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Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)


German dancer, actor, director and photographer, whose films Triumph of the Will (1935), an NSDAP production, and the two-part Olympia (1938) are the most famous examples of National Socialist documentary propaganda. After World War II Riefenstahl's movie career in West Germany was practically over, although she never was a member of the Nazi party. When Hitler's architect Albert Speer spent the rest of his life analysing how his character was corrupted by fame and power, Riefenstahl refused to admit guilt for her past.

"If the director, who should always edit his own work, is musically gifted, he will compose with images and sounds, the way a musician composes according to the laws of counterpoint." (Riefenstahl in A Memoir, 1987)

Helena Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl was born in Berlin into a wealthy family. Her father, Alfred Riefenstahl, owned a heating and ventilation firm. He was an authoritative figure, who did not tolerate opposition. Riefenstahl's mother Bertha tried to mediate between her husband and daughter, who suffered from her father's sternness and coldness. Once when she was caught stealing apples, she was given a whipping and locked in a dark room for a day. Later Riefenstahl has said, that when she played chess with him, she always had to let him win to avoid upsetting him.

In her childhood, Riefenstahls's favorite pastime was reading fairy tales; magic and fantasy also labelled her own works later as a director and photographer. Riefenstahl was educated at the Realgymnasium in Berlin. In 1918-1919 she studied art at the Kunstakadmie. Because her father did not accept her plans to become an actress, she took secretly dancing lessons at the Grimm-Reiter School. At the age of 21, Riefenstahl lost her virginity and gave her first ballet performance. The former experience was less enjoyable. "Was this love? I felt nothing but pain and disappointment," she wrote in her autobiography. (A Memoir by Leni Riefenstahl, 1993, p. 33)

A knee injury forced Riefenstahl to stop her dancing. Then determined to be a film star, Riefenstahl managed to win the confidence of Dr. Arnold Fanck, the founder of the Bergfilm (mountain film) genre. She was casted in three of Fanck's productions, in which her beautiful looks were set for her disappointment secondary to the beauty and purity of the mountains. However, during this period she started to learn filmmaking. Possibly she had an affair with Harry Sokal, who worked for the Austrian Credit Bank, and served as her producer. Sokal was forced to leave Germany in 1933 because he was a Jewish.

The first movie Riefenstahl directed was Das Blaue Licht (1932, The Blue Light), which she also produced, edited and co-wrote with the Jewish film critic and playwright Béla Balázs. The Blue Light was released through Riefenstahl's own company. In 1938, when the film was reissued, Balázs's name was removed from the credits. By that time, Balázs had escaped to Moscow.

In May 1932 Riefenstahl met Hitler for the first time. Hitler was an avid moviegoer and reader, and he had seen The Holy Mountain, in which Riefenstahl danced on the sea, and The Blue Light, which had won the Silver Medallion at the 1932 Biennalle in Venice. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, saw Riefenstahl as "the only one of all the stars who understands us". (Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius by Rainer Rother, 2002, p. 51) Goebbels repeatedly subjected her to sexual harassment. Her enemies spread the rumor that she was of Jewish descent.

Impressed by her cinematic skills, Hitler commissioned Riefenstahl to make a feature-lenght film of the Nuremberg Party Rally of 1934. Riefenstahl had already made one documentary, Sieg des Glaubens (1933, Victory of the Faith) of the 1933 Nazi party rally, which was thought to have been lost at the end of the war. The result was Triumph of the Will, considered the most remarkable propaganda piece ever made. Much has been written about its opening shot, in which Führer comes from the clouds. The following sequences are a kind of travel documentary of the city of Nuremberg, accompanied with Wagnerian music, but occasionally seen through the eyes of Hitler. Riefenstahl constantly cuts from panoramic long-shots to close-ups. Triumph of the Will ends in Hitler's speech and the marching S.A. men. In the center is always the person of the Führer, he is the leading man, idolized from distance by the director, the leading lady, through her camera. After the war, much of its footage was used in anti-Nazi films, such as Erwin Leisner's Mein Kampf (1961). The Spanish director Luis Buñuel also tried to rework in 1941 Triumph of the Will. He showed his results in New York to Charlie Chaplin, who couldn't stop laughing.

