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Leni Riefenstahl

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Title: Leni Riefenstahl  
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Subject: Triumph of the Will, Cinéma pur, Sailing at the 1936 Summer Olympics, List of covers of Time magazine (1930s), Nazi Germany
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Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl
Riefenstahl in 1923
Born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl
(1902-08-22)22 August 1902
Berlin, German Empire
Died 8 September 2003(2003-09-08) (aged 101)
Pöcking, Germany
Resting place
Munich Waldfriedhof
Years active 1925–2002
Spouse(s) Peter Jacob (1944–1946)
Horst Kettner (2003)[1]

Helene Bertha Amalie "Leni" Riefenstahl (German: ; 22 August 1902 – 8 September 2003) was a German film director, producer, screenwriter, editor, photographer, actress and dancer widely known for directing the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl’s prominence in the Third Reich, along with her personal association with Adolf Hitler, destroyed her film career following Germany's defeat in World War II, after which she was arrested but released without any charges.[2]

Triumph of the Will gave Riefenstahl instant and lasting international fame, as well as infamy. She directed eight films, two of which received significant coverage outside Germany. The propaganda value of her films made during the 1930s repels most modern commentators, but many film histories cite the aesthetics as outstanding.[3][4][5][6] The Economist wrote that Triumph of the Will "sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century".[7]

In the 1970s, Riefenstahl published her still photography of the Nuba tribes in Sudan in several books such as The Last of the Nuba. Active until her death at age 101, she published marine life stills and released the marine-based film Impressionen unter Wasser in 2002.

After her death, the Associated Press described Riefenstahl as an "acclaimed pioneer of film and photographic techniques".[8] Der Tagesspiegel newspaper in Berlin noted, "Leni Riefenstahl conquered new ground in the cinema".[9] The BBC said her documentaries "were hailed as groundbreaking film-making, pioneering techniques involving cranes, tracking rails, and many cameras working at the same time".[10]

Early life

Christened Helene Bertha Amalie, and also known as Leni Riefenstahl, she was born into a prosperous German Protestant family on 22 August 1902.[11] Her affluent father, Alfred Riefenstahl owned a successful heating and ventilation company and wanted his daughter Leni to follow him into the world of business. Since Leni was the only child he had at that moment, he wanted her to carry on with the family name, and also to secure the abundant money he had made.[12] However, her mother, Bertha Scherlach, who had been a part-time seamstress before her marriage, had faith in Leni and believed that her future was in show business. Leni also had a younger brother Heinz Riefenstahl who later was killed at the Russian war front of Hitler’s war when he was thirty six years old.

Leni was one to have fallen in love with the art field. At the age of 4, she began to paint and write poetry. Leni was also athletic, and at the age of twelve she decided to join a "nixe," a gymnastic and swim club. The more she grew, the more her mother perceived her talents in the artistic world. She knew her daughter would grow up to be successful in the field of art and therefore gave her full support, unlike Leni’s father who was not interested in any artistic motives in his daughter’s life. In 1918, when she was 16, she attended a presentation of "Snow White" which interested her deeply, and she concluded that she wanted to be a dancer. Her father could not agree less with her idea of becoming a dancer. He instead wanted to provide her with an education that could lead to a more dignifying profession rather than being a dancer. But instead, his wife did not fail to continue to support her daughter’s passion. They went behind Alfred’s back to enroll Leni in dance and ballet classes at the Grimm-Reiter Dance School in Berlin, where she quickly became a star pupil.

Riefenstahl gained a reputation on Berlin's dance circuit and even became more popular with time as she traveled. With more dancing, she began getting foot injuries that had to lead to a knee surgery, threatening a future dancing career. It was while going to a doctor's appointment that she first saw a poster for "Der Berg des Schichsals: Ein Film von Dr. Arnold Fanck." This first inspired her to go into movie making. She began visiting the cinema, watching pictures and also attending shows of films.

On one of her adventures, she met with Luis Trenker who was one of Arnold Fanck’s actors. She was also able to meet with Arnold Fanck at a meeting arranged by a friend of hers, Gunther Rahn. Arnold was working on a film in Berlin, where Leni expressed her love and passion for his works, and was able to convince him of her acting skill, and persuaded him to feature her in one of his movies. She later received a package from Dr. Fanck which was a script to Arnold Fanck’s "Der Heilige Berg." That was a dream come true. She made a series of films for Arnold Fanck. He trained her very well and also taught her ways to go about editing a film. One of Arnold's films that brought her outstandingly into the limelight was, The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), co-directed by G. W. Pabst. It saw her fame spread to countries outside of Germany. Riefenstahl produced and directed her own work called Das Blaue Licht (1932), co-written by Carl Mayer and Béla Balázs. This film won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. In the film, Riefenstahl played an innocent peasant girl who was hated by the villagers because they had the impression that she was diabolic, hence leading to the death of many beings in their village. She was hated and cast away by so many. She always protected a glowing mountain grotto. The film attracted the attention of Hitler, who believed she epitomized the perfect German female. He saw the tremendous talent in her and the great works that she had done, and invited her for a meeting.


Dancer and actress

Poster for The Blue Light by Leni Riefenstahl in 1932

Riefenstahl took dancing lessons and attended dance academies from an early age and began her career as a self-styled and well-known interpretive dancer, traveling around Europe and working with director Max Reinhardt in a show funded by Jewish producer Harry Sokal.[13][14] After injuring her knee while performing in Prague, she saw a film about mountains, entitled Mountain of Destiny (der Berg des Schicksals, 1924), and became fascinated with the possibilities of this sort of film.[15] She went to the Alps to meet the film's director, Arnold Fanck, hoping to secure the lead in his next project.[15] Instead, Riefenstahl met Luis Trenker who had starred in Fanck's films, who wrote to the director about her.

