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 liked or likes Riefenstahl, and not everybody admires her. However, Leni Riefenstahl created some of the most memorable films of the 20th Century and is a seminal figure in the film industry.
|Leni Riefenstahl with German long jump Olympic athlete Carl Ludwig "Lu(t)z" Long at the 1936 Olympics. Long gained notoriety within Germany during the Olympics by befriending American Jesse Owens. KIA 14 July 1943, Sicily.|
|"Triumph of the Will."|
|A wartime postcard of Leni, playing off of her reputation derived from her breakthrough films "Der Heilige Berg" (The Holy Mountain) (1926) and "Das Blaue Licht" (The Blue Light) (1932).|
As any serious dancer will tell you, the Achilles Heel of any veteran is indeed the heel and feet. Like many talented dancers before and since Leni's feet eventually gave out and she 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 pop 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 often climbed the nearby mountains and admired the craggy Austrian scenery. "The Blue Light" is chock full of stark vistas and moody scenery that were evocative to someone who had spent much of his boyhood in those mountains. 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 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. Leni was reluctant to take the offer. As Riefenstahl 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 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. One print alone survived, and it was found somewhat ironically in Great Britain. Hitler, despite his best efforts in 1940, could not get his hands on that copy to destroy it. The copy was only there because Leni had visited England and left a print as part of a promotional tour. The film was not re-discovered until around 2000 but now is widely available again due to finding that single copy.
|Photo of Leni Riefenstahl by Martin Munkacsi.|
|Martin Munkacsi, Leni Riefenstahl, 1931. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.|
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 Propaganda Ministry.
|Feb. 17, 1936 cover of TIME magazine featuring Leni Riefenstahl, who by now was an international film star (photo by Martin Munkacsi).|
|A German postcard featuring Leni Riefenstahl showing her, as usual, in climbing gear.|
|An early glamor shot of Leni Riefenstahl.|
|A young Leni Riefenstahl with her younger brother.|
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 competition heats or even from non-competitive practices. Some scenes apparently were created out of whole cloth, though the results of the competitions are not changed. These techniques, some viewers believe, 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. This included a stop in bustling Detroit, where she met Henry Ford, who was very current on events in Germany and in fact received a personal award from the Reich that year. Leni also visited Hollywood, where Walt Disney, a hot commodity following the recent success of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," personally gave Leni an extended tour of the creative process going on during the production of "Fantasia" (1940). Leni conceivably could have just stayed in Hollywood like so many other German émigrés of the 1930s, but she chose to return to Germany to make more documentary films for Hitler while also pursuing her career as a feature film star.
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 Germans' man on the scene in Los Angeles.|
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 Germans, 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.World War II was full of stark moral choices for everyone in Germany.
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.
|Leni Riefenstahl directing "Olympia."|
|"The Blue Light."|
|Leni Riefenstahl working on a project in Spain during the war.|
|"Triumph of the Will."|
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 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 her 1930s documentary films were "apolitical" ring hollow, as there was no question that she understood that Hitler's intent was to glorify the Reich and the Aryan race. Riefenstahl performed valuable - perhaps invaluable - services to the German 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 life 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 German 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.