Leni Riefenstahl is one of the best-known names in cinema. She also is one of the most controversial, and perhaps misunderstood. Anyone who wants to understand filmmaking and the artistic process would do well to learn a bit about Leni's career. Not everybody likes her, and not everybody admires her; but Leni Riefenstahl created some of the most memorable film of the past century. Let's sweep away some of the cobwebs of time and politics to see what we can learn about the enigmatic Leni Riefenstahl.
|"Triumph of the Will."|
Leni was born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl on 22 August 1902 in Berlin. Her father, Alfred, was a successful businessman and saw her future as taking over his business. Leni, supported by her mother, Bertha (Scherlach), was not interested in heating and ventilation supplies, and instead began to paint and write poetry at an early age.
|A wartime postcard.|
An athletic girl, Leni participated in sports (swimming, gymnastics), and in 1918 she saw a dance portrayal of "Snow White" and decided to become a dancer. Bertha enrolled Leni in the Grimm-Reiter Dance School in Berlin. Her love of athletics paid off handsomely in her dancing, and before long Leni was in a travelling dance troupe produced by Harry R. Sokal. While not a big celebrity, Leni was making good money for the time. The rest of Germany was suffering under the burdens of war debts and economic, but, not for the last time, Leni danced her way above all that.
As any serious dancer will tell you, the Achilles Heel of any dancer is right down around that is located. Like many talented dancers before and since, Leni's feet gave out on her and required surgery. Fortuitously, while on her way to a doctor's appointment, Leni spied a poster for "Der Berg des Schickals" (The Mountain of Destiny" (1924). This inspired Leni to investigate the film scene, and she soon met Luis Trenker, one of the actors in the film, and also the film's director Arnold Fanck. Things did not just fall into Leni's lap: she made things happen. Fanck liked the plucky young dancer and cast her in some of his films, including "Der Heilige Berg" (The Holy Mountain) (1926) and "Der große Sprung" (The Big Leap) (1927). In no time at all - just like that - Leni Riefenstahl was one of the biggest names in German cinema.
Like so many actors, Leni wasn't satisfied with being a top star with a growing fan base overseas: she also wanted to direct. The annals of filmdom are littered with celebrity actors who thought they would make better directors than the professional directors actually directing them, but ultimately couldn't; Leni Riefenstahl does not fall into that group. She formed her own production company - Leni Riefenstahl Produktion - and hired Béla Balázs to help direct and write "Das Blaue Licht" (The Blue Light) (1932). The film's theme resonates quite closely with Leni's own life in some ways, as it portrays an earnest young woman who is misunderstood and hated and, ultimately, betrayed. Balázs - a brilliant Jewish Communist who had helped adapt Bertolt Brecht's "The 3 Penny Opera" for the cinema - basically collaborated on the project in both writing and directing. Harry R. Sokal - the man who had brought her to fame originally in his dance troupe - co-produced with Leni.
"The Blue Light" was a decent film, using new R-Stock Agfa film and with the entire production filmed on location, practically a first for a sound feature. A typical German "mountain film," it even won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. However, the local critics were not kind (though overseas critics in, for example, The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Sun loved its raw beauty). Leni - like many creators before and since - blamed the critics. Leni passed the entire project off as hers, and later had both Balázs and Sokal removed from the credits. Was it because Leni was an egomaniac, or because they were both Jewish? Nobody can say for sure. However, there also is a possible third explanation: it may just have been a marketing decision. By 1938, when she removed the two men from the credits, Leni was a huge star, bigger than ever before, because of the intercession of one man: Adolf Hitler. However.... it definitely is bad form to do that, no matter the reason.
Hitler loved "The Blue Light." As a boy in Vienna, Hitler had loved to climb the nearby mountains and admire the craggy Austrian scenery, and the film is chock full of stark vistas and moody scenery. Hollywood also was calling - Leni next starred in a US/German co-production "SOS Eisberg" (SOS Iceberg), a Titanic picture - but Leni did not want to leave Germany. After hearing Hitler at a Nazi rally in 1932, Leni became a fan, and the feeling was mutual: Hitler reportedly felt that Leni Riefenstahl was the ideal German female. They began to correspond, and there were rumors that they became more than just pen-pals (rumors Leni later hotly denied).
Hitler did not just want to correspond with Leni, he also wanted to use her (no, not that way... well, maybe that way). He asked Leni to make a documentary about the upcoming 1933 Nuremberg Party Rally, with all costs covered by Hitler's NSDAP. As she later recalled:
Shortly after he came to power, Hitler called me to see him and explained that he wanted a film about a Party Congress, and wanted me to make it. My first reaction was to say that I did not know anything about the way such a thing worked or the organisation of the Party, so that I would obviously photograph all the wrong things and please nobody - even supposing that I could make a documentary, which I had never yet done. Hitler said that this was exactly why he wanted me to do it: because anyone who knew all about the relative importance of the various people and groups and so on might make a film that would be pedantically accurate, but this was not what he wanted. He wanted a film showing the Congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying - in terms of spectacle, I suppose you might say. He wanted a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics.
