Leni Riefenstahl was a film-maker of genius whose name is everlastingly associated with her film about the German chancellor, Triumph of the Will, which won the gold medal at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition. It is an unforgettable piece of cinema, with the lonely hero descending, like one of the immortals, from the clouds. As he enters the podium at Nuremberg, we only see the back of his head as he wows the tens of thousands. In Nigel Farndale’s riveting novel, Riefenstahl remarks to one of the athletes at the 1936 Olympics that the only thing which she really cares about is film. This seems indeed to have been the case.
Farndale’s story does not concern Triumph of the Will.Nor does it do more than allude to Riefenstahl’s prodigiously long career, neither to her passion, between the ages of 75 and 95, for scuba diving, nor to her gerontic affection for Masai warriors and her truly awesome ability to capture their beauty on camera. There is a memorable chapter which lifts the lid on her intimacy with her most famous subject, in which he speaks of his reading a chapter of Schopenhauer every evening before turning in; but, despite its title, this is not really the theme of the book. The story concerns the 1936 Olympics, and three young English people caught up in its story.
Kim Newlands is an English athlete who hopes, unrealistically, to win a gold medal for the long jump. Since he is competing against Jesse Owens, it is a faint hope. His companions in Berlin are his girlfriend Connie, an upper-class girl of fascist inclination, and Alun Pryce, a communist who has infiltrated the British Union of Fascists.
The story unfolds via the 21st-century researches of Sigrun Meier, a young female reporter for the left-wing magazine Der Spiegel, whose obsession with Riefenstahl is limitless. At the beginning of the book, she descends on Riefenstahl’s Bavarian house and steals some old reels of film which contain some surprises. One mystery she hopes to resolve is the legend of Hitler snubbing Jesse Owens by refusing to shake his hand when he won the gold. What Meier discovers 70 years later is much more surprising, though she does not have confirmation of her hunch until she has made the journey to south Wales and found two of the participants in the story, now nonagenarians.
It is a fast-paced, brilliantly constructed thriller, in which the fates of the three young British protagonists hang in the balance at the end of every chapter. The period detail is as sharply focussed as one of Riefenstahl’s own films, whether we witness the BUF rally in Kensington Olympia, the so-called Battle of Cable Street or the Berlin Games themselves.
What is lacking is the story promised by the title. Neither the dictator nor his muse play much of a role in the novel, which one reader at least found a bit of a let down.
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