Leni Riefenstahl

A Life

Jürgen Trimborn; Translated from the German by Edna McCown

Faber and Faber, Inc.

LENI RIEFENSTAHL
The Ascent
1
BERLIN IN THE TIME OF THE KAISER
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
 
 
WHEN KING WILHELM I OF PRUSSIA was proclaimed German kaiser in 1871, Berlin became a center of political power. With its three million inhabitants, the metropolis on the Spree became an economic, civic, and, in particular, social and cultural hub. At the turn of the century, Berlin possessed an expressly international flair, even if restrictive Wilhelmian policies repeatedly checked modern developments and avant-garde movements. But this had little effect on the fascination that the city held. Visitors, both German and foreign, strolled along the elegant Unter den Linden, past spectacularly ostentatious architecture and tributes in stone to the Hohenzollern rulers. They visited the well-stocked department stores, the opulent opera houses, the magnificent revue palaces, and Max Reinhardt's celebrated theaters, sampling the various worlds that Berlin nurtured in the Gründerjahre, the years of expansion in the early 1870s when it basked in the light of its newfound importance.
The policies established in the Berlin of the monarchy, the "fastest-moving city in the world," were to set the course the German Reich was to follow in the years to come. Kaiser Wilhelm II, known for his comic opera costumes and his exaggerated rhetoric, came up with the catchphrase, embraced by the aristocracy as well as the bourgeoisie, that Germany, too, needed a "place in the sun." The quest for colonies that followed, enthusiastically supported by a complacent Reichstag, was to find its premature end in the years of the First World War.
In turn-of-the-century Berlin, the economy flourished. The city was in the grip of a near euphoric period of development, and a large number of ambitious enterprises were established during the building boom. And sharing in the general optimism was Alfred Theodor Paul Riefenstahl, trained as a master fitter.
Born in Berlin on October 30, 1878, as the son of the journeyman locksmith Gustav Hermann Theodor Riefenstahl and his wife, Amalie, Alfred Riefenstahl grew up with two brothers and a sister. He abandoned the artisan milieu of his forefathers to become a salesman and make his way on his own. Shortly after receiving his master's certificate, he took over a prosperous installation business, which he ran with a combination of practical knowledge and commercial farsightedness. His daughter Leni later portrayed him as a large and powerful man with blond hair and blue eyes. Contemporary photographs reveal a well-dressed figure mindful of his appearance, who commanded respect and appeared proud of the social standing he had achieved on his own. Alfred Riefenstahl had a strong character, and insisted on staying in control and exerting his authority. He was full of life, temperamental, and inclined to violent outbursts if anyone stood in his way, whether in business or private. He seldom tolerated argument.
He married Bertha Ida Scherlach, born to German parents in Wlo-clawek, Poland, on October 9, 1880. Her father, Karl Ludwig Ferdinand Scherlach, a carpenter from West Prussia (in Memoiren, Riefenstahl promoted him to an "architect"1), had found work in neighboring Poland and settled there. Together, he and his East Prussian wife, Ottilie, had eighteen children. Ottilie died giving birth to their eighteenth child, Bertha, and the thirty-eight-year-old widower suddenly found himself alone with his offspring. Shortly after the death of his wife, he married a woman who had been a governess in the Scherlach household and who would bear him three more children in the years that followed.
When Scherlach made the decision to move with his family to Berlin, he was too old to seek new employment. So it was the children, including Bertha, who supported the family. Bertha had completed her training as a seamstress and, as the youngest offspring of a large family well accustomed to working from a young age, quickly found a position in the country's capital. Even with her own earnings she was forced to lead avery modest life, as she had to support her out-of-work father and her young siblings.
When the respectable businessman Alfred Riefenstahl entered her life, her rise in society was assured. But with her wedding she had to bury the secret dream of her youth of becoming an actress. Bertha Scherlach met Alfred Riefenstahl, two years her senior, at a costume ball in 1900. It was not a long courtship; the two quickly realized they would stay together--not least because Bertha soon was expecting her first child. The wedding took place in Berlin on April 5, 1902.
The relationship between Alfred and Bertha Riefenstahl was a difficult one, but typical for the times. On one side was a husband who demanded total authority, and on the other a woman who was not only unprepared but also probably unable to challenge him. The rules of Wilhelmian society dictated that she subordinate herself to her husband's wishes, and the two adjusted to a petit-bourgeois life, in which the young family soon was firmly rooted.
