“The New Woman did not go in for illusions; she neither radiated an air of mystery nor demanded special treatment. The technologies of film and photography made these women into professional portrayers of themselves, who did not merely endure or long for a man’s gaze, but instead self-assuredly required and requited it.”
-Karin Wieland (from Dietrich & Riefenstahl)
In a time when the studios are obsessed with getting patrons through the door with quadrophonic sound, ultra-wide screens, C.G.I. and needless 3D, we tend to forget that the movies are not about gimmicks but storytelling. Back in the day tales were woven and imaginations captured by small, black & white images and scratchy, mono soundtracks. The parallels and contrasts of two women born around the same time in the same nation who went on to become international icons of an era and legends of cinematic yesteryear is the subject of Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives, a new book by historian Karin Wieland.
Like the title suggests the book follows the influential lives of two prototypes of the modern, strong, independent woman: Dreamy actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, who was the glamourous forerunner to Divas like Madonna and Lady Gaga, and stern and humourless director and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, whose innovative cinematic techniques (like the use of slow motion) in her film Olympia pioneered the way sporting events are filmed.
Translated from its original German by Shelley Frisch, Dietrich & Riefenstahl is the most direct non-fiction book I have read in the last few years; a tour de force that hits the ground running and never stops. There is no introduction or epilogue and this highly detailed and well-researched volume doesn’t let up until the last line; not a sentence or word is wasted, and it is without a single long digression or repeated fact in its 500+ pages. Reading it brought me back the late ‘80’s and Dawson College film history classes with professors like Simon Davies and Roger Khazoum.
If there is any fault in Dietrich & Riefenstahl, it is in the way Wieland seems to make excuses for Riefenstahl’s connections to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis by heavily implying that she was only using them to further her career, which is no excuse at all, especially considering an astoundingly cold and horrible thing she did to get extras for a film (the incident in question is covered in the book). As great a filmmaker as Riefenstahl was, in my opinion that part of her life should neither be forgiven nor forgotten.
Recently a friend of mine posted a link on a social media website to an interesting online article where over 300 professional cineastes were asked to rate the top 10 greatest motion pictures of all time. She remarked how not one of the classic movies that made the final cut was directed by a woman. I posted my own comment contemplating how many of those surveyed were themselves women. Cinema has existed for over a century, yet male screenwriters, producers and directors still outnumber their female counterparts by a wide margin. That is why I recommend Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives to any woman aspiring to be the next great cinematic auteur.