Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Dina Lee, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Karin Wieland about her book Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives (W.W. Norton & Co.), translated by Shelley Frisch, which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Interview questions and answers were translated by Shelley Frisch.
Dina Lee: Riefenstahl and Dietrich's lives barely intersected. When starting your book, did you know you would be concentrating on these two women? Or did this idea come more organically during your research?
Karin Wieland: I first delved into the subject of Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl as a young feminist back in the 1980s, intrigued by these two women who were both modern artists and political symbols, one the seeming quintessence of Good and the other the incarnation of Evil. A comparison of the lives and works of Dietrich and Riefenstahl struck me as a natural route of entry to explore the advancement of women in the 20th-century world of art: The two of them shared a city and time of birth and childhood, the performing arts as their domain, and a century whose aesthetic they helped shape. Their lives and works have a paradigmatic character in the aesthetic and political sphere. Leni Riefenstahl embodied the artist who devoted her service to a totalitarian system, and Marlene Dietrich the upstanding democrat and anti-fascist. They led parallel lives in an age of extremes.
DL: Dietrich and Riefenstahl were both fiercely independent and became living legends in their times. Yet, both depended on sexual appeal for success and almost exclusively on men to advance their careers. What was your approach to this contradiction, and how did you balance their independence and dependence?
KW: Both women launched their careers by allying themselves with influential men. From the outset, Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl were cool strategists who regarded their sex appeal as a resource for their art. Down to the end, they used men as a foil to emancipate themselves and burnish their identities as women. They ultimately succeeded in leaving behind their sponsors, lovers, and protégés as they forged their own images.
DL: You indicate that Dietrich and Riefenstahl were, at times, their own worst enemies. In any biography, there is always wide latitude for the author to place more or less focus on specific aspects of the subject’s life. How did you choose which aspects to cover, and to what degree was this driven by the information that was actually available in your research?
KW: The personal lives of these two women are inseparable from their public image. Marlene Dietrich archived every bit of her life, thereby ensuring that posterity would gain insight into her most intimate secrets. Her estate, which is accessible to the public, adds up to some 300,000 pages (diaries, letters, business correspondence, telegrams) as well as clothing, furniture, shoes, and jewelry. By contrast, Leni Riefenstahl’s personal estate is not accessible. For my research, I had to rely on documents at the Federal Archive, the diaries of Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s table talk, film archive materials, newspapers, and newsreel reports.
My challenge was to afford each of the two women equal coverage in the text despite the major disparity in archival materials. In putting together the text, I limited myself only to what I could verify. As I saw it, my role as biographer was not to hang my biographical subjects out to dry, but rather to examine and build on the contradictions in both of their self-portrayals that gave rise to questions and required interpretations. Neither a retrospective morality nor a prospective synthesis can be of use in addressing the thorny issues that surface in the process. Many times there are simply no tidy solutions and the material just has to be reported as is.
However, there were instances in which I refrained from elaborating on material that emerged from my research, such as information pertaining to Marlene Dietrich’s relationship to her daughter and her daughter’s family, and the countless bawdy and obscene stories that circulated about Leni Riefenstahl and the Nazi bigwigs.
The material for this dual biography features personal diaries as well as business exchanges with the propaganda ministry, films, love letters, film roles, and the countless photographs of the two women. The fusion of the biographical, the fictive, and the political spheres constituted the appeal and the challenge.
DL: Both Dietrich and Riefenstahl lent their artistry to political forces active during WW2. Dietrich was later awarded the Medal of Freedom and Riefenstahl directed Nazi propaganda films. I find it impossible to avoid questions of morality in art. Can an artist’s work be separated from the work of her patrons? Did you yourself find it hard to separate the art from the politics while writing this chapter?
KW: The moral assessment of the two biographical subjects in this dual biography is a direct outgrowth of the facts. While Marlene Dietrich supported the American troops as they liberated Europe, Leni Riefenstahl secured Adolf Hitler’s support of her art. I regarded my archival research and my quest to pin down the facts as a corrective to the two women’s self-stylizations, and was always intent on circling the investigation of aesthetic questions back in on the facts. Proceeding from the historical fluke that brought the two artists into the world at the same point in history and led them through the twentieth century together, I set myself the task of merging these two lives into a single analytical unit. The book highlights each woman’s momentous individual choices, which brought Leni Riefenstahl to the side of the National Socialists and Marlene Dietrich to the side of the Americans. The two artists’ intertwined lives combine to form an incongruous whole.
DL: I found the ending poignant but also open-ended. Dietrich fought to preserve the image of her successful youth and in death, "art had prevailed." For Riefenstahl, she fought to free herself from her Nazi-collaborative past and ultimately "death had released her" from her art. Do you think either woman believed she achieved her legacy in her own terms? And as for Riefenstahl, do you think her art ultimately won the battle to better define her as an artist to today's readers?
KW: Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl exulted in the feeling that they had lived their lives to the fullest and made their artistic mark. Both were aware that they were protagonists of a history in which they were formative participants. Marlene Dietrich’s face and overall appearance became an aesthetic and political icon of the twentieth century. She expanded the performative potential of the feminine by adding masculine elements. She wore trousers and uniforms, and lived her life exactly as she pleased. Marlene Dietrich came to stand for an aesthetic of artificial beauty that shamelessly reveals the component parts of the fiction she created. Leni Riefenstahl’s aesthetic of pure beauty was unconcerned with value judgments. As one of the first woman directors and producers in history, she did everything in her power to foster her idea of art. Her films portray history as a ritual site of patriarchy and death. By shifting the boundary between the sexes, Marlene Dietrich’s image turned “camp” (Susan Sontag). And by breaching the boundary between art and morality, Leni Riefenstahl’s image veered to the poisonous. Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl are key figures for the twentieth century as the century of the woman.
Karin Wieland lives in Berlin and is an historian of political theory at the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Culture.
Dina Lee is a first year MFA Creative Writing student in Fiction. She came to The New School with a background in screenwriting and advertising, and is currently working on her first novel.