Born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin in 1902, she started out as an interpretative dancer, but after sustaining a knee injury she began to act in “bergfilme” (mountain films), a genre that glorified the German landscape as well as humanity’s (well, Germany’s) never-ending struggle against the forces of nature. She had an athletic sexiness that turned the genre into softcore nature porn and made her a popular obsession. (Bach spends more time on this aspect of Riefenstahl’s career than does the German-born Trimborn.) In 1932 she directed her first film, Das blaue Licht (“The Blue Light”). Casting herself as a poor mountain girl who discovers a grotto filled with crystals only to have them destroyed by greedy villagers, Riefenstahl got terrible reviews in her homeland but won the Silver Medallion at the Venice Biennial.
It was also in 1932 that she wrote a fan letter to Hitler asking to meet him; he responded, and she got the career boost she was looking for. This was not just the coincidental “pay off” from a fan letter. Riefenstahl was a true Hitler follower, as Trimborn notes, and being in his presence was almost sexual for the young director: after hearing her first Hitler speech, “hours later she was still so shaken and confused that she was unable to hail a cab.” She herself wrote, “It was as if the earth opened up before me — as if the hemisphere suddenly split down the middle and out of it erupted an enormous waterspout, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.” Talk about “was it good for you?” It was love — and career — at first sight.
Hitler loved her acting and directing; he asked her to make films for the cause. Given state financing, she turned out the hour-long Der Sieg des Glaubens (“The Victory of Faith”) in 1933 and then Triumph des Willens, a laudatory documentary of the Nazi Party Congress in Nürnberg, in 1935. Despite being banned in parts of the United States and Europe, Triumph brought her world fame, as did 1938’s Olympia, in which she documented the Berlin Summer Olympics that Hitler intended, pace Jesse Owens, as a vehicle to promote Aryan racial superiority.
Both Bach and Trimborn focus on how the post-war Riefenstahl worked long and hard to repackage herself as an artist who was interested in nothing more than beauty and had somehow (the deluge of denials and lies about where she was and who she knew is so contradictory it’s overwhelming) fallen in with the wrong crowd on her way to creating great art. The American reader is apt to find Bach easier to follow in this part of the narrative because he offers fewer tiny details and digressions. Trimborn is writing in a different context; his German readers are more invested and have a more comprehensive understanding of the political implications and historical framework.
But maybe it’s the cultural implications of Riefenstahl’s art that should be worrying. In “Fascinating Fascism,” Bach notes, Sontag wrote that “nobody working in films today alludes to Riefenstahl.” Whether that was true in 1974, it isn’t now: he points out that Star Wars and The Lion King quote Riefenstahl, and advertising art — from Calvin Klein to the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch — reflect her aesthetic in a way that’s so ingrained we hardly notice.