Riefenstahl, Berta Helene Amalia 1902-2003 (Leni Riefenstahl)

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RIEFENSTAHL, Berta Helene Amalia 1902-2003 (Leni Riefenstahl)


See index for CA sketch: Born August 22, 1902, in Berlin, Germany; died September 8, 2003, in Pöking, Germany. Filmmaker, photographer, actress, and author. Notoriously known for her work on the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will and her documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Riefenstahl has often been considered a Nazi sympathizer, though her brilliance as a film director and, later, photographer, have also been acknowledged by many critics. As a young woman, she initially pursued a career as a dancer, but an injury suffered in 1924 led her to become an actress. She had roles in several of the Arnold Fanck "mountain films," as the genre was called, and soon she founded her own production company, L. R. Film Productions, in 1931. One of her early successes was the popular 1932 production The Blue Light, which she both directed and acted in. That same year, she heard Nazi leader Adolf Hitler speak for the first time. Entranced by his oratory charisma, she wrote to Hitler and, because of her growing fame, was able to meet with him. Hitler invited Riefenstahl to direct movies for him about the Nazi party, but she at first declined. Later, however, Hitler was elected chancellor, and Riefenstahl was compelled to make 1933's Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of the Faith). Unhappy with this effort, she followed it the next year with Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), which employed numerous innovative camera techniques, including mounting cameras on moving elevators and flagpoles and using telephoto lenses. The film was highly praised and won Riefenstahl several film prizes in Germany. Riefenstahl next made Tag der Freiheit (Day of Freedom), the 1935 movie about the Germany army, and Olympia a documentary of epic proportions about the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin. The final, two-part film took Riefenstahl two years to edit; when it was complete, the Nazis were preparing for war, and Riefenstahl's efforts to promote the movie in Europe and the United States met with considerable criticism. Filmmaking proved difficult during World War II, and, after working briefly as a war correspondent, Riefenstahl completed only one movie, Tiefland (Lowlands), during that time. Not released until 1954, the film was criticized for using Gypsy extras who had been brought in from concentration camps, though Riefenstahl later denied she knew this. The director was even sued in 2002 for her role in the film by the Germany Gypsy Association, which claimed that about half of the Gypsies seen in the movie were later murdered in concentration camps; the charges, however, were eventually dropped. After the war, Riefenstahl was labeled a Nazi sympathizer and underwent four years of "de-Nazification" by the Americans and French. She then lived in obscurity for roughly twenty years before reemerging in a new role as photographer. By the 1970s, she was regaining attention, especially for her underwater photographs, published in Korallengärten (1978; translated as Coral Gardens) and Wonders under Water (1991), and of African people in the collections Die Nuba von Kau (1976; translated as The People of Kau) and Vanishing Africa (1982). Despite some success, Riefenstahl found it impossible to shake her association with the Nazis entirely, although consistently insisted, as she did in her 1987 autobiography Memoiren (reprinted in 1995 as Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir) that she had never belonged to the Nazi party and that she was not an anti-Semite. She continued to be active as a photographer into her nineties, but when she suffered injuries in a 2000 helicopter accident in Sudan her life of travel ended. Still, Riefenstahl continued to draw interest from audiences, and as recently as 1997 her photographs were exhibited at a Hamburg gallery. In 2001, she was recognized with a lifetime achievement award from Cinecon for her contributions to filmmaking.



Contemporary Photographers, third edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1998.


Chicago Tribune, September 10, 2003, Section 1, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2003, p. B10.

New York Times, September 10, 2003, p. A22.

Times (London, England), September 10, 2003.

Washington Post, September 10, 2003, p. B6.