A Brief Look At Audrey Salkeld's Book 'A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl'
A PORTRAIT OF
by AUDREY SALKELD
‘I hoped my researches would resolve – in my own mind at least – whether she was player or pawn in the murky world of propaganda politics’
Not only a journalist and script writer, Audrey Salkeld has amassed one of the largest mountaineering and exploration archives in Britain. Her documentaries include Adventure: Eiger Solo (1987), Everest: The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine (1992) and National Geographic Explorer: Right Up the Zipper (1986). As well as translating books from German she is also the author of Himalayan book People in High Places (1991). Now semi-retired, her most recent work includes an article in The Guardian on the Nazi relationship with the Eiger.
Salkeld’s book covers the span of Leni’s life from her birth in 1902 until old age (she was still alive when it was published).
As well as exploring her time as a film director (with particular emphasis on Triumph of the Will and Olympia, understandably) Salked has given sufficient space to Leni’s early years in which she became a noted professional dancer, her career as an actress, the passion she held for mountaineering, her many love affairs (this could quite easily have taken up the entire book), her difficulties after the war and her final arts career as an anthropological and nature photographer in which she lived among the African Nuba people and later developed a relationship with a man 40 years her junior (which lasted until her death at the age of 101 in 2003).
Perhaps not so surprising for a mountaineering writer, a large portion of Salkeld’s book is devoted to Riefenstahl’s outdoor pursuits. She translates Riefenstahl’s passion with such vigour that even those of us happiest slumped in a cinema seat will feel an urge to grapple a rock face. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty about the director's film career in the book. In fact, Salkeld explores this aspect of the German so well that entire chapters often feel like they have wandered off on a tangent into the film careers of Arnold Fanck, Luis Trenker and other pioneers of the Bergfilme genre just to accommodate our understanding of Riefenstahl’s position in film.
THE RIEFENSTAHL FILMOGRAPHY
The Blue Light (1932)
Victory of Faith (1933)
Triumph of the Will (1935)
Day of Freedom – Our Armed Forces (1935)
The Camera Goes Too (1937)
Tiefland (Made in 1940s, released in 1954)
Unlike many of Riefenstahl’s detractors, Salkeld reviews all the apocryphal stories surrounding her subject and exposes the truth behind them. While other authors, biased against the film-maker, may like to skim over some of the ‘inconvenient’ facts which make Leni seem less villainous, Salkeld lends a voice to them. She emphasises important points such as the fact Leni was never a member of the Nazi party and was more a devotee of Hitler the man than the ideology he espoused. She was not anti-semitic, having many Jewish colleagues, and even hired blacklisted people to work on her films during the Nazi era.
She was cleared of being a Nazi by a post-war investigation TWICE, and then spent many years doggedly interrogated off and on by the French who still failed to label her as such.
THE WILL TO TRIUMPH
Despite being Nazi propaganda, the making of her most famous film Triumph of the Will (1934) was met with resistance by the SA, who smashed up some of her equipment, and the Wehrmacht, who she had to appease by promising to make a film for (Day of Freedom - Our Armed Forces, 1935). While the film is undoubtedly propaganda it is also consistent with Leni’s style from previous films and more a part of her oeuvre than a tool for brainwashing. Winning the Gold Medal for Artistry from the French at the 1937 World Exhibition and void of any anti-Semitic dialogue, Salkeld effectively suggests Triumph’s notoriety is almost entirely retrospective and applied by those with a dislike for Leni. Nobody else involved in making the film seems to have had difficulty with their career after the war, and for that matter, for the most part, neither have other German film-makers responsible for some of the vilest of anti-Semitic propaganda, of which Triumph is not in the least bit guilty.
So why then did Leni Riefenstahl’s career collapse in the post-Hitler years?
The hatred towards Leni for Triumph of the Will seems to be more about her than her film. To a degree it is down to her sex – how dare this woman try to be a powerful figure in the film industry, a business that even almost a century later is still gender unequal? As Salkeld points out, if she had not made the film so well then her association with Nazism would likely have been more of a footnote in her career than a millstone around her neck.
