Riefenstahl, Leni (1902—)

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Riefenstahl, Leni (1902—)

One of the most innovative, influential film directors of the 20th century, who made Triumph of the Will for the Nazi Party and Olympia for the IOC, both considered classics, and whose work for the Nazis virtually blocked her from directing after World War II. Pronunciation: LANE-ee REEF-in-shtall. Born Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin, Germany, on August 22, 1902; daughter of Alfred Riefenstahl (an owner of a plumbing business) and Berta (Scherlach) Riefenstahl; attended Realgymnasium and Kunstakademie in Berlin; began studying classical ballet in 1919; married Peter Jacob, in 1944 (divorced 1946); no children.

Discovered during dance recital by impresario Max Reinhardt (1923); injured a knee, ending her dance career (1924); made first film appearance, in Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926); after the founding of her own film company, directed Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932), Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith, 1933), Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), Olympia (1938), Tiefland (Lowland, 1944); appointed "film expert" to Germany's National Socialist Party by Adolf Hitler (1933); received the Staatspreis (1935); won the gold Venice Biennale medal (1936); won the Grand Prix of the Exposition Internationale des Art et des Techniques for Triumph of the Will (1937); briefly held prisoner after World War II for supposed pro-Nazi activities but released and her name cleared; received a gold medal from the International Olympic Committee for Olympia (1948); a Hollywood panel of judges named Olympia one of the ten finest motion pictures of all time (1955); traveled extensively in Africa and produced book The Last of the Nuba (1973); continued into her 90s to work in photography and film.

In the darkened movie theater, Nazi banners flood the screen, and thousands of men holding torches march past in the night. Searchlights sweep the sky, stopping to train on the flags and on an enormous statue of an eagle overlooking a high podium. Slowly the river of flags pours past tens of thousands of spectators, coming closer and closer until nothing can be seen but the flags, moving forward as if they have a life of their own. One figure finally emerges. As he stands at attention on the vast podium the camera focuses in, until the viewer is looking at Adolf Hitler, bathed in the glow of the searchlights.

This sequence and many like it were filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, the only female film director hired by the German Third Reich. Anyone who doubts the power of Hitler's propaganda has only to watch her classic film Triumph of the Will. Acknowledging the tremendous magnetism of her work, Riefenstahl would not allow it to be screened in modern Germany. Yet she has spent most of her long life denying that it was created with any evil intent. All of her films, she has maintained, were simply art, nothing more. So powerful are her images, however, that the debate about her work continues.

Leni Riefenstahl was born into a middleclass Berlin family on August 22, 1902. Her mother Berta Scherlach Riefenstahl was born in what would become Poland. Her father Alfred Riefenstahl was the owner of a plumbing engineering firm. Leni was educated at a Realgymnasium

and at the Kunstakademie in Berlin, and began taking dancing lessons in 1919. Studying classical ballet with Eduardova and Jutta Klammt and modern dance with Mary Wigman , she wanted to pursue a dancing or acting career, but was adamantly opposed in this by her father, who exercised strict control over his oldest daughter, rarely allowing her to leave home unattended until she was 21.

In 1923, Alfred Riefenstahl agreed to finance a solo dance recital on the condition that Leni would give up dancing if the performance proved unsuccessful. Contrary to his expectations, her debut that year brought her to the attention of Max Reinhardt, the famous impresario, who engaged her for his Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Later she toured under Reinhardt's sponsorship, performing modern dances of her own creation in Zurich, Prague, and other European cities. In 1924, her dancing career was abruptly ended when she cracked her knee-cap.

Leni Riefenstahl was as resolute as she was beautiful. Her father's frequent beatings and abuse of her mother made her determined to live as an independent woman. After her knee injury thwarted her dancing career, she saw the movie Mountain of Destiny and decided to become a film actress. She contacted the director, Dr. Arnold Fanck, and impressed him so greatly that he hired her as the only woman in his crew. In 1926, Fanck created a role especially for her in his Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926), about a young dancer turned mountain climber. This was followed by the comedy Der Grosse Sprung (The Big Leap, 1927). In 1929, she appeared in Das Schicksal von der Habsburg (The Fate of the Habsburgs) and Die Weisse Hölle von Piz Palü (The White Hell of Piz Palü). Her first sound film, Stürme über dem Montblanc (Storms over Mont Blanc), came out in 1930, followed by the skiing comedy Der Weisse Rausch (White Frenzy) in 1931.

From the beginning of her career, Riefenstahl was interested in film production and quickly demonstrated her technical and directing abilities. Fanck taught her how to edit film, and when the French found White Frenzy too long, she successfully cut it down. In 1931, she founded her own film company, Leni Riefenstahl Studio Films, to produce her next movie, The Blue Light. She recruited Bela Balazs, the distinguished Hungarian writer, to help her with the screenplay. To shoot night scenes during daylight, she pushed the Agfa film company to develop a new film stock. She decided to direct the film, as it was cheaper than hiring someone else, and also played the starring role of Junta, the mountain girl who scales heights alone. By now, Riefenstahl was one of Germany's most popular actresses.

