Leni Riefenstahl is generally regarded as one of the most brilliant and controversial filmmakers in the history of cinema. Though she preferred fiction, in which she excelled as an actress, writer, and director, she will be forever linked to nonfiction on the strength of two classic documentaries—Triumph Des Willens (1935) / Triumph of the Will and Olympia (1938) / Olympia. Trained in classical ballet, Leni Riefenstahl displayed an early interest in and talent for the visual arts and music. She often choreographed her own dance routines, selected the music, and designed her costumes. An injury forced her to suspend dancing, and during recovery, she happened to see a film that changed her life. Berg des Schicksals (1924) / Mountain of Destiny, a film by Dr. Arnold Fanck, was shot in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy. The realistic setting, with images of angular rocks and clouds and alpine slopes, made such an impression that she boldly set out to meet the star of the film, Luis Trenker, and the director, Fanck, and to offer her services as an actress. The ploy worked, and soon Leni Riefenstahl was starring in mountain films herself. In the first such film, Der Heilige Berg (1926) / The Holy Mountain, Leni played the role of a dancer, Diotima, caught in a love triangle. She went on to star in other mountain films such as Der Grosse Sprung (1927) / The Great Leap, Die Weisse Hölle Vom Piz Palu (1929) / The White Hell of Pitz Palu, and Stürme Über Dem Montblanc (1930) / Storm over Mont Blanc, her first film with sound. The films required Riefenstahl to master mountain climbing, barefoot rock climbing, and to endure the hardships of freezing temperatures and blizzard-like conditions. All the while she was performing as an actress, Riefenstahl was studying and mastering the techniques of cinema.
By the time she directed her first film, the fairytale Das Blaue Licht (1932) / The Blue Light, Riefenstahl was already one of Germany’s best-known actresses. With her directing debut, she became world famous. The Blue Light, in which she produced, collaborated on the screenplay, starred in, directed, and edited, tells the story of Junta, a young mountain girl accused by nearby villagers of being a witch and causing the deaths of young men who perished in their attempts to climb Monte Cristallo on nights when a full moon cast a shimmering blue light over the mountain. Junta inadvertently allows her lover to discover the source of the blue light, a crystal grotto that villagers find out about and loot. Junta, believing she has been betrayed, leaps to her death. The Blue Light was filmed on location in the village of Ticino and the Dolomites. With a perfectionist’s eye, Riefenstahl calculated every lens setting and focal length prior to shooting, and even ordered a special lens and more sensitive film stock to achieve a night-like effect.
In 1932 Riefenstahl met Adolph Hitler, soon to be named Chancellor of Germany. The leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, or Nazis, Hitler was a spellbinding orator whose message of German nationalism and strength resonated with a population beset by unemployment and the still lingering humiliation of defeat in World War I. Like many Germans, Riefenstahl was attracted to the worldview that Hitler promoted. Hitler in turn admired Riefenstahl’s films, particularly The Holy Mountain and The Blue Light. In her autobiography she quotes Hitler as saying, “Once we come to power, you must make my films.” Despite an apolitical nature, Riefenstahl agreed to make a film about the annual party rally in Nuremberg. Hastily put together, the short film Sieg Des Glaubens (1933) / Victory of Faith, contained only seeds of what would become the next year the most famous propaganda film of all time, Triumph Des Willens (1935) / Triumph of the Will.
