Film producer turned biographer Steven Bach’s newest book, Leni: The Life and Works of Leni Riefenstahl, charts the rise to prominence of Riefenstahl, the seductive, egomaniacal, controversial filmmaker who befriended Hitler, made some of the Nazis’ most infamous propaganda films, altered the art of filmmaking, and lived to be over 100. Not surprisingly, the crowds attending his readings have been lively, to say the least.
What kinds of people are coming to the events—film people? History buffs?
Every audience has been different, and clearly has something on its mind. I did Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center last night; it was quite a large crowd. I could tell that these were informed people, some who had already read the book and wanted to ask questions. There was an interest in the holocaust and the fact that Leni Riefenstahl might have in fact been Jewish herself. I have had other audience who wanted to talk about art vs. propaganda, or the naiveté-seductress issue or the Nazi postwar issue.
With a controversial subject like Riefenstahl, you must get some spirited questions.
The audiences absolutely want to know how I personally feel about her. I’m not at all shy, but I try to tell them that I kept that out of the book in order to allow them to come to conclusions on their own There have been a few people who have been very hostile to the idea that I would go after this woman who was a great artist and who was the political naïve that she claimed to be. I say, fine, that’s quite ok. Read the book. You still want to hold that position, it’s a free country. They are audiences that seem to believe, as I do, that, there are a lot of live issues that are hot today that were hot in the 1930s. In almost every audience, somebody will say, "do you see evidence of Riefenstahl’s influence in filmmaking or politics today?" I love it when they ask that because it gives me a chance to say, "well, yes—everywhere": in politics with empty politicizing and pretty pictures of people standing in front of American flags, to sports reportage...There are some people who want to insist that she was Hitler’s mistress and then there are the others who bought her version of things and accuse me of being hostile for no reason at all, which is always funny.
So how do you feel about her personally?
I went though nine years of evolving attitudes about her—and I used to live around the corner from her in Munich, though I never interviewed her. There were periods where I thought I would never be able to finish the book. Where I come out with it is deeply sad. I really think she was an extraordinary talent. She certainly had a dynamism and energy and ability to manipulate in both the good and bad senses. It also baffles me how she could reach the age of 101 and be so totally unrepentant and free of any kind of remorse. I really wondered if she was completely sane. I feel a kind of appalled anger that she was never able to say I’m sorry. I’ve always thought that if, when she was 60, she had just looked up and said, "you know what, I did it, I loved my movies, I loved Hitler, I thought he was terrific, I’m really sorry," everybody would have forgiven her. I think they would have said, you know what Leni, glad to welcome you back to the family of man. And she couldn’t say it, even at age 100.
You allude a bit in the book to echoes today of things that happened in around Leni in pre-war Germany, during the rise of the Nazis…
It happened that I was into the book, maybe not very far from what you’re citing, when 9/11 happened, and when I was dealing with Hitler’s takeover, the Reichstag fire, the enabling act that followed, and the clampdown on civil liberties, I was writing about those issues by sheer calendar chance as the patriot was being passed, as John Ashbroft was getting on TV every day telling us what the threat level was, and it was not possible for me to write those historical passages without realizing we were going through a very similar period, at least in the sense of politicians mobilizing fear. That increased my feeling that Riefenstahl’s films are really as potentially dangerous as the German government even today thinks they are, that they can still have those effects on people.
author photo © Jerry Bauer