Just before America entered the war in 1941 Nelson Rockefeller invited two master film-makers to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to view Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 documentary, Triumph of the Will. The millionaire philanthropist wanted to know if Riefenstahl's obvious support in the film for the Nazis could be turned on its head and through editing be transformed into an anti-Nazi polemic. The Surrealist film-maker Luis Bunuel said the film's spell- binding, processional shots of fluttering flags and swastikas, stamping boots and adoring up-and-under shots of Nazi leaders could not be altered. After Charlie Chaplin came to MOMA a week later, Rockefeller asked the projectionist what the silent comic's reaction had been. Chaplin, apparently, laughed throughout.
These two reactions have framed the debate over Leni Riefenstahl's work: a wary appreciation of cinematic skills devoted to an inappropriate subject, and ridicule for a bombastic style devoted to messianic orators such as Hitler and Josef Goebbels.
But in the first English language biography of Riefenstahl, Steven Bach ventures further to insist that Riefenstahl's skills lent credibility to a horrific regime and that she is therefore morally culpable, if not for the actions of the Nazis, then at least in part for their visceral appeal.
Bach certainly makes the case that Riefenstahl was a sharp- elbowed operator who held a perpetual belief in her own charms and artistic vision. She left a trawl of bruised lovers - some Jewish, later to be disclaimed - in her wake as she clawed up the production ladder as a star of "Alpine" films - a romantic sub-genre that held little appeal outside Germany. By 1933, Reifenstahl's career had stalled and, though she had co-directed one of her mountain melodramas, she was desperately in need of a film subject to maintain her star status. Fortunately for her, she then met Adolf Hitler.
"Once we come to power," he suggested, "you must make my films." She said she couldn't join the Party because "you have racial prejudices." Yet, far from antagonising the would-be dictator, her reply provoked an amorous attack. But the leader noted her coolness and pleaded, "How can I love a woman until I have completed my task?" Hitler's press agent, Ernst Hanfstaengl, who observed one of these romantic interludes between the two, remarked that actually "Leni was giving him the works, a real summer sale of feminine charms" and, if Leni couldn't "manage this, no one can." But Hitler was asexual, as Hanfstaengl suspected, so he wasn't surprised that Leni's advances only threw the Fohrer "into a panic".
Despite his romantic qualms, Hitler retained a belief in Riefenstahl's cinematic ideas and within a month of becoming Chancellor in January, 1933 he personally gave …