The birth of Bertha Helene Amalie Riefenstahl was recorded at the Berlin Registry Office XIII on August 22, 1902. As was customary at the time, the birth took place at home, in a simple, modest apartment on Prinz-Eugen-Strasse in the working-class quarter of Wedding. From infancy on, she was called "Leni."
Leni Riefenstahl led a protected childhood, free of material cares. The family slowly worked its way up from a petit-bourgeois milieu to the middle class. Alfred Riefenstahl quickly prospered in the heating and ventilation systems firm that he opened on Kurfürstenstrasse, but this prosperity was based more on luck than on business acumen. His business expanded owing to the installation contracts resulting from the city's countless new construction projects and the renovation of older buildings. These increased the family's earnings and guaranteed a certain standard of living.
As he did from his wife, Alfred Riefenstahl expected discipline and absolute obedience from his daughter. He had been raised to rule his family with a firm hand and tolerate no disagreement, and he considered the example set by his father to be the ideal for his own family. He was as uncompromising at home as he was in business, routinely imposing his own habits on his wife and his child, which led to constant conflict. Riefenstahl flew into a rage at the least disturbance of his daily routineand could "stamp like an elephant if the button on his starched collar proved hard to undo."2
Leni secretly wished for a gentle, loving father, but when she attempted to break away from his cold and severe control, rebelling against her predetermined role as the obedient daughter, he reacted with outbursts of rage. Nor did he shrink from beating and humiliating his daughter and locking her in the house for the slightest infraction, or from punishing her with a silence that would last for weeks. "Once, when I was caught [stealing apples] and my father found out about it, he gave me a terrible whipping and locked me in a dark room for an entire day. And I suffered his sternness on other occasions as well."3 The girl suffered from her father's coldness and spent her whole childhood trying to wrest from him some proof of his love, but again and again she encountered only harsh rejection or emotional distance.4
And yet her father quickly registered that Leni had inherited his own stubbornness and, as she grew older, was prepared to battle her father's authority. More and more often she made decisions without first asking her father's permission, which she tried to keep secret. For example, she kept from him the fact that she had registered at a gymnastics club and, later, at dancing school. The volatile relationship between father and daughter was always threatening to explode, and the most innocuous event could turn into a contest of wills: "It was often difficult to get along with him. He liked to play chess with me--but I always had to let him win. Once, when I beat him, he became so mad that he forbade me to go to a costume party I was so looking forward to."5
As mother and wife, Bertha Riefenstahl often found herself caught between two fronts in the arguments between her daughter and her husband. Though emotionally she usually sided with her daughter, she dared not go against her husband. As a rule, she tried to mediate between them, at the risk of finding herself trapped in the minefield of family quarrels as soon as she took one side or the other.
Nor did the birth in 1905 of a second child, named Heinz--the son Alfred Riefenstahl had so wished for--improve the atmosphere at home. Things relaxed only when the father was out of the house on business or enjoying himself with his friends. "Luckily, my father often went hunting, and only when he was gone could we all finally feel free at home."6
Leni, Heinz, and their mother established something resembling a secret society. When Riefenstahl was away, they all were happy to go about their activities without reservation, activities he didn't approve of or simply forbade. Leni quickly developed a very affectionate relationship with her brother, who was three years younger. For the whole of her life she felt closely connected to him, though with his essentially reticent and shy personality he was totally different from his quick-witted and audacious sister.
From the outside, the Riefenstahls epitomized a happy family. No one was privy to the tensions that went on behind the scenes in an effort to appear a promising young middle-class family. A photo from the period shows the two children in their Sunday sailor suits, a symbol at the time not only of pride in the kaiser's navy but also of belonging to "better society."
Alfred Riefenstahl's flourishing businesses required that the family demonstrate a certain standard of living. Leni Riefenstahl's childhood, therefore, was marked by frequent moves and changes of neighborhood, which always called for her to adapt to a new location. The family first moved from Wedding to Hermannplatz in Berlin-Neukölln, then to Yorckstrasse in Schöneberg and on to Wilmersdorf before temporarily settling southeast of the city, in 1921, in Rauchfangswerder in the Brandenburg March.
