b. 22 August, 1902, Berlin, Germany
d. 8 September, 2003, Bavaria, Germany
Does Leni Riefenstahl even belong here, ranked alongside the world’s most illustrious filmmakers and designated a “Great Director”? The answer is as controversial and multifaceted as Riefenstahl herself, to say nothing of her deeply problematic work, a handful of titles acclaimed for their formal attributes and disparaged for their troubling content. Some of these films have been regarded with a minor, disputable relevance, while her more notorious and distinguished productions continue to generate impassioned debate. And yet, the most provocative period of Riefenstahl’s career, encompassing moments of supreme prominence and dramatic decline, accounts for an isolated fraction of her 101 years of life. Afterwards, ever prone to exaggerations, denials, and downright lies (continually complicating any comprehensive view of her contemporary or permanent standing), she fostered and welcomed episodes of reinvention and positive critical reception. But the dark cloud of her operations in Nazi Germany cast a looming shadow over this fleeting resurgence, damning her best efforts to mount a resurrection. For in the end, while Leni Riefenstahl is generally recognized for her bravura aesthetic and remarkably keen appreciation of filmic potential, this aptitude, in at least three unambiguous instances, was put to the service of promoting an international nightmare.
Before the nightmare, however, there was a dream, and for Helene Amalie Bertha Riefenstahl, that dream took shape in the medium of dance. But after a brief phase of relative success in the field, while recovering from a knee injury and waiting for the train that would take her to the doctor, her life changed forever when she spotted a poster advertising the latest of Dr. Arnold Fanck’s “mountain films,” or Bergfilm. Enraptured by the imagery, Riefenstahl missed her ride and caught the movie. Newly determined to join Fanck in his next endeavour, she succeeded in making her professed screen debut in the director’s 1926 feature, Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain), the script of which, according to Riefenstahl, was swiftly written just for her in a matter of weeks. It was her “professed” debut because she had actually appeared first in a sordid, now lost “enlightenment” film called Opium, at age 16, and in Ufa’s somewhat risqué 1925 culture documentary, Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty), which she denied being in or having ever heard of.
Riefenstahl proceeded to star in a succession of similar features for Fanck, including Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Pitz Palu, 1929), with its standout dramatic scenes directed by G. W. Pabst, and the 1933 United States-German co-production, S.O.S. Iceberg. (She also appeared in 1928’s The Fate of the House of Habsburg, directed by Rolf Raffé, but this, too, she usually neglected to mention.) Fanck prided himself on his knack for authenticity, even in the harshest of conditions and often to the detriment of his cast and crew, and his films left a profound mark on Riefenstahl’s cinematic sensibilities. Aside from finding inspiration in her temporary mentor’s depiction of individuals in ecstatic communion with nature, she was struck by the haunting mountains, the robust physicality and quixotic energy, and the expressive angles and incessant movement that figured prominently in her own work to come. Although she would belittle these early films for their limited substance, they were ideally suited to Riefenstahl, who was active, loved the outdoors, and quickly recognized the art and communicative possibilities of performance.
As an actress, Riefenstahl did her best with what was provided, which didn’t always yield the most resounding results — Fanck’s picturesque backdrops typically played the lead over any given star. She was, however, able to put her dancing talents to use in The Holy Mountain, which opens with a showcase for her lithe body cavorting against an impressive landscape, epitomizing the recurrent visual/thematic juxtaposition of characters dwarfed by their environment, overwhelmed yet in harmony with the arresting scenic grandeur. Riefenstahl’s intensely physical turn is exuberant and committed. Here and elsewhere, she evinces the necessary attractiveness, vigour, and photographic potency to complement her Fanck personalities, which ranged from the vulnerable, sympathetic, and generally peripheral female partner, to the strong, perseverant, and intelligent protagonist. In films like Der große Sprung (The Great Leap, 1927), where she expresses convincing romantic allure, and Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storm Over Mont Blanc, 1930), her first talking picture, Riefenstahl’s spirited presence befit the ideal German heroine: modest yet sexually attractive; delicate yet determined; playfully comedic yet personifying the manifold impressions of wonder, danger, adventure, and discovery. As noted by Karin Wieland, Riefenstahl was “the very image of the New Woman,”1 and she was learning all the while, taking the reins, by her account, and directing two exceptional sequences in The Holy Mountain, a stunning night-time trek and torchlight rescue.
