Nationality: German. Born: Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin, 22 August 1902. Education: Studied Russian Ballet at the Mary Wigmann School for Dance, Dresden, and Jutta Klamt School for Dance, Berlin. Family: Married Peter Jacob, 1944 (divorced 1946). Career: Dancer, from 1920; appeared in "mountain films" directed by Arnold Franck, from 1936; established own production company, Riefenstahl Films, 1931; first film, Das blaue Licht, released, 1932; appointed "film expert to the National Socialist Party" by Hitler, 1933; detained in various prison camps by Allied Forces on charges of pro-Nazi activity, 1945–48; charges dismissed by Berlin court, allowed to work in film industry again, 1952; suffered serious auto accident while working in Africa, 1956; commissioned by The Times (London) to photograph the Munich Olympics, 1972; honored at Telluride Film Festival, Colorado (festival picketed by anti-Nazi groups), 1974; was the subject of the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, directed by Ray Muller, 1993. Awards: Silver Medal, Venice Festival, for Das Blaue Licht, 1932; Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques, Paris, Diplome de Grand Prix, for Triumph des Willens, 1937; Polar Prize, Sweden, for Olympia, 1938. Address: 20 Tengstrasse, 8000 Munich 40, Germany.
Films as Director:
Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light) (+ co-sc, role as Junta)
Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of the Faith)
Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) (+ pr, ed); Tag derFreiheit: unsere Wermacht (+ ed)
Olympia (Olympische Spiele 1936) (+ sc, co-ph, ed)
Tiefland (Lowland) (+ sc, ed, role as Marta) (released 1954)
Films as Actress:
Der heilige Berg (Fanck)
Der grosse Sprung (Fanck)
Das Schiscksal derer von Hapsburg (Raffé); Die weissesHölle vom Piz Palü (Fanck)
Stürme über dem Montblanc (Fanck)
Der weiss Rausch (Fanck)
S.O.S. Eisberg (Fanck)
Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl (The Power of theImage: Leni Riefenstahl) (Müller) (role as herself)
Die Nacht der Regisseure (Night of the Filmmakers) (Reitz) (role as herself)
By RIEFENSTAHL: books—
Kampf in Schnee und Eis, Leipzig, 1933.
Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitagsfilms, Munich, 1935 (uncredited ghost writer Ernst Jaeger).
Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf, Berlin, 1937.
The Last of the Nuba, New York, 1974.
Jardins du corail, Paris, 1978.
Memoiren, Munich, 1987 (also published as The Sieve of Time: TheMemoirs of Leni Riefenstahl, London, 1992, and Leni Riefenstahl:A Memoir, New York, 1994).
Wonders under Water, London, 1991.
Leni Riefenstahl: Life, Tokyo, 1992.
Olympia, London, 1994.
Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, London, 1995.
The People of Kau, translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
By RIEFENSTAHL: articles—
"An Interview with a Legend," with Gordon Hitchens, in FilmComment (New York), Winter 1965.
Interview with Michel Delahaye, in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.
"A Reply to Paul Rotha," with Kevin Brownlow, in Film (London), Spring 1967.
"Statement on Sarris-Gessner Quarrel about Olympia," in FilmComment (New York), Fall 1967.
Interview with Herman Weigel, in Filmkritik (Munich), August 1972.
"Why I Am Filming Penthesilea," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1973.
"Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir," in New York, 13 September 1993.
"After a Half-Century, Leni Riefenstahl Confronts the U.S.," in FilmCulture (New York), Winter 1996.
On RIEFENSTAHL: books—
Cadars, Pierre, and Francis Courtade, Histoire du cinema Nazi, Paris, 1972.
Fanck, Arnold, Er furte Regie mit Gletschern, Sturmen, Lawinen, Munich, 1973.
Hull, David Stewart, Film in the Third Reich, New York, 1973.
Leiser, Erwin, Nazi Cinema, London, 1974.
Barsam, Richard, Filmguide to "Triumph of the Will," Bloomington, Indiana, 1975.
Infield, Glenn, Leni Riefenstahl, the Fallen Film Goddess, New York, 1976.
Ford, Charles, Leni Riefenstahl, Paris, 1978.
Hinton, David, The Films of Leni Riefenstahl, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1978.