Leni accepted Hitler's offer, and the result - "Der Sieg des Glaubens" (Victory of the Faith) (1933) - was good enough to cause Hitler to ask Leni to film the following year's party rally as well. However, Hitler came to loathe this film because it featured footage of Ernst Röhm, head of the Nazi Party SA (Brownshirts) - who Hitler had just had shot after confronting him personally during the "Night of the Long Knives" purge. Hitler ordered all copies of the film destroyed. A print only survived in Great Britain - where Hitler, despite his best efforts in 1940, could not get his hands on it - because Leni had visited there with a copy as part of a promotional tour. The film was not re-discovered until around 2000, but now is widely available again.
|Photo by Martin Munkacsi.|
Unlike "The Blue Light," "Victory of the Faith" was a box office success. Of course, nobody in Germany at the time could say anything bad about the film for obvious reasons, but it really is a competent, artistic depiction of a typical Nazi mass rally. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible for anyone to watch films about Nazi rallies and praise them without bringing politics into it, so objective viewpoints are scarce. "The Victory of the Faith" does suffer from being a rush job, with Leni basically just showing up at the last minute with a film crew. In any event, "Victory of the Faith" was merely the appetizer before the main course.
|Martin Munkacsi, Leni Riefenstahl, 1931. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.|
The 1934 Nuremberg Rally was slated to be the largest of them all, with over a million participants. Hitler had liquidated all opposition earlier in the year during the Infamous Night of the Long Knives, and President Hindenburg had passed away without being replaced, removing all pretense that Germany was anything but a dictatorship. Thus, the 1934 rally had special significance in the history of the Nazi state. According to Riefenstahl in later years, Hitler had to talk her into directing another film about a party rally, and she did it only on the condition that she would not have to do any more. As with so many things about Leni Riefenstahl, whether the Fuhrer had to do much persuading at all is... enigmatic.
Rather than starting from scratch, Leni used "Victory of the Faith" as a framework for the new film, a structure to which she added emendations, embellishments and new techniques. Given a budget of about 280,000RM (approx. $110K USD 1934, $1.54M 2015), Leni was able to make use of many other talented artists of the time who were being compensated by the Nazis.
|Feb. 17, 1936 cover of TIME magazine (photo by Martin Munkacsi).|
The foremost of these collaborators was Hitler's personal architect, Albert Speer. It was Speer who came up with the remarkable "cathedral of light" shows, for instance, which involved banks of searchlights. Riefenstahl had time and money herself, though, to come up with numerous innovations. These included digging pits in front of speaker platforms so that she could get good camera angles, tracks and dollies for moving shots, and many other techniques. The Nazis supplied all sorts of logistical help, giving her an immense film crew and access to virtually anything that she wanted.
|A German postcard.|
However, all these techniques required some compromises. Sometimes things weren't filmed adequately at the time, so Leni would bring speakers back into the film studio to "recreate" their performances. Thus, not everything seen in the film is exactly "as it happened." This creates some doubt as to whether the resulting film, "Triumph des Willens" (Triumph of the Will) (1935), is really a documentary, or rather a purely propagandistic effort.
Most would admit, in any event, that "Triumph of the Will" really is a triumph in the sense that it delivers. Many very subtle political techniques are introduced that are still used to great effect to this day. The prime example is the way Hitler is shown flying to attend the rally; everyone is waiting for him as he flies over the Fatherland. In one sequence, this absolutely stamps the entire country as Hitler's, and his arrival as the highpoint of the film. When you see politicians in the present era making a big show of driving to the venue while everyone sits and waits for them, or showing up to an adoring crowd in their fancy airplanes, they are simply practicing the same techniques as Riefenstahl uses in "Triumph of the Will."
|Leni with her younger brother.|
With the dramatic success of "Triumph of the Will," Leni was the top documentary filmmaker not just in Germany, but in film history. Despite her later protestations that she never wanted to do any more Nazi films, she followed up "Triumph of the Will" with a little-known film about the 1935 party rally, "Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces). The following year, Hitler would preside over the Olympics, and he asked Riefenstahl to immortalize that as well. Leni went all-out, even visiting Greece to show the first leg of the torch relay and amplifying upon all the techniques used in "Triumph of the Will."