Although the exact circumstances of her initial involvement have been disputed (a common issue with Riefenstahl), her resolve and confidence soon provided the opportunity to direct her own feature. Set in 1866, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932) is a bewitching fantasy about an outcast young woman, Junta, whose mystical abilities enrage and mystify a stodgy rural populace and beguile a visiting artist. Just as Fanck had done before, Riefenstahl renders the remote mountain village in majestic bursts of beaming sunlight and in the eclipse of towering bluffs. But she also augments this stylistic inheritance by utilizing an experimental film stock and resourceful fog effects, further integrating sparkling foliage, reflecting waters, and protruding tree branches to accentuate the frame and add depth and dimension to her compositions. Within this charmed conception, Junta, played by Riefenstahl, embodies the enchanted unknown, and though subject to rampant cruelty, she becomes something of a local legend. The character is, for Steven Bach, “the only screen role Leni would ever invent for herself and the one with which she would permanently identify, insisting that Junta’s story prefigured her own as metaphor: the misjudged innocent, victimized by the greed and envy of enemies unable to comprehend her idealism and love of beauty.”2 To stress the regional trepidation and accompanying uncanny ambiance, Riefenstahl combines the ethereal imagery with a masterful editorial arrangement of shot size, movement, and tempo (she was also the film’s editor), ratcheting up the tension of Junta’s plight and persecution.
The Blue Light was released to broad approval, but where it failed to gain traction Riefenstahl was quick to blame the critics, many of whom were Jewish. A similarly disturbing portent of things to come was when the film was re-released in 1938 and the names of its co-writers, the Jewish Carl Mayer and Béla Balázs, were removed from the credits. Whether this was by Riefenstahl’s design or was simply a sign of the times remains uncertain, but one person who appreciated Riefenstahl’s work, including The Blue Light and especially her dancing display in The Holy Mountain, was Adolf Hitler. Riefenstahl’s later views on Hitler would shift as occasion dictated, as she feigned ignorance and downplayed a kindred spirit, but at the moment, Riefenstahl openly acknowledged her admiration for the German chancellor’s recent, though not yet fully realized, ascension to power. That mutual respect led to Hitler recommending Riefenstahl direct Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), an hour-long film about the Nazi Party Congress in 1933. As she tells it, Riefenstahl resisted the offer and was even so bold as to question Hitler’s political motives and his racist views, though this is rather unconvincing, just as her proclamation of wholesale success prior to the invitation belies the suggested obligation of the assignment: if she was so renowned for her acting and for The Blue Light, why the necessity to form such a potentially suspect association?
The amount of preparation granted to Riefenstahl has also been contested. While there is ample evidence of her skill and artistic pride, Riefenstahl used a rush job rationale to excuse Victory of Faith’s lapses in quality and conformity. Indeed, perhaps the film’s most unusual features are its candid glimpses of Hitler and the snapshots of an unprepared Nazi Party, which was itself an obvious work-in-progress when it came to the choreographed ceremony that later distinguished such an occasion. Nevertheless, Riefenstahl canvases the vast parade ground recently constructed by Albert Speer with attention to prescient detail, presenting the event’s highlights in roughly chronological order, setting the stage for assembly and preparing for Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg. She captures a number of infamous faces and vividly depicts the streets lined with pedestrian admirers. Though generally uneven, the film testifies to Riefenstahl’s innate sense of dynamism and scope, of pageantry and ornamentation. Dubbed “a historical document” in its opening credits (a fallback distinction from mere propaganda often utilized by Riefenstahl to mount her defence of this film and her next), Victory of Faith stresses the ancient German city’s monuments and its striking architecture while basking in the presentation of uniformed marching units, enthusiastic state officials, and bright-eyed Hitler youth saluting with fervour. The film submits an expression of unified, jubilant adoration, as a mass of women and (mostly) men observe with rapt attention this solemn account of the “fatherland” in transition.
After Victory of Faith’s release, off-screen disharmony resulted in the shelving and supposed destruction of the film. During the “Night of the Long Knives,” a series of executions that took place from 30 June to 2 July, 1934, Sturmabteilung (SA) leader Ernst Röhm was murdered on Hitler’s order. Röhm, however, had figured positively and prominently in Victory of Faith and it was thus deemed an unsuitable production. The documentary was considered lost until a copy turned up decades later, when, even still, Riefenstahl distanced herself from the picture and softened its significance and its qualities (or lack thereof). All the same, Victory of Faith is in many ways an uncultivated template for Riefenstahl’s more scandalous follow-up, a chronicle of 1934’s Sixth National Socialist Party Rally titled Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935).
With hundreds of thousands in attendance, as well as a who’s who of Nazi representatives, Triumph of the Will was a massive undertaking, an extraordinary production involving numerous assistants, aerial and still photographers, a lighting crew, security personnel, and several cameramen dressed in uniform to blend in (Riefenstahl dressed in a distinct white trench coat). It was a daunting logistical challenge, but as Wieland observes, “Beyond her burning ambition, her boundless admiration of Hitler, and her talent, Riefenstahl was able to develop a plan with military precision.”3 Having shot Victory of Faith in the same central locations, she determined in advance which shots would be most effective, and the subsequent similarities included coverage of the medieval city’s innocuous elements and its clamouring crowds. Now, though, there was an extensive consecration of characteristic Nazi iconography, from the intimidating militaristic formations to the fetishistic lingering over prototypical insignia and attire.