Infield, G. B., Leni Riefenstahl et le troisieme Reich, Paris, 1978.
Berg-Pan, Renata, Leni Riefenstahl, Boston, 1980.
Heck-Rabi, Louise, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.
Graham, Cooper C., Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1986.
Hinton, David B., The Films of Leni Riefenstahl, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1991.
Deutschmann, Linda, Triumph of the Will: The Image of the ThirdReich, Wakefield, New Hampshire, 1991.
On RIEFENSTAHL: articles—
"The Case of Leni Riefenstahl," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1960.
Gunston, David, "Leni Riefenstahl," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1960.
Berson, Arnold, "The Truth about Leni," in Films and Filming (London), April 1965.
Gregor, Ulrich, "A Comeback for Leni Riefenstahl," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1965.
Brownlow, Kevin, "Leni Riefenstahl," in Film (London), Winter 1966.
Rotha, Paul, "I Deplore. . . ," in Film (London), Spring 1967.
Corliss, Richard, "Leni Riefenstahl—A Bibliography," in FilmHeritage (Dayton, Ohio), Fall 1969.
Richards, J., "Leni Riefenstahl: Style and Structure," in SilentPictures (London), Autumn 1970.
Alpert, Hollis, "The Lively Ghost of Leni," in the Saturday Review (New York), 25 March 1972.
"Riefenstahl Issue" of Film Culture (New York), Spring 1973.
Barsam, R. M., "Leni Riefenstahl: Artifice and Truth in a World Apart," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1973.
Sontag, Susan, "Fascinating Fascism," in the New York Review ofBooks, 6 February 1975.
Sokal, Harry R., "Über Nacht Antisemitin geworden?," in DerSpiegel (Germany), no. 46, 1976.
"Zur Riefenstahl-Renaissance," special issue of Frauen und Film (Berlin), December 1977.
Fraser, J., "An Ambassador for Nazi Germany," in Films (London), April 1982.
Horton, W. J., "Capturing the Olympics," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), July 1984.
Lopperdinger, M., and D. Culbert, "Leni Riefenstahl, the SA, and the Nazi Party Rally Films, Nuremberg 1933–1934: Sieg des Glaubens and Triumph des Willens," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio,and TV (Abingdon, Oxon), vol. 8, no. 1, 1988.
Lopperdinger, M. and D. Culbert, "Leni Riefenstahl's Tag derFreiheit: The 1935 Nazi Party Rally Film," in Historical Journalof Film, Radio and TV (Abingdon, Oxon), vol. 12, no. 3, 1992.
Schiff, Stephen, "Leni's Olympia," in Vanity Fair (New York), September 1992.
Elsaesser, Thomas, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman," in Sight and Sound (London), February, 1993.
Harshaw, Tobin, "Why Am I Guilty?" in New York Times BookReview, 26 September 1993.
Corliss, Richard, "Riefenstahl's Last Triumph," in Time (New York), 18 October 1993.
Hoberman, J., "Triumph of the Swill," in Premiere (New York), December 1993.
Sklar, Robert, "The Devil's Director: Her Talent Was Her Tragedy," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, no. 3, 1994.
Dassanowsky, R. von, "'Wherever You May Run You Cannot Escape Him': Leni Riefenstahl's Self-Reflection and Romantic Transcendence of Nazism in 'Tiefland'," in Camera Obscura (Bloomington), May 1995.
Naughton, L., "Leni Riefenstahl: A Wonderful Life in a Horrible World," in Metro Magazine, no. 106, November 1997.
Hitchens, Gordon, "Recent Riefenstahl Activities and a Commentary on Nazi Propaganda Filmmaking," in Film Culture (New York), Winter 1996.
Cohn, H., "From the Mailbag: Offended by Honor to Riefenstahl," in Classic Images (Muscatine), November 1997.
Starkman, Ruth, "Mother of All Spectacles: Ray Müller's TheWonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1997–1998.
On RIEFENSTAHL: films—
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, 1993.
The Night of the Film-makers, 1995.
* * *
The years 1932 to 1945 define the major filmmaking efforts of Leni Riefenstahl. Because she remained a German citizen making films in Hitler's Third Reich, two at the Fuhrer's request, she and her films were viewed as pro-Nazi. Riefenstahl claims she took no political position and committed no crimes. In 1948, a German court ruled that she was a follower of, not active in, the Nazi Party. Another court in 1952 reconfirmed her innocence of war crimes. But she is destined to remain a politically controversial filmmaker who made two films rated as masterpieces.
