I just finished reading “A Memoir” by the late Leni Riefenstahl and, for balance, “Leni Riefenstahl, A Life” by Jurgen Trimborn.
Of course there’s too much to write, about the life of Riefenstahl, for one blog post. But I’ll share some of my thoughts anyway.
I think it’s terrible that she willingly, and enthusiastically, played such a prominent role in the Third Reich. Her deceptions, lies and moral flaws, as laid out by Trimborn, are disturbing to say the least. But, on the other hand, I also admire her for her talent, perseverance and vitality throughout her long and amazing life. Few others would have shown the raw determination, to achieve their goals against almost insurmountable adds and setbacks, as she did. It’s pretty astounding that the film career of one woman would begin with this – and end with this.
Even as I read her own account of her life, in which she portrays herself as practically blameless, I found myself judging her for some of her bad habits. For example, she would have us believe that being a woman presented an obstacle to her advancement. But I lost count of how many times she used crying and hysterical outbursts to get her way. From the very beginning, she used her feminine charms as a tool to get ahead. What I found especially irking was the way she took advantage of men who pursued her romantically. When they didn’t meet her standards, she used them shamelessly for their money and influence even as she had no intention of giving in to their advances. I got the impression she would lead them on for this purpose. I think there’s even a word for women like that.
While reading the memoirs, it occurred to me that she had grown weary of humanity and the various “persecutions” she had been subject to. All the people who stood in her way, and tormented her, were white. But later in life she discovered a new kind of human: The black human. Her memoir almost makes it seem as if she considered black Africans to be immune from the moral failings of whites. When they descended into crime, it was mainly the result of the corrupting influences of the white world (AKA “civilization”).
In various places, she tells us that not once did she feel threatened by black Africans – with one exception, and that was “her fault” (pg. 492,493):
Dinka warriors – very tall, slender men with spears and the traditional, rarely seen wide bead belts – emerged from the bushes, I asked the driver to stop and reluctantly he did so. At the time, I didn’t know about the tensions between the southern and the northern Sudanese, which triggered repeated uprisings in the south. All I could think of was the unique opportunity to photograph this unusual group and, clutching my Leica, I jumped out of the truck. Hesitantly, I walked towards the three Dinka, pausing just a few yards away from them; they paused too and when I pointed to my camera, they instantly understood. The tallest once came over to me and held out his open hand for money; I realized that many tourists passed by here on the Nile boat. I nodded in agreement, but somehow I felt uneasy. I did only a few shots and went back to the truck to get some money. Upon opening my bag, it struck me that I had no more money, only a cheque that I planned to cash in Juba. The Dinka watched me angrily, and, suddenly, one of them grabbed my bag out of my hand. I tried to collect everything that had fallen out, but I was surrounded by five or six Dinka instead of three, and more and more came charging out of the bushes. The Dinka rightfully felt cheated. They gesticulated vehemently and were assuming a menacing attitude with their spears when, in that moment of danger, my eyes alighted on a brass snuff box which I had bought in Malakal. The lid had a mirror inside it. I held the box high towards the sun, so that it shone like gold, and then hurled it over the heads of the Dinka into the grass. While they ran towards the box, my driver started the engine and by some miracle the truck made it out of the mud – luckily for us, because the Dinka raced after us for a long time, yelling loudly and brandishing their spears. The driver and I were scared to death, for if the truck had stalled, we would have suffered the revenge of the Dinka. That was the only time during my expedition that I was threatened by natives and the fault was mine.
I fail to see how the above incident could be blamed on her. She took their photos and didn’t have money – and, somehow, this is justification for trying to kill her and her colleagues? Clearly she held black Africans to lower moral standards, much as we wouldn’t blame tigers at the zoo for tearing up the zookeeper if he failed to feed them on time.
She praises the physical beauty of the native African tribes repeatedly and, when referring to the Nuba tribe she had first made contact with, she calls them “my Nuba”.
As much as Riefenstahl admired the Nuba for their physical beauty, she did recognize that female black beauty is wanting – though she was a bit more subtle than Kanazawa. She writes (pg. 491):
We reached Akobo, the home of the Anuak tribe on the fifth day. Nowhere else in Africa have I seen such lovely black girls – especially striking were those whose facial features revealed a trace of Arabic blood…
Though she claims to have never bought into the racial superiority theories of the Nazis, she certainly seems to have considered native African blacks to be superior in some ways. Nevertheless, I did find her description of her first contact with the Masai interesting (pg. 416):
However, our first contact with the Masai was not very encouraging. The women hurled stones at me, and the children ran off tearfully, while the men eyed me from a distance. I respected their timidity and refrained from photographing them; but I returned every single day, sitting down on the grass or on a rock and reading a book. In this way, they gradually became used to my presence, the children drew closer, the women stopped throwing stones at me; and then one day, it was almost like a victory when they stood in front of me, and the women and children laughed. The ice was broken. They allowed me to enter their dark huts, they touched me, and they let me drink milk from their calabashes. At last, they permitted me to take their pictures and, a few days later, when I had to say goodbye, they clutched my arms and wouldn’t let go.
That was the beginning of my great love for the African tribes.
Compare with this:
Jane was very discouraged and depressed after only a few weeks at Gombe. The chimps would not let her within 50 yards of them, and she had observed very little. Jane was getting discouraged about the project. She had never done research with animals, and the chimpanzees were certainly not cooperating with her…
Jane eventually grew very close to the chimps at Gombe. They would soon allow her to follow them, as they led the way. They greet her as they do each other, with a touch or a kiss. Her sense of patience and trust won them over.
This event encouraged Jane to keep trying to form a sense of deeper trust with the chimps. Everyday, Jane was allowed closer.
It appears that, on some level, Riefenstahl viewed the African natives as childlike and needing protection – though she would probably have never admitted so herself.
At the age of 71, she discovered deep-sea scuba diving and, over time, she turned this hobby into a profession. She perfected her underwater photography to such an extent that the world was awed by the wonders she portrayed. She continued diving for many years to come and learned to love the underwater world. According to Trimborn (pg. 266), Riefenstahl had joined Greenpeace. This was due to the destruction of the oceans and reefs she so loved to visit and photograph in her later years.
Interestingly enough, Riefenstahl was admired by a great many pop personalities. According to Trimborn (pg. 275, 276) her admirers included Andy Warhol, Siegfried and Roy, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Helmut Newton, Madonna, Mick and Bianca Jagger and David Bowie.
Though accused of being an incorrigible fascist by some, I think it would be more accurate to describe her as a woman of the times. When it was fashionable, and advantageous, for her to associate with Nazis, she did so. When it was more advantageous for her to be a liberal, she became one.
Riefenstahl’s life, in some ways, embodied the 20th century itself. Her flaws embodied the flaws of many and her adventures, thanks to her obsessive need to record them, have become the adventures of many. I’m sure I speak for a lot of people when I say that few lives were as remarkable as hers.