Shooting the nocturnal ceremonies, endless parades, and bombastic orations, Riefenstahl employs lighting accents that play off the architectural facades, casting individuals in silhouette or spotlight, and she sufficiently varies her shot section to deliver Party leaders from an imposing distance or as static, powerful figures erupting from the frame (again, Speer’s structural contributions had an immeasurable effect on her own compositions). Yet even with her artistry, Wieland maintains Riefenstahl could “do nothing to improve the puffy, vacuous, disagreeable, sweaty, and unsightly faces of these men.”4 Though she surely tried. For all its toxic context and haunting symbolism, Triumph of the Will is teeming with visual fluidity and polish, tracking alongside the podiums, filming from an elevator rising alongside towering pillars, and working in accord with Herbert Windt’s score to generate an audio-visual confluence of heightened emotions. “With art and craft,” writes Bach, “she has wed power and poetry so compellingly as to challenge the artistry of anything remotely similar that had gone before. Her manipulation of formal elements was virtuosic, her innovations in shooting and editing set new standards and remain exemplary for filmmakers seven decade later, when the controversy the film continues to generate is, in itself, a testimony to its effectiveness.”5
Germans gather from throughout the land, expressing health and exuberance, upholding the traditions of the peasantry and the regime, and all seemingly allied in their devotion and obedience. They are swayed by the perceived hope of Germany’s rebirth as a great world power, with Hitler firmly fixed at the helm. Accordingly, the speeches in Triumph of the Will are rousing, repetitive, bold, and undercut by familiar pronouncements that had contemporary resonance then and are now distinguished by the durable, retrospective tension of their rhetorical weight and venom. But beyond the material glorification of a manipulated ideal, the film is primarily dedicated to Hitler. Aboard his plane, flying over the city like a messianic figure descending from above, or travelling in his motorcade, shown at shoulder level as if floating through the crowd, the images of Hitler are spectacular, chilling, and efficacious. By comparison, save for the deified few placed front and centre, individual identities in Triumph of the Will are subjugated by a composite portrait of national fusion, one that blurs the line between objective historical document and full-throated propaganda, the full impact of which would have been impossible to observe and appreciate without Riefenstahl’s cinematic acumen. To that end, Bach notes that the “present-day view of Hitler as a mesmerizing orator is, to a significant degree, a legacy of Leni’s rendering of him in films yet to come.” The legend of “orator-as-hypnotist would,” he adds, “serve as a mass alibi, a morally evasive justification used by millions who claimed, not entirely untruthfully, that the panoply of banners, uniforms, and trumpets diverted them from what was being said.”6
Triumph of the Will took nearly two years to edit, creating an almost two-hour long film from a reported 250 miles, or estimated 61 hours of footage. Riefenstahl regularly stated the success of any film came down to the operative editing, and this is an exemplary case in point. “Brilliant, tedious and irredeemably evil,” J. Hoberman writes that Triumph of the Will is “one of the great conundrums of cinema history,”7 one that continues to elicit complex reactions. Riefenstahl argued against any perceived anti-Semitism, at least on her own behalf, and repeatedly expressed the impossibility of her knowing what was to come in Nazi Germany (apparently also denying or overlooking what was literally transpiring at the moment). She argued the film was nothing more than an assignment, a straightforward documentary that simply presented an event and its pomposity without interpretation. As evidence of this, she points to her refusal to add any sort of commentary (though that at least suggests an awareness of its potential) and she likewise reduced or refuted the implications of editorial invention (though there were rehearsals and multiple reshoots and re-enactments). For her, a film like Triumph of the Will was a matter of professional, artistic practice, not political: “It’s simply that my camera people and I photograph what we see, without adding any particular agenda. … Everything else are the ideas of journalists who read things into it, but we simply try to make the best possible pictures of what we see, and the most filmically dynamic.” She had “no ideals” and “only did [her] duty.” “I didn’t embellish things in any way,” she stated. “It doesn’t really matter what kind of ideas you want to convey in the films. It is a question of presenting what is in front of the camera rather than trying to translate ideas.”8
Nonetheless, if Riefenstahl had not made Triumph of the Will and, in the words of Audrey Salkeld, “not made it so well, other charges against her would pale in significance.”9 But make it she did, and although she supposedly swore off directing another Nazi Party film, Riefenstahl was essentially compelled to produce a supplementary short in order to placate the Wehrmacht, Germany’s armed forces, which felt they were underrepresented in Triumph of the Will. It’s true they were, and Riefenstahl, who for a time denied having made the follow-up, attributed the scarcity to a lack of compelling footage, while others have suggested the diminished presence was due to a desire to keep the size of Germany’s military secret in light of the Versailles treaty prohibiting a post-war German army of greater than 1,000 members. Whatever the reason, the film that became Tag der Freiheit (Day of Freedom), released in 1935, is a passable 28-minute vehicle for Germany’s military might, as displayed during the Seventh National Socialist Party Rally earlier that year. From the camp preparations and banalities of social camaraderie to the manoeuvring of cavalry, aircraft, and artillery, the documentary indorses a requisite martial strength, but without Riefenstahl’s artful enthusiasm it lacks the visual magnificence of its immediate precursor.