Riefenstahl went on to star in many of Fanck’s mountain films as an athletic and adventurous young woman with a suggestive appeal; she became an accomplished mountaineer during the winters of filming on mountains and learned filmmaking techniques.[15] Riefenstahl went on to have a prolific career as an actress in silent films. She was popular with the German public and highly regarded by directors. In 1930, she lost the lead role in the Josef von Sternberg-directed The Blue Angel to her neighbour, Marlene Dietrich.[16] Her last acting role before becoming a director was the 1933 U.S.-German co-productions of the Arnold Fanck-directed, German-language SOS Eisberg and the Tay Garnett-directed, English-language SOS Iceberg. The movies were filmed simultaneously and produced and distributed by Universal Studios. SOS Iceberg was Riefenstahl’s only English-language film role as an actress. One of her fans at this time was Adolf Hitler.[7] Riefenstahl accompanied Fanck to the 1928 Olympic Games in St. Moritz, where she became interested in athletic photography and filming.[15]

When presented with the opportunity to direct Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) (1932), she took it. Breaking from Fanck's style of setting realistic stories in fairytale mountain settings, Riefenstahl—working with leftist screen writers Béla Balázs and Carl Mayer—filmed Das Blaue Licht as a romantic, wholly mystical tale which she thought of as more fitting to the terrain.[2] She co-wrote, directed and starred in the film and produced it under the banner of her own company, Leni Riefenstahl Productions.[15][17] Das Blaue Licht won the Silver Medal at the Venice Biennale and played to full audiences all over Europe.[15] However, it was not universally well-received, for which Riefenstahl blamed the critics, many of them Jewish.[18] Upon its 1938 re-release, the names of co-writer Béla Balázs and producer Harry Sokal, both Jewish, were removed from the credits; some reports claim this was at Riefenstahl’s behest. The director later turned over the name of her Jewish co-screenwriter to Nazi Propagandist Julius Streicher.[18][19] Riefenstahl received invitations to travel to Hollywood to create films, but she refused the offers in order to stay in Germany with a boyfriend.[2]

Propaganda films

Poster for Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl in 1934
Leni Riefenstahl with Heinrich Himmler at Nuremberg in 1934
Poster for Der Sieg des Glaubens by Leni Riefenstahl in 1933

Riefenstahl heard candidate Adolf Hitler speak at a rally in 1932 and was mesmerized by his talent as a public speaker. Describing the experience in her memoir, Riefenstahl wrote: "I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the Earth's surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth".[20] According to the Daily Express of 24 April 1934, Leni Riefenstahl had read Mein Kampf during the making of her film The Blue Light. This newspaper article quotes her as having commented, "The book made a tremendous impression on me. I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page. I felt a man who could write such a book would undoubtedly lead Germany. I felt very happy that such a man had come". She wrote to Hitler requesting a meeting. After meeting Hitler she was offered the opportunity to direct Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), an hour-long propaganda film about the fifth Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg in 1933. Riefenstahl agreed to direct the movie after returning from filming a movie in Greenland, and it was funded entirely by the Nazi Party as the credits to the film show quite clearly.

Hitler congratulates Riefenstahl in 1934
Soldiers march past a saluting Hitler in Riefenstahl’s film of the 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg

Impressed with Riefenstahl’s work, Hitler asked her to film the upcoming 1934 Party rally in Nuremberg, the sixth such rally. At first, according to Riefenstahl’s memoir, she resisted and did not want to create further Nazi films; instead, she wanted to direct a feature film based on Hitler’s favourite opera, Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland.[20] Riefenstahl received private funding for the production of Tiefland, but the filming in Spain was derailed. Hitler was able to convince her to film Triumph instead, on the condition that she not be required to make further films for the party. She also told Hitler she wanted the freedom to act again: "I would not be able to go on living if I had to give up acting".

Olympia poster, 1938

The resulting chronicle of the Nuremberg Rally, Triumph des Willens (named by Hitler), was generally recognized as an epic, innovative work of propaganda filmmaking. Triumph of the Will became a rousing success in Germany. It made Riefenstahl the first female film director to achieve international recognition. In interviews for the 1993 film The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl adamantly denied any deliberate attempt to create pro-Nazi propaganda and said she was disgusted that Triumph of the Will was used in such a way.

Despite vowing not to make any more films about the Nazi Party, in 1935, Riefenstahl made the 18-minute Day of Freedom: Armed Forces about the German Army. Like Victory of Faith and Triumph of the Will this was filmed at the annual Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. Riefenstahl never denied making this short 18 minute film. However she always claimed this film was a sub-set of Triumph of the Will added to mollify the German army which felt it was not represented well in the 1934 filming of Triumph of the Will. Over a million Germans had participated in the 1934 rally in Nuremberg. Later, yearly rallies held in Nuremberg got even bigger. The 1935 rally is noted for pronouncements about the status of Jews in Germany. These became known as the Nuremberg Laws which for Jews in Europe would soon become matters of life and death.

In 1936, Hitler invited Riefenstahl to film the Olympic Games in Berlin, a film which Riefenstahl claimed had been commissioned by the International Olympic Committee. She also went to Greece to take footage of the games' original site at Olympia, where she was aided by Greek photographer Nelly, along with route of the inaugural torch relay. This material became Olympia, a successful film which has since been widely noted for its technical and aesthetic achievements. She was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes' movement, and she is noted for the slow motion shots included in the film. Riefenstahl’s work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography. Riefenstahl filmed competitors of all races, including African-American Jesse Owens in what would later become famous footage.