Riefenstahl's next long documentary, Olympia, commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, not the NSDAP, was a hymn to the beauty of the human body and physical strength. Later the work has been regarded as fascist because it idealizes athletes as superhumans, psychically comparable with ancient classical sculptures. However, its aesthetics actually followed the ideas of Balász, an ardent Communist. "Facial expression is the most subjective manifestation of man," Balász wrote in Theory of the Film, and emphasized in the moving pictures the language of the body. ('Balázs: The Face of Man,' in Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary, edited with Historical and Critical Commentary by Maynard Solomon, 1979, p. 289) In Olympia the movement of athletes, close-ups of their faces, and the hypnotic diving montage are the best moments of the picture. Riefenstahl herself appeared in its prologue anonymously among nude dancing women, shot in the sand dunes of a Baltic beach. Olympia won the 1938 Venice Film Festival. At that time Riefenstahl was already the most acclaimed woman film director in the world. A book about the film, mostly frame enlargements, was published in 1937 under the title Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf.

The great opposites of the film are Hitler, who is shown only a few times, and the great African-American athlete Jesse Owens, the true hero of the first part, who triumphed over Aryan race theories. Riefenstahl own choice behind the scene was the Olympic Gold Medalist Glenn Morris, with whom she had a brief affair. Morris later played Tarzan on screen in  Tarzan's Revenge (1938).

In 1938 Riefenstahl traveled with her Olympia to the United States, where the Anti-Nazi League connected the work with Nazi ideology. While in Hollywood Riefenstahl met among others Walt Disney, but otherwise the journey was fruitless. Again a boycott was initiated against her. One of its organizers was the writer Budd Schulberg, who later called Riefenstahl a "Nazi Pinup Girl" (The Saturday Evening Post, March 30, 1946). In her own country, Riefenstahl explained the rejection by noting that the American film industry is controlled by "people hostile to modern Germany." The Berliner Illustrierte was more explicit: "Jewish influence in Hollywood is preventing any public screening of the Olympia film."

In 1939 Riefenstahl followed Wermacht to Poland and shot the invasion of the country. As a war reporter she possibly witnessed atrocities committed by German soldiers in the town of Konskie. Subsequently she resigned from her post, but continued her cooperation with high officials of the Nazi regime. Her own company Riefenstahl founded in 1940. With Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, Riefenstahl discussed about building a studio complex. Martin Borman had approved the plan in 1939 but it was never realized.

During the war Riefenstahl made a nonmusical screen version of the Eugen d'Albert's opera Tiefland, which had been popular in the 1920s. Riefenstahl's company also produced cultural films and short films. The production of Tiefland began in 1940 but it was not released until 1954. Not a propaganda movie but a fairy tale, this work did not have the support of Speer or the Ministry of Propaganda, where the favorite projects included Josef von Baky's Münchhausen (1943) and Veit Harlan's Kolberg (1945). Gypsies from a nearby concentration camp were used as extras. A number of them were later killed, women and children included. Riefenstahl herself played the role of Marta, a gypsy woman.

With her husband, Peter Jacob, whom she married in 1944, Riefenstahl visited Hitler at the Berghof in 1944. It was her last meeting with him. Riefenstahl noticed Hitler's shrunken frame, the trembling of his hands, and the flickering of his eyes," but despite of all this he "still cast the same magical spell as before." (Hitler's Mountain: The Führer, Obersalzberg and the American Occupation of Berchtesgaden by Arthur H. Mitchell, 2007, p. 60) When Hitler committed suicide Riefenstahl cried all night. After the war Riefenstahl was arrested and held in various prisons and detention camps. For a time she was locked in an insane asylum, where she was given electro-compulsive therapy.