There are, once again, discrepancies in the genesis of Riefenstahl’s next documentary. Although Hitler invited her to film the 1936 Summer Olympic games in Berlin, Riefenstahl maintained the project was fundamentally accomplished via commission by the International Olympic Committee, while contrary documents showed Olympia (1938) was undoubtably funded by the Third Reich. However the financing was obtained, German politics are largely secondary to the celebratory occasion of athletic achievement, though Hitler, who hadn’t wanted to host the games (it was decided prior to his reign) and whose prohibitive polices defied the multi-racial, multi-national atmosphere inherent in the Olympics, nevertheless played ringleader to the host of nations. Still, aside from the occasional swastika and obligatory Nazi salute by certain athletes, he appears only occasionally in the stands, clapping, sitting on the edge of his seat, and looking unsettlingly human. Otherwise, Olympia was, for all intents and purposes, about sport, and Riefenstahl exceeded most everyone’s expectations with her virtuosic depiction of the games.
This was another enormous undertaking for Riefenstahl, and she begins the film by cementing its placement in historical legacy, symbolically charting the course of the torch relay from its ancient Greek origins to its arrival in modern-day Berlin. With due credit to cameraman Willy Zielke, Olympia’s opening scenes traverse space and time via special effect photography, animated graphics, stately tracking shots, and the match-dissolve animation of statuary figures into vigorous, muscular men and agile, beautiful women. Divided into two parts — “Festival of the Nations” and “Festival of Beauty” — Olympia demonstrates Riefenstahl’s trademark use of elemental ingredients like fire, water, and sunlight as well as her penchant for sweeping landscapes and inspiring structures. The subsequent presentation of the athletic competition is no less impressive. She and her team employ shots filmed underwater, slow and reverse motion, montage sequences, overhead panoramas taken by blimp, and low angles captured from holes dug in the ground. Intimate close-ups of athletes superbly measure the joys of triumph and the agonies of defeat, conveying an emotional range, a palpable tension, and a revealing vantage point that, as with Triumph of the Will, would have been unachievable without Riefenstahl’s stylistic inclinations. Staged re-enactments allowed for almost abstract illustrations while the stirring musical accompaniment accentuates a relentless momentum and mesmerizing balletic ecstasy.
Riefenstahl, writes Wieland, “perfected the blend of physicality and technology. … With perfect organization, artistic intuition, and technical proficiency, she was able to shoot a film that helped her rise to the position of exemplary artist in 1930s Germany.”10 And for the most part, Olympia is superficially untainted by Germany’s sociopolitical upheaval. The film is a celebration of spectacle and fitness, a testament to human dexterity, strength, skill, and endurance. But there remains the inescapable milieu of its making and the undertones of all things associated with Nazi rule cut like a knife. The film is therefore “a hybrid,” according to Judith Thurman, “servile to Fascist ideals in some respects, defiant of them in others — particularly in the radiant closeups of Jesse Owens, America’s black gold medalist.”11 With more than 50 nations present and throngs of attendees from throughout the world, the native Nazi flag may fly high, but it is at times notably lower than those representing more diverse countries. And although the “Nazi obsession with race is constantly restated,” as Alex von Tunzelmann points out, primarily in the commentator’s remarks about the strength of the “white race,”12 Olympia paints a broad portrait of international appeal. Indeed, while many have scrutinized Riefenstahl’s work for its incendiary concentration, others have at least allowed for Olympia as an exception. “[I]t would be wrong to decry Olympia as a fundamentally Nazi film,” writes Nicholas Barber. “It isn’t. In fact, its most Nazi-like attributes are those which are intrinsic to the Olympics: the fetishizing of physical perfection, the evocation of a mythical ancient past, the division of the world into separate, competing, flag-waving countries. The uncomfortable truth is that Olympic imagery is never very far away from Nazi imagery, whether Riefenstahl is involved or not.”13 Released in more than a dozen languages and greeted with widespread acclaim, Olympia proved once more Riefenstahl was up to the challenge of “transforming an event that so far has not been discovered by the cinema into a cinematic work of art.”14
It was the highest of highs for the director, but from the top there was only one direction to go. Riefenstahl’s association with Hitler and his cronies, to whatever extent it existed (purely professional, ideologically in sync, romantic) proved detrimental to her individual standing, especially in the United States. Arriving in New York City, primarily to promote Olympia, Riefenstahl almost immediately faced questions and accusations concerning the increasing hostilities in her homeland. Resentful of the twist in what she’d hoped would be a triumphant occasion, Riefenstahl vehemently denied such atrocities. It didn’t matter; her disbelief did little to assuage the growing anti-German sentiment sweeping America, and many of her planned social assignments were cancelled as most in the industry wanted nothing to do with Riefenstahl or her film (she did meet with Henry Ford, however, and Walt Disney gave her a tour of his studio). She returned to Germany disheartened and embittered and was soon ensconced as a war correspondent during the Polish campaign. There she witnessed the execution of Polish civilians and, by her account, chided those responsible and left her post. But the massacre’s true cause and its subsequent impact on Riefenstahl have been skewed in light of her inaccurate statements and contradictions concerning what transpired that day; her “unabashed profession of ignorance” when it came to this barbaric act was, for Wieland, “nothing short of astonishing.”15