She began to learn filmmaking while acting in the mountain films of Arnold Fanck, her mentor. She made a mountain film of her own, The Blue Light, using smoke bombs to create "fog". She used a red and green filter on the camera lens, over her cameraman's objections, to obtain a novel magical effect. This film is Riefenstahl's own favorite. She says it is the story of her own life. Hitler admired The Blue Light and asked her to photograph the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg. She agreed to make Victory of the Faith, which was not publicly viewed. Hitler then asked her to film the 1934 Nazi Party rally.
Triumph of the Will, an extraordinary work, shows Hitler arriving by plane to attend the rally. He proceeds through the crowded streets of Nuremburg, addresses speeches to civilians and uniformed troops, and reviews a five-hour parade. The question is: Did Riefenstahl make Triumph as pro-Nazi propaganda or not? "Cinematically dazzling and ideologically vicious," is R. M. Barsam's judgment. According to Barsam, three basic critical views of Triumph exist: 1) those who cannot appreciate the film at all, 2) those who can appreciate and understand the film, and 3) those who appreciate it in spite of the politics in the film.
Triumph premiered 29 March 1935, was declared a masterpiece, and subsequently earned three awards. Triumph poses questions of staging. Was the rally staged so that it could be filmed? Did the filming process shape the rally, give it meaning? Riefenstahl's next film, Olympia, posed the question of financing. Did Nazi officialdom pay for the film to be made? Riefenstahl claims the film was made independently of any government support. Other opinions differ.
The improvisatory techniques Riefenstahl used to make Triumph were improved and elaborated to make Olympia. She and her crew worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week. Olympia opens as Triumph does, with aerial scenes. Filmed in two parts, the peak of Olympia I is Jesse Owens's running feat. The peak of Olympia II is the diving scenes. In an interview with Gordon Hitchens in 1964, Riefenstahl revealed her guidelines for making Olympia. She decided to make two films instead of one because "the form must excite the content and give it shape. . . . The law of film is architecture, balance. If the image is weak, strengthen the sound, and vice-versa; the total impact on the viewer should be 100 percent." The secret of Olympia's success, she affirmed, was its sound—all laboratory-made. Riefenstahl edited the film for a year and a half. It premiered 20 April 1938 and was declared a masterpiece, being awarded four prizes.
Riefenstahl's career after the beginning of World War II is comprised of a dozen unfinished film projects. She began Penthesilea in 1939, Van Gogh in 1943, and Tiefland in 1944, releasing it in 1954. Riefenstahl acted the role of a Spanish girl in it while co-directing with G. W. Pabst this drama of peasant-landowner conflicts. Visiting Africa in 1956, she filmed Black Cargo, documenting the slave trade, but her film was ruined by incorrect laboratory procedures. In the 1960s, she lived with and photographed the Mesakin Nuba tribe in Africa.
Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Olympia are two of the greatest documentaries ever made. That is indisputable. And it also is indisputable that they are among the most notorious and controversial. Each has been lauded for its sheer artistry, yet damned for its content and vision of Adolph Hitler and a German nation poised on the edge of totalitarian barbarism. After years as a name in the cinema history books, Riefenstahl was back in the news in 1992. Memoirnen, her autobiography, was first published in English as The Sieve of Time: The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl, and she was the subject of a documentary, Ray Müller's The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Clearly, Riefenstahl had written the book and participated in the documentary in an attempt to have the final word regarding the debate over her involvement with Hitler and the Third Reich.
The documentary, which is three hours in length, traces Riefenstahl's undeniably remarkable life, from her success as a dancer and movie actress during the 1920s to her career as a director, her post-World War II censure, and her latter-day exploits as a still photographer. Still very much alive at age ninety-one, Riefenstahl is shown scuba diving, an activity she first took up in her seventies.
Riefenstahl is described at the outset as a "legend with many faces" and "the most influential filmmaker of the Third Reich." The film goes on to serve as an investigation of her life. Was she an opportunist, as she so vehemently denies, or a victim? Was she a "feminist pioneer, or a woman of evil?" Riefenstahl wishes history to view her as she views herself: not as a collaborator but as an artist first and foremost, whose sole fault was to have been alive in the wrong place at the wrong moment in history, and who was exploited by political forces of which she was unaware.
