OF SMOKE cont'd)
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.
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.'
don't you get married?'
it would be irresponsible of me to bind a woman in marriage.'
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.
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
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.
* * * *