Riefenstahl with Joseph Goebbels (1937)

Olympia was very successful in Germany after it premiered for Hitler’s 49th birthday in 1938, and its international debut led Riefenstahl to embark on an American publicity tour in an attempt to secure commercial release. In 1937, Riefenstahl told a reporter for the Detroit News: "To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength". She arrived in New York City in November 1938, five days before Louis B. Mayer and on 8 December, Walt Disney brought her on a three-hour tour showing her the on-going production of Fantasia.[21]

After the Goebbels Diaries surfaced, researchers learned that Riefenstahl had been friendly with Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, attending the opera with them and coming to the Goebbels' parties.[6] However, Riefenstahl maintained that Goebbels was upset that she had rejected his advances[18] and was jealous of her influence on Hitler, seeing her as an internal threat; therefore, his diaries could not be trusted. By later accounts, Goebbels thought highly of Riefenstahl’s filmmaking but was angered with what he saw as her overspending on the Nazi-provided filmmaking budgets.[18]

World War II

During the Invasion of Poland, Riefenstahl was photographed in Poland wearing a military uniform and a pistol on her belt in the company of German soldiers;[22] she had gone to the site of the battle as a war correspondent.[19] On 12 September 1939 she was in the town of Końskie when 30 civilians were executed there, in retaliation for an alleged attack on German soldiers.[23] According to her memoir, Riefenstahl tried to intervene but a furious German soldier held her at gunpoint and threatened to shoot her on the spot.[20] She claimed she did not realize the victims were Jews.[18] Closeup photographs of a distraught Riefenstahl survive from that day.[18] Nevertheless, by 5 October 1939, Riefenstahl was back in occupied Poland filming Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw.[23] She left Poland[19] and apparently chose not to make any Nazi-related movies after this, however.[16]

Hanfstaengl with Diana Mitford at 1934 Nuremberg rally.

On 14 June 1940, the day Paris was declared an open city by the French and occupied by German troops, Riefenstahl wrote to Hitler in a telegram, "With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany's greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?"[23][24] She later explained: "Everyone thought the war was over, and in that spirit I sent the cable to Hitler".[19] Riefenstahl was friends with Hitler for 12 years, and reports vary as to whether she ever had an intimate relationship with him.[25] According to Ernst Hanfstaengl, who was a close friend of Hitler throughout the later 1920s and early 1930s, Riefenstahl tried to begin a relationship with Hitler early on but was turned down by him.[26] For whatever reason, her relationship with Hitler had declined by 1944, when her brother Heinz died on the Russian Front of the war.[16]

After the Nuremberg rallies trilogy and Olympia, Riefenstahl began work on the movie she had tried and failed to direct once before, Tiefland. On Hitler’s direct order the German government paid her 7 million reichsmarks in compensation.[27] From 23 September until 13 November 1940 she filmed in Krün near Mittenwald. The extras playing Spanish women and farmers were drawn from gypsies (Sinti) detained in a camp at Salzburg-Maxglan who were forced to work with her. Filming at the Babelsberg Studios near Berlin began 18 months later in April 1942 and lasted into summer. This time Sinti and Roma from the Marzahn detention camp near Berlin were compelled to work as extras.[28] A surviving document from camp Marzahn shows a list of 65 inmates who were ordered to serve in the production.[29] 50 stills from the filming in Krün near Mittenwald were later found and from these, surviving prisoners were able to identify 29 camp inmates who worked for Riefenstahl and were then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the first weeks of March 1943 following Himmler’s December 1942 decree.[30][31] Almost to the end of her life, despite overwhelming evidence that concentration camp occupants had been forced to work on the movie unpaid,[26] Riefenstahl continued to maintain all the film extras survived and that she had met them after the war.[32] Riefenstahl sued a filmmaker, Nina Gladitz, who said Riefenstahl personally chose the extras at their holding camp; Gladitz had found one of the Gypsy survivors and matched his memory with stills of the movie for a documentary Gladitz was filming.[33] The German court found largely in favour of Gladitz, agreeing that Riefenstahl had known the extras were from a concentration camp, and they agreed with Riefenstahl on only one count (rejecting the claim that Riefenstahl had informed the Gypsies that they would be sent to the Auschwitz camp after filming was completed).[33]

This issue came up again in 2002, when Riefenstahl was one hundred years old and she was taken to court by a Roma group for denying the Nazis had exterminated gypsies. Riefenstahl apologized, saying, "I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps".

The last time Riefenstahl saw Hitler was when she married Peter Jacob on 21 March 1944, shortly after she had introduced Jacob to Hitler in Kitzbühel, Austria.[19] Riefenstahl and Jacob divorced in 1946;[15] Jacob became involved with Henriette von Schirach.

In October 1944 the production of Tiefland moved to Barrandov Studios in Prague for interior filming. Lavish sets made these shots some of the most costly in the film but they were finished within days. The film was not edited and released until almost 10 years later.

As Germany’s military collapsed in the spring of 1945 Riefenstahl left Berlin[15] and was hitchhiking with a group of men, trying to reach her mother, when she was taken into custody by American troops. She walked out of a holding camp, beginning a series of escapes and arrests across the chaotic landscape. At last making it back home on a bicycle, she found that American troops had seized her house, then was surprised by how kindly they treated her.[34]

Post-war life and career

Detention and trials

Writer Budd Schulberg, assigned by the US Navy to the OSS for intelligence work while attached to John Ford’s documentary unit, was ordered to arrest Riefenstahl at her chalet in Kitzbühel, Austria, ostensibly to have her identify the faces of Nazi war criminals in German film footage captured by the Allied troops. Riefenstahl claimed she was not aware of the nature of the internment camps. According to Schulberg, "She gave me the usual song and dance. She said, ‘Of course, you know, I'm really so misunderstood. I'm not political.’" However, when Riefenstahl later claimed she had been forced to follow Goebbels’ orders under threat of being sent to a concentration camp, Schulberg asked her why she should have been afraid if she did not know concentration camps existed. When shown photographs of the camps, Riefenstahl reportedly reacted with horror and tears.