Upon meeting Hitler, she says, "He seemed a modest, private individual." She was "ignorant" of his ideas and politics, and "didn't see the danger of anti-Semitism." She claims to have acquiesced to making Triumph of the Will only after Hitler agreed that she would never have to make another film for him. To her, shooting Triumph was just a job. She wanted to make a film that was "interesting, one that was not with posed shots. . . . It had to be filmed the way an artist, not a politician, sees it." The same holds true for Olympia, which features images of perfectly proportioned, God-like German athletes. When queried regarding the issue of whether these visuals reflect a fascist aesthetic, Riefenstahl refuses to answer directly, replaying again that art and politics are separate entities.
"If an artist dedicates himself totally to his work, he cannot think politically," Riefenstahl says. Even in the late 1930s, she chose not to leave Germany because, as she observes, "I loved my homeland." She claims that she hoped that reports of anti-Semitism were "isolated events." And her image of Hitler was "shattered much too late. . . . My life fell apart because I believed in Hitler. People say of me, 'She doesn't want to know. She'll always be a Nazi.' [But] I was never a Nazi."
"What am I guilty of?" Riefenstahl asks. "I regret [that I was alive during that period]. But I was never anti-Semitic. I never dropped any bombs." Explained director Müller, after a New York Film Festival screening of the film, "She was an emancipated woman before there was even such a term. She has a super ego, which has been trod upon for half a century. . . . [She is] an artist and a perfectionist. I believe that she was purposefully blind not to look in the direction that would get her into trouble."
In this regard, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl ultimately works as a portrait of denial. As Müller so aptly observes, "Any artist has a great responsibility. Anyone who influences the public has this. She is possessed with her art. She says, 'I'm only doing my thing.' I think this is irresponsible. She may be obsessed and possessed, and a genius. But that does not exempt her from responsibility."
In 1995, Riefenstahl briefly resurfaced in Edgar Reitz's The Night of the Film-Makers, consisting of interviews with German filmmakers from Frank Beyer to Wim Wenders. Eric Hansen, writing in Variety, summed up the essence of her appearance by noting, "Names like the ninety-two-year-old Leni Riefenstahl and young director Detlev Buck are allowed only a few self-glorifying or sarcastic comments."
Perhaps the final word on Riefenstahl is found in Istvan Szabo's Hanussen, a 1988 German-Hungarian film. Much of Hanussen is set in Germany between the world wars. One of the minor characters is a celebrated, egocentric woman artist, a member of the political inner circle, who surrounds herself with physical beauty while remaining callously unconcerned with all but her own vanity. Clearly, this character is based on Riefenstahl.
—Louise Heck-Rabi, updated by Rob Edelman
The German film director Leni Riefenstahl (born 1902) achieved fame and notoriety for her propaganda film Triumph of the Will and her two part rendition of the 1936 Olympic Games, Olympia, both made for Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.
Leni Riefenstahl was one of the most controversial figures in the world of film. A talented and ambitious dancer, actress, and director, she had already made a name for herself in her native Germany and abroad when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. She admired him, as he did her, and with his friendship and support became the "movie-queen of Nazi Germany," a position she much enjoyed but could not live down after the fall of the Third Reich. In spite of her energetic attempts to continue as a filmmaker and her protestations that she had done nothing but be an unpolitical artist, she never managed to complete another film. Eventually she turned to still photography, producing two books on the African tribe of the Nuba (The Last of the Nuba, 1974, and The People of Kau, 1976) and one of underwater pictures (Coral Gardens, 1978), for which she learned to scuba dive at the age of 73. These photographs continued her life-long fascination with the beauty and strength of the human body, especially the male, and her early interest in natural life away from modern civilization.
Early Career as Dancer and Actress
Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl was born in Berlin on August 22, 1902. Her father, Alfred Riefenstahl, owned a plumbing firm and died in World War II, as did her only brother, Heinz. Early on she decided to become a dancer and received thorough training, both in traditional Russian ballet and in modern dance with Mary Wigman. By 1920 Riefenstahl was a successful dancer touring such cities as Munich, Frankfurt, Prague, Zürich, and Dresden.