Predictably hoping to avoid further political commitments or controversies, Riefenstahl began work on a fictional feature she had started developing in 1934. Based on Eugen d’Albert’s popular 1903 opera, Tiefland commenced filming in Spain, in 1940, but the war prompted a continual transfer to other locations. The production was also besieged by technical problems compounded by bad weather and Riefenstahl’s poor health. Tiefland, which Riefenstahl directed, produced, co-wrote, edited, and starred in, became one of the most expensive features produced during the Third Reich, and some critics have raised issue with Riefenstahl’s age in the film, as she played a much younger character, a Spanish Gypsy dancer torn between an arrogant though alluring marquis and the exploited peasant class. Riefenstahl herself regretted appearing in the picture, but the role was not unlike her turn in The Blue Light: an “amalgam of erotic fantasies and social ostracism.”16 And she does make an impression. She remains radiant under the lights of her own direction and the film’s arresting photography evokes a resilient natural reverence. If less dynamic than her earlier work, over which she had much more control, there are still the strategic camera movements, decorative sets, and the romantic manifestation of emotions, climaxing in a well-staged, windswept final confrontation. The film may be a generally conventional period drama, but it is hardly as bad as some have declared, like Bach who called Tiefland “a kitsch curiosity, as nearly unwatchable as any film ever released by a world-class director.”17
Contributing to the negativity surrounding Tiefland is a two-fold controversy. In hindsight, many have identified the film as a reflection of Riefenstahl’s troubled relationship with Nazi power, like Robert von Dassanowsky who called the film “Riefenstahl’s most personal cinematic statement, the result of a film oeuvre tied to the rise and fall of the Third Reich.” It implies, he writes, “a perception that Riefenstahl’s critics have failed to elicit from the filmmaker herself: namely that the warrior order she celebrated at Nuremberg would ultimately condemn her and those who would consider her post-Triumph films as a model.”18 But as a response to Nazism, Christopher Saunders argues the story is “too clichéd to carry such a burden: its simplistic dramaturgy could make a Marxist parable (peasants vs. evil landowner), a Western (ranchers vs. homesteaders) or a Nazi evocation of Blut und Boden (pure, rural volk vs. bourgeois decadence) with equal validity.” More likely, he adds, Tiefland “tries to recapture lost innocence.”19 For Riefenstahl, though, any semblance of innocence would be swiftly countered, and the film would be forever marred by appalling realities that far outweighed its cinematic merits.
The second controversy surrounding Tiefland came when it was revealed Riefenstahl had used inmates from nearby internment camps as extras in the film, intending to give the picture a more authentic look in terms of its depicted populace. After filming, many of the children and adults were sent to their death, and Riefenstahl’s dubious claims about their selection and ultimate survival arose during intense legal battles and again when she issued an apology just before her death decades later. Quite simply, as Bach points out, her spurious claims about not knowing what the camps were intended for or their condition seem unlikely coming from someone as obsessive as Riefenstahl.20 At the same time, though it is a paltry excuse, Salkeld makes the case that as “grotesque as the idea seems now, [Riefenstahl] was not alone in employing internees from labour camps for the crowd scenes in moving pictures.”21 In any event, it’s impossible to shake the knowledge of who appears in the film — for whatever reason, however long, and to whatever degree — as well as what subsequently occurred after shooting wrapped. Despite the artistic quality of the crowd scenes, as Larry Benjamin rightly remarks, “they’re difficult to watch knowing the actors’ fate. It’s one thing to work independently within a system, quite another to deliberately take advantage of the benefits of that system’s worst aspects.”22
After the war, Riefenstahl was arrested by the Americans, was interrogated and released. But before she was able to complete post-production on Tiefland, she was again detained, this time by the French, who seized her money and property as well as the film’s negative. Following time spent under house arrest and in detention camps, Riefenstahl faced several years of legal scrutiny. She had never joined the Nazi Party, however, and was exonerated of all charges and declared a Mitlaufer – a “fellow traveller” or “sympathizer.” Years later, the existing and, according to Riefenstahl, damaged footage of Tiefland was returned. She edited and dubbed the remaining material and the film finally premiered in 1954. Despite efforts made by supporters like Jean Cocteau, who admired the film, insisted it be shown at the Cannes Film Festival (it screened out of competition), and hoped for a possible collaboration with his fellow filmmaker, it would be Riefenstahl’s last feature film.