The resulting film, "Olympia," was groundbreaking. Riefenstahl combines athleticism with art to create one of the most beautiful depictions of the human form ever committed to film. By using extreme close-ups and slow motion, Riefenstahl celebrates the human form in a way that never has been duplicated. Of course, these now are recognized as "Fascist imagery," but they are still beautiful outside of the political context. Other techniques that have been copied, but never topped, include underwater shots, panoramic shots of the stadium, and brilliant editing.
"Olympia" is widely acclaimed, and deservedly so. However, the complaints raised about "Triumph of the Will" are even louder. Many shots were "recreated," so that if the print of the actual event wasn't good enough, the athlete simply did it again for the film crew later. Other shots were taken from preliminary heats, or even practice. Some scenes apparently were created out of whole cloth, though the results of the competitions are not changed. These techniques, many feel, take "Olympia" out of the realm of "documentaries" and into a nebulous region lying somewhere between fact and fiction. Most people, however, probably view "Olympia" as the best documentary of all time, bar none.
"Olympia" premiered on 20 April 1938, Hitler's birthday, and was an astounding success. It later was broken up into two separate films. Riefenstahl went on an international publicity tour which included stops in Detroit (where she met Henry Ford) and Hollywood (where Walt Disney took her on an extended tour of the creative process behind "Fantasia" (1940)).
The following year, Germany invaded Poland. Leni followed the troops to film war scenes. In an infamous incident, Leni was present during a massacre of 30 Poles in the town of Końskie. As with so many other things relating to Leni, what that meant to her is unclear - she later claimed that a Wehrmacht soldier brandished a gun at her to stop her from filming, though there doesn't seem to be any other evidence of that (everyone knew that she was Hitler's favorite, and a German soldier threatening her in any way seems unlikely). She filmed Hitler's victory parade a few weeks later. The entire affair, however, seems to have dissuaded her from making any more films chronicling the Reich's military activities.
|Leni with Georg Gyssling, the Nazis' man in Los Angeles.|
The fact that Leni did no more filmmaking for the Reich, however, does not mean that she suddenly turned against the regime or the war effort. In fact, she sent a congratulatory telegram to Hitler on 14 June 1940 - the day that Paris fell - full of ecstasy for the advance of the Wehrmacht:
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?As with many other things, Leni later had difficulty explaining this. She passed it off as simply being glad that the war (she thought) was over.
With her reputation secure and no longer interested in filming for the Nazis, Leni returned to normal film-making. She filmed "Tiefland" (Lowland) in the fall of 1940, and this embroiled her in more controversy. Filmed at Krün near Mittenwald, "Tiefland" required the use of numerous extras to play gypsies. She could not film in Spain for political reasons, but there were many suitable candidates close at hand: in the Maxglan concentration (transit) camp. Numerous Roma were interned there, and Riefenstahl convinced the camp commandant, SS Sturmbannfuhrer Anton Bohmer, to let her use 68 of them on a continuing basis. The story goes that one of them, a ten-year-old girl named Rosa Winter, escaped from the camp but later was recaptured. Riefenstahl apparently got upset that the girl would have inconvenienced her production, and demanded an apology. It was a weird intersection of reality and fantasy that perhaps only another filmmaker would appreciate. Rosa and her mother eventually got sent to Ravensbruck, where her mother perished. Rosa later commented:
I can never forgive her for the fact that although it was totally in her power to save her extras and knowing the fate they faced, she did nothing.
Jealousy also reared its ugly head. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, did not like Riefenstahl. Why is not completely clear, but Goebbels was a well-known skirt-chaser who may have tried to chase Leni's skirt... and failed. He now did everything that he could to ruin Leni's "Tiefland." When Leni asked G.W. Pabst, who had directed her years earlier in "Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü" (The White Hell of Piz Palu) (1929), to direct her own scenes in Tiefland, Goebbels intervened and hired Pabst away for other projects. Arnold Fanck, her original mentor, agreed to help, but then suddenly - for unknown reasons - changed his attitude during filming and left for "creative differences." Goebbels then booked the interior sets that she needed at Berlin's Studio Babelsberg for another film which he claimed had better propaganda value (Hans Steinhoff's tedious "Ohm Kruger" (1941)). Later, studio supervisor Fritz Hippler destroyed the sets that she needed, with Goebbels pointedly claiming to have had nothing to do with it. All sorts of other delays stretched the production out for two years, but even with Hitler's consistent support and funding from Martin Bormann, the film production struggled.
