Leni Riefenstahl: A Life

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Faber & Faber, Jan 23, 2007 - Biography & Autobiography - 351 pages
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Dancer, actress, mountaineer, and director Leni Riefenstahl's uncompromising will and audacious talent for self-promotion appeared unmatched--until 1932, when she introduced herself to her future protector and patron: Adolf Hitler. Known internationally for two of the films she made for him, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, Riefenstahl's demanding and obsessive style introduced unusual angles, new approaches to tracking shots, and highly symbolic montages. Despite her lifelong claim to be an apolitical artist, Riefenstahl's monumental and nationalistic vision of Germany's traditions and landscape served to idealize the cause of one of the world's most violent and racist regimes.

Riefenstahl ardently cast herself as a passionate young director who caved to the pressure to serve an all-powerful Führer, so focused on reinventing the cinema that she didn't recognize the goals of the Third Reich until too late. Jürgen Trimborn's revelatory biography celebrates this charismatic and adventurous woman who lived to 101, while also taking on the myths surrounding her. With refreshing distance and detailed research, Trimborn presents the story of a stubborn and intimidating filmmaker who refused to be held accountable for her role in the Holocaust but continued to inspire countless photographers and filmmakers with her artistry.

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User Review  - carl.rollyson - LibraryThing

"Every woman adores a fascist," Sylvia Plath cried out in her poem "Daddy." "To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of ... Read full review

LENI RIEFENSTAHL: A Life

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A well-researched, judicious view of the life of the woman whose arresting images of the Third Reich pursued her until her death in 2003, at the age of 101.Riefenstahl cooperated somewhat with ... Read full review

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About the author (2007)

LENI RIEFENSTAHL
The Ascent 1 BERLIN IN THE TIME OF THE KAISER CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH

WHEN KING WILHELM I OF PRUSSIA was proclaimed German kaiser in 1871, Berlin became a center of political power. With its three million inhabitants, the metropolis on the Spree became an economic, civic, and, in particular, social and cultural hub. At the turn of the century, Berlin possessed an expressly international flair, even if restrictive Wilhelmian policies repeatedly checked modern developments and avant-garde movements. But this had little effect on the fascination that the city held. Visitors, both German and foreign, strolled along the elegant Unter den Linden, past spectacularly ostentatious architecture and tributes in stone to the Hohenzollern rulers. They visited the well-stocked department stores, the opulent opera houses, the magnificent revue palaces, and Max Reinhardt''s celebrated theaters, sampling the various worlds that Berlin nurtured in the Gründerjahre, the years of expansion in the early 1870s when it basked in the light of its newfound importance. The policies established in the Berlin of the monarchy, the "fastest-moving city in the world," were to set the course the German Reich was to follow in the years to come. Kaiser Wilhelm II, known for his comic opera costumes and his exaggerated rhetoric, came up with the catchphrase, embraced by the aristocracy as well as the bourgeoisie, that Germany, too, needed a "place in the sun." The quest for colonies that followed, enthusiastically supported by a complacent Reichstag, was to find its premature end in the years of the First World War. In turn-of-the-century Berlin, the economy flourished. The city was in the grip of a near euphoric period of development, and a large number of ambitious enterprises were established during the building boom. And sharing in the general optimism was Alfred Theodor Paul Riefenstahl, trained as a master fitter. Born in Berlin on October 30, 1878, as the son of the journeyman locksmith Gustav Hermann Theodor Riefenstahl and his wife, Amalie, Alfred Riefenstahl grew up with two brothers and a sister. He abandoned the artisan milieu of his forefathers to become a salesman and make his way on his own. Shortly after receiving his master''s certificate, he took over a prosperous installation business, which he ran with a combination of practical knowledge and commercial farsightedness. His daughter Leni later portrayed him as a large and powerful man with blond hair and blue eyes. Contemporary photographs reveal a well-dressed figure mindful of his appearance, who commanded respect and appeared proud of the social standing he had achieved on his own. Alfred Riefenstahl had a strong character, and insisted on staying in control and exerting his authority. He was full of life, temperamental, and inclined to violent outbursts if anyone stood in his way, whether in business or private. He seldom tolerated argument. He married Bertha Ida Scherlach, born to German parents in Wlo-clawek, Poland, on October 9, 1880. Her father, Karl Ludwig Ferdinand Scherlach, a carpenter from West Prussia (in Memoiren, Riefenstahl promoted him to an "architect"1), had found work in neighboring Poland and settled there. Together, he and his East Prussian wife, Ottilie, had eighteen children. Ottilie died giving birth to their eighteenth child, Bertha, and the thirty-eight-year-old widower suddenly found himself alone with his offspring. Shortly after the death of his wife, he married a woman who had been a governess in the Scherlach household and who would bear him three more children in the years that followed. When Scherlach made the decision to move with his family to Berlin, he was too old to seek new employment. So it was the children, including Bertha, who supported the family. Bertha had completed her training as a seamstress and, as the youngest offspring of a large family well accustomed to working from a young age, quickly found a position in the country''s capital. Even with her own earnings she was forced to lead avery modest life, as she had to support her out-of-work father and her young siblings. When the respectable businessman Alfred Riefenstahl entered her life, her rise in society was assured. But with her wedding she had to bury the secret dream of her youth of becoming an actress. Bertha Scherlach met Alfred Riefenstahl, two years her senior, at a costume ball in 1900. It was not a long courtship; the two quickly realized they would stay together--not least because Bertha soon was expecting her first child. The wedding took place in Berlin on April 5, 1902. The relationship between Alfred and Bertha Riefenstahl was a difficult one, but typical for the times. On one side was a husband who demanded total authority, and on the other a woman who was not only unprepared but also probably unable to challenge him. The rules of Wilhelmian society dictated that she subordinate herself to her husband''s wishes, and the two adjusted to a petit-bourgeois life, in which the young family soon was firmly rooted. The birth of Bertha Helene Amalie Riefenstahl was recorded at the Berlin Registry Office XIII on August 22, 1902. As was customary at the time, the birth took place at home, in a simple, modest apartment on Prinz-Eugen-Strasse in the working-class quarter of Wedding. From infancy on, she was called "Leni." Leni Riefenstahl led a protected childhood, free of material cares. The family slowly worked its way up from a petit-bourgeois milieu to the middle class. Alfred Riefenstahl quickly prospered in the heating and ventilation systems firm that he opened on Kurfürstenstrasse, but this prosperity was based more on luck than on business acumen. His business expanded owing to the installation contracts resulting from the city''s countless new construction projects and the renovation of older buildings. These increased the family''s earnings and guaranteed a certain standard of living. As he did from his wife, Alfred Riefenstahl expected discipline and absolute obedience from his daughter. He had been raised to rule his family with a firm hand and tolerate no disagreement, and he considered the example set by his father to be the ideal for his own family. He was as uncompromising at home as he was in business, routinely imposing his own habits on his wife and his child, which led to constant conflict. Riefenstahl flew into a rage at the least disturbance of his daily routineand could "stamp like an elephant if the button on his starched collar proved hard to undo."2 Leni secretly wished for a gentle, loving father, but when she attempted to break away from his cold and severe control, rebelling against her predetermined role as the obedient daughter, he reacted with outbursts of rage. Nor did he shrink from beating and humiliating his daughter and locking her in the house for the slightest infraction, or from punishing her with a silence that would last for weeks. "Once, when I was caught [stealing apples] and my father found out about it, he gave me a terrible whipping and locked me in a dark room for an entire day. And I suffered his sternness on other occasions as well."3 The girl suffered from her father''s coldness and spent her whole childhood trying to wrest from him some proof of his love, but again and again she encountered only harsh rejection or emotional distance.4 And yet her father quickly registered that Leni had inherited his own stubbornness and, as she grew older, was prepared to battle her father''s authority. More and more often she made decisions without first asking her father''s permission, which she tried to keep secret. For example, she kept from him the fact that she had registered at a gymnastics club and, later, at dancing school. The volatile relationship between father and daughter was always threatening to explode, and the most innocuous event could turn into a contest of wills: "It was often difficult to get along with him. He liked to play chess with me--but I always had to let him win. Once, when I beat him, he became so mad that he forbade me to go to a costume party I was so looking forward to."5 As mother and wife, Bertha Riefenstahl often found herself caught between two fronts in the arguments between her daughter and her husband. Though emotionally she usually sided with her daughter, she dared not go against her husband. As a rule, she tried to mediate between them, at the risk of finding herself trapped in the minefield of family quarrels as soon as she took one side or the other. Nor did the birth in 1905 of a second child, named Heinz--the son Alfred Riefenstahl had so wished for--improve the atmosphere at home. Things relaxed only when the father was out of the house on business or enjoying himself with his friends. "Luckily, my father often went hunting, and only when he was gone could we all finally feel free at home."6 Leni, Heinz, and their mother established something resembling a secret society. When Riefenstahl was away, they all were happy to go about their activities without reservation, activities he didn''t approve of or simply forbade. Leni quickly developed a very affectionate relationship with her brother, who was three years younger. For the whole of her life she felt closely connected to him, though with his essentially reticent and shy personality he was totally different from his quick-witted and audacious sister. From the outside, the Riefenstahls epitomized a happy family. No one was privy to the tensions that went on behind the scenes in an effort to appear a promising young middle-class family. A photo from the period sho

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