What came out during the sundry trials and interviews were a breathtaking range of comments, renunciations, and fabrications, much of which left Riefenstahl’s detractors unconvinced of her guiltlessness before and during the war. Bach notes her “ability to define and redefine her past as circumstance or occasion required,”23 and a German intelligence report concludes that if her statements are sincere, “she has never grasped, and still does not grasp, the fact that she, by dedicating her life to art, has given expression to a gruesome regime and contributed to its glorification.”24 Others have generously described her recollections and assertions as confused, while still pointing out that her insistence on so much being out of her hands contradicts her own avowed control and organization. “Certain facts make it difficult to believe Riefenstahl could have been naive about the way of life around her,” writes Robert C. Schneider and William F. Stier, noting “her professional instincts and insights were extraordinary … her political skills were such that she was able to arrange personal meetings with Hitler” and “in order to attain her film production goals, she carefully worked the political structures of the German film industry and the Nazi Party.” Still, they add, “it would be presumptuous to accuse Riefenstahl of familiarity with the agenda and inner workings of the Nazis: No empirical evidence supports the accusation.”25 For her part, Riefenstahl said she often worked with, and supported, numerous Jews throughout her life, and she resented, “not unreasonably” writes Bach, “that others equally cooperative with Hitler’s regime came away unmolested by the press or the courts and had been working freely since the end of the war.”26
For many, regardless of the legality concerning what Riefenstahl did or didn’t do, there were ethical issues at play, a reflection on her character as much her complicity. Others, meanwhile, argue Riefenstahl’s condemned condition was a result, in part, of her gender. “Clearly,” Rainer Rother writes, her “case is also different from others simply because she was a woman. The way sexist prejudices were mobilized against her in the post-war reaction underlines the point.” “To that extent,” he states, “but only to that extent – it is true that Leni Riefenstahl received unjust treatment.”27 (original italics) Her success was in a man’s world, which led to distain and doubt amongst her peers, in the industry and within the Nazi Party, making her a thorny amalgam of emblematic feminist and Nazi enthusiast. Further illustrating the complexities of Riefenstahl’s case, Glenn B. Infield argues that “propaganda in itself is not a crime, nor is the creator of propaganda considered an outcast under normal circumstances.”28 But, he adds, Riefenstahl’s films “undoubtably helped establish Hitler and his party in the early years [and] her indirect collaboration in Hitler’s brutal polices puts her propaganda efforts in a separate category from the average propaganda film.”29
When the dust settled (momentarily), Riefenstahl was secluded for years and failed to receive the necessary support to continue her filmmaking. Planned projects routinely floundered, including a long-gestating adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea (intended to be her first colour feature), a ski film titled The Red Devils, and a proposed remake of The Blue Light. A film about the African slave trade, Black Cargo, was also futile, but that proposed effort did lead to another chapter in Riefenstahl life. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s “Green Hills of Africa” and the photographs of George Rodger, she began traveling to Africa and spent a considerable amount of time with the Nuba tribe in Sudan. Her pictures taken during this sojourn were sold, exhibited, and published in two collections, and her newfound recognition as an ethnographer and photographer partially rehabilitated her status as a premiere artist. This was followed by a final phase of her life, when she became one of the world’s oldest scuba divers (falsifying her age in order to do so), produced her last documentary, Impressions Under Water (2002), and published additional books of her aquatic photography.