Riefenstahl divorced in 1947. After a long delay, Olympia was awarded by Gold Medal by the IOC. In 1952 a West German denazification court officially cleared her of charges of Nazi collaboration. Riefenstahl worked on several projects in the 1950s, but in Germany her movie career was over. The Finnish Olympic Committee asked her to make a film on the 1952 summer Olympics in Helsinki, but Riefenstahl turned the offer down. She felt that she could not surpass her earlier work. With the French director Jean Cocteau she planned a film on Voltaire and Fredrick the Great. Misfortunes, starting from a car accident in Kenya, in which Riefenstahl broke all her ribs, stopped her film about slave trade in eastern Africa.

For the first time Riefenstahl visited the Nuba in Sudan in 1962 with a German scientific expedition. In the following years she lived for extended periods with the Nubas, learning their language and way of life. She saw in their  naked  bodies innocence and beauty, which echoed the images of Olympia. Riefenstahl's pictures were published in a number of magazines and newspapers. Her assistant and cameraman, Horst Kettner, 42 years her junior, became her life companion.

The British Film Institute had withdrawn its invitation in 1960 for Riefenstahl to give a talk about her career, but in 1974 she was honored at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, and in 1976 in Montreal Summer Olympics Riefenstahl was invited as a guest of honor.

Riefenstahl's first book of photographs, Die Nuba - Menschen wie von einem anderen Stern (The Last of the Nuba) came out in 1972. Riefenstahl revisited in 1974 the Nuba, and showed them her book. For her disappointment she realized that changes had overtaken the village and now the people were ashamed of their nakedness. "The age of paradisal innocence was dead." Korallengärten (1978, Coral Gardens) and Wunder unter Wasser (1990, Wonders Under Water), about the undersea world, were born from her diving expeditions to coral reefs and other locales. Riefenstahl learned to dive in her seventies. When she entered a German diving school, she had to lie about her age. Her concern for the environment also prompted her to join Greenpeace.

In her controversial autobiography, Memoiren (1987), Riefenstahl portrayed herself as an artist, not a propagandist for the National Socialist Workers' Party. She also claimed that she had no political opinions and by the time Germany was collapsing, she hated Hitler. Enjoying a kind of cult following, her work was widely revaluated in the 1990s, although in Germany a retrospective of her films in Potsdam was greeted with protests. The controversial director Rainer Werner Fassbinder tried to hire her as cinematographer for Querelle, based on Jean Genet's novel. Helmut Newton photographed Riefenstahl for Vanity Fair; they had met first in Havana in 1987. "I photograph the people I love and admire, the famous and especially infamous," Newton said. (Helmut Newton: Work, edited by Manfred Heiting, 2000, p. 131)

In 1995 a retrospective of Riefenstahl's films was held at International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film. The German rock group Rammstein used images of Olympia in 1998 in the video Stripped. In September 1997 Riefenstein received a life-achievement award from the Cinecon film association in Los Angeles. Jodie Foster's production company announced plans for a Riefenstahl film; Foster herself said in 2007 the she will direct and star in it.

While traveling in Sudan in 2000 with Ray Müller, Riefenstahl suffered injures in a helicopter crash. The Russian helicopter, which was not equipped with seat belts, fell from an altitude of 15 feet and rolled over several times. Leni Riefenstahl died at the age of 101 in Pöcking, Germany, on 8 September 2003.

