Dietrich and Riefenstahl; Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland and Shelley Frisch, trans. W.W. Norton, 2016, paper.


Marlene Dietrich (1904-1992) and Leni Riefenstahl (1902- 2003) both began life as daughters of moderately prosperous German families in Berlin. Both families were upwardly mobile, and their dreams were realized in their daughters’ successful careers in the 1930s. Both daughters were beautiful women. But similarities begin to play out as their careers diverged.


Berlin had survived the Great War and the revolution that followed German defeat. The city was home to the new German film industry; there were large movie theaters opening in the 1920s.  German cinema was, however, even then under the thrall of Hollywood. Dietrich spent most of her acting life in California and New York. Riefenstahl wanted to be a dancer but after an injury, took up acting and then directing films. She formed her own production company in 1931.


German cinema began with “mountain films,” an odd genre that celebrated the perils and triumphs of mountain climbing but had no plots. Perhaps the most celebrated, “The Holy Mountain,” premiered in Berlin in 1926 and starred Leni Riefenstahl.


About that time Riefenstahl became enamored with the rising star of Weimar politics, Adolf Hitler. She found him spellbinding and attended his rallies.  He admired her work. (Hitler’s only love, however, was his Germany) and soon Riefenstahl was commissioned to film the National Socialist Party rallies in Nuremberg. The 1934 documentary, “The Triumph of the Will”, was distributed by Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment. A propaganda effort, the film was also an attempt to get the German public to forget the recent deadly rupture between Hitler and the leader of the SA, Ernst Röhm – the “night of the long knives.”


Riefenstahl’s film was widely received as a successful documentary and remains much respected. Wieland suggests that these rallies drew huge disorderly crowds to Nuremberg and Riefenstahl’s film imposed whatever order there was at these rallies.


Meanwhile Marlene Dietrich’s career was taking another turn altogether. She had hooked up with a German-American director Josef von Sternberg who worked for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood and had been invited back to Berlin in 1930 to direct Germany’s first talkie, ‘The Blue Angel.” He needed a “discovery” for the main female part. Dietrich fit the bill. She signed a contract for two films a year.


She was paid $125,000 for each film, an enormous sum, but Dietrich loved to spend money, and her finances were often rocky. Moreover as she aged, she found it difficult to keep up her young, glamorous film star notoriety. She married, had a child, and then a grandchild which also compromised that persona. Dietrich never really liked Hollywood; she preferred New York. In 1939 she became an American citizen.


In 1939 Leni Riefenstahl accompanied the Wehrmacht when it invaded Poland to film a documentary. She came upon an incident where some Polish workers were being badly mistreated. She lodged a complaint; nothing happened except that she was not invited back to cover the subsequent occupations of Ukraine and Russia.


By way of contrast, Marlene Dietrich volunteered for the United Service Organization (USO) and entertained American troops in North Africa and Europe. Although tiring work, she enjoyed the travel and was, according to Wieland, a huge success.


After the War, this most beautiful grandmother in the world had difficulties finding work. Westerns came to her rescue! With these movie shoots, she often included some fun in bed with other actors and particularly producers. Which we learn about in great detail.


After the war Riefenstahl, according to Karin Wieland, displayed a shocking egomania, days – years – full of self-pity. In 1948 she had to undergo denazification hearings. Cleared, she was able to resume her career. Most German artists welcomed the new influences on their art coming from Europe and North America after the war, having been largely cut off from them from 1933 to 1945. That was not true of Riefenstahl.


However, she did manage a post-war career. She accompanied some anthropologists to Africa and photographed the Nuba in the Sudan and turned those photographs into several successful books. The well-muscled males wrestled and dueled with knives in the nude. Cultural critic, Susan Sontag, argues that you can still see in this collection the aesthetics of her films from the Nazi era. Certainly that is true of the films of the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin.


Two complaints about the book. Too much shifting of the spotlight back and forth between Dietrich and Riefenstahl. Also, Wieland provides some political and cultural background, but mostly prior to the Nazi regime. Defeat in the Great War, the stab-in-the-back legend, hyper-inflation, and certainly the growing animosity toward German Jews in the inter-war years are neglected. There is only a mention of Kristallnacht, a massive pogrom in 1938 in Berlin and elsewhere that made anti-Jewish sentiments available for everyone to see – if they wished.

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