Although she preferred to direct, she agreed to star in S.O.S. Eisberg (S.O.S. Iceberg, 1932–33), a German-American co-production directed by Fanck. The shoot proved eventful. Cracking ice floes threatened the lives of cast members and starving Eskimo dogs ate anything on the set made of fur or leather. The polar bears from the Berlin Zoo were uncooperative, and chronic cystitis and ingrown toenails added to Riefenstahl's list of woes, but she prevailed.

Filmmaking was in its infancy when Leni Riefenstahl began her work as a director. Many techniques now taken for granted had yet to be invented. For example, telephoto lenses did not produce usable footage at night in an unlit crowd, so ways around filming such scenes had to be devised. In order to obtain the best low-angle shots, Riefenstahl had a trench dug in which to place the camera. For elevated shots, she used a fire-truck ladder or rooftop. Sometimes small elevators were placed on flagpoles to shoot wide panoramas. Camera equipment of the period was also extremely heavy and cumbersome, so that moving a camera to achieve a shot could be a huge task in itself. Grueling effort was required to produce effects which are today considered commonplace. Riefenstahl's use of the camera to such excellent effect called for technical improvements in equipment that have made her influence on film production an enduring legacy.

Leni Riefenstahl's involvement in acting and directing began during a tumultuous period of German history. After World War I, a defeated Germany plunged into economic chaos, partly because of the enormous reparations exacted by the Allies. Inflation first wiped out savings and capital, then the worldwide Great Depression made matters worse. While an influx of refugees from Eastern Europe seemed to unbalance the country, the arts flowered in these chaotic conditions. Novels, plays, films, music, and art all took new and exciting directions. The creators of this cultural renaissance were Germans and Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, an extremely fertile collaboration. Some were leftists, or communists, and in their minds capitalistic Europe had failed, bringing war and deprivation to millions. Intrigued by the new social experiments being attempted in the Soviet Union, they identified with the champions of equal rights for women and workers.

In addition to economic and social chaos, new technologies also challenged the status quo. Motion pictures, radio, phonographs, and air travel were changing the old world forever. Inundated by social change, a poor economy, and the forces of technology, Germany grew more and more unstable. As economic and political conditions worsened throughout the 1920s, one political party gained increasing power. The National Socialists, led by Adolf Hitler, blamed leftists, communists, and Jews for social unrest and economic instability. The Nazis rejected modern art and modern music. Jazz, for example, was anathema to them. Their prescription for Germany was a return to the traditional social order in which Germans controlled their own fate. Cultural ferment must cease.

Although Hitler and his followers rejected modernity in the arts, they eagerly embraced new technologies. Hitler often criss-crossed the country by plane, one of the first leaders to do so. He also understood the power of radio and films. It was this combination of fascist ideology with new technology which proved to be so lethal.

In 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Already, in 1932, he had approached Riefenstahl asking her to make films about him

and his movement once he attained power. He believed films would play an important role his regime. In 1933, Riefenstahl made a film of the National Socialist Party congress in Nuremberg entitled Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). The film was withdrawn after Ernst Roehm and other leaders of the Storm Troopers were purged in 1934, and no prints are in existence. Desiring a second film about the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi Party congress, Hitler approached Riefenstahl once more. She was reluctant, not because of politics but because she wanted full artistic control. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, was extremely powerful, and like many Nazis he felt that a woman's place was in the home, not the studio. Riefenstahl accepted Hitler's offer only on the condition that she would have direct access to him and that she would exercise complete control over the project. Her decision to work for Hitler was not unusual. In the early 1930s many in Germany, and indeed throughout the world, viewed Hitler in a positive light. During the Great Depression, his economic objectives seemed commendable. Furthermore, National Socialism seemed a much preferable alternative to Bolshevism. At the time, Riefenstahl's attitudes toward Hitler mirrored those of millions of Germans, Europeans, and Americans who badly miscalculated the German leader's intentions.

If her statements are sincere, she has never grasped, and still does not grasp, the fact that she, by dedicating her life to art, has given expression to a gruesome regime and contributed to its glorification.

—American intelligence report on Leni Riefenstahl, May 30, 1945

By 1934, the Nazis had perfected the staging of large political gatherings. It is estimated that 777,000 people participated in the Nuremberg Rally that September. Riefenstahl demanded and got a crew of 120 to film this enormous event, and 30 cameras, equipped with the latest wideangle and telescopic lenses, were procured. No expense was spared. Trenches were dug for those low-angle shots, and special camera towers were constructed. Triumph of the Will begins with Hitler's plane descending from the clouds on the medieval city. Scenes of joyous Germans dressed in traditional folk costumes, an aerial view of the beautiful medieval buildings, and columns of marching Storm Troopers are only a few of the powerful scenes in this two-hour movie. Riefenstahl was also innovative with the use of sound, combining the dramatic effects of Wagnerian opera with snatches from speeches. Triumph of the Will still rivets the viewer, even today.