The "Tiefland" saga drained Riefenstahl. She relocated the production several times, filming in Spain, setting up quarters in Kitzbuhel, venturing to Poland's Barrandov Studios to escape the bombing. The same problems erupted there; the sets she needed would suddenly become unavailable, and key people such as cinematographer Albert Benitz became unavailable. In 1944, she saw Hitler for the last time, when she married a stuntman, Major Peter Jacob (they divorced immediately after the war). Her father and younger brother perished on the Russian front. Through all this, Riefenstahl continued working on "Tiefland," and by fall she was into post-production. The collapse of the Nazi state was almost inconsequential - she simply kept editing in Kitzbuhel. Anybody involved in the creative process can recognize how single-minded and focused you can get on a project, but this was the ultimate in self-absorption. Finally, weeks after Germany's surrender, the film was completed.
|"The Blue Light."|
Riefenstahl sent the film negative to Bolzano for safekeeping (much of it became lost after it was confiscated by the French authorities) and went to Mayerhofen, a small village in the Tyrol. Her old "friends" turned their backs on her, viewing her as a Nazi supporter. The Americans finally tracked her down and arrested her while she was hitchhiking with some men. After that, the record becomes a blur; apparently, security was lax, and she escaped (several times) from her holding camp. Author Budd Schulberg interrogated her and was not impressed when she flatly denied being "political." Walter Winchell called her "pretty as a Swastika." Ultimately, the Americans decided that she was merely a "fellow traveler" and released her from house arrest in 1948.
|In Spain during the war.|
The war was over, and so was Leni's film career. She ultimately forced the French to return her old film stock, but "Tiefland" was a mess. She pulled it together as best she could and released it on 11 February 1954 in Stuttgart. The public was indifferent, and while she claimed that the attendant publicity tour in Austria was a "rousing success," nobody was interested in bankrolling her for more films. Jean Cocteau, however, liked the film and got it into the Cannes Film Festival. While Cocteau remained a friend and potential colleague, they never collaborated on any films.
|"Triumph of the Will."|
The next decade was full of attempts by Leni to re-start her film career, all of which fell apart. She began travelling to Africa, where she lived among the Nuba tribes. Her photographs appeared in magazines. Life as a photojournalist was hard, dangerous work, but the Sudan government made her a citizen for her work publicizing the country.
Riefenstahl continued with photojournalism, publishing in 1974 a book of photographs called "Die Nuba" (The Last of the Nuba). The book won her a gold medal from the Art Director's Club of Germany, and many of the pictures also appeared in German magazines. She branched out into celebrity photographs, with memorable shots of Mick and Bianca Jagger and Siegfried & Roy. Leni also photographed the two Olympic Games in the '70s, though apparently the organizers did not see fit to bring her back to later Games.
Leni's final major interest was underwater photography. She took beautiful color photographs of fish and coral, publishing some shots in "Korallengärten (Coral Gardens) (1978) and "Wunder unter Wasser" (Wonder under Water) (1990). Her final major project was the 2002 film, "Impressionen unter Wasser" (Underwater Impressions), which essentially summed up her underwater explorations. Leni's final years were not just a grand round of successes, however; the Roma sued her late in her life for her claims that they had not been mistreated while she filmed them for "Tiefland," and one of her last public acts was to issue an acknowledgment of their hardships. She also barely survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan in 2000 while checking up on her old Nuba friends.
Leni Riefenstahl lived to be 101. She was in great pain during her last years from cancer, and passed away in her sleep on 8 September 2003 at her home in Pöcking, Germany.
Leni Riefenstahl is like a Rorschach inkblot: everyone sees in her what their mind and background compels them to see. There is no question that Leni knew about the camps and what was happening to people there, and even witnessed some of it personally. She also availed herself of the ephemeral benefits she could accrue from that evil system. Her post-war claims that was was "apolitical" ring hollow, as that was the standard refrain of everyone at the time. She performed valuable - perhaps invaluable - services to the Nazi state, and only disowned her associations with Hitler and the German propaganda mill when they became personally inconvenient. Sometimes, fellow travelers are the most dangerous of all.
The best summation of Leni Riefenstahl may be that she indeed was a traveler, but of a different sort: she was an artistic tourist through life. She saw her role as simply documenting what was, not altering it. If bad things were happening in Germany, that was not her doing, and she took no responsibility for improving them or even merely sympathizing with the victims. Is that cause to condemn her? Opinions will vary. She fought vigorously throughout her lifetime to protect her reputation, filing some 50 libel suits.
There are some undeniably positive things to say about Leni Riefenstahl. First and foremost, she was a survivor. Through thick and thin, whether it be the collapse of the German Empire, the fall of the Weimar Republic, the destruction of the Nazi state, helicopter crashes, illnesses, all of these were simply life's challenges to overcome. She also pioneered or at least popularized new techniques in both politics and documentary filmmaking which remain in use today. Basically, Leni Riefenstahl was a dancer who, given the opportunity, showed that there can be a lot of talent behind a pretty face. What perhaps we can all agree to as well is that Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant talent who singlehandedly revolutionized her genre, and whose work will still be studied long after all of us are gone.