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."
Further Reading on Leni Riefenstahl
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).