She became interested in cinema when she saw one of the then popular mountain films of Arnold Fanck. With characteristic decisiveness and energy she set out to meet Fanck and entice him to offer her the role of a dancer in his Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926). It was well-received and Riefenstahl made up her mind to stay with the relatively new medium of motion pictures. Over the next seven years she made five more films with Fanck: Der grosse Sprung (The Great Leap, 1927), Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Piz Palü, 1929), Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storms over Mont Blanc, 1930), Der weisse Rausch (The White Frenzy, 1931), and S. O. S. Eisberg (S. O. S. Iceberg, 1933). She also tried acting in another type of film with a different director, but Das Schicksal derer von Habsburg (The Fate of the Hapsburgs, 1929) turned out to be an unsatisfactory venture. In Fanck's films Riefenstahl was often the only woman in a crew of rugged men who were devoted to getting the beauty and the dangers of the still untouched high mountains (and for S. O. S. Eisberg, of the Arctic) onto their action-filled adventure films. Not only did she learn to climb and ski well, she also absorbed all she could about camera work, directing, and editing.
The Blue Light
Eventually Riefenstahl conceived of a different kind of mountain film, more romantic and mystical, in which a woman, played by herself, would be the central character and which she herself would direct. Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932) was based on a mountain legend and was shot in remote parts of the Tessin and the Dolomites. It demanded—and received—a great deal of dedication from those involved, many of whom were former associates of Fanck's who continued to work with her on other films. She also obtained the help of the well-known avant-garde author and film theoretician Bela Balazs, a Marxist and Jew, who collaborated on the script and as assistant director.
The Blue Light tells the story of Yunta, a beautiful innocent mountain girl who falls to her death after greedy villagers find and take all the crystals in a grotto high up on a mountain where before only she had been able to climb. The crystals are the source of a mysterious blue light which sustained Yunta and fatally attracted the young men of the village. The theme, lighting, and camera angles of the film show the legacy of German Expressionism. Riefenstahl aimed at fusing the haunting beauty of the mountains with her legendary tale and, as she would continue to do, experimented technically with special film stock, special lenses, soft focus, and smoke bombs to achieve the desired mystical effect. The Blue Light won acclaim abroad, where it received the silver medal at the 1932 Biennale in Venice, and at home, where it also attracted the attention of Hitler.
Films for the Third Reich
When Adolf Hitler came to power he asked Riefenstahl to film that year's Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith, 1933) has been lost; presumably it was destroyed because it showed party members who were soon afterwards liquidated by Hitler. With his power consolidated he wanted Riefenstahl to do the 1934 rally as well, a task she claims to have accepted only after a second "invitation" and the promise of total artistic freedom.
Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935) is considered by many to be THE propaganda film of all times, even if its director later maintained that all she had made was a documentary. Carefully edited from over 60 hours of film by herself, with concern for rhythm and variety rather than chronological accuracy, it emphasizes the solidarity of the Nazi party, the unity of the German people, and the greatness of their leader who, through composition, cutting, and special camera angles, is given mythical dimensions. Filming Abert Speer's architechtural spectacle where the Nazi icons, swastika, and eagle are displayed prominently and, together with flags, lights, flames, and music, made a powerful appeal to the irrational, emotional side of the viewer, particularly the German of the time. Not surprisingly, the film was awarded the German Film Prize for 1935. But it was also given the International Grand Prix at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition, albeit over the protest of French workers.
Riefenstahl's next film, the short Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces, 1935) was in a way a sequel, shot to placate the German Armed Forces, who were not at all pleased about having received little attention in Triumph of the Will.
Another major assignment from Hitler followed: to shoot the 1936 Olympic Games held in Germany. Olympia, Part 1: Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations) and Part 2: Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty) premiered in 1938, again to great German and also international acclaim. Elaborate and meticulous preparation, technical inventiveness, and 18 months of laborious editing helped Riefenstahl elevate sports photography—until then a matter for newsreels only—to a level of art seldom achieved. From the naked dancers in the opening sequence and the emphasis upon the African American athlete Jesse Owens to the striking diving and steeplechase scenes, the film celebrated the beauty of the human form in motion in feats of strength and endurance.
