Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl : Nazi Germany

Leni Riefenstahl was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1902. After working as a ballet dancer Riefenstahl became an actress and appeared in Der Heilige Berg in 1925. This was followed by leading roles in Der Grosse Sprung (1927), Die Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (1929) Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (1930) and The Blue Light (1932), which she also directed.

Adolf Hitler was a great admirer of Riefenstahl and in 1933 he appointed her as film executive of the Nazi Party. She made a series of films that reflected fascist ideology. This included Reichsparteitag (1935), a film of a party conference.

In Triumph of the Will (1935), Riefenstahl used over 35 cameramen to make a film of a Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. Her next film, Olympia (1938), was a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Joseph Goebbels was jealous of Riefenstahl's success and he managed to stop her from film, Tiefland (1944) from being completed.

After the Second World War Riefenstahl was initially blacklisted by the film industry. In 1952 she managed to finish Tiefland but Schwarze Fracht (1956) was not completed and Nuba (1977) was not released.

Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep on 8th September, 2003.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) BBC News (9th September, 2003)

Controversial film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, who made the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, has died aged 101.

Riefenstahl became a favourite of German dictator Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, making films for his fascist regime.

Her most famous work was Triumph of the Will, a propaganda film showing a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1934.

She was never a Nazi party member, and never charged at a war crimes tribunal.

Her death was reported on the online version of German magazine Bunte. Her longtime companion Horst Kettner said she had "quietly fallen asleep" at her home in the Bavarian town of Poecking on Monday afternoon.

Riefenstahl also made the film Olympia, a documentary on the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Critics said her work glorified a regime responsible for the deaths of millions.

But she was adamant she was not a supporter of the Nazis, and had done the films for art and not politics.

"I was only interested in how I could make a film that was not stupid like a crude propagandist newsreel, but more interesting", she once told BBC News Online.

"It reflects the truth as it was then, in 1934. It is a documentary, not propaganda."

Her Nazi documentaries were hailed as groundbreaking film-making, pioneering techniques involving cranes, tracking rails, and many cameras working at the same time.

But only last year, Riefenstahl was investigated for Holocaust denial after she said she was unaware that Gypsies which had been taken from concentration camps to be used as extras in one of her wartime films had later died in the camps.

Riefenstahl began her career as an actress - Hitler was said to have been captivated by her appearance in the film The Blue Light.

After the war she was unable to find work in films, and turned to photography. She was celebrated for her work on the disappearing Nuba tribe in the Sudan.

In her 70s, she took up scuba-diving to help with back pain. She released a film, Impressions Under Water, in 2002, compiled from over 200 dives. It was widely acclaimed.

(2) Richard Falcon, The Guardian (9th September, 2003)

The German film director and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, who has died aged 101, will be remembered for two innovative, visually eloquent and lavishly funded documentaries, Triumph of the Will (1935) and the two-part Olympia (1938).

The former, a monumental, hypnotic account of the massive 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg which glorified Nazi pageantry and deified Adolf Hitler, earned her a place in film history and the status of a post-war pariah.

She was the first female film director to attract international acclaim, but her career was curtailed by public, industry and official antipathy owing to her status as "Hitler's favourite film-maker".

Both Triumph of The Will and Olympia are permeated by Riefenstahl's intense feeling for the expressive power of bodies in motion, whether they be marching Nazis or high divers.

Born in Berlin, Riefenstahl achieved fame as a "free" dancer in the style of Isadora Duncan, touring Europe by the age of 22 and gaining employment with Max Reinhardt.

Her film ambitions were prompted by "father of the mountain film" Arnold Fanck's 1924 Mountain of Fate, starring the Tyrolean outdoors hero Luis Trencker. The "mountain film" genre's use of cinematic technique - filters, special film stock, slow motion - to endow magnificent natural scenery with dramatic stature - provided her with key elements of her towering visual style and fostered her technical skill.

She made contact with Trencker. He later became her lover and, in 1946, her antagonist when he published a fake intimate diary purportedly by Hitler's mistress Eva Braun. This claimed that Riefenstahl had also been Hitler's mistress- an allegation she furiously denied but which pursued her for life.

But it was Fanck, a geologist, adventurer and technical perfectionist, who became her film mentor, writing The Holy Mountain as her film debut. This film, opens with Riefenstahl's performance of a dance of the sea on a rocky outcrop in Heligoland amidst crashing waves. According to her memoirs, this was what made Hitler an admirer. It was later to prompt Siegfried Kracauer to discern, in its "idolatry of glaciers and rocks", a proto-Nazi irrationalism where modern viewers are likely to see only kitsch.

More mountain films followed including a starring role in the genre's finest and most successful entry, The White Hell of Piz Palü (1929), co-directed by Fanck and G W Pabst.

Fanck had surrounded himself with the best cameramen available - the Freiburg school, including Hans "The Snowflea" Schneeburger, another of Riefenstahl's lovers. Many of them would work for her after she began directing with The Blue Light in 1932.

Riefenstahl would frequently invoke The Blue Light as evidence of the non-political nature of her talent. A fairytale starring the director as an outcast young woman luring young men to their deaths with her secret cave of blue crystals in the Tyrolean mountains, it was co-written by the leftwing Jewish intellectual and theorist Béla Bàlazs. After the war, she would conceive of the outcast heroine's loss of her "magic cavern" as a metaphor for her own disenfranchisement as a film-maker.

Riefenstahl had the first of her numerous meetings with Hitler when she was summoned to a resort near Wilmershaven while she was en route to Greenland to star in Fanck's SOS Eisberg (1933), which was made simultaneously in an American version by Tay Garnett. She had, by her own account, been "mesmerised" by his oratory at a Nazi meeting at the Berlin Sportpalast some months earlier, prompting her to write an admiring letter requesting a meeting.

In 1933, when the Nazis had consolidated their grip on power with the March elections and begun their official anti-semitic campaigns with boycotts of Jewish businesses and the introduction of the Aryan clause, which banned Jews from working in the film industry, Hitler commissioned her to make Victory Of Faith, a record of the 1933 Nazi Party rally.