Personally, after reading the book I felt the ambivalence towards Riefenstahl stemmed largely from her badly timed 1938 trip to America in which she found herself, quite rightly, denying any knowledge of Kristallnacht, an event which occurred during her voyage there. Unhappy with her, admittedly somewhat arrogant responses to their questions, the American press made a monster of her and, lacking any real story, adopted the idea that she was romantically involved with the Fuhrer - a claim she unfortunately played up to. Firmly fixed in the public psyche as Hitler’s ‘woman’ (which wasn’t helped in the 1950s when a quote from Hitler was made public in which he claims Riefenstahl to be one of 4 women he considers ideal), as a result it seemed anathema to ever say anything positive about her again.
This is not to suggest by any stretch that Riefenstahl comes across as a complete innocent. Salkeld makes a point of showing us that although Leni may not have been the ardent Nazi many believe her to be, she was still a self-centred, often immature and sometimes blindly career-focused woman who enjoyed flirting with the most powerful and repulsive figures of the 20th century. On a handful of occasions, when Goebbels or others tried to halt her career, Leni pulled some strings with Hitler to get her own way – in the long run a seemingly minor ‘crime’ which would somewhat unfairly cost her a reputation, friends and a lucrative future in the arts.
THE RIEFENSTAHL FILMOGRAPHY
The Holy Mountain (Arnold Fanck, 1926)
The Great Leap (Arnold Fanck, 1927)
Fate of the House of Hapsburg (Rolf Raffe, 1928)
The White Hell of Piz Palu (Arnold Fanck, 1929)
Storm Over Mont Blanc (Arnold Fanck, 1930)
The White Frenzy (Arnold Fanck, 1931)
The Blue Light (Leni Riefenstahl, 1932)
SOS Iceberg! (Arnold Fanck and Tay Garnett, 1933)
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY
Ultimately, Riefenstahl’s tale is a tragic one in which a brilliant career was lost to a somewhat undeserved negative reputation. In summing up her involvement with the Nazis Salkeld puts it best when she explains that Riefenstahl was young when she met Hitler, perhaps not in years ‘and certainly not in amorous adventures, but she was undeveloped in her critical mind and supremely disinterested in what did not involve her personally. It left her blind to political events and their consequences. Her life was balanced between escapism and the social whirl in Berlin. She had numerous ‘friends’ and colleagues, but it is doubtful if she knew many among those who could be called ‘ordinary’ people. She has always made a point of saying that the everyday, the ordinary held no interest for her. She was happiest in the desert-island context: with a hothouse group of intimates, permutating ideas, and exploring the infinite possibilities of interrelationship’.
Further to this Salkeld also points out that when condemning her work as fitting Nazi ideology ‘it is not just her dance-awareness that is so often omitted from serious studies of Riefenstahl’s art. Her volatile nature is also ignored, as is how much being a mountaineer and nature-lover has shaped both her and her art. Marrying her love of activity with her need for comradeship, in her younger years at least, wild places have provided not just an escape route and visual inspiration, but a valid alternative universe away from the madness of the everyday or ‘real’ world. Of course her eyes should have been open earlier to what was happening, but a disinterest in politics and other ‘’boring grown-up things’’ is not uncommon among the young today in democratic, but media-driven cultures’.
Overall Salked does a marvellous job of making the reader feel like they know Riefenstahl, and her book is to be commended. It is refreshing to read a biography from an expert writer who shares a passion with her subject in an area that is not the main focus of their fame / notoriety. Film students should be aware that although A Portrait Of Leni Riefenstahl is an enjoyable view of the controversial director the emphasis is more on understanding her as a person than as a film-maker, and as an academic resource is possibly best suited to those exploring the Bergfilme genre and, obviously, Third Reich film.
THE RIEFENSTAHL FILMOGRAPHY
UNFINISHED DIRECTING PROJECTS
Mademoiselle Docteur (1933)
Van Gogh (1943)
The Red Devils (1950s)
Three Star in the Robe of the Madonna (1950s)
The Eternal Summit (1950s)
Sun and Shadow (1950s)
Frederick and Voltaire (1950s)
Black Cargo (1950s)
The Last of the Nuba (1973)
A PORTRAIT OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL BY AUDREY SALKELD
FIRST PUBLISHED: 1996