Riefenstahl continued to maintain she was fascinated by the National Socialists but politically naïve and ignorant about any war crimes. From 1945 through 1948 she was held in sundry American and French-run detention camps and prisons along with house arrest but although Riefenstahl was tried four times by various postwar authorities, she was never convicted through denazification trials either for her alleged role as a propagandist or for the use of concentration camp inmates in her films. However, she was found to be a fellow traveler who was sympathetic to the Nazis.

Riefenstahl later said that her biggest regret was meeting Hitler: "It was the biggest catastrophe of my life. Until the day I die people will keep saying, ‘Leni is a Nazi’, and I’ll keep saying, ‘But what did she do?’" Although she won more than 50 libel cases against people accusing her of collaborating with the Nazis, there are many unanswered questions about her relation to National Socialism in particular and fascism more generally.

Thwarted film projects

Most of the negatives for Riefenstahl’s finished films and other production materials relating to her unfinished projects were lost towards the end of the war. The French government confiscated all of her editing equipment, along with the production reels of Tiefland. After years of legal wrangling these were returned to her, but the French government had reportedly damaged some of the film stock whilst trying to develop and edit it and a few key scenes were missing (although Riefenstahl was surprised to find the original negatives for Olympia in the same shipment). She edited and dubbed what elements were left and Tiefland premiered on 11 February 1954 in Stuttgart, however, it was denied entry into the Cannes Film Festival.[34] Although Riefenstahl lived for almost another half century, Tiefland was her last feature film.[35]

Riefenstahl tried many times (15 by her count)[15] to make films during the 1950s and 1960s but was met with resistance, public protests and sharp criticism. Many of her filmmaking peers in Hollywood had fled Nazi Germany and were unsympathetic to her.[15] Although both film professionals and investors were willing to support her work, most of the projects she attempted were stopped owing to ever-renewed and highly negative publicity about her past work for the Third Reich.[34] In 1956, inspired by Ernest Hemingway's 1935 novel Green Hills of Africa, she began an ambitious film project in Africa drawn from another novel called Schwarze Fracht (Black Freight).[16] While scouting shooting locations, she almost died from injuries received in a truck accident. After waking up from a coma in a Nairobi hospital, she finished writing the script there, but was soon thoroughly thwarted by uncooperative locals, the Suez Canal crisis, and bad weather (only test shots were ever made).

In 1954, Jean Cocteau insisted on Tiefland being shown at the Cannes Film Festival, which he was running that year.[13] Cocteau greatly admired the film.[36] In 1960, Riefenstahl unsuccessfully attempted to prevent filmmaker Erwin Leiser from juxtaposing scenes from Triumph of the Will with footage from concentration camps in his film Mein Kampf.[15] Riefenstahl had high hopes for a collaboration with Cocteau called Friedrich und Voltaire, wherein Cocteau was to play two roles. They thought the film might symbolize the "love-hate relationship" between Germany and France. Cocteau's illness and 1963 death put an end to this project.[34] A musical remake of The Blue Light with L. Ron Hubbard, a small-time U.S. pulp science fiction writer, also fell through.[37]

Photography and final film

In the 1960s, Riefenstahl became interested in Africa from Hemingway's book and from the photographs of [36] Rodger, who had taken the first photographs of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, refused to help Riefenstahl meet Africans, citing their respective backgrounds.[36] Riefenstahl took up photography, documenting a diverse array of subjects. She traveled many times to Africa[23] to photograph the Nuba tribes in Sudan, with whom she sporadically lived, learning about their culture so she could photograph them more easily.[34] She began a lifelong companionship with her cameraman Horst Kettner, who was 40 years her junior and assisted her with the photographs; they were together from the time she was 60 and he was 20.[38] She was granted Sudanese citizenship for her services to the country, becoming the first foreigner to receive a Sudanese passport.[39]

Her books with photographs of the tribes were published in 1974 and 1976 as The Last of the Nuba and The People of Kau and were both international bestsellers.[23][40] While heralded by many as outstanding colour photographs, they were harshly criticized by Susan Sontag, who claimed in a review that they were further evidence of Riefenstahl’s "fascist aesthetics".[41] The Art Director’s Club of Germany awarded Leni a gold medal for the best photographic achievement of 1975.[39] She also sold the pictures to German magazines.[34] She photographed the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and rock star Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca for the Sunday Times.[13] Years later she photographed Las Vegas entertainers Siegfried and Roy. She befriended Andy Warhol and was a Guest of Honour at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.[15]

In her later years, Riefenstahl became known for her longevity and physical stamina, although she often suffered considerable pain from old injuries. At age 72, Riefenstahl began pursuing underwater photography after lying about her age to gain certification for scuba diving (she cut 20 years off her age). In 1978, she published a book of her sub-aquatic photographs, Korallengärten (Coral Gardens) followed by the 1990 book; Wunder unter Wasser (Wonder under Water).[15] On 22 August 2002, her 100th birthday, Riefenstahl released a film called Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an idealized documentary of life in the oceans and her first film in over 25 years.[23] At age 100, she was still photographing marine life and gained the distinction of being the world's oldest scuba diver.[36] Riefenstahl was a member of Greenpeace for 8 years.[42]

She survived a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000 while trying to learn the fates of her Nuba friends during the Sudanese civil war and was airlifted to a Munich hospital.[16]


Riefenstahl celebrated her 101st birthday on 22 August 2003 at the extravagant hotel in Feldafing, nearby her home at Lake Starnberg in the Bavarian province of Germany, with a guest list that consisted of over 200 people, including Germany's most prominent socialites and celebrities such as Siegfried and Roy. However, the following day after her birthday celebration, she became ill.

According to her assistant Horst Kettner who was her domestic partner for 38 years; he stated that, “Ms. Riefenstahl is in great pain and she has become very weak and is taking painkillers.” In fact, she had been suffering with cancer for some time, and her health had been deteriorating for weeks. Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep on 8 September 2003 at her home in Pöcking, Germany. She was buried in Munich's Waldfriedhof cemetery.