The timing of Triumph of the Will could not have been more important. Hitler had come to power in January 1933 and had begun immediately to suspend civil liberties and issue anti-Jewish degrees. In August of the following year, the president of Germany, the revered World War I leader Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, died, enabling Hitler to combine the office of chancellor and president. A few months before, in order to appease the military, Hitler had ordered a purge of his own party, assassinating the leader of the SA (Stürmabteilung) or brown shirts, Ernst Röhm. With the world press raising questions about Germany’s direction, and party stalwarts uneasy about their own fates, a film promoting party solidarity and German unity would be a public relations coup. On this score, Riefenstahl delivered a masterpiece of propaganda, a 114-minute film that would solidify Hitler’s role as Führer and forever brand Leni Riefenstahl as a Nazi sympathizer. Ostensibly, Triumph of the Will is an account of the Sixth National Socialist Party Rally held in Nuremberg in September of 1934. Financed and distributed by the German film studio UFA, whose largest shareholder, Alfred Hugenberg, was a supporter of Hitler, Triumph of the Will had a crew of 18 camerapersons. The documentary is chock-full of speeches, rallies, ceremonies, parades, and ritual. But it is made with such artistry and such an understanding of German values and needs that it rises above the typical propaganda film. Triumph begins with Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg as his plane descends from the clouds and glides above the spires of the ancient city. The mystical quality of the arrival is enhanced by the anticipation of the crowd, straining on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the Führer. After a motorcade into the city and a welcome rally, Riefenstahl changes the pace of the film, which she likens to the changes in the rhythm of a musical composition. The viewer sees Nuremberg at daybreak, still asleep, the absence of people a prelude to the activity that follows. The pace quickens as the camera captures a tent city of young soldiers and workers—shaving, cooking, playing games, and always smiling and laughing. Next, the viewer is treated to a folk parade in honor of the Führer. After inspecting a group of flag bearers, Hitler boards his open Mercedes limousine and, surrounded by other party leaders, disappears. Riefenstahl allows the camera to lose focus, thereby adding to the mysticism of the moment. For the opening of the Party Congress, Riefenstahl features short clips of speeches by Party leaders. Perhaps the most important of the Hitler speeches is his address to the SA. It is the only time Hitler refers to the purge several months before. “Men of the SA and the SS. A few months ago, a black shadow spread over the movement. Neither the SA, nor any other institution of the party, had anything to do with this shadow.” Ever mindful of the importance of symbols, Riefenstahl makes full use of them and the many symbolic acts carried out—a solemn wreath-laying ceremony, a flag consecration, parades of swastika flags, jack-booted SS troops marching in unison, and always, endless salutes and tributes to the Fürher. Nuremberg itself was filled with historic symbolism, its Imperial Castle and medieval walls a reminder of the first so-called Reich, The Holy Roman Empire. Music in Triumph was likewise symbolic. Scored by Herbert Windt, it made liberal use of the Party anthem, the Horst Wessel song, composed by an early martyr of the Nazi Party. Windt also included German folk music and German marches as well as music of Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner. The film premiered in Berlin in March 1935. After complaints by the German army that it had been slighted in Triumph, Riefenstahl agreed to make a short film of the next Party Conference, focusing on military maneuvers. The result was a 28-minute film, Tag Der Freiheit!—Unsere Wehrmacht!(1935) /Day of Freedom!—Our Armed Forces!.
Riefenstahl claimed that one of the most difficult aspects of making the Party films was working with the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. A notorious womanizer who worshipped Hitler and saw Riefenstahl as a rival for the Führer’s affections, Goebbels controlled the film industry during the Third Reich and resented competition from Riefenstahl, who at one point earned the unofficial title of “Film Expert to the National Socialist Party.” Throughout her life, Riefenstahl maintained that her relationship with Goebbels was anything but cordial, a result of Goebbels’ failure to interest her romantically. Nevertheless, in a 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, director Ray Müller confronted Riefenstahl with excerpts from Goebbels’ 1933 diary suggesting that he and Riefenstahl visited one another socially.
Some critics question whether Triumph was really a documentary. Siegfried Kracauer believed the rally was staged for the camera, though, in fact, Nazi Party rallies had been held in Nuremberg since 1927. David Hinton argued that editing Triumph in the chronological order in which events occurred was of little importance to Riefenstahl—that the guiding principle was a “deliberately conceived sense of rhythm.” Lotte Eisner and Susan Sontag condemned Riefenstahl as a pawn of Hitler. Despite the many criticisms of Triumph as pure propaganda—an ode to fascism or paean to Hitler—Richard Barsam said it fused art and politics and was “a masterful blend of the four basic elements of cinema—light, darkness, sound, and silence—but it is not just an achievement in cinematic form, for it has other essential elements—thematic, psychological, mythological, narrative, and visual interest—and it is in the working of these elements that Riefenstahl transcends the limitations of the documentary film and the propaganda film genres.”
