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(FESTIVAL OF SMOKE cont'd)

As a literary performance, then, it must be said that Riefenstahl's book is on a par with her dancing. Her style, like Speer's, tends always toward melodrama and cheap sentiment. It exemplifies that form of kitsch that the Israeli historian, Saul Friedländer, has found both in Nazi art generally and in many post war attempts to recapture its spirit. The passage quoted above in which Riefenstahl describes her first meeting with Hitler is a typical example of this style. But it is the same whether she writes of her lovers, or of her war-time marriage to an army officer, or of the inner Nazi circle. Hitler is the dictator of Germany, holding absolute power in his own person, preparing to unleash upon the world the most terrible forces of destruction. But his actions, on which the fate of millions depends, fade into the background to be replaced by moments of quiet intimacy with a talented young woman, Leni Riefenstahl. The Führer and she are fellow artists, she woos him with films in which he stars famously, he gives her lilacs, roses, a Meissen alarm clock. She visits him in the Reich Chancellery; they go on picnics; she's invited to lunch, "the only woman at the big luncheon table." In Berlin, he comes by her apartment, in Munich she visits his apartment. On occasions she's invited to the Berghof, his mountain aerie, which inspires him to talk about religion. Christmas often finds Hitler feeling lonely. Riefenstahl comes round for a private chat.  

Trying to change the subject, I asked Hitler, 'How did you spend Christmas Eve?' There was sadness in his voice: 'I had my chauffeur drive me around aimlessly, along highways and through villages, until I became tired.' I looked at him, amazed. 'I do that every Christmas Eve.' After a pause: 'I have no family and I am lonely.' 

'Why don't you get married?' 

'Because it would be irresponsible of me to bind a woman in marriage.' 

It's all a smokescreen, the stuff of supermarket tabloids. But suddenly the smoke clears, we've arrived at September 1939, and Riefenstahl is in the Reichstag listening to Hitler announce the outbreak of war. She at once offers herself for "combat reporting." Within days of the Nazi attack on Poland, she has organized her film crew, obtained uniforms from the army, and rushed to the front line. Commanding generals, knowing who is her protector, point her forward to Konskie. There she is photographed and the incident occurs which causes her difficulty after the war. Riefenstahl says this incident made her abandon all wish to serve the war effort in her capacity as film maker. Nevertheless, she flies in a military plane from Konskie to Danzig where she sits on Hitler's left at the celebratory luncheon given for senior officers. Soon after she flies to Warsaw where her film crew records Hitler's review of the Wehrmacht's victory parade.  

What does Riefenstahl expect her readers to make of this episode? Does she really think it has no more moral significance than the name-dropping, gossip, and B-movie dialogue that fill most of her book? How could she be so close to the front line, so close to Hitler in his triumphal march across Europe, if she were not an ardent supporter of the Nazi cause? But the smokescreen quickly descends again. In Tiefland, a sappy story that was a popular opera in Berlin in the Twenties, Riefenstahl found another idealized image of Hitler. Working on this project provided her with a cover for whatever else she and her companies were doing for the war effort. By the time of her last meeting with Hitler, at the Berghof in 1944, she says, "I no longer believed in a German victory." It was time to invent a different future for herself. 

  Riefenstahl's book, like her films, depicts the moral universe in which many Germans lived and worked in the Nazi era. If it were not for the symbiotic relationship between Hitler, herself, and her films, it's hard to believe her memoirs would attract a publisher. But the relationship certainly existed, if not exactly in the form she now presents it, and her films still circulate. Her book complements them. It is authentic at least in this respect: in it we hear again the voice of an unrepentant Hitlerite. His only fault was that he lost the war.  

* * * * *

September 1993

Index of Papers   1  2  3  4  


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