In some ways Helene “Leni” Riefenstahl was the Margaret Thatcher of her day, a feminist trailblazer the feminist movement would rather forget. Arguably she was the greatest female film director of the 20th century — no less a film critic than The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael thought so — yet she picked the wrong side, even if she did always claim that she was only interested in art, not politics.
Although she was never a member of the Nazi Party and always denied being a propagandist, her films, especially Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) about the 1934 Nuremburg rally, nevertheless helped to create what became known as the “Hitler myth”, presenting the Nazi leader as a sort of Wagnerian demigod.
And even though the Allies deemed her a “fellow traveller only” after interrogating her at the end of the war, she remained a controversial and ambivalent figure to the end of her long life, admired and reviled in like measure.
Just as cabinet photographs of Thatcher show her surrounded by men in suits, so Riefenstahl, in part the subject of my new novel The Dictator’s Muse, was always the only woman in the picture, surrounded by men in those sharp Hugo Boss uniforms. Although there were other prominent women in Hitler’s inner circle, such as Magda Goebbels and Winifred Wagner, she was the only one who came close to having any real power and influence. To do that she believed she had to behave like a man.
“As Pretty as a Swastika”
That included her love life. For as well as being a talented and creative filmmaker, she was also a sexual pioneer. She had a harem of good-looking cameramen and actors whom she would ruthlessly sleep with and never call back.
To her detractors she was “as pretty as a swastika”, but she was often having to turn down unwanted proposals of marriage. Only twice did she succumb, the second time when she was in her nineties and the groom was 42 years her junior.
Her relationship with Hitler was more complicated. He respected her as an artist; ranked her, indeed, alongside his favorite architect, Albert Speer. And in the 1930s she used her friendship with him to manipulate people. Even though the Nazi leadership was almost the definition of “toxic masculinity” — Goebbels, Göring, Hess, Himmler, Ribbentrop and so on — when she gave orders, they jumped.
Having tasted fame as a dancer and actress, she knew how to cast a spell on people, like the character she played in her best-known “Weimar period” film Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932), which she also directed and produced.
That spell continued to be cast long after the war, and among those who fell under it were Andy Warhol, Jodie Foster and Francis Ford Coppola, who quizzed her about her editing technique. Mick Jagger, meanwhile, seems to have been fascinated by her and once told her that he had watched Triumph des Willens several times.
Having tasted fame as a dancer and actress, Leni Riefenstahl knew how to cast a spell on people.
The two had met in London after Jagger had said that he and his wife Bianca would only agree to a Sunday Times shoot if Riefenstahl was commissioned to take the photographs. “Mick was not at all what I expected,” Riefenstahl wrote afterward. “He was clearly intelligent and sensitive; within a short time we were absorbed in a conversation that grew more and more intense.”
They hit it off to such an extent that Jagger later invited her to a dinner in New York so that he could introduce her to some of his friends in the film world, such as Faye Dunaway.
I’m not saying Jagger flirted with fascism, but as a film buff he did admire her work and wanted to discuss it with her. And why wouldn’t he? Alongside Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Riefenstahl was the most technically accomplished filmmaker of her era and Triumph des Willens is still considered one of the most enthralling films of prewar cinema, which is partly why even today, almost a century later, it is verboten to screen it in Germany.
Her innovations included using cameramen who not only wore uniforms to blend in with the SS and SA troops she choreographed, but also roller skates to get smoother tracking shots; the use of long-focus lenses so that a sea of flags would be foreshortened to create a blurred, almost abstract pattern as the standard-bearers circled in opposite directions; the camera angles that presented Hitler as a monumental figure seen not only from below, but also above — for Riefenstahl rose with her Parvo motion picture camera 150ft above the Nuremberg parade ground in a specially constructed cage. It was probably the first moving aerial shot not taken from a plane.
Alongside Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Riefenstahl was the most technically accomplished filmmaker of her era.
If that documentary introduced the dangerous concept of a “fascist aesthetic”, her next big film, about the Berlin Olympics of 1936, was even more inventive. This one had a strange beauty and many of the techniques she pioneered in it are still being used in sports coverage today.
As well as having trenches dug alongside the long jump pit so that her cameras could follow the action on dollies, she designed underwater cameras for use in the swimming competitions, to give a perspective that was not even afforded to the spectators in the stadium.
For her diving sequences she ran film backward as well as forwards to make the divers look like swooping birds. So subtle was her use of backward film, many viewers did not realize they were, at times, watching divers rising up from the water and returning to the board.
For the much-imitated opening scene, in which The Discus Thrower of Myron, a classical statue, “comes alive” and starts to swing his discus in slow motion, Riefenstahl superimposed footage of a flesh-and-blood athlete. You could say it was the first example of deep-fake filming.
Fact and Fiction
My fascination with Riefenstahl began with a duff call on my part. I was asked to interview her for a color supplement in 2000 when she was 98 but said I couldn’t do it because it clashed with another magazine interview I was lined up to do. That other one was with, yes, you haven’t guessed it, Ronnie Corbett.
My friend and colleague David Jenkins went to her house in Germany instead and later shared his notes with me when I told him I was working on a novel about conflicting loyalties set against the Berlin Olympics.