Leni Riefenstahl’s other major contribution to documentary film was Olympia: Fest Der Völker and Olympia: Fest Der Shöenheit (1938)/ Olympia: Festival of the People and Olympia: Festival of Beauty, a two-part film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by Germany. The first great sports film ever made, it featured staged prologues, innovative camera techniques, and a fluid editing style that elevated it far above the typical sporting events film. Sanctioned by the International Olympics Committee as the official film of the 1936 Olympics, and financed ostensibly by the German film company, TOBIS, but in reality by the Nazi regime, Olympia begins with a reverential tribute to the origin of the games—ancient Greece. The camera tracks through smoky, silhouetted statues and ruins of ancient temples. Suddenly one of the statues is transformed into a human being—a discus thrower. A dance scene that includes Riefenstahl herself precedes the lighting of the Olympic torch and a symbolic journey from ancient Greece to modern Berlin. The first part of Olympia features the many track and field events. Riefenstahl always thought in terms of the most artistically composed shot, so for the pole-vaulting sequence, she had pits dug to capture the athletes catapulted across the sky. In slow motion, their graceful bodies seem to defy gravity. Throughout both parts of the film, Riefenstahl used balloons, dollies, catapults, telescopic lenses, any means she could employ to convey the pain and ecstasy of competition. For the diving competition, Riefenstahl used underwater cameras to follow the divers below as well as above the surface of the water. Perhaps the most famous sequence is the high diving competition in part two of Olympia. The sequence begins with a series of fast-paced dives that gradually become more silhouetted as the sky darkens. Projected in slow motion, the ballet-like acrobatics of the divers framed against a cloud-laced sky appear almost super human. In fact, one of the criticisms of Olympia is that Riefenstahl ’s seemingly cult-like obsession with beauty, particularly the beauty of the human body, reflected a fascist aesthetic consistent with the ideals of the Nazi Party. This argument is undermined, however, by the fact that the star of the 1936 Olympics was a Black athlete, Jesse Owens, who received prominent attention in the film and contradicted Nazi notions of a superior Aryan race. Olympia premiered in 1938 at the UFA-Palast am Zoo in Berlin and was later shown throughout Europe. It won numerous awards, including the Grand Prize at the International Film Festival in Venice. In 1956 American directors designated it one of the ten best films of all time.
In 1938 Riefenstahl traveled to the United States to promote Olympia, but her visit was marred by anti-Nazi sentiment that followed Germany’s Crystal Night, a night of terror in which Jewish synagogues, homes, and businesses were wrecked, burned, and looted, and more than 30,000 Jews were arrested. Hitler biographer John Toland noted: “The reaction from abroad was immediate and the acts of brutality were given an unforgettable name—inspired by the multitude of smashed windows—Crystal Night. On all sides Germany was assailed as a barbarous nation.” Despite a friendly visit in Chicago with automobile tycoon Henry Ford, the film world by and large shunned her. Gary Cooper cancelled an invitation to meet her, and Walt Disney declined an offer to screen Olympia. Later, he told the press he really didn’t know who Leni Riefenstahl was.
During World War II Riefenstahl served for a brief time as a war photographer and worked whenever possible on a feature film she directed and starred in, Tiefland/Tiefland (1954), begun in 1934 but not completed until after the war. At the close of World War II she was arrested by U.S. authorities and then released. The U.S. Army concluded that she may not have been aware of what went on in Nazi Germany and that her sin was one of omission, “which appears all the more serious due to the fact that she, more than any person, had the opportunity to get to the truth. She is a product of the moral corruption which characterizes the regime. But it would be false to picture her as an ambitious female who wanted to attain fame and wealth on the NSDAP bandwagon. She is certainly no fanatical National Socialist who had sold her soul to the regime. Admiration for Hitler had closed her eyes to all that his regime meant for Germany. His protecting hand insured her artistic activities—contrary to those of so many others. His hand offered protection from the political clutches, and built a dream-world for her in which she could live with ‘her art’…. 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.” The French military was less forgiving. Shortly after being released by the U.S. Army, Riefenstahl was arrested by French police and remained in custody until 1947. In 1949 she was officially de-nazified by a French tribunal. The Baden State Cammisariat classified her as a “fellow traveler.”
