Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl were two of the most famous and controversial German women of the 20th century. One started out as a cabaret singer and made her way to Hollywood, while the other started out as a dancer and actress, became a filmmaker and then, most notoriously, hired on as Hitler’s protégée and propaganda machine.
They were two very different women: Leni was nature, the daring woman in the mountain films with a steeled, athletic body and no makeup; Marlene was all artifice. She was raw clay when the film director Josef von Sternberg discovered her and molded her into his ideal woman, using every tool, from props and clothes to makeup, speech patterns, and light. Yet, these two women also had a lot in common: Both were born in Berlin only several months apart, Marlene in December 1901 and Leni in August 1902. They both lived through two world wars, and they both refused to grow old, working relentlessly and with undying discipline.
These two lives could have been woven into a fascinating double biography. But Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives, by the German historian Karin Wieland, is not that book. It took every ounce of my own undying German discipline to slog through this 573-page mess.
Instead of linking the two women’s lives, this book is two separate biographies alternating from one woman to the other, then back again. Never do they appear on the same page. Never do we read any comparison between the two. We’re always watching one or the other, never both.
Dietrich & Riefenstahl devolves into a labyrinthine storehouse of facts and trivialities. Anything is deemed worthwhile for inclusion—synopses of every film the subjects were involved in, plus letters, diary entries, telegrams, private notes, articles, books, biographies, autobiographies. It’s all cited, then cataloged in some 900 footnotes spanning 50 pages. This mountain of information is not indexed, rendering these biographies useless as a reference source.
Wieland emulates the iron German work ethics of her subjects without a shred of analytical or original thought. It didn’t have to be this way. Over the years, countless scholars and academics have written about these two women in entertaining and insightful ways. In 1980, the German author Gisela von Wysocki analyzed Dietrich’s sex appeal in her book of academic essays, Die Fröste der Freiheit (The Frosts of Freedom). Wysocki’s scrutiny leads the reader to an “aha-moment” of understanding the secret of Marlene’s sex appeal. One aspect of it is her ability to present her body in a tightly choreographed way, like a poker player moving his cards: “Provocative, economical, and controlled. Her timing is the delay. Her dialogue also lives from delays. This retarding technique forces the viewer to get lost in the moment, anticipating the possible outcome. And this woman is fulfilling all of the viewer’s expectations.”
In Wieland’s book we wait in vain for such an insight. Marlene remains the mysterious sphinx behind veils while Leni remains a political mystery. Was she a Nazi, or just a ruthless career woman willing to do anything for her art? After all, she used Jewish producers just as readily as she used Hitler, and she played a noble gypsy woman in Lowlands, a film financed with Nazi money. And we all know how the Nazis dealt with gypsies.
Both women are icons today. They embody what Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex called the “mystery” in women: “She is there, but hidden beneath veils; she exists beyond these uncertain appearances. Who is she? An angel, a demon, an inspiration, an actress? One supposes that either there are answers impossible to uncover or none is adequate because fundamental ambiguity affects the feminine being; in her heart she is indefinable for herself: a sphinx.”
Maybe Wieland thought the answers were impossible to uncover, and so she stuck to reporting. This might be a blessing because Wieland’s conclusions are frequently hair-raising. When Riefenstahl had her comeback in the ’70s after her Nubian photos were published to great acclaim, Wieland writes, “Many Germans who had lived through the National Socialist era were gratified by Leni Riefenstahl’s comeback. If Hitler’s favorite movie director could now be mentioned in the same breath as Francis Ford Coppola and Mick Jagger, the Third Reich must not have been all bad.” For this accusation of enduring German fascism we have no footnote. When Wieland sees a photo of Dietrich and Jean Gabin during the war, in which Dietrich is wearing an Eisenhower jacket, she writes, “The combination of love, war, and death must have had an irresistible effect on her.”
The Marlene Dietrich archive is in Berlin. Thus Wieland had access to all of Dietrich’s letters, telegrams, diaries and private correspondence, including those to and from her lovers and grandchildren. One can embarrass and humiliate anybody by dissecting that kind of minutiae. This unfairness reaches the ludicrous when a telegram from Marlene to Yul Brunner is quoted, informing him that if he wants to break up with her, it will end her life. There is no indication in this correspondence that this is an actual suicide threat. Even so, Wieland concludes, “But where could she actually carry out her suicide—in Billy Wilder’s summer house? She could not come up with a suitable spot, so she dropped the idea.” These howlers keep mounting, getting more outrageous by the page.
Wieland’s book ends with this epitaph for Riefenstahl: “Death had released her from art.” Mercifully, that sentence also released me from this book.