"IN MY YOUTH I WAS A HAPPY PERSON"
Even before moving to Rauchfangswerder, located on a peninsula of the Zeuthener See, the outdoors played an important role in the Riefenstahl family's life. In portraying her childhood, Leni Riefenstahl always stressed how important nature was to her. The well-to-do family soon bought a small weekend house in a little village that Riefenstahl calls Petz and which presumably is the town of Pätz, located on the Pätzer Vordersee near the small Brandenburg city of Bestensee. Fleeing the hectic pace of big-city life, the Riefenstahls spent nearly every weekend here, an hour by train from Berlin. Leni Riefenstahl, by her own account, grew into a true "child of nature, beneath trees and bushes, with plants andinsects, watched over and protected."7 Being outdoors in nature was essential to her.
The girl who became accustomed to life in the country from an early age welcomed the family's later move to Rauchfangswerder, even though the daily hour-and-a-half trip to Berlin was time-consuming and exhausting. The idyllic country surroundings appeared more important to her than the comforts of the city. The Riefenstahls' property included a large overgrown meadow that ran down to a lake bordered by old weeping willows, the branches of which dipped into the water. The family owned a rowboat and also made outings to the nearby forest and meadows. Their not always simple family life became noticeably more relaxed in this bucolic setting, and, far from his business concerns and the noise of the metropolis, even Alfred Riefenstahl, with his weekday moods and his tendency to angry outbursts, became calmer here. He would lie for hours on the shore of the lake or work in the small garden where the family grew fruits and vegetables for their table.
Leni Riefenstahl tried her whole life to recapture the idyllic experience of nature that she had known as a child. Being outdoors in harmony with nature provided an important and incomparable source of strength. Particularly important to the young girl was the privacy and time for herself she found there. She played with the neighborhood children, of course, climbing trees and organizing foot- and swimming races: "Nothing was too high for me or too steep or too dangerous."8 But, at least as she presented it in retrospect, she continually withdrew to spend whole hours and days in her own dreamworld. Even in early childhood she needed to withdraw from her playmates as well as from her family from time to time, often to the little wooden hut that her father built for her as a refuge amid the huge sunflowers in the garden. There she could get away from the world and enjoy the leisure time that her parents uncritically granted her: "It was here that I could dream."9
Riefenstahl's harmonious transfiguration of her past runs like a thread through all of her versions of her life. Despite the considerable burdens imposed by her hot-tempered, authoritarian father, and though she was a child and youth during the First World War and the revolutionary unrest in Berlin that followed, Riefenstahl's descriptions of this time culminate in a portrait of an Eden removed from the historical moment. No passagesin Memoiren address material want or the existential fears that were endemic, or one single confrontation with political events. Instead, there is the simple declaration, "In my youth I was a happy person."10
In 1908, Leni Riefenstahl was enrolled in school in Berlin-Neukölln. She impressed her teachers as an inquisitive and alert young girl who was very mature for her age. At school she could at least partially satisfy her wide-ranging thirst for knowledge. But her spontaneity and vitality did not always conform to the strict Prussian school system, which insisted on discipline and order. As a student she often was at odds with the curriculum, interrupting her teachers with countless pointed questions that went far beyond the teaching materials and earned her many a bad grade in deportment.
While in school she forged a characteristic that marked her entire life: when something captured her interest, she was not satisfied until she had completely sated her quest for knowledge about the subject. Following elementary school, she attended the Kollmorgen Lyceum, a girls' school from which she successfully graduated. In her favorite subjects, including gymnastics, drawing, and math, she was said to be at the top of her class.
The Germany she had been born into was changing dramatically. In 1914, when she had just turned twelve, the First World War broke out in Europe, the end of which would mark the fall of the German monarchy, followed by a period of political upheaval and the declaration of the Weimar Republic. Soldiers marched out of Berlin to war with smiles on their faces, fully convinced they would be victorious. Political discussion among all levels of society in the German empire heated up; countless patriotic pamphlets were published on the war, and even the country's pulpits generated militant and chauvinistic slogans.
The war was soon to have an enormous effect on everyday life. By 1916, the blockade enforced by the Allies had led to serious food shortages and rationing. Many people went hungry. In the final two winters of the war, schools were no longer heated. And 1917 brought frequent strikes by Berlin's workers, which affected everyone's lives.
The war ended in 1918 in a capitulation that Germans perceived as a humiliating national defeat. The kaiser abdicated and Germany became known as the Weimar Republic. During this period, a bloody civil warwas waged in the streets of Berlin; constant protest marches by workers were met with the brutal countermeasures of the government of Friedrich Ebert.