Although her African and underwater photographs would seem to suggest a departure from the negative correlations of her filmmaking, Riefenstahl continued to face accusations stemming from her work in Germany. Perhaps most famously, Susan Sontag’s 1975 essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” argued for the inherent fascist aesthetics evident in essentially all of Riefenstahl’s work, from her mountain films to her photography. Although Sontag acknowledges Triumph of the Will and Olympia as “undoubtably superb films,” possibly “the two greatest documentaries ever made,”30 she maintains that the worship of nature, the accent on bodily aesthetics, and the emphasis on traditional values were intrinsic to the ideology of National Socialism. Siegfried Kracauer had also made similar claims, writing in hindsight but also as a contemporary critic who wrote about Riefenstahl’s films with “clear-eyed prescience,” according to Bach. He detected “a kind of heroic idealism” in Riefenstahl’s mountain films, “kindred to Nazi spirit.”31 Likewise, Paul Rotha commented that Riefenstahl’s “ardent fervour, her white-heat passion, her unqualified idolatry for Hitler and all Nazism stood for are indelible in her work … [Her films] could not possibly be disassociated from a passionate belief in National Socialism; they reeked of it.”32
Others were less convinced by such interpretations. Salkeld takes issues with Sontag’s factual errors and J. Hoberman writes that while the Bergfilm genre “has been seen as proto-fascist cinema” — a connection “not unfounded,” he adds — “in their day, Fanck’s films were admired for their athletic displays and sensational photography by left wing as well as right wing critics.”33 There were then those who encouraged, lauded, and roundly defended Riefenstahl. She was profiled in Vanity Fair, Triumph of the Will was named to Anthology Film Archives’ canon of “essential cinema,” and the Art Director’s Club of Germany awarded Riefenstahl a gold medal for the best photographic achievement of 1975. She photographed Mick Jagger and his wife as well as Las Vegas entertainers Siegfried & Roy and she was the guest of honour at the 1976 Olympic Games in Canada. The organizers of the Telluride Film Festival touted Riefenstahl in 1974 and in 1998, the director was a guest at Time Magazine’s seventy-fifth-anniversary celebration. Although these occasions rarely failed to elicit vehement disapproval, Bach writes that not even Riefenstahl’s harshest critics “denied her achievements; it was the power of her work that perpetuated opposition to it and kept it alive.”34
Many critics, scholars, and other filmmakers have in fact looked past Riefenstahl’s Nazi connections to focus solely on her accomplished filmmaking: John Simon called her “one of the supreme artists of the cinema”35; Mark Cousins writes that next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, she was “the most technically talented Western film maker of her era”36; and Pauline Kael called Triumph of the Will and Olympia “the two greatest films ever directed by a woman,”37 declaring Riefenstahl “one of the dozen or so creative geniuses who have ever worked in the film medium.”38 Documentarian John Grierson similarly wrote she was “one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, and certainly the greatest female filmmaker in history,”39 and Kevin Brownlow exulted Riefenstahl as “an artist of supreme sensitivity … Overwhelming. Brilliant. Exhausting.” Brownlow, Bach notes, also wrote “articles on her behalf denouncing the ‘insidious propaganda’ that kept her from working or blocked support.” “Art transcends the artist,” Brownlow proclaimed, “politics and art must never be confused.”40 Adopting a more middle-of-the-road view, Andrew Sarris remarked that “the problem with either a prosecution or a defence of Riefenstahl is that so much of the evidence has disappeared in the rubble of the Third Reich that we can never be quite sure whether Leni was Little Eva (as she claims) or Lucrezia Borgia (as Sontag suggests) or (more likely) an opportunistic artist who has been both immortalized and imprisoned by the horror of history.”41 Furthermore, Jürgen Trimborn writes that every discussion of Riefenstahl “has been limited either to automatically branding her persona non grata or unreflectively celebrating her as a great artist, a brilliant director not to be measured by normal human standards whose work must be considered from a more or less depoliticized standpoint.”42 And for Rother, it is “much more likely that Riefenstahl’s work is neither consistently fascist nor consistently magnificent.”43
What to make of these contrasting views, and Riefenstahl’s own vacillating remarks throughout her life? For one thing, they testify to the difficulties of evaluating the woman and her work. “If you believe her, she’s one kind of monster,” states Terence Rafferty, writing in the New York Times and quoted by Bach, “if you don’t she’s another.”44 Perhaps the best way to understand Riefenstahl’s motivations, if they’re not political as she repeatedly argued, are as more personal in nature. As a career-driven opportunist, Francine Prose states that when reading Bach’s biography on Riefenstahl or viewing Ray Müller’s documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993), “you sense that what drove her was neither fascist ideology nor German nationalism but an almost demonic personal and professional ambition.” Even though Riefenstahl said her biggest regret in life was meeting Hitler, one feels, as Prose observes, “she would have consorted with anyone, done anything that anyone asked her to do if she thought it might help her rise to become a more famous, successful, and powerful director.”45 Compared to her obstructive father and the skeptical Fanck, Rother writes that Riefenstahl found in Hitler and [Joseph] Goebbels, “patrons who recognized her abilities instead of doubting them. Perhaps it is no wonder that she was unable to resist them.”46 (Rother’s next heading in his text is, appropriately, “Overcompensation.”) Wieland also adds that after other artists fled Germany in fear, those who stayed behind and were willing to collaborate as necessary enjoyed an automatic artistic advantage: “There were now unprecedented opportunities for advancement.”47 Of Triumph of the Will in particular, Bach writes that Riefenstahl’s later disavows, “whatever degree of veracity they may contain,” “are as opportunistic as the making of the film. She sought sole credit for art and craft while rejecting to the end of her life all moral responsibility for content or consequence.”48 Moreover, Riefenstahl toned down the role of her financial benefactors and emphasized those who quarrelled with or doubted her (especially her almost exclusively male collaborators), making her the sometimes-contradictory auteur who acted against the odds to ensure her unique vision while also tempering the practicalities of her assignments.
