Helene Bertha Amalie "Leni" Riefenstahl (August 22 1902 – September 8 2003) was a German film director, dancer and actress widely noted for her aesthetics and innovations as a filmmaker. Her most famous film was Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), a propaganda film made at the 1934 Nuremberg congress of the Nazi Party. Riefenstahl's prominence in the Third Reich along with her personal friendships with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels thwarted her film career following Germany's defeat in World War II, after which she was arrested but never convicted of war crimes.
The propaganda value of her films made during the 1930s repels most commentators but many film histories cite the aesthetics as outstanding. After her death the Associated Press described Riefenstahl as an "acclaimed pioneer of film and photographic techniques. Der Tagesspiegel newspaper in Berlin noted, "Leni Riefenstahl conquered new ground in the cinema. 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. 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. Riefenstahl later published her still photography of the Nuba tribes in Africa and made films of marine life.
When presented with the opportunity to direct Das Blaue Licht (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.
According to the Daily Express of 24 April 1934, Leni Riefenstahl had read Mein Kampf during the making of Das Blaue Licht. 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.
Hitler already admired Das Blaue Licht and during a personal meeting he asked Riefenstahl to direct the 1933 film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), an hour-long feature about the Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg in 1933 (released on DVD in 2003). Ernst Röhm was featured in the film but when he was murdered during the purge of the SA (Night of the Long Knives) Der Sieg des Glaubens became a political embarrassment.
Nonetheless impressed with Riefenstahl's work, Hitler asked her to film the upcoming 1934 Party rally in Nuremberg. The result, Triumph of the Will, was a documentary generally recognized as a masterful, epic, innovative work of documentary filmmaking. Triumph of the Will became a rousing success in Germany. However, it was widely banned in America as a propaganda film for the Nazi Party. The film won many international awards as a ground-breaking example of filmmaking and is widely regarded as one of the most effective pieces of propaganda ever produced.
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. In 2003, The Economist magazine cited Triumph of the Will as having "sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.
In 1935 Riefenstahl madeTag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (German for Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces), a lesser-known film about the German Wehrmacht. Like Der Sieg des Glaubens and Triumph of the Will, this was made at the annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. Over a million Germans had participated in the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and later yearly rallies held there 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 Riefenstahl was invited to film the Olympic Games in Berlin. She also went to Greece to take footage of the games' original site at Olympia, where she was aided by Greek photographer Nelly's. This material became Olympia, a film widely noted for its technical and aesthetic achievements. She was one of the first film makers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes' movement. Riefenstahl's work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography.
On June 14, 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. Riefenstahl was friends with Hitler for twelve years and reports vary as to whether she ever had an intimate relationship with him.
After the Nuremberg rallies trilogy and Olympia Riefenstahl began work on a feature film based on Hitler's favorite opera, Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland. On Hitler's direct order the German government paid her 7 million reichsmarks in compensation. From September 23 until November 13, 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. A surviving document from camp Marzahn shows a list of 65 inmates who were ordered to serve in the production. 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. To the end of her life, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Riefenstahl continued to maintain all the film extras survived and that she had met them after the war.
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 would not be edited and released until almost ten years later.
As Germany's military collapsed in the spring of 1945 Riefenstahl 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 arrests and escapes 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.
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 twice by postwar authorities, she was never convicted in a denazification trial either for her alleged role as a propagandist or for the use of concentration camp inmates in her films.
Riefenstahl tried many times to make films during the 1950s and 1960s but was met with resistance, public protests and sharp criticism. 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. 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) but whilst scouting shooting locations 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). Riefenstahl had high hopes for a collaboration with Jean 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.
She survived a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000.
Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep on the late evening of September 8 2003 at her home in Pöcking, Germany a few weeks after her 101st birthday. She had been suffering from cancer. She was buried in the Waldfriedhof in Munich.
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