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Leni Riefenstahl


Helene Bertha Amalie "Leni" Riefenstahl (August 22 1902September 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.


Dancer and actress

Riefenstahl was born in the working class neighbourhood of Wedding in Berlin. She began her career as a self-styled and well-known interpretive dancer. After injuring her knee while performing in Prague, she saw a nature film about mountains and became fascinated with the possibilities of film. She went to the Alps to meet the film's director Arnold Fanck, hoping to secure the lead in his next project. Instead Riefenstahl found an actor 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. Riefenstahl had a prolific career as an actor in silent films. She was popular with the German public and highly regarded by directors. Her last acting role before becoming a director was the 1933 U.S.-German co-production SOS Eisberg (U.S. title SOS Iceberg), produced and distributed by Universal Studios.

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.


Riefenstahl heard Adolf Hitler speak at a rally in 1932 and was mesmerized by his talent as a public speaker. Describing the experience in her Memoiren, 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.

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.

World War II

During the Invasion of Poland Leni Riefenstahl was photographed in Poland wearing a military uniform and a pistol on her belt in the company of German soldiers. 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. 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. Closeup photographs of a distraught Leni survive from that day. By 5 October 1939 Riefenstahl was back in occupied Poland filming Hitler's victory parade in Warsaw.

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.

Leni Riefenstahl married Peter Jacob on March 21, 1944 shortly after she introduced him to Hitler in Kitzbühel, Austria (they divorced in 1947).

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.

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 wasn't 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 didn’t know concentration camps existed.

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.

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. Although Riefenstahl lived for almost another half century, Tiefland was her last feature film.

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.


In the 1960s she began a lifelong companionship with Horst Kettner who was forty years her junior. At this time Riefenstahl took up photography, documenting a diverse array of subjects. She developed an interest in the Nuba tribe in Sudan where she sporadically lived among them, learning about their culture so she could photograph them more easily. Her books with photographs of the tribe were published in 1974 and 1976. While heralded by many as outstanding colour photographs, they were harshly criticized by Susan Sontag, who claimed in a review they were further evidence of Riefenstahl's "fascist aesthetics". She also sold her pictures to German magazines for income. Pictures taken at a 1971 social event show a camera-wielding Riefenstahl snapping photos of rock star Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca. Years later she was similarly photographed with Las Vegas entertainers Siegfried and Roy. At age 72, Riefenstahl began pursuing underwater photography, after lying about her age to gain certification for scuba diving (she claimed she was 52). On August 22, 2002, her 100th birthday, Riefenstahl released a film called Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an idealized documentary of life in the oceans.

She survived a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000.

Second marriage and death

In 2003 at the age of 101 Riefenstahl married Kettner.

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.

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."

References and notes


  • Leni Riefenstahl Bibliography (via UC Berkeley)
  • Over 1400 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, S.3-38.
  • Loiperdinger, Martin: "Sieg des Glaubens. Ein gelungenes Experiment nationalsozialistischer Filmpropaganda", in: Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 31/1993, S.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, o. S.
  • 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, S.3-38.
  • Schwartzman, R.J.: Racial Theory and Propaganda in 'Triumph of the Will' ", in: Florida State University on Literatur and Film, 18/1993, S.136-153.
  • 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 0-3741-8493-3
  • Bach, Steven (2007). Leni - The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. Knopf. , ISBN 0-3754-0400-7






  • Kampf in Schnee und Eis (Leipzig, 1933)
  • Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitags-Films (München, 1935)
  • Schönheit im olympischen Kampf (Berlin, 1937)
  • Die Nuba (München, 1973)
  • Die Nuba von Kau (München, 1976)
  • Korallengärten (München, 1978)
  • Mein Afrika (München, 1982)
  • Memoiren (München, 1987)
  • Wunder unter Wasser (München, 1990)

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