For further reading: Hitler and Film: the Führer's Hidden Passion by Bill Niven (2018); Der unschuldige Blick: Leni Riefenstahls Nuba-Fotografien by Gisela Schäffer (2016); Above the Clouds: Arnold Fanck, Leni Riefenstahl & the Metaphysics of Sex in German Mountain Films by Derek Hawthorne; edited by Greg Johnson (2015); Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland; translated by Shelley Frisch (2015); Leni Riefenstahl: A Life by Jürgen Trimborn and Edna McCown (2008); The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach (2007); Leni Riefenstahl by Rainer Rother (2002); Leni Riefenstah: The Seduction of Genius by Rainer Rother, Martin H. Bott (2002); Leni Riefenstahl: Five Lives by Angelika Taschen (2000); Leni Riefenstahl by Irene Bignardi, Alessandra Borghese, Michele Falzone Del Barbaro (1996); Der Parteitagsfilm "Triumph des Willens" von Leni Riefenstahl: Rituale der Mobilmachung by Martin Loiperdinger (1987); Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia by Cooper C. Graham (1986); Leni Riefenstahls "Triumph des Willens": Zur Kritik dokumentarischer Filmarbeit im NS-Faschismus by Peter Nowotny (1981); Leni Riefenstahl by Renata Berg-Pan (1980); Leni Riefenstahl by Charles Ford (1978); The Films of Leni Riefenstahl by David B. Hinton (1978); Leni Riefenstahl, the Fallen Film Goddess by Glen Infield (1976); Nazi Cinema by Erwin Leiser (1974)

Books by L.R.:

  • Kampf in Schnee und Eis, 1933
  • Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitagsfilms, 1935 (uncredited ghost writer Ernst Jaeger)
  • Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf, 1937 (republished as Riefenstahl: Olympia, 1988)
    - Olympia (foreword by Monique Berlioux; introduction by Kevin Brownlow, 1994)
  • Über die Herstellung der Olympia-Filme, 1958
  • Die Nuba - Menschen wie von einem anderen Stern, 1972
    - The Last of the Nuba (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995)
  • Die Nuba von Kau, 1976
    - The People of Kau (photographs, text and layout by Leni Riefenstahl; translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, 1976)
  • Korallengärten, 1978
    - Coral Gardens (photographs, text and layout by Leni Riefenstahl; translated by Elizabeth Walter, 1978)
  • Vanishing Africa, 1982 (photographs, text, and layout by Leni Riefenstahl; translated by Kathrine Talbot)
  • Mein Afrika, 1982 (Africa; Taschen: Rep Mul edition, 2010) 
  • Memoiren, 1987
    - The Sieve of Time: The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl (London: Quartet Books, 1992) / A Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993)
  • Wunder unter Wasser, 1990
    - Wonders Under Water (Quartet Books, 1991)
  • Behind the Scenes of the National Party Convention Film = Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitag-Films, 2010 (English translation & foreword by David Culbert)


  • Der heilige Berg / Peaks of Destiny / The Holy Mountain, 1926 (act., dir. by Arnold Fanck)
  • Der grosse Sprung / The Big Leap, 1927 (act., dir. by Arnold Fanck)
  • Das Schicksal dere von Habsburg, 1929 (act., dir. by Rudolf Raffé)
  • Die weisses Hölle vom Piz Palü / The White Hell of Pitz Palü, 1929 (act.. script by Arnold Fanck, Ladislaus Vajda)
  • Stürme über dem Mountblanc / Storms on Mount Blanc / Avalache, 1930 (act., dir. by Arnold Fanck)
  • Der weiss Rausch / The White Ecstacy / The White Destiny / The Ski Chase, 1931  (act.)
  • Das Blaue Licht / The Blue Light, 1932 (dir., co-sc., act.)
  • S.O.S. Eisberg /SOS Iceberg, 1933 (act. dir., by Arnold Fanck for the German version, Tay Garnett for the American version)
  • Sieg des Glaubens / Victory of the Faith, 1933  (dir.)
  • Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will, 1935 (dir., pr., ed.)
  • Tag der Freiheit: unsere Wermacht, 1935 (dir., ed.)
  • Olympia (Olympische Spiele 1936), 1938 (dir., sc., co-ph., ed.)
  • Tiefland / Lowland, 1944 (dir., sc., ed., actress, released in 1954)

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