There was varied response in the obituary pages of leading publications, although most recognized her technical breakthroughs in film making:

The Daily Telegraph wrote that she
was perhaps the most talented female cinema director of the 20th century; her celebration of Nazi Germany in film ensured that she was certainly the most infamous...Critics would later decry her fascination with the athletes’ [Olympia] physiques as fascistic; but in truth her interest was born not of racist ends but of the delight she, as a former dancer, took in the human form.[43]

The Independent wrote that

Opinions will be divided between those who see her as a young, talented and ambitious woman caught up in the tide of events which she did not fully understand, and those who believe her to be a cold and opportunist propagandist and a Nazi by association.[15]

The Independent also offered

At the end of her long life she was still the controversial femme fatale of German films...She was interested in beauty, adventure and films, but she was famous for being the woman you love to hate.[44]

Views of critics

In his book The Story of Film, film scholar Mark Cousins claims, "Next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented Western film maker of her era".

Reviewer Gary Morris called Riefenstahl "an artist of unparalleled gifts, a woman in an industry dominated by men, one of the great formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles".[45] Pauline Kael called Triumph and Olympia "the two greatest films ever directed by a woman".[38]

New York Times film critic Hal Erickson states that while the Triumph of the Will’s "Jewish Question" is mainly unmentioned, "filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl prefers to concentrate on cheering crowds, precision marching, military bands, and Hitler’s climactic speech, all orchestrated, choreographed and illuminated on a scale that makes Griffith and DeMille look like poverty-row directors."[46] The recurring topic of a female director with such prowess and force executing such a work was apparently resented by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels "but finally had to admit that her images, achieved through the use of 30 cameras and 120 assistants, were worth a thousand speeches."[46] While it may be "possibly the most powerful propaganda film ever made, Triumph of the Will is also, in retrospect, one of the most horrifying."[46]

New York Times film critic Hal Erickson says of Riefenstahl, “Having proven her mettle with her still-astonishing propaganda epic Triumph of the Will, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl furthered her reputation with the two-part Olympia.”[47] While the first half of the film is unique in its portrayal of “non-true Aryan” athletes, especially the emerging star of Jesse Owens, “The second half of the film is the more impressive technically, with Riefenstahl utilizing an astonishing variety of camera speeds and angles to record the diving competition.”[47] Showing Riefenstahl’s work ethic and perseverance, her crew began “Working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.” [47] Though, “Riefenstahl and her staff were often denied desirable camera angles,” they were forced “to improvise with telephoto lenses.” [47] The results of this ingenuity are “far more dramatically impressive than the up-close-and-personal approach taken by contemporary TV cameramen.”[47]

Critic Judith Thurman says in her piece in the The New Yorker that “Riefenstahl’s “genius” has rarely been questioned, even by critics who despise the service to which she lent it.” Riefenstahl was a “consummate stylist obsessed with bodies in motion, particularly those of dancers and athletes.”[48] Her two most famous films, Olympia and Triumph of the Will are critiqued by Thurman, who says, “In both, Riefenstahl relies heavily for her transitions on portentous cutaways to clouds, mist, statuary, foliage, and rooftops. Her reaction shots have a tedious sameness: shining, ecstatic faces—nearly all young and Aryan, except for Hitler’s.”[48] Thurman claims that very few people actually see Riefenstahl’s full work, saying “many people, even film buffs, seem never to have seen—or are unaware of never having seen—Riefenstahl’s documentaries in their entirety,” which leads people to believe that “If, by definition, the trailer for a so-called masterpiece can never be greater than the film itself, then Riefenstahl’s legacy fails the test.”[48]

Writer Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine that he was "impressed by Riefenstahl’s standing as a total auteur: producer, writer, director, editor and, in the fiction films, actress."[49] On the subject of her films being classic works, and not simply propaganda, Corliss argues that "The issues her films and her career raise are as complex and they are important, and her vilifiers tend to reduce the argument to one of a director's complicity in atrocity or her criminal ignorance."[49] The reason, Corliss states, that people discredit her work, and continue to do so, is the fact that she is a woman, saying, "Riefenstahl’s sin, I suspect, was being a woman — a woman who, uniquely, dared to play the man's game of filmmaking. Play and win, for, by any disinterested standard, Triumph of the Will and Olympia are towering artistic achievements."[49] Even though "she shot her last feature film, Tiefland, in the early 40s, and released it in 1954, Riefenstahl is still the world's most controversial director; her name summons the conflicts of defiant artistry and compromised morality."[49] But regardless of political opinion "Riefenstahl’s visual style — heroic, sensuous, attuned to the mists and myths of nature" will always be celebrated, though at the time it was not in "critical fashion." [49] "Finally, Riefenstahl was a woman, a beautiful woman. When she was seen with Hitler, their photos made the world's front pages. And the image stuck."[49] In 2008, Yukihiko Yoshida did a study called [50] "Leni Riefenstahl and German expressionism: research in Visual Cultural Studies using the trans-disciplinary semantic spaces of specialized dictionaries." The study took databases of images tagged with connotative and denotative keywords (a search engine) and found Riefenstahl’s imagery had the same qualities as imagery tagged "degenerate" in the title of the exhibition, "Degenerate Art" in Germany at 1937.