Regardless of the political implications of this movie, the Berlin premiere of Triumph of the Will on March 29, 1935, is considered a landmark in motion-picture history. Riefenstahl's innovative techniques changed the art of filmmaking. The movie received Germany's Staatspreis in 1935, the Venice Biennale gold medal in 1936, and the Grand Prix of the Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques in Paris in 1937.

After making a short film, Tag der Freiheit (Day of Freedom), about the Wehrmacht in 1935, Riefenstahl began a film about the 1936 Olympics, held in Germany. Her goal was to emphasize the excitement of competition and the beauty of the human body. Officially authorized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the film was produced by her own company and financed by the government. Despite criticism about her Nazi sympathies, critics have found little evidence that Riefenstahl infused the film with Nazi propaganda. In fact, a major highlight of the film involves the record-breaking feats of Jesse Owens, a black American athlete. Certainly no believer in "racial purity" would feature such a defeat of "Aryan" contenders. In 1948, the International Olympic Committee belatedly awarded Riefenstahl a gold medal for Olympia. In 1955, it was named one of the ten finest motion pictures of all time by a jury of prominent Hollywood filmmakers.

In 1940, with World War II under way, Riefenstahl began work on the movie Tiefland (Lowland). For some time, she had been having great difficulties with the Nazi propaganda machine, particularly with Propaganda Minister Goebbels, her nemesis. Goebbels was notorious for his numerous liaisons, especially with film stars. As Leni Riefenstahl was a film star, he considered her fair game, but she rejected his advances. When he tried to control her work, Riefenstahl went directly to Hitler. Her defiance eventually affected her film work; as well, as the war continued, fewer and fewer resources were available for making motion pictures. After 1943 and the defeat at Stalingrad, it became increasingly apparent that the Third Reich would last much less than a thousand years.

At the end of the war, Riefenstahl was briefly held prisoner by both the Americans and the French, who were certain that her role in the National Socialist Party must have been prominent. In fact she had never joined the party, and it became apparent that an overwhelming desire to make movies, not a fanatical devotion to Nazism, accounted for the works she had produced. She was blacklisted nonetheless, and, although her name had been cleared in court, her equipment and films were confiscated and not returned to her until 1954.

In 1956, Riefenstahl visited Africa with the thought of making a film. She became intrigued with the Mesakin Nuba, an isolated tribe in the Nuba Mountains in Korodfam province of southern Sudan. Six years later, in 1962, she was the first white woman to receive permission from the Sudanese government to visit the Nuba. Once there, she learned the Nuban language and customs and took motion pictures as well as still photos of the tribe. These prints were sold to magazines such as Life, Der Stern, and L'Europeo and were published in book form as The Last of the Nuba in 1973. In 1972, she was commissioned by the London Sunday Times to photograph the Olympic Games in Munich. Other assignments have included a series on Mick Jagger, the rock star. In her 90s, Riefenstahl decided to film underwater. Since she was in extremely good physical condition, she lied about her age, passing for 72, learned to scuba dive, and took several underwater photographs. In March 2000, at age 97, Riefenstahl suffered minor injuries, including a few broken ribs, when a helicopter in which she was riding to revisit the Nuba tribe crashed in the Sudan.

Leni Riefenstahl's association with the Third Reich cost her a great deal, and the debate about her motives has never ended. Some compare her with Charlie Chaplin, who was forced out of American films because of his leftist sympathies. Others believe that Triumph of the Will could never have been made "by anyone not fanatically at one with the events depicted." Many are appalled by the fanaticism portrayed in the Nuremberg rallies. In her defense, Riefenstahl points out that the participants had no idea that they were being photographed, as telephoto lenses were used. She simply documented the emotions felt by the crowd. In our own era, there is still uncertainty about the role played by film or taped events in shaping public consciousness. In technological terms, cameras are not a new invention, but clearly their impact on human behavior is still not fully understood.

Since it is not possible to determine Riefenstahl's motivation, one is left with her legacy, which remains enduring. Technologically, she made contributions which continue to influence motion pictures. Her creative directing and filming techniques, as well as her innovative use of soundtracks, are proof of her genius. By any assessment, Leni Riefenstahl is one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century. As for Triumph of the Will, this film depicts not only a Nazi rally but a beautiful centuries-old medieval city which is no more. Near the end of the war, Nuremberg was obliterated by Allied bombs.

More important, Riefenstahl's movie documents a destructively powerful political movement. There are some who deny the evils of the Third Reich, even going so far as to claim that the Holocaust was a fabrication. Triumph of the Will leaves no doubt about what happened in Germany. The leap from the fervor of Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz is a short one. Riefenstahl's gift to the world is the documentation of a horrific episode in human history. Its viewing should be required for future generations so that they, too, will understand the meaning of the words, "Never again."


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related media:

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (181 min. documentary), directed by Ray Müller, Kino Video, 1995.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia