“They can sag a little, can’t they?”


Jenny McPhee in 3:AM Magazine:

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.

More here.