In her memoirs, Leni Riefenstahl—the German actress and filmmaker famous for her association with Hitler—describes her first and only meeting with her compatriot and colleague Marlene Dietrich:
I was struck by her deep, husky voice, which sounded a bit vulgar and suggestive. Maybe she was a little tipsy. I heard her saying loudly, “Why does a woman have to have beautiful breasts? They can sag a little, can’t they?” Then she lifted her left breast slightly and enjoyed the startled faces of the young girls sitting around her.
Riefenstahl, who lived a long, robust, and adventurous life, was an artist who learned early on how to play fast and loose with the truth, a technique that served both her craft and her survival. Her life-long animosity for Dietrich, tinged, as this passage reveals, with awe, most likely began when the young Hollywood director Joseph von Sternberg passed her over to cast Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, launching one of the great film careers of all time. We will never know if Riefenstahl’s anecdote about Dietrich is true. Riefenstahl, especially after World War II when most of the Nazi leadership was dead, spent a great deal of concerted effort reinventing her past in exquisite detail. “The silence of the famous dead offers an enormous temptation to the self-promoting living,” critic Janet Malcolm has written. For Riefenstahl, it was more a question of opportunity than temptation. Truth aside, her brief story about Dietrich has the seductive authenticity of art.
Karen Wieland’s new book Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives is so compelling yet obvious, I found myself wondering how this book hadn’t already been written. Born within spitting distance of each other in Berlin in the first two years of the twentieth century, Riefenstahl and Dietrich had similar trajectories well into young adulthood. They were both more defiant than compliant in their family life, both ambitious, both inexorably drawn towards careers as performers; one in front of, the other eventually behind, the camera. And both women came of age just after WWI when, as Robert Musil noted, “Woman is tired of being the ideal of the man who no longer has sufficient energy to idealize, and she has taken over the task of thinking herself through as her own ideal image.”
The Nazis’ rise to power would dramatically change each of their lives and forever divide their paths. Dietrich left for America with von Sternberg and never lived again in Germany; Riefenstahl, with her celebrated films Triumph of the Will and Olympiad—the latter still considered one of the finest sports films ever made despite its overt and questionable politics—became a leading figure in the Nazi propaganda machine. Though Wieland’s dislike for Riefenstahl is sometimes needlessly blatant, and her treatment of Dietrich teeters on hagiography, her study of these parallel lives is on the whole terrifically nuanced. Her investigation, via two iconic women, of fate and self-determination, of good and evil, of democracy and despotism, brings the reader a grand, female-centered vista of twentieth-century Western history and morality that is traditionally glossed over.
When we read biographies of famous men, only sometimes do the women they sleep with, or ally themselves to, figure into the narratives of these men’s lives. Thanks to third wave feminism, this omission has been redressed in countless biographies of wives, daughters, lovers, and patrons of famous men. As for women famous in their own right, Wieland’s dual biography makes it abundantly clear that due to patriarchal power structures, a woman’s choice in men in her private life is directly related to her public success. Both Dietrich and Riefenstahl had reputations for being femmes fatales, using men relentlessly to get where they needed to go. (Men who do the same thing with women are simply taking advantage of patriarchal expectations and norms.) The alternative was to remain silent and offstage–an option neither woman was willing to accept.
Often key to a brilliant career, especially if, as in the case of Dietrich, a child is involved, is having a “wife” or a “Véra,” in the Nabokovian sense: someone to look after the domestic sphere, someone to be devoted to one’s success at any cost to themselves. Though this helpmeet phenomenon has been historically associated with the female gender, it isn’t exclusively so. Defying social norms as usual, Dietrich found herself a husband who would provide the much-needed support on her path to fame and fortune. Rudolf Sieber, a Czech actor who worked in film production became Dietrich’s “helpmeet,” a man all too willing to place his wife’s needs—practical, sexual, professional—ahead of all else.
“They were a production team, with the product being Marlene Dietrich,” writes Wieland. Although for most of their lives they did not live under the same roof or share a bed—Sieber took up with the nanny and Dietrich had a series of illustrious lovers after von Sternberg, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Erich Maria Remarque, Jean Gabin, Mercedes de Acosta, Yul Brynner, and Burt Bacharach—the couple raised their daughter, Maria Riva, together, never divorced, and remained deeply connected to one another, emotionally as well as financially.
By contrast, Riefenstahl didn’t have the luxury of such steady, comprehensive domestic support until her sunset years but along the way she built up a network of lovers and admirers–most notably Adolph Hitler–all carefully chosen to further her career. She maintained her erotic connection to many men throughout her lifetime on the correct assumption that this bond would enhance a continued artistic collaboration. In other words, she could get them to do what she wanted most of the time. While Wieland shows us how societal constraints made it necessary for both women to use their sex to further their professional careers at no small cost to their own well being and sense of self, she unfortunately too often reverts, especially in the case of Riefenstahl, to such reductive clichés as “Riefenstahl was an attractive woman who made the most of her feminine wiles.”
The film producer Harry Sokal underwrote Riefenstahl’s early career and financed the director Arnold Fanck’s films–he specialized in mountain melodramas where the scenery was the ultimate diva–on the condition that Riefenstahl star in them. She hated Fanck, who had a sadomasochistic obsession with her, but she knew he was her best chance to make it on screen and that he could–and did–teach her much about how to make and direct a film. Though her greatest desire was to be a world-famous actress, and she never truly gave up hope of becoming one, Riefenstahl recognized early on that, “I can’t change the fact that I see everything with the eyes of a filmmaker.” She proved singularly adept at gaining an expert knowledge of cameras, lenses, footage, and filters; she was a wunderkind when it came to editing and achieving new and special effects. And if she lacked the technical ability to achieve exactly what she wanted herself, she knew how to find someone who could do it for her.
As is well known and documented, both women went on to have exceptionally brilliant careers, one in Hollywood, the other under Hitler with his support and blessing. Both women knew at any moment in their professional lives, for better and for worse, how to make the most of what they had. (“They can sag a little, can’t they?”) Dietrich exploited to the hilt her genderless, ironic eroticism while Riefenstahl, known as “the Reich’s glacial crevasse,” went against National Socialist type, flaunting her good looks, glamour, and penchant for a party, doing whatever it took to pursue her art and become a star.
Read the rest of the review at 3:AM Magazine