So, is Leni Riefenstahl a “great director”? The response obviously varies widely between who is being asked and which Leni Riefenstahl is being discussed. She is, to be sure, a textbook test case for the division between the artist and their art, and according to Infield, the debate over Riefenstahl being “a tarnished film goddess or an innocent martyr because of her relations with Adolf Hitler is an attempt to establish the limits to which an artist can go without assuming responsibility for the effects of artistic achievement on the human race as a whole.”49 What can’t be denied is her sustained impact. For better or worse, few filmmakers (and still fewer female filmmakers) have created works of such complexity, divisiveness, and brilliance, films that have indeed transcended the medium itself. “The only thing that can be agreed upon,” Trimborn remarks, “is that although she is the most controversial director in the history of the cinema, she is also one of the most important film artists of the twentieth century.”50
Impressions Under Water (2002), also producer
Tiefland (Lowlands, 1954), also actress and producer
Olympia (1938), also producer
Day of Freedom (Tag der Freiheit, 1935), also producer
Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935), also producer
Victory of Faith (Sieg des Glaubens, 1933)
The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht, 1932), also actress and producer
Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (New York: Vintage Books, 2007)
Glenn B. Infield, Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976)
Leni Riefenstahl, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir (New York: Picador USA, 1992)
Rainer Rother, Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius (London and New York: Continuum, 2002)
Audrey Salkeld, A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl (London: Pimlico, 1997)
Jürgen Trimborn, Leni Riefenstahl: A Life (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2007)
Karen Wieland, Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives (New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2011)
- Karen Wieland, Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives (New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2011), p. 85. ↩
- Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), p. 71. ↩
- Wieland, p. 269. ↩
- Wieland, p. 284. ↩
- Bach, p. 140. ↩
- Bach, p. 90. ↩
- J. Hoberman, “Triumph of the Will: Fascist Rants and the Hollywood Response,” The New York Times, March 3, 2016. ↩
- Alan Marcus, “Reappraising Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will,” Film Studies, Issue 4 (Summer 2004). ↩
- Audrey Salkeld, A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl (London: Pimlico, 1997), p. 164 ↩
- Wieland, p. 311. ↩
- Judith Thurman, “Where There’s a Will: The Rise of Leni Riefenstahl,” The New Yorker, 2007. ↩
- Alex von Tunzelmann, “The shameful legacy of the Olympic Games,” The Guardian, 2012. ↩
- Nicholas Barber, “How Leni Riefenstahl shaped the way we see the Olympics,” BBC, 2016. ↩
- Wieland, p. 296. ↩
- Wieland, p. 325. ↩
- Wieland, p. 135. ↩
- Bach, p. 244. ↩
- Robert von Dassanowsky, “TIEFLAND – Film (Movie) Plot and Review” (Film Reference) ↩
- Christopher Saunders, “Leni Riefenstahl: Reclaiming Tiefland,” PopOptiq. ↩
- Bach, p. 203. ↩
- Salkeld, p. 268. ↩
- Larry Benjamin, “Leni Riefenstahl and Tiefland,” Medium, 2020. ↩
- Bach, p. 13. ↩
- Wieland, p. 414. ↩
- Robert C. Schneider and William F. Stier, “Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia: Brilliant Cinematography or Nazi Propaganda?” The Sport Journal. ↩
- Bach, p. 235. ↩
- Rainer Rother, Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), p. 122. ↩
- Glenn B. Infield, Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976), p. 231. ↩
- Infield, p. 233. ↩
- Bach, p. 270. ↩
- Bach, p. 36. ↩
- Rotha, p. 278. ↩
- J. Hoberman, “The Idolatry of Glaciers, Rocks and Leni Riefenstahl,” The New York Times, 2018. ↩
- Bach, p. 253. ↩
- Hoberman, 2016. ↩
- Mark Beré Peterson, “Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003),” Mark Beré Peterson: Myth, Folklore, Apothecary, Food Culture and Mental Health, 2021. ↩
- Richard Corliss, “That Old Feeling: Leni’s Triumph,” Time, 2002. ↩
- Steven Erlanger, “Still Making Films, Still Explaining the Hitler Connection,” The New York Times, 2002. ↩
- Bach, p. 254. ↩
- Bach, p. 278. ↩
- Bach, p. 271. ↩
- Jürgen Trimborn, Leni Riefenstahl: A Life (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2007), p. ix. ↩
- Rother, p. 181. ↩
- Bach, p. 290. ↩
- Francine Prose, “Leni Riefenstahl,” The Yale Review. ↩
- Rother, p. 11. ↩
- Wieland, p. 264. ↩
- Bach, p. 140. ↩
- Infield, p. 7. ↩
- Trimborn, p. viii. ↩