after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, an incident
occurred in the town of Konskie in which a number of Poles were
massacred by German soldiers in reprisal for Polish partisan attacks
on Germans. Photographs were taken, one showing the bodies of
the murdered Poles lying on the ground. Also present in Konskie
that day was a uniformed woman in charge of a German "documentary"
film crew. She was Leni Riefenstahl, then thirty-seven years old
and well known as Hitler's favored film maker. A photograph was
taken of her too.
photographs taken at Konskie haunted Riefenstahl after the war
when she was accused of being an eye-witness to Nazi atrocities.
Although a German de-Nazification tribunal cleared her of this
charge, she was so tainted by her association with Hitler and
other Nazi leaders that she found it impossible to resume her
career as a film maker. Tiefland, which she had been working
on intermittently during the war and released finally in 1954,
was her last film. She survived the difficult post-war years through
one expedient after another and went on to make a brief splash
as a stills photographer of certain African tribes. In 1987, aged
85, she published her memoirs in Germany. These were translated
anonymously and published in Britain in 1992 under the title The
Sieve of Time. They have now been published in the United
States as Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir.
In these pages Riefenstahl explains why she was in Konskie that
day in September 1939 and how the photograph of her came to be
taken. It is one of many instances where she has found it necessary
to justify, correct, refute, or excuse something about her past.
But she gives no hint that she is aware of the irony that she,
whose reputation among cinéastes rests on so-called "documentaries,"
should find herself trapped by a visual document. In part her
book is an attempt to score off what she terms her "enemies,"
writers like Susan Sontag who have identified Nazi aesthetic themes
in the photographs of her post-Hitler career. Alert readers are
unlikely to find her explanations convincing.
book is very long and repeats much of what she has told about
herself before in one form or another. Its narrative follows the
arc of her long and turbulent life from its petit-bourgeois beginnings
in the Kaiser's Germany (she was born in 1902) to its long downhill
love affair with Africa. (She says she'd like to settle in Africa
among the simple mud huts and naked people, but the rains and
mosquitoes make it impossible). As active in the latter half of
her life as in her prime, she has survived through single minded
concentration on her own interests and remarkable physical stamina.
She was photogenic, with a good face and figure, and many men
were attracted to her. But it does not seem that people liked
her, apart from Hitler, nor will most readers find her self-portrait