For feminists who'd otherwise happily claim her as a pioneering maverick, Leni Riefenstahl leaves behind a legacy as ugly, tangled, and dangerous as the barbed wire outside Auschwitz's concentration camps. It'd be hard to write about what documentarian Ray Müller rightly dubbed Riefenstahl's wonderful, horrible life without mixed repulsion and admiration, and Steven Bach features both in his biography Leni: The Life & Work Of Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl reinvented herself constantly, but when she died at 101, nobody remembered her primarily as a dancer, actress, or sought-after chronicler of Africa and the undersea world, though she was all of those things. No, Riefenstahl will go down in history as a frighteningly effective Nazi propagandist, no matter how diligently she worked to purge Nazi ties from her official history.
Riefenstahl first rose to prominence as a dancer and ingénue in silent Alpine films, a subgenre as strange and singular as the Esther Williams swimming musical. With their black-and-white moral universe, rigidly defined gender roles, homoerotic fetishization of male strength and beauty, and florid romanticism, Riefenstahl's Alpine films—which centered on love triangles set against mountain-climbing backdrops—feel like dry runs for the Nazi aesthetic Riefenstahl famously helped popularize in Triumph Of The Will. Bach argues that Riefenstahl was locked in a poisonous co-dependency with the Nazis: Hitler gave her nearly unprecedented power, fame, and resources, and fed her raging narcissism. In return, she gave the Nazis artistic legitimacy—even people who revile Triumph's politics concede its technical mastery—and proved a propagandist of the highest order, even while she professed to be apolitical and revile Hitler's racial politics.
Beauty was always Riefenstahl's alibi for Nazi involvement: She insisted that the films she made for the Nazis were all about art rather than politics. In Bach's telling, Riefenstahl was ensconced in a narcissistic bubble that at least partially protected her from confronting the genocidal realities of Hitler's regime. Bach races through Riefenstahl's early life, Nazi years, tabloid-ready love life, and post-war reinvention in briskly readable prose that never lets up. His gossipy page-turner is a riveting account of aesthetic beauty put to the ugliest of ends, and of the brilliant, monstrous woman who survived the Third Reich, but could never outrun the long shadow it cast over her life and career.