Leni Riefenstahl: A Life
By Jürgen Trimborn
Faber and Faber, 351 pp., illustrated, $30
The Lost Life of Eva Braun
By Angela Lambert
St. Martin's, 495 pp., illustrated, $29.95
Leni Riefenstahl and Eva Braun. It's hard to believe that two women so different could both embody Nazi ideals. As an actress, Riefenstahl was a public icon of Aryan womanhood. As a filmmaker, she became the Third Reich's chief propagandist, the one who stirred the fascist frenzy. Braun, on the other hand, was the führer's secret love .
Riefenstahl was strong. She was a symbol of Aryan athleticism who gained fame from the mountaineering movies in which she portrayed mythic German beauties. On screen, she embodied German nationalist ideals: cold as ice, strong as steel, blond as peroxide could make her. Eventually, she turned her immense talent to making Nazi documentaries: Her films of the Nuremberg rallies and the 1936 Berlin Olympics won worldwide accolades (for her cinematic skill) while in Germany they won thousands of acolytes to the Nazi Party. In America, Frank Capra and Charlie Chaplin studied her films to try to learn how cinematic propaganda could work. Riefenstahl survived the war, and for more than 50 years she claimed to have been an unwilling servant of the Third Reich and ignorant of its genocide. By the time she died, at 101, her campaign of denial had met with some success. Many film critics seemed willing to overlook her fascism and to celebrate her talent instead.
Eva Braun, on the other hand, was docile and sweet. As Hitler's mistress, she spent most of her adult life waiting at home in Hitler's Bavarian retreat. The führer visited only once every few weeks, but Eva was always ready to try to ease his stress with her bubbleheaded antics and sentimental ways. From Braun's 19th birthday to her 32d, her relationship to Hitler was secret. But at the defeat of the Third Reich, as some of his most trusted ministers fled from him, Braun stayed at Hitler's side, announcing her intention to die in his arms. Hitler rewarded her loyalty by summoning a terrified civil servant to the bunker and marrying her, 36 hours before he handed her the cyanide capsule that ended her life. Ten minutes after she swallowed it, her still - warm body was doused in gasoline, and she and Hitler burned together.
Angela Lambert's "The Lost Life of Eva Braun" tries to portray Braun as a "tragic heroine," a powerless but fundamentally good victim of her proximity to power. Her argument is wildly unconvincing, but there's a certain fascination to reading about Braun . The book is lively, readable, undisciplined, and sometimes just silly. But it is also somewhat compelling, in large part because Braun's story is mixed up with the author's own story of her struggle to cope with her German mother. Apparently, Lambert's mother looked like Braun. She was a racist and an anti-Semite who never repressed her aversion to Jews or to people of color. But she was also an "amiable" mother. Lambert is troubled by this contradiction, and throughout the book she grapples with it, inserting paragraphs about her mother and her mother's family whenever the parallels strike or puzzle her. The strategy is understandable. It's hard to know how else to fill the pages, when there is so little documentary evidence. Twenty-two pages of Braun's diary remain, along with a few albums of snapshots of her. Although the last few weeks of her life are exhaustively documented, for the years before that, Lambert is forced to speculate.
Lambert can't face up to Braun's complicity with Hitler because for her it is tied to her own mother's guilt by association. In her effort to exonerate Braun, Lambert quotes the Holocaust denier David Irving, and ignores the analyses of scholars like Daniel Goldhagen , who describes many ordinary Germans as "Hitler's willing executioners."
Jürgen Trimborn's "Leni Riefenstahl: A Life" is on the other end of the spectrum . It is exhaustively researched, and the scholarship is careful and sound, if a little dull. Since Riefenstahl was a very public figure and a compulsive liar, there is much contradictory evidence about her. Trimborn sorts through it all with great clarity as he builds the case that Riefenstahl was an enthusiastic Nazi.
Riefenstahl's great talent does not change the ethics of her Nazi participation any more than her subsequent denials. After the war, she spent years as a photographer of the Nuba people in the Sudan. Susan Sontag linked those photos to the Berlin Olympics documentary because they also fetishized physical perfection, but it is clear that Riefenstahl intended them as compensatory images because they were African instead of Aryan. Once the Sudan was torn apart by civil war, Riefenstahl embarked on a final chapter as a deep-sea filmmaker. At age 100, she was in scuba gear making beautifully painterly abstractions underwater. As Trimborn tells it, Riefenstahl was a resourceful and vigorous woman with a great eye for an image and an amazing capacity for telling convincing lies.
Neither amiability nor talent is an excuse for complicity with genocide, or for subscribing to the fundamentally evil tenets of Aryan supremacy. Being a woman in a man's Reich doesn't cut it either. Lambert's honest struggle to exonerate Braun and Trimborn's careful effort to convict Riefenstahl are both somewhat interesting for the armchair ethicist, but in both cases, the final conclusions are simple: The woman who helped create Hitler and the woman who loved him were both willing participants in and supporters of the Third Reich.
Renée Bergland, a professor at Simmons College, is writing a biography of astronomer Maria Mitchell.