Monday, May 1, 2017

Review of Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland (2013, Liveright)

Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl were born within less than a year of each other (late 1901, mid-1902) and both grew up in Berlin, their teenage years blighted by the First World War. Both women were head-strong, egocentric, manipulative, determined to succeed in show business, and had a fondness for relationships with younger men as well as with women. Both started off as actresses. After initial successes, Dietrich headed to Hollywood, Riefenstahl turned her hand to directing. While Dietrich drifted between Hollywood, New York and Paris, making movies and having an endless set of affairs, Riefenstahl cultivated a friendship with Goebbels and Hitler and became the documentary maker of choice for the Nazis. During the war Riefenstahl spent millions making a movie, using concentration camp victims as extras. Dietrich in contrast, worked as an entertainer, following frontline US troops in North Africa and up through Italy. Post-war, Riefenstahl fought a number of legal cases to try and salvage her reputation, while Dietrich’s career slumped. Both remained restless and sought to reinvent their fame, which they both did in later years: Riefenstahl as a photographer and Dietrich as singer.

Wieland’s twin biography traces the long lives of Dietrich and Riefenstahl, alternating between the stories of both women.  And this is one of the core issues with the book. It is two biographies told side-by-side. Wieland makes little attempt to compare their lives explicitly, leaving it to the reader to make points of comparison. Certainly there are many similarities between Dietrich and Riefenstahl in terms of their drive, ambition, sexual conquests, and manipulative behaviour, but they took different routes with respect to Nazi Germany. Riefenstahl cultivated and enjoyed the patronage of senior Nazis and was a key element of their propaganda machine. Dietrich loathed the Nazis and raised significant investment in war bonds before spending a couple of years entertaining frontline troops. What is presented is a timeline of actions and relationships, but little analysis of the motivations and aspirations of both women, or how they might have been reflective of other German women of the same age. In fact, both women are somehow separated from wider context. Little is said, for example, about German society and the entertainment industries during and after the First World War or the Weimar period, we just get an account of family relationships and career. The result is two parallel biographies that are somewhat disconnected from one another and from the time and society in which they were embedded. Moreover, both are judged entirely from the standpoint of the present. That’s not to excuse the choices and actions of Riefenstahl in particular, but to note that they were not entirely out of place within the context in which they occurred. That she continued to deny accusations and evidence post-war is rightly judged, but again, Riefenstahl was not the only one to do so and her stance should have been contextualised with respect to other such cases.  Overall, an interesting read but lacking in wider context and analysis.

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