Immediately after completing The Blue Light Riefenstahl had made plans to film Tiefland (Lowlands), a project that was to be interrupted by illness, Hitler's assignments, and the war. When it was finished in 1954 all fire had gone out of this tale of innocence and corruption, high mountains and lowlands, based on the opera by the Czech Eugene d'Albert. Many of Riefenstahl's other projects, most notably her plan to do a film on Penthisilea, the Amazon queen, were never completed at all. This was due partly to the fact that she was a woman in a man's profession but mostly to the war and the choices she made under the Nazis and for them. Ultimately, all her work, in spite of the great talent and dedication it so clearly demonstrates, is tainted by the readiness and skill with which she put her art at the service of the Third Reich, no matter whether it was from conviction, political naivete, ambition, or, most likely, a combination of all three.
Although her film career had come to a halt, Riefenstahl's attention focused on still photography. She visited Africa many times in hopes of making a film, but eventually these trips resulted in two books of photography (The last of the Nuba, 1974, and (The People of Kau, 1976. Once again her work was praised for its beauty and castigated for its fascist art. When she was 70, Reinstahl learned to scuba dive and concentrated her photography on underwater coral life, resulting in a new book Coral Garden, 1976.
In 1993, when she was 91 years old, German director Ray Mueller made a film biography (The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. The release of the film coincided with the English translation of her autobiography Leni Riefenstahl: A Biography In both the film and the book, Riefenstahl claims her innocence and mistreatment, never realizing the effect that her films had on promoting the Nazi cause. Ray Muller was quoted in (Time Magazine as declaring "she is still a 30's diva, after all and not accustomed to being crossed. By the second day, I was asking prickly questions and she was having choleric fits." In his review of the film, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby concluded "Ms. Riefenstahl doesn't come across as an especially likable character which is to her credit and Mr. Muller's. She is beyond likability. She is too complex, too particular and too arrogant to be seen as either sympathetic or unsympathetic. There's the suspicion that she had always had arrogance and that it, backed up by her singular talent, is what helped to shape her wonderful and horrible life."
Kampf in Schnee und Eis (Battle in Snow and Ice, 1933), Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitagsfilms (In the Wings of the Party Rally Film, 1935), and Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf (Beauty in Olympic Competition, 1937) are contemporary accounts, the first ghostwritten, by Riefenstahl on her work. They are available only in German. The Last of the Nuba (1974), The People of Kau (1976), and Coral Gardens (1978), her later books of still photography, exist in English editions as well. After the end of the war Riefenstahl wrote a number of statements and letters to editors defending herself. She also worked on an autobiography. She gave a lengthy interview for Leni Riefenstahl Part I and II (one half-hour each), produced by Camera Three for 1973 broadcast by the CBS Television Network. Three full-length books on her are: Renata Berg Pan, Leni Riefenstahl (1980); David B. Hinton, The Films of Leni Riefenstahl (1978), the most apologetic; and Glenn B. Infield's more gossipy Leni Riefenstahl, The Fallen Film Goddess (1976), all in English. The most important article by an American film critic is Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism" in the New York Review of Books (February 6, 1975). □
The German film director Leni Riefenstahl achieved fame and notoriety for her film Triumph of the Will, which critics believed to be propaganda, or material created to spread beliefs, of Adolf Hitler's (1889–1945) army, the Third Reich.
Early career as a dancer and actress
Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl was born in Berlin, Germany, on August 22, 1902. Her father, Alfred Riefenstahl, who owned a plumbing firm, and her only brother, Heinz, died in World War II (1939–45; a war fought between the Axis powers: Germany, Italy, and Japan—and the Allies: England, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States). As a child she enjoyed reading, painting, and dancing. Early on she decided to become a dancer and received thorough training, both in traditional Russian ballet and in modern dance with Mary Wigman (1886–1973). By 1920 Riefenstahl was a successful dancer touring cities such as Munich, Dresden, and Frankfurt, Germany; Prague, Czechoslovakia; and Zurich, Switzerland.
By 1924 Riefenstahl's dance career was over after she suffered a serious knee injury. It was during her recovery period that her life would change forever when she saw one of the popular mountain films of Arnold Fanck. With characteristic determination and energy she set out to meet Fanck and talk him into offering her an acting role in his Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926). The film was well-received, and Riefenstahl made up her mind to stay with the relatively new medium of motion pictures. Over the next seven years she made five more films with Fanck. In Fanck's films Riefenstahl was often the only woman in a crew of rugged men who were devoted to adding the beauty and dangers of the still untouched high mountains onto their action-filled adventure films. Not only did she learn to climb and ski well, she also absorbed all she could about camera work, directing, and editing.
Eventually Riefenstahl dreamed up a different kind of mountain film, more romantic and mystical, in which a woman, played by herself, would be the central character and which she herself would direct. Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932) was based on a mountain legend and was shot in remote parts of the Tessin and the Dolomite mountains in northern Italy. It demanded—and received—a great deal of dedication from those involved, many of whom were former associates of Fanck's who continued to work with Riefenstahl on other films. The Blue Light won praise overseas, where it received the silver medal at the 1932 Biennale in Venice, Italy, and at home, where it also attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler.
Films for the Third Reich
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 he asked Riefenstahl to film that year's Nazi Party (Hitler's political party) rally in Nuremberg, Germany. Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith, 1933) has been lost; presumably it was destroyed because it showed party members who were soon afterwards killed by Hitler. Hitler then invited Riefenstahl to do the 1934 rally as well, a task she claimed to have accepted only after a second "invitation" and the promise of total artistic freedom.
Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935) is considered by many to be the propaganda film of all times. (Later, Riefenstahl maintained she intended the movie to be a documentary.) Carefully edited from over sixty hours of film by herself, with concern for rhythm and variety rather than chronological (order of time) accuracy, it emphasized the fellowship of the Nazi Party, the unity of the German people, and the greatness of their leader who, through composition, cutting, and special camera angles, was given mythical dimensions.
Triumph of the Will made a powerful appeal to the irrational, emotional side of the viewer, particularly in Germany at the time. Not surprisingly, the film was awarded the German Film Prize for 1935. But it was also given the International Grand Prix at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition, albeit over the protest of French workers.
Riefenstahl's next film, the short Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces, 1935) was in a way a sequel, shot to please the German Armed Forces, who were not at all pleased about having received little attention in Triumph of the Will.
The Olympic Games
Another major assignment from Hitler followed: to shoot the 1936 Olympic Games held in Germany. Olympia, Part 1: Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations ) and Part 2: Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty ) premiered in 1938, again to great German and also international praise. Careful preparation, technical inventiveness, and eighteen months of editing helped Riefenstahl elevate sports photography—until then a matter for newsreels only—to a level of art rarely achieved. From the naked dancers in the opening sequence and the emphasis upon the African American athlete Jesse Owens (1913–1980) to the striking diving and steeplechase scenes, the film celebrated the beauty of the human form in motion through feats of strength and endurance.
Immediately after completing The Blue Light Riefenstahl had made plans to film Tiefland (Lowlands ), a project interrupted by illness, Hitler's assignments, and World War II (1939–45). The film was finally finished in 1954. Many of Riefenstahl's other projects, most notably her plan to do a film on Penthisilea, the Amazon queen, were never completed at all. This was due partly to the fact that she was a woman in a man's profession but mostly to the war and the choices she made under the Nazis. Ultimately, all her work, in spite of the great talent and dedication it so clearly demonstrates, is tainted by the readiness and skill with which she put her art at the service of the Third Reich, whether it was from loyalty, political blindness, ambition, or, most likely, a combination of all three.
When Riefenstahl's film career came to a halt, her focus switched to still photography. She visited Africa many times in hopes of making a film, but eventually these trips resulted in two books of photography (The Last of the Nubu, in 1974, and The People of Kau, in 1976). Once again her work was praised for its beauty and criticized for its political leanings. When she was seventy, Reinstahl learned to scuba dive and concentrated her photography on underwater coral life, resulting in a new book Coral Garden (1976).
In 1993, when Riefenstahl was ninety-one years old, German director Ray Mueller made a film biography, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. It was released along with the English translation of her autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl: A Biography. In both the film and the book, Riefenstahl proclaimed her innocence and mistreatment, never having realized the effect her films had on promoting the Nazi cause.
For More Information
BergPan, Renata. Leni Riefenstahl. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Infield, Glenn B. Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess. New York: Crowell, 1976.
Riefenstahl, Leni. Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir. New York: Picador USA, 1995.