But in a way I am glad I didn’t meet her because it would have made her seem too real, and I needed to be able to re-create her as a fictional character, imagining her motives and trying to hear the secrets she whispered throughout her colorful life. Instead, I visited the perfectly preserved stadium built in Berlin for “Hitler’s Olympics”, watched all her films and read all the biographies of her, as well as her memoirs.
What intrigued me most was that she was the ultimate unreliable narrator. She subtly fictionalized her own life, living on the border between her truths and her lies, so that even she no longer seemed to know the difference. As with her films, she would reverse cause and effect. Dates and locations that she could easily have checked she deliberately got wrong. In this way she inhabited a world of “post truth” long before the term was invented.
As Susan Sontag wrote in 1975 responding to criticism of her New York Review of Books essay Fascinating Fascism: “There is, indeed, a problem in getting the facts straight about Riefenstahl. My secondary sources may have been defective on three points but they’re still more reliable than Riefenstahl herself.”
Sometimes it was little things. Riefenstahl told everyone that Olympia won the Golden Lion at Venice. It didn’t. It won the Mussolini Cup. And when she went to New York in 1938 to publicize Olympia — the film had taken her two years to edit — she stayed at the Hotel Pierre on Fifth Avenue, not the Waldorf Astoria as she claimed.
You have to be a detective to understand her memoirs. They are full of evasions, omissions and half-lies. She would reveal the truth by flying close to it and do things such as changing a name every now and then to throw the reader off the scent.
Here’s another example. She described a bizarre incident in which an American athlete she was said to be sleeping with during the Berlin Olympics won a medal and when he came off the podium he marched straight up to her, ripped open her blouse and kissed her breasts.
This was supposedly in front of 100,000 spectators, yet not one of them, not even the journalists present, thought to mention that moment. Only she did, in her autobiography written half a century later.
And perhaps the strangest thing of all, she was almost certainly Jewish. She simply fudged her Abstammungsnachweis, the proof of descent she needed to work in the German film industry in the 1930s, claiming that her maternal grandmother was not a Polish Jew but an Aryan Protestant. It was a highly risky thing for her to do, yet she was not without courage. When Goebbels demanded she edit out all the black athletes from her film, she defied him, not least because Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals, was the star of it.
And perhaps the strangest thing of all, she was almost certainly Jewish.
In his 1873 essay Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that we create truth about the world through our use of metaphor and myth. It gets us closer to the psychological, literary truth; “our truth”, as the Duchess of Sussex called it recently. “Life is about storytelling,” Meghan explained with a look of wide-eyed innocence, “about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we’re told, what we buy into.”
My publisher wondered whether we should have a page explaining which scenes and events in the book actually took place and which are fictionalized, but I thought that unnecessary. This, after all, is the conceit at the heart of all historical novels or dramas, from Wolf Hall to The Madness of King George or The Crown. Also people can always google these things, even if Wikipedia entries can be made up by anyone with access to a computer.
We associate the term “fake news” with the Trump White House, especially the claim that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”. But Donald Trump didn’t invent the propaganda technique known as “The Big Lie”, nor even did Vladimir Putin with his epic disinformation campaigns of recent years. It was Hitler in Mein Kampf.
The bigger the lie, the more believable it is. Goebbels went on to embrace the technique in the 1930s, but it was Leni Riefenstahl who gave it artistic expression.
Riefenstahl inhabited a world of “post truth” long before the term was invented.
It was no coincidence that Roger Ailes, the man who more or less invented Trump the politician through Fox News, was a great admirer of Riefenstahl’s work. In 1968, when he was working as a political consultant, Ailes had run Richard Nixon’s successful campaign to win the presidential election. He later admitted he had based his tactics on Triumph des Willen.
In The Dictator’s Muse I explore the way Riefenstahl presented a version of herself to the world, using smoke and mirrors, as well as her own cutting-room floor, to reveal the truth about her life gradually, in her own time, on her own terms.
And wouldn’t we all like to do this, if we could? Aren’t we all constantly reinventing ourselves, editing and rewriting the stories of our lives on social media, presenting our own “alternative facts” about ourselves? On Instagram and Snapchat you are invited not to post an entry, but to “create a story”. Sometimes the worst lies we tell are the ones we tell ourselves.
After Riefenstahl died in 2003 at the age of 101, her archive remained untouched in her house on the banks of Lake Starnberg in Pöcking, Bavaria. Some 700 cases, a trove of photographs, films, letters and documents as well as boxes of film rolls dating from the 1920s. There are plans to put them on display in a permanent exhibition in the Museum of Photography in Berlin, but for now we, the public, don’t know what they contain.
And this got me thinking. What if one of those unseen film clips she had hidden away unlocked the truth about her, and that was her intention all along?
I liked the idea of a film clip serving as a time capsule that would open up the story. In the novel, Sigrun Meier, a film historian, discovers one that features an unknown athlete. Who is he and why has Riefenstahl hidden him away? Sigrun’s story serves as a framing device at the beginning and end of the novel, and in investigating Riefenstahl’s life, she inadvertently finds out about her own.
I imagined Riefenstahl, for whom truth was a relative concept, constantly in motion, more liquid than solid, had engineered things so that she could leave behind a sort of director’s cut of her life. The novel went from there. She became an unreliable narrator in reverse, starting with her lies and moving toward the truth — or, rather, “her truth”.
Nigel Farndale is the obituaries editor for The Times of London. His new book, The Dictator’s Muse, is out now