Eventually, most of the films that had been confiscated from her were returned, either by government or court action. Though she attempted to resume her career as a filmmaker, press coverage of her activities made financing impossible to obtain. Riefenstahl claimed that Jewish organizations and not the German government were to blame. In the 1950s and 1960s Riefenstahl began traveling to Africa, at first to make a film, but later to take still photographs of tribes in the southern Sudan. The result was her first book of still photographs, published in English as The Last of the Nuba (1974). About the same time, Riefenstahl learned to dive and became an accomplished underwater photographer, using both still and motion picture cameras. With her companion, Horst Kettner, she organized diving expeditions to the Red Sea, Honduras, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and elsewhere to capture the undersea world. In 1976 a second book of Africa photographs was published, The People of Kao, followed two years later by a book of underwater photographs, Coral Garden (1978). She wrote the text and composed the layout for a fourth book, Leni Riefenstahl’s Africa (1982). Her autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, was published in 1987, and another book of still photographs, Wonders under Water, in 1991. The last of her publications, Leni Riefenstahl: Five Lives, appeared in 2000. The “five lives” refers to her many careers—as a dancer, actress, director, photographer, and diver.
Born in Berlin, August 22, 1902. Showed an early interest in gymnastics, music, poetry, and dance. Finished schooling at the Kollmorgen Lyceum in Berlin in 1918, then attended the Grimm-Reiter Dance School and later the Jutta Klamt School and the dance school of Dresden. In 1923 she gave her first solo dance performance. In 1924 she met actor Luis Trenker and director Arnold Fanck and soon starred in her first film, The Holy Mountain. In 1932 she directed The Blue Light, followed by Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938). War photographer in 1939, worked intermittently on a feature film, Tiefland, completed in 1954. Arrested in 1945 and released in 1947. She made the first of many trips to Africa in 1956 and in 1973 passed a diving test. First of five books of still photographs published in 1973. She photographed the 1972 Olympics for the Sunday Times Magazine and was guest of honor at the summer Olympics in Montreal in 1976. In 1982 she was awarded a gold cup by the International Olympic Committee for Olympia. She died in 2003 at the age of 101.
1926 The Holy Mountain: actress
1929 The White Hell of Pitz Palu: actress
1930 Storm over Mont Blanc: actress
1932 The Blue Light: actress, director, editor
1933 Victory of Faith: director, editor
1933 SOS Iceberg: actress
1935 Triumph if the Will: director, editor
1935 Day of Freedom!—Our Armed Forces!: director, editor
1938 Olympia Part I: Festival of the People: director, editor
1938 Olympia Part II: Festival of Beauty: director, editor
1954 Tiefland: director, actress, editor
Barsam, Richard M., Film Guide to Triumph of the Will, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975
Berg-Pan, Renata, Leni Riefenstahl, Boston: Twayne publishers, 1980
Fanck, Arnold, Er führte Regie mit Gletschern, Stürem, Lawinen, Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1973
Ford, Charles, Leni Riefenstahl, Paris: La Table Ronde, 1978
Hinton, David B., The Films of Leni Riefenstahl, 3rd edition, Lanhan, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2000.
Hull, David Stewart, Film in the Third Reich, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.
Infield, Glen B., Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976.
Riefenstahl, Leni, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, New York: Picador USA, 1995.
Riefenstahl, Leni, Leni Riefenstahl: Five Lives, Cologne: Taschen, 2000.
Salkeld, Audrey, A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl, London: Pimlico, 1997.