NOW THAT SHE IS authentically dead--at 101, felled by a curse from the ghost of Ernst Junger, who lived two years longer--Leni Riefenstahl has joined the shades she often conjured during a career of ardor, mystification, and, perhaps, subliminal expiation.
What good would it do to apologize? she asks in the 1993 Roy Muller documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Apologies don't turn the clock back or raise the dead from dust. The sensible tactic, in the face of speeding time and mass amnesia, is to move on and hope that everybody forgets about it. But Leni knew they never would.
The extent, even the exact nature of Riefenstahl's "guilt" is impossible to quantify. How many people actually joined the Nazi Party after watching Triumph of the Will (1934)? Possibly nobody, despite its reputation as the greatest propaganda film of all time.
Taking the devil's side. Triumph is a slightly doctored record of a macabre coven-gathering at Nuremburg, opening with Adolf Hitler's airborne arrival through gauzy clouds, the spiny spires and craggy gingerbread excrescences of the city below reflecting the medieval flavor of the impending toxic saturnalia. It proceeds to highlight revolting public statuary, squat dirndled moms holding chubby brats to gaze at the conquering Charlemagne, torch-lit marches of robotic thugs, and nocturnal serenades beneath the Fuhrer's hotel windows, all fairly shrieking that a powerfully nasty dream is becoming wet and repugnant. Add the hoarse baying of lunatics at the Party Congress, and only a werewolf could overlook the grotesque hilarity of this festival of blustering moral imbeciles.
Riefenstahl's postwar notoriety was disproportionate to what she actually did. A self-involved opportunist to the core, she grabbed the chances the age offered and ran with them. Her compulsive mythomania was a rote and slinking kind any competent researcher could easily deconstruct, though whether her embroideries veiled anything truly damning is an open question. Her critics claim to "know" Leni didn't believe her own lies. But how exactly do they know? Chronic liars generally wind up believing themselves, and artists are the kinds of liars who protect their myths with feral conviction.
Over decades of having both her real past and richly invented allegations thrown in her face, Riefenstahl's bilious reaction to unpalatable facts hardened into a grout of messily intersecting delusions. When Roy Muller gently contradicts some of her florid assertions, a savage defensiveness bursts from her costume of sagging flesh and winsome smiles. She never had dinner at Goebbels's home. That can't be in his diaries, even though it is. Vexed by questions about her first Party Congress documentary, a sloppier affair than the tautly orchestrated Triumph, she actually grabs the director on camera and shakes him. Such outbursts typify the bipolar instability of such Teutonic harridans as Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche and Winifred Wagner, with whom Riefenstahl shared a capricious cuntishness well into old age.
Some of the facts behind Leni's fictions are hardly glorifying and leave a distinct mud spatter on her ever-grinning persona. What about those Gypsies she pulled out of Maxglan concentration camp to play extras in Tiefland? Riefenstahl's detractors claim these bit players went directly to their end after filming; her memoirs assert that they all survived, and occasionally sent her affectionate greeting cards. (At the age of one hundred, while under judicial investigation for "denying the Holocaust," Riefenstahl publicly recanted these claims and promised never to repeat them.)
Still, after fifty-some years, one can't avoid the thought, "So what?" It wasn't Riefenstahl pouring Zyklon B into the Auschwitz death chambers--it was I.G. Farben, a corporation that continues to flourish in today's Germany. It wasn't Riefenstahl who facilitated the Final Solution by supplying the Nazis with business machines and the magnetic punch cards whose numbers would be tattooed on death-camp victims' forearms--it was Thomas Watson and IBM's micromanaged European subsidiaries. …