This past spring you may recall that a dumb-ass attending a pro-Tibet rally held a sign asking "Would We Have Allowed Nazi Germany to Host the Olympics"? Apparently this person did not see "Olympia," Leni Riefenstahl's legendary documentary on the 1936 Olympics in Munich. I recently had a chance to read a thought-provoking biography on Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach. Although Refenstahl insisted after the war she was an apolotical artist unaware of Nazi atrocities, Bach demonstrates her complicity through exhaustive research. For instance, her name appears on contracts that call for the use of unpaid Gypsy extras from detention camps for her Reich-funded film Tielfland, and she was photographed at the scene of a Nazi massacre in Poland.
After the war Riefenstahl felt unfairly judged when shunned by the movie industry. However her artistic drive and narcissism enabled her to forge a career that lasted almost until her death at 101 years of age. The extent to which she put her artistic vision above human morality is deplorable, but even Bach, who barely contains contempt for his biography subject, marvels at her defiance of old age. The same insatiable sex drive that compelled her to sleep with practically every man on set carried through to her later years, when she engaged in a long-term relationship with a man 40 years her junior. While in her eighties she lied about her age to obtain a scuba license to film a series of underwater films.
There is no denying that Reifenstahl was one of the great filmakers of all time, and the fact that she achieved this in a male-dominated industry makes her feat all the more remarkable. Nevertheless, Bach's book inspires debate on the extent to which we can separate the artist from their art. Though Back acknowledges Reifenstahl's genius, he is not deluded by her false protestations of innocence and self-serving persecution complex.