl calls it, not tourism, is to blame. ‘The reproach that my photos contributed to these changes,’ she snaps, ‘is foolish.’