For once, a life worthy of a memoir. Leni Riefenstahl tells the gripping story of her rise from dancer and star of silent mountain films during the Weimar Republic to Triumph of the Will, Olympia, and “Hitler’s filmmaker,” followed by her long fall after the war, the Nuba, scuba. Riddled with contradictions, dubious statements and suspicious omissions, the book is also a thorny tangle that raises complicated questions about moral responsibility, political culpability, aesthetics, and ambition. Leni’s extreme unreliability (I had the uncanny sense that she started lying around page 5, about a playground incident) adds a layer of uncertainty that makes the book even more intriguing, down to the heartbreaking (or calculated?) last sentence.

After the war, when landmark achievements and intimate meetings with the Nazi elite–Goebbels, Göring, Hitler, Speer–give way to frustration and a string of canceled projects, the book slows down considerably. As Riefenstahl faces increasing hardship, it becomes difficult not to admire her dogged vitality and feel a certain degree of empathy for her. Regardless of your opinion on her life, work, and guilt, this book is bound to muddy some certainties. I’ll have to look at the two new biographies to see how some of her assertions hold up (not well, apparently), and I’m rewatching The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl for yet another take, but I don’t hope to come to terms with the confounding implications of the case Riefenstahl any time soon. Riefenstahl died in 2003, at the age of 101.

Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir. 1987. ****

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Previously on Muckworld:

Leni

The New Biographies

The diving sequence from Olympia: