Riefenstahl, Leni (1902–2003)

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German dancer, movie actor, director, producer, photographer.

A woman of many talents and a controversial international figure, Leni Riefenstahl (born Berta Helene Amalie Riefenstahl on 22 August 1902 in Berlin, she died 8 September 2003 at Pöcking am Starmbergersee) was a student of painting and a successful dancer, art forms that were to influence her later work in film and photography. Her career in filmmaking began in the mid-1920s in a genre of popular German films known as "mountain films," largely under the direction of Dr. Arnold Fanck, with such revealing titles as Der heilige Berg (1926; The Holy Mountain), Der grosse Sprung (1927; The Great Leap), Das Schicksal derer von Hapsburg (1928; The Destiny of the Hapsburgs), directed by Rolf Raffé, Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (1929; The White Hell of Pitz Palü), Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (1930; Storm over Mont Blanc/Avalanche), Der weisse Rausch (1931; The White Ecstasy), and SOS Eisberg (1933). The films featured majestic (and realistic) location shots of mountains, clouds, sea, storms, and heroic, athletic characters who struggle valiantly to survive in a tempestuous natural environment.

Having learned cinematic techniques from acting in these films, Riefenstahl undertook to produce, direct, film, and star in her own mountain film, Das blaue Licht (1932; The Blue Light), revealing a predilection for the monumental, the heroic, for nature images that function as indicators of energy, beauty, and power (elements of the landscape, especially mountains, clouds, flowers, water), a ritualization of life, an eroticized vision of national and feminine perfection, a celebration of the human body, and a metamorphosis of everyday life into an aesthetic experience. These films have been said to show the "continuity of Weimar cinema (especially Fritz Lang) with Nazi cinema" in their "recurrent visual motifs" and "monumentalism" (Elsaesser, p. 187). Both these films and Riefenstahl's documentaries use visual images and sound to valorize instinct, emotion, ritualized action, and theatricality, and both mobilize cinema to alter, transform, and unsettle perceptions of the real, confusing fiction and life and rendering life as fiction.

The ongoing fascination with, censure of, and apologetics for Riefenstahl centers largely on the documentaries she directed in cooperation with the Nazi authorities in the 1930s. Sieg des Glaubens (1933, Victory of Faith), a short propaganda film for the National Socialist Party, creates on a smaller scale the motifs and techniques that characterize her longer and more expensive documentaries. Described as "the most powerful, influential propaganda film in nonfiction cinema" (Barsam, p. 128), Triumph des Willens (1935; Triumph of the Will), lavishly funded and with a crew of 120, including thirty cameras and twenty-nine newsreel camerapersons as backup, celebrated the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally as spectacle, using ritualistic and ceremonial visual and sound images that deified Hitler, heroized his followers, and, through the shots of the architecture, joined the past grandeur of the German nation to the present promise of National Socialism. The film orchestrates images of clouds, mist, smoke, architecture, and party banners and standards, and choreographs the worshipful masses with a montage of sound that mixes Wagnerian music, folk songs, chants, and party anthems. It eroticizes the submission of the masses to the leader, objectifies and aestheticizes the male body, and glorifies the technology of war. An ordinary party rally is metamorphosed into a religious and erotic event that compels the spectator to rethink connections between politics and filmmaking.

Equally monumental and spectacular is Olympische Spiele (1938; Olympia), a two-part film comprising Fest der Völker (Festival of the Nations) and Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty), Riefenstahl's documentary of the 1936 Olympics. Largely funded by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry and filmed by a camera crew of forty-eight individuals, including six cameramen and sixteen assistants, it focuses on the presence of Hitler, the beauty of the athletes' bodies, the theatricality of their performances, the grandeur of the classical setting, and the participation of the masses: the marathon and diving sequences are a "symphony of movement" (Hinton, p. 57). Through edited images of the sculpted and wholesome young male bodies, including that of the black athlete Jesse Owens, the film highlights their classical poses, their discipline and control, and their almost otherworldly solitariness against a background of clouds, fire, and water. Olympia is more than a record of the games; it is a dramatic sexualized experience of art as spectacle.

After the war, Riefenstahl was arrested several times by the Allies. Some of her property was confiscated, and she was blacklisted. She was finally "de-Nazified" in 1952. Her film Tiefland (Lowlands), begun in the 1940s, was finally released in 1954 but was poorly received. In the 1970s she went to Africa and, while she never realized a film documentary of the Nuba tribe, her photos were published in a volume, The Last of the Nuba (1973), in which, once again, the subjects' bodies are sexualized and aestheticized. Her autobiography, Sieve of Time (1992), is not an apology for but a justification of her life and work in films. Her films and persona were the subject of a documentary film, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993). Her claim that she was creating art and not engaging in politics and her denial of responsibility have continued to trouble critics, but her work has led many to reexamine documentary representation and the role of the filmmaker in relation to fascism.

See alsoCinema; Film (Documentary); Hitler, Adolf; Nazism; Olympic Games; Propaganda.


Barsam, Richard Meran. Film Guide to Triumph of the Will. Bloomington, Ind., 1975.

Elsaesser, Thomas. "Leni Riefenstahl: The Body Beautiful, Art Cinema, and Fascist Aesthetics." In Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, edited by Pam Cook and Philip Dodd, 186–197. Philadelphia, 1993.

Giesen, Rolf. Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography. Jefferson, N.C., 2003.

Graham, Cooper C. Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. Metuchen, N.J., 1986.

Hake, Sabine. German National Cinema. London, 2002.

Hinton, David B. The Films of Leni Riefenstahl. Lanham, Md., 2000.

Riefenstahl, Leni. The Last of the Nuba. New York, 1973.

——. The Sieve of Time: The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl. London, 1992.

Schulte-Sasse, Linda. Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema. Durham, N.C., 1996.

Sontag, Susan. "Fascinating Fascism." In Movies and Methods: An Anthology. 2 vols. Edited by Bill Nichols, 1:31–44. Berkeley, 1976–1985.

The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Directed by Ray Müller. London, 1993.

Marcia Landy