Ghosting

Source: Jennie Erdal, Ghosting: A Memoir (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004), pp. 110=111

Text: In September 1992, a few weeks after her ninetieth birthday, Leni and Horst came to London to mark the publication of her memoirs in English. I picked them up at Heathrow and took them to their suite in the Mayfair Hotel. She had agreed to do a number of interviews – against Horst’s advice. He was cynical about journalists and very protective of her. ‘They’re all against her,’ he said. ‘They will destroy her.’

She got a mixed reception, and the questions were tough and often offensive. But she answered them sensitively and with dignity, especially on the subject of the responsibility of the artist. She insisted she was ignorant of atrocities and pleaded guilty only to irredeemable naïvety. By the end of the week she was exhausted, and during an interview at the BBC, on being asked yet again about the nature of her friendship with Hitler, and if they had been lovers, she broke down and wept. When we left the studio Horst was waiting outside, clearly furious about the grilling. He took her gently in his arms and held her till she recovered.

The launch party was held at the Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank, an appropriate venue for someone who had changed the face of film-making. Earlier at the hotel she had laid out clothes on the bed and wanted me to help choose an outfit for the evening. ‘Wie sehe ich aus? – How do I look?’ she asked when I went to pick her up later. She was wearing a silk dress in black and gold, a fur-trimmed jacket and sensational stilettos. ‘Stunning!’ I said. ‘The most elegant ninety-year-old I’ve ever seen.’ We had been laughing and I had meant it lightly, but she turned serious and told me that her longevity was a sort of curse: though she lived to be a hundred she would never be free of the burden of the past. ‘I’m too vain to wear my glasses,’ she said, so she held onto my arm as we went up the steps to the entrance of the Museum of the Moving Image. ‘Count out the steps for me – I want to hold my head high.’ As she entered the crowded room under piercing lights, there was a hushed silence. Adulation was in the air. For one evening at least she was among friends, people who simply admired her artistic excellence and had come to pay tribute. Tiger, resplendent in a blue silk suit with gold lining, made a theatrical salaam before her and kissed her jewelled hand. All round the walls there were giant screens playing Olympia, her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics: breathtaking black and white shots of runners, pole-vaulters, and long exquisite sequences of divers flying through the air against a darkening sky, one image after another in slow motion like a tone poem. Artistic genius, or fascist celebration of the body beautiful? Whatever the truth – and we can never be absolutely certain – it is unlikely that she fully appreciated the significance of those moments in history in which she played such a prominent part. Perhaps she knew not what she was doing, only how to do it.

Comments: Jennie Erdal is a Scottish writer. Ghosting is a memoir of her time spent as ghostwriter to the publisher Naim Attallah (lightly disguised in the book as ‘Tiger’), whose Quartet Books published the memoirs of the documentarist and propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, The Sieve of Time. The Museum of the Moving Image, located in London, closed in 1999.

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