The revolution shook the foundations of German society. The streets and squares of Berlin were filled with huge numbers of uprooted men and women, and the conditions of unrest, palpable everywhere, contributed to people's uncertainty. There were many who exploited this extreme disorientation, aggravating the political discontent. The notion that German troops had been "stabbed in the back," allegedly undefeated in the field but victims of "betrayal on the home front," found an ever greater audience. Inflation, which pushed many Germans of the lower classes to the brink of starvation, increased political instability in the young republic.
Leni Riefenstahl minimally perceived the effects of the unrest, the strikes, and the misery that was becoming more visible everywhere, but she turned away from it, saying it gave her "goose pimples." In Memoiren she writes, "The fact that the world war had ended, that we had lost it, that a revolution had taken place, that there was no longer a kaiser and king--all of this was something I experienced as if in a fog. The orbit of my consciousness was a tiny little world."11
In her adolescence Riefenstahl concentrated solely on realizing her own goals in the face of her father's opposition and on escaping his dictatorial grip. She discovered new interests, including poetry and painting. But she was shortly to discover a hobby that became her true passion: dance.
In 1918, at sixteen years old, Riefenstahl left the Kollmorgen Lyceum with a General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level. She wasn't looking forward to her father's plan--first to send his daughter to a school of home economics and then to a boarding school, in order to pull her away from her dreams and back to reality. "The thought of going there was unbearable to me."12 She instead talked her father into allowing her to attend courses at the State School of Commercial Art on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, which led her mother to hope that her daughter would become an important artist.
During her school years she had developed a special enthusiasm for gymnastics and sports. Long before physical training and sports were ideologically exploited in the 1920s (culminating in the Nazis elevating thebody hardened by sports into the ideal of the "Aryan individual"), Leni Riefenstahl regularly engaged in athletics, with an enthusiasm she carried into old age. Here, for a change, she encountered no resistance from her sports-happy father, only full support. Alfred Riefenstahl revered F. L. Jahn, the father of gymnastics, a popular figure of the time (though intellectuals made fun of him). Leni joined the gymnastics club at school and discovered her great love of apparatus gymnastics. She never showed fear or allowed herself to be discouraged when she lost. Even the injuries she suffered from an unsuccessful dive from a fifteen-foot board or a fall from the rings, which resulted in a concussion, didn't discourage her from devoting herself to sports with ever greater enthusiasm. And there were always new opportunities for physical activity, including roller skating and ice skating.
Another major interest of Riefenstahl's youth was theater and, of course, film. Though it was important to her to be able to escape to the dreamworld where she felt special, she had always craved public recognition. As a child she had spent hours after school in Tiergarten, "where I drew the public with my roller-skating abilities, until the police showed up and I had to run off."13 Once, while attending a private concert given by the pianist Ferruccio Busoni, her narcissism led her to perform a dance before the assembled audience, and she was delighted by the spontaneous applause and the words of encouragement from the musician. The more often she attended the theater, the opera, or the ballet with her parents, the stronger became her wish to stand in the spotlight herself.
Though Riefenstahl's parents supported, or at least looked kindly on, her interest in the arts and her growing enthusiasm for sports, proudly presenting their daughter when the occasion arose as a "wunderkind," they firmly rejected her desire to go onstage or into film. Yet the theater held a particular fascination for both parents. In his youth, Alfred Riefenstahl himself had been onstage as an amateur actor, and he was a great admirer of the beautiful Fritzi Massary, then a celebrated operetta star. "But to him, actors, and particularly actresses, were 'of a dubious character, ' if not outright members of the 'demimonde.'"14
Leni Riefenstahl, however, was not to be discouraged by her parents' total disapproval of her new goal. In 1918, more out of curiosity than conviction, she secretly auditioned as a film extra. She had read an announcementin the daily B.Z. am Mittag that twenty female extras were needed for Opium, a film set in the dance milieu. Without informing her parents, she auditioned and managed to secure a part, but then she turned it down because she knew she would never get her father's permission to participate in the film.
Yet this audition was to have far-reaching consequences for Leni Riefenstahl's future. The aspirant extras had to present themselves at Helene Grimm-Reiter's Berlin School of Dance, and while she was waiting, Leni observed with growing excitement the school's students as they performed their ballet exercises. This experience, which she described, as she did all further turning points of her life, as a revelation, a "twist of fate," awakened her interest in dance: "I was overcome by an uncontrollable desire to join in."15 She immediately inquired about the admission requirements and, without asking her parents for permission, registered for the beginner's course.
Copyright © 2002 by Jürgen Trimborn Translation copyright © 2007 by Edna McCown