Film biographies

In 1993, she was the subject of the Emmy Award-winning German documentary film The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, directed by Ray Müller.[51] Riefenstahl appeared in the film and answered several questions and detailed the production of her films.[52][53] The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl was an idea she had. Leni was motivated by her old age and for some time was working on her memoirs, decided to commission this documentary to tell her life story about the struggles she had gone through in her personal life, her film-making career, and what people thought of her. In the documentary Leni Riefenstahl said that her biggest mistake was meeting Hitler: "It was the biggest catastrophe of my life. Until the day I die people will keep saying, 'Leni is a Nazi'." At one point Muller asked a specific question to Leni about what her films were meant to be and not what most people thought they were and she insisted that her films were never meant to advance the political program of National Socialism, that she looked at the world with the pure, disinterested eye of an artist, and cared only about the noble task of giving vivid cinematic form to contemporary events. She was also the subject of Müller's 2000 documentary film Leni Riefenstahl: Her Dream of Africa, documenting her return to Sudan to visit the Nuba.

The Guardian reported in April 2007 that British screenwriter Rupert Walters was writing a movie based on Riefenstahl’s life which would star actress Jodie Foster.[23] The project had been in the works for more than seven years under the working title The Leni Riefenstahl Project.[54] The project is co-produced by Primary Pictures and Foster's own Egg Pictures.[54] Foster said in 1999, "There is no other woman in the 20th century who has been so admired and vilified simultaneously".[54] The project had not been able to capture Riefenstahl’s consent while she was alive, since Riefenstahl requested the ability to veto any scenes she did not agree with; Riefenstahl also preferred Sharon Stone as the star of the movie rather than Foster.[23][55] Both Foster and Madonna had sought the rights to Riefenstahl’s autobiography since the early 1990s.[13] Director Paul Verhoeven corresponded with Riefenstahl about a separate film biography.[55] In 2011, the director Steven Soderbergh revealed that he had spent 6 months working on a biopic of Riefenstahl. He ultimately abandoned the project over concerns of its commercial prospects and instead pursued the pandemic thriller, Contagion.[56]

In popular culture

Riefenstahl’s filming merits are discussed between characters in the Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino explained the significant presence of Third Reich filmmaking in his film: "Riefenstahl and Goebbels despised each other. He was in charge of every single person in the German film industry with the sole exception of her".[57]

Leni, an award winning play by Sarah Greenman, is based on the life and work of Leni Riefenstahl. It saw productions in Oakland, California in 2004, Portland, Oregon in 2007, Seattle, Washington in 2008, and was showcased at the New York Fringe Festival in 2007.

A play based on Riefenstahl, Playing Leni (originally titled Dysfictional Circumstances) by David Robson and John Stanton, won the Hotel Obligado Audience Choice Award for New Work at the 2010 Spark Showcase in Philadelphia. It subsequently received a staged reading at the Philly Fringe Festival and was produced in May 2011 by Madhouse Theater.

Riefenstahl was referenced a number of times in the movie-lampooning television show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. In a season 8 episode of the show, as the characters in the show watch the 1950s horror film The Leech Woman, the lead female character of the film is transformed to a younger version of herself with a potion. Robot Tom Servo, upon seeing the newly rejuvenated character, says: "They turned her into Leni Riefenstahl!" The director was also mentioned by an MST3k character as they watched a short 1950s film Century 21 Calling; at one point Crow rhetorically asks "Did Leni Riefenstahl direct this?" as the blond, idealized-teens enthusiastically cavort at the Seattle World's Fair.

She will be portrayed by Dutch actress Carice van Houten in Race, an upcoming sports drama film directed by Stephen Hopkins about Jesse Owens.[58]



Year Film Credited as
Director Producer Writer Actor Role
1925 Ways to Strength and Beauty (Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit) Yes Dancer
1926 The Holy Mountain (Der heilige Berg) Yes Diotima
1927 The Great Leap (Der große Sprung) Yes Gita
1928 Das Schicksal derer von Habsburg (Fate of the House of Habsburg) Yes Maria Vetsera
1929 The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü) Yes Maria Maioni
1930 Storm over Mont Blanc (Stürme über dem Mont Blanc) Yes Hella Armstrong
1931 Der weisse Rausch (The White Ecstasy) Yes Leni
1932 The Blue Light (Das Blaue Licht) Yes Yes Yes Yes Junta
1933 S.O.S. Eisberg Yes Ellen Lawrence
Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith) Yes
1935 Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces) Yes Yes Yes
Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) Yes Yes Yes
1937 Wilde Wasser (Wild Water) Yes
1938 Olympia 1. Teil – Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations) Yes Yes Yes Yes Nude model (uncredited)
Olympia 2. Teil – Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty) Yes Yes Yes
1954 Tiefland (Lowlands) Yes Yes Yes Yes Martha
2002 Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions) Yes
Year Film Director Producer Writer Actor Role



In translation:

