STARRED REVIEW
October 13, 2015

Divergent paths for two German stars

By Karen Wieland

An imposing book by virtue of size alone, the 640-page Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives is also decidedly ambitious. The dual biography explores the profoundly different paths taken by two iconic and influential German artists in the years before and after Hitler’s rise to power.

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An imposing book by virtue of size alone, the 640-page Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives is also decidedly ambitious. The dual biography explores the profoundly different paths taken by two iconic and influential German artists in the years before and after Hitler’s rise to power.

The parallel stories of actress-singer Marlene Dietrich and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl are told via an interweaving of politics, culture, German filmmaking, Hollywood and the uncompromising personal lives of the two women. The author, Berlin-based historian Karin Weiland, is up to the task. She doggedly mined a mountain of source materials, including various German archives, and gives context to the complex historical narrative that shaped Dietrich and Riefenstahl. As translated by Shelley Frisch, who previously translated examinations of Einstein, Kafka and Nietzsche, this is a compelling work that provides both scholarly assessment and page-turning dish.

Born within a year of one another, Dietrich and Riefenstahl were part of the early German film industry. They even competed for the same role—cabaret headliner Lola Lola in the 1930 classic The Blue Angel. Dietrich got the part, which paved her way to Hollywood and international stardom. Riefenstahl went on to appear in a series of “mountain films,” a genre that showcased physicality and German nationalism. She also become a comrade of Hitler, and directed documentaries extolling the Third Reich. As every student of film knows, Triumph of the Will (1935) remains one of the greatest, most disturbing pieces of propaganda ever made. Riefenstahl followed it with the equally famous Olympia (1938), about the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

Dietrich, meanwhile, emigrated and became a favorite of American moviegoers—the most exotic transplant since Garbo. She took on U.S. citizenship and more than proved her patriotism with wartime work for the USO. She was actually given a rank and a uniform. Captain Dietrich was the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest distinction for civilian contributions to the war effort.

As for Riefenstahl, she later insisted she had no knowledge of what went on behind the walls of Germany’s concentration camps, and claimed to be ignorant of her country’s virulent and deadly anti-Semitism.

The two women enjoyed long lives, as well as latter-day attention. Dietrich reinvented herself in Las Vegas and took her act on the road—complete with diaphanous gown and teetering Ferragamo heels. Riefenstahl became a sought-after photographer and a darling of the film festival circuit. In covering their stories, the author has a clear favorite in the less complicated–and controversial–Dietrich. Your decision awaits.

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Dietrich & Riefenstahl

Dietrich & Riefenstahl

By Karen Wieland
Liveright
ISBN 9780871403360

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