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ TZ Online, Leni Riefenstahl: Letztes Geheimnis geleftet! retrieved 4 October 2007
  2. ^ a b c Leni Riefenstahl (1993).  
  3. ^ Koster, Ron, Leni Riefenstahl’s Film Début, 2004, retrieved 6 January 2008
  4. ^ New York Times, Janet Maslin, Just What Did Leni Riefenstahl’s Lens See?, 13 March 1994, retrieved 6 January 2008
  5. ^ Psymon, Leni Gallery, retrieved 6 January 2008
  6. ^ a b Carl Rollyson (7 March 2007). "Leni Riefenstahl on Trial".  
  7. ^ a b "Leni Riefenstahl: Hand-held history". The Economist. September 2003. pp. XX. 
  8. ^ Bulldog News, Hitler’s Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl Dead at 101 (after Associated Press), 9 September 2003, retrieved 5 January 2008
  9. ^, Leni Riefenstahl the Devil's Diva, 10 September 2003, retrieved 5 January 2008
  10. ^, Film-maker Leni Riefenstahl dies, 9 September 2003, retrieved 4 January 2008. Text from article: "Her Nazi documentaries were hailed as groundbreaking film-making, pioneering techniques involving cranes, tracking rails, and many cameras working at the same time".
  11. ^ "Leni Riefenstahl" by Leni Riefenstahl; pages: 11, 104
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ a b c d Falcon, Richard (9 September 2003). "Leni Riefenstahl". London:  
  14. ^ Thurman, Judith (17 March 2007). "Where There's a Will".  
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Williams, Val (10 September 2003). "Leni Riefenstahl". London:  
  16. ^ a b c d e Moore, Charles (10 September 2003). "Leni Riefenstahl". London:  
  17. ^ Wallace, Peggy A. (March 1974). "The Most Important Factor Was the 'Spirit', Leni Riefenstahl During the Filming of THE BLUE LIGHT". Image (Rochester, N.Y.: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House Inc.) 17 (1): 16–28. Retrieved 15 June 2014. 
  18. ^ a b c d e f James, Clive (25 March 2007). "Reich Star".  
  19. ^ a b c d e Riding, Alan (10 September 2003). "Leni Riefenstahl, Film Innovator Tied to Hitler, Dies at 101".  
  20. ^ a b c Leni Riefenstahl – A Memoir, St. Martin's Press, 1993, ISBN 0-312-09843-X
  21. ^ "Olympia in America, 1938: Leni Riefenstahl, Hollywood, and the Kristallnacht" by Cooper C. Graham (LOC), Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 13, No. 4,1993
  22. ^ Riefenstahl in military uniform, image from: Steven Bach (2007). Leni – The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. [2];Ścinki Taśmy, Polityka, 5 October 2003
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h Harris, Paul (29 April 2007). "Hollywood tackles Hitler’s Leni". London:  
  24. ^ Die Neue Rechte, by Kay Sokolowsky, Konkret 3, 1999: "Mit unbeschreiblicher Freude, tief bewegt und erfüllt mit heissem Dank, erleben wir mit Ihnen mein Führer, Ihren und Deutschlands grössten Sieg, den Einzug Deutscher Truppen in Paris. Mehr als jede Vorstellungskraft menschlicher Fantasie vollbringen Sie Taten, die ohnegleichen in der Geschichte der Menschheit sind, wie sollen wir Ihnen nur danken? Glückwünsche auszusprechen, das ist viel zu wenig, um Ihnen die Gefühle auszusprechen, die mich bewegen".
  25. ^ See Infield, Glenn B. Eva and Adolf New York:1974--Grosset and Dunlap (Interviews with former SS officers who had been close to Hitler and Eva Braun)
  26. ^ a b Mathews, Tom (29 April 2007). "Leni: The life and work of Leni Riefenstahl, by Steven Bach". London:  
  27. ^ Jürgen Trimborn : Riefenstahl, Berlin 2002, page. 325
  28. ^ Kein Vergessen, 70. Jahrestag der Errichtung des Zwangslagers für Sinti und Roma in Berlin – Marzahn. [3] The photo on page 13 shows Riefenstahl during the making of the film. See also: Leni Riefenstahl’s 'Gypsy Question', by Susan Tegel, in: journal Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Volume 23, Issue 1 March 2003, pages 3 – 10
  29. ^ Sozialausgleichsabgabe für die Zigeuner bei dem Film Tiefland ab 27.4.42
  30. ^ In a decree dated 16 December 1942, Himmler ordered the deportation of Gypsies and part-Gypsies to Auschwitz—Birkenau. See: Sinti and Roma, ed. Holocaust Museum [4]
  31. ^ Fourteen of them, with concentration camp numbers, were: Robert Adler (Z-5792); Karl Dewüs (Z-4145), Heini Ernst (Z-5696), Wilhelm Ritter (Z-4883), Albrecht Rose (Z-752), Charlotte Rosenberg (Z-5406), Werner Rosenberg (Z-4860), Otto Schmelzer (Z-5448); Karl Steinbach (Z-4875), Ludwig Weisenbach (Z-4857), Hermann Weiß (Z-644), Johann Weiß (Z-643), Willy Zander (Z-5933); Hans Zens (Z-178). Berliner Zeitung, 17 February 2001, Riefenstahls Liste. Zum gedenken an die ermordeten Komparsen, by Reimar Gilsenbach and Otto Rosenberg [5]
  32. ^ Leni Riefenstahl: A Life by Trimbonr, p. 206-8
  33. ^ a b Taylor, Charles (19 April 2007). "Ill Will".  
  34. ^ a b c d e f, Leni Riefenstahl – biography, retrieved 11 September 2008
  35. ^, Nazi propaganda photos withdrawn, 15 June 2005, retrieved 11 September 2008
  36. ^ a b c d Baruma, Ian (14 June 2007). "Fascinating Narcissism".  
  37. ^ Callow, Simon (12 May 2003). "'As pretty as a swastika'". London:  
  38. ^ a b Corliss, Richard (22 August 2002). "That Old Feeling: Leni's Triumph".  
  39. ^ a b Leni Riefenstahl interviewed by Kevin Brownlow Taschen
  40. ^ Leni Riefenstahl (obituary) The Times. 10 September 2003
  41. ^ Fascinating Fascism, 1975
  42. ^ Harper's Index. Volume 1
  43. ^ Leni Riefenstahl (obituary) Daily Telegraph. 9 September 2003
  44. ^ What they said about......Leni Riefenstahl The Guardian. 11 September 2003
  45. ^ Bright Lights Film Journal, Lonesome Leni (film review), November 1999, retrieved 4 January 2008
  46. ^ a b c Erickson, Hal. Rev. of Triumph of the Will, dir. Leni Riefenstahl. New York Times. Web
  47. ^ a b c d e Erickson, Hal. Rev. of Olympia, dir. Leni Riefenstahl. New York Times. Web.
  48. ^ a b c Thurman, Judith. “Where There’s A Will.” The New Yorker 19 March 2007. Print.
  49. ^ a b c d e f Corliss, Richard. "That Old Feeling: Leni's Triumph." Time 22 August 2002. Print.
  50. ^ Yoshida,Yukihiko, Leni Riefenstahl and German Expressionism: A Study of Visual Cultural Studies Using Transdisciplinary Semantic Space of Specialized Dictionaries ,Technoetic Arts: a journal of speculative research (Editor Roy Ascott),Volume 8, Issue3,intellect,2008
  51. ^ International Emmy Awards. 1993. IMDB. Retrieved 21 December 2012.
  52. ^ Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (review) New York Times. 14 October 1993
  53. ^ The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl (review) Chicago Sun-Times. 24 June 1994
  54. ^ a b c "Egg Fosters `Riefenstahl'.(Jodie Foster is scheduled to star in 'The Leni Riefenstahl Project')". Variety. December 1999. pp. XX. 
  55. ^ a b Nugent, Benjamin (2 September 2002). "People". TIME. 
  56. ^ Steven Soderbergh Reveals He Dropped A Leni Riefenstahl Biopic To Do ‘Contagion’ Instead Indiewire. 11 March 2011
  57. ^ Quentin Tarantino's 'Basterds' is a glorious mash-up LA Times. 16 August 2009
  58. ^ Kit, Borys (29 September 2014). Game of Thrones' Actress to Play Leni Riefenstahl in Jesse Owens Biopic"'". Retrieved 2 October 2014. 
  59. ^ Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitags-Films [6] complete online text and photos

58) "Leni Riefenstahl" by Leni Riefenstahl 59) "Leni Riefenstahl: A Life" by Jurgen Trimborn 60) "Leni: The Life & Works of Leni Riefenstahl" by Streven Bach.

Further reading

  • Leni Riefenstahl Bibliography (via UC Berkeley)
  • Over 1700 references in English, German and French
  • Loiperdinger, Martin/David 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 and Television, 8/1/1988, 3–38.
  • Loiperdinger, Martin: "Sieg des Glaubens. Ein gelungenes Experiment nationalsozialistischer Filmpropaganda", in: Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 31/1993, 35–48.
  • Fabe, Marilyn: Triumph of the Will. The Arrival of Hitler. Notes and Analysis. Mount Vernon/N.Y. 1975.
  • Heinzelmann, Herbert: "Die Heilige Messe des Reichsparteitags. Zur Zeichensprache von Leni Riefenstahls 'Triumph des Willens' ", in: Bernd Organ/Wolfgang W. Weiß: Faszination und Gewalt. Zur politischen Ästhetik des Nationalsozialismus, Nürnberg 1992.
  • Loiperdinger, Martin/David 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 and Television, 8/1/1988, 3–38.
  • Schwartzman, R.J.: "Racial Theory and Propaganda in 'Triumph of the Will'", in: Florida State University on Literature and Film, 18/1993, 136–153.
  • Dassanowsky, Robert von: "Wherever you may run, he will find you: Leni Riefenstahl's Self-Reflection and Romantic Transcendence of Nazism in Tiefland." in Camera Obscura, 35 1996/97, 107-29.
  • Dassanowsky, Robert von: "'A Mountain of a Ship': Locating the Bergfilm in James Cameron's 'Titanic' ", in: Cinema Journal 40, No. 4, Summer 2001, 18-35.
  • Leni Riefenstahl – A Memoir, St. Martin's Press, 1993, ISBN 0-312-09843-X
  • A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl by Audrey Salkeld, 1996, ISBN 0-7126-7338-5
  • The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, documentary film directed by Ray Müller (1994)
  • Leni Riefenstahl: The fallen film goddess by Glenn B. Infield (Crowell, 1976, ISBN 0-690-01167-9)
  • Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius by Rainer Rother, translated by Martin H. Bott (Continuum International Publishing Group reprint edition, 2003, ISBN 0-8264-7023-8)
  • The Films of Leni Riefenstahl by David B. Hinton, Scarecrow Press 3rd edition, 2000, ISBN 1-57886-009-1
  • Leni Riefenstahl: Five Lives by Angelika Taschen, 2000, ISBN 3-8228-6216-9
  • Leni Riefenstahl: A Life by Jurgen Trimborn, Translation by Edna McCown, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, ISBN 0-374-18493-3
  • Yoshida,Yukihiko, Leni Riefenstahl and German Expressionism: A Study of Visual Cultural Studies Using Transdisciplinary Semantic Space of Specialized Dictionaries, Technoetic Arts: a journal of speculative research (Editor Roy Ascott),Volume 8, Issue3,intellect,2008
  •  , ISBN 0-375-40400-7

External links

  • Official website
  • Leni Riefenstahl at Find a Grave
  • Leni Riefenstahl at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl on YouTube, 3-hour video on YouTube, with English subtitles and English narration.
  • Biography from University of Washington
  • Das Blaue Licht: The Art of Leni Riefenstahl Unofficial biographical website endorsed by the Riefenstahl Estate
  • Stills of Walter Riml, photographer of the film Das blaue Licht
  • Photogallery of Walter Riml, photographer of the film Das blaue Licht
  • Leni Riefenstahl
  • Women's History collection
  • "Fascinating Fascism", a critical 1975 essay by Susan Sontag (out of Under the Sign of Saturn)
  • List of documentaries about and or with Leni Riefenstahl (1965–2004)
  • Leni Riefenstahl: Film Maker Extraordinaire or Nazi Stooge? National Centre for History Education – Australia
  • Robert Dassanowsky's Tiefland article at the Wayback Machine (archived January 6, 2009)
  • Das blaue Licht essay
  • Deneulin Tiefland essay
  • Leni Riefenstahl and her work, a bibliography
  • Photographs of Leni Riefenstahl
  • and the photography of Willy ZielkeOlimpia
  • "Leni Riefenstahl - propagandist for the Third Reich" Obituary by Stefan Steinberg on the World Socialist Web Site
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