Leni Riefenstahl

From New World Encyclopedia

Leni Riefenstahl
Birth name: Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl
Date of birth: August 22, 1902
Birth location: Berlin, Germany
Date of death: September 8, 2003

(age 101)

Death location: Pöcking, Germany

Helene Bertha Amalie "Leni" Riefenstahl (August 22, 1902 – September 8, 2003) was a German film director, dancer, and actress. She is widely noted for her aesthetics and advances in film technique. Most notable of all, she made what most critics regard as the greatest propaganda film ever made. That film, her most famous, was Triumph of the Will (in German Triumph des Willens), a film she regarded as purely a documentary film of the 1934 Nuremberg congress of the Nazi Party, but a film which was used by the Third Reich as a powerful propaganda instrument for Nazism and Adolf Hitler. The enormous skill, technique, and cinematic accomplishment used in making it retains its power to this day.

On account of that film, Leni Riefenstahl has been, and remains, controversial; indeed, she is almost certainly the most controversial figure in all of world cinema. The controversy is largely dependent on her enormous skill as cinematographer, film director, and film organizer; if she were a minor figure of limited talent she could be ignored. In the area of innovation and aesthetic achievement she may have been the greatest female film director of all world cinema. But her enormous skill and accomplishment was put to glamorizing and—whether she intended to do so or not—promoting the Nazis and Hitler. She was also known for ruthless ambition, idealized aesthetics, extreme egocentricity, and lying about her life, her situation, and what she had actually done and intended regarding the Nazis and their program. In those contrasts and contradictions lies the problem in understanding Leni Riefenstahl. It seems unlikely that a woman so knowledgeable, determined, and accomplished could have been so easily fooled by the Nazis, or the pure aesthetician and pure documentarian that she claimed to have been.

Because of Riefenstahl's social prominence in the Third Reich, including a personal acquaintance with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, Leni Riefenstahl's film career ended after Germany's defeat in World War II, when she was arrested but not found guilty of war crimes.[1]

Riefenstahl's place in film history

Riefenstahl is renowned in film history for developing new aesthetics in film, especially in relation to nude bodies. Some commentators, especially Susan Sontag and others, have claimed that Riefenstahl hewed to and expressed a "fascist aesthetic" in all her work, including the still pictures of the Nuba. While the propaganda value of her early films repels many, their aesthetics are cited by many filmmakers and film critics as groundbreaking.

Rejected by the film industry after World War II, she later published her still photography of Nuba tribes in Africa and continued to make films of marine life.

Summing up the decades of "punishment" and opprobrium that Riefenstahl endured because of Triumph of the Will, film critic and historian Richard Corliss stated in a 1993 TIME magazine article:

There are several reasons [for her "punishment" and mistreatment]…one is that Triumph is just too good a movie, too potent, too mesmerizing. Another is that her visual style—heroic, sensuous…—was never in critical fashion. Finally, she was a woman, a beautiful woman.

Dancer and actress

Riefenstahl was born in the working class suburb of Wedding, in Berlin. Riefenstahl began her career as a self-styled and well-known interpretive dancer. (In a 2002 interview, she said dancing made her truly happy.) After injuring her knee while performing in Prague, she attended a viewing of a nature film about mountains and became fascinated with the possibilities of the medium. She went to the Alps to find the film's director, Arnold Fanck, intending to become the leading lady in his his next project. Riefenstahl found the star of Fanck's films, who wrote to the director and informed him of Riefenstahl's intentions. Riefenstahl went on to star in a number of Fanck's Mountain films (bergfilme), presenting herself as an athletic and adventurous young woman with suggestive appeal. Riefenstahl's career as an actor in silent films was prolific, and she became highly regarded by directors and publicly popular with German film-goers. Her last acting role before moving to directing was in the 1933 film, SOS Eisberg (U.S. title, SOS Iceberg).

Riefenstahl brought a perfectionism to filmmaking that enabled her to produce exceptionally polished movies, culminating in her final works in National Socialist Germany. Her main interest at first was in fictional films. When presented with her first opportunity to write and direct, Das Blaue Licht, in 1932, she took it. Breaking from her mentor's style of setting realistic stories in "fairy tale" mountain settings, Riefenstahl wrote Das Blaue Licht as a romantic, mystical tale which she viewed as more fitting to the terrain.[2]

Propaganda film

Riefenstahl heard Adolf Hitler speak at a rally in 1932, and was mesmerized by his powers as a public speaker. Upon meeting Riefenstahl, Hitler, himself a frustrated artist, saw the chance to hire a visionary who could create the image of a strong, proud Wagnerian Germany radiating beauty, power, strength, and defiance, an image he could sell to the world. During a personal meeting, he asked Riefenstahl to make a documentary and, in 1933, she directed the short film, Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), an hour-long piece about the National Socialist party rally at Nuremberg in 1933 (released on DVD in 2003). Riefenstahl decried the technique in this piece and didn't consider it to be adequately produced enough to be called a feature.

Reports vary as to whether Riefenstahl ever had a close relationship with Hitler; some have held that she was Hitler's mistress, but she adamantly denied that claim.[3] In any case, impressed with her work, he asked her to film the upcoming 1934 Party rally in Nuremberg.

After initially turning down the project because she did not want to make "a prescribed film," Riefenstahl began making another film titled Tiefland. She hired Walter Ruttmann to direct it in her place. When she fell ill, Tiefland was canceled. Upon her recovery, she reviewed Ruttmann's initial footage and found it to be terrible. She eventually relented to Hitler's pressure, and resumed her role as director of the film. She was given unlimited resources, camera crews, budget, complete artistic control, and final cut of the film.

Triumph of the Will was generally recognized as a masterful, epic, innovative work of documentary filmmaking. Because it was commissioned by the National Socialist party and used as propaganda, however, critics have said it is nearly impossible to separate the subject from the artist behind it. Triumph of the Will was a rousing success in Europe, but widely banned in the United States. The film is widely regarded as one of the most effective pieces of propaganda ever produced. However, in interviews for the 1993 film, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Reifenstahl herself adamantly denied a deliberate attempt to create pro-Nazi propaganda and stated that she was disgusted that Triumph of the Will was used in such a way.[4]

Triumph of the Will won many international awards as a ground-breaking example of filmmaking, including the gold medal in Venice, in 1935, and the gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris, in 1937. Leni Riefenstahl also made a lesser-known film about the German Wehrmacht, released in 1935 as Tag der Freiheit (Day of Freedom).

Olympic games film

In 1936, Riefenstahl qualified as an athlete to represent Germany in cross-country skiing for the 1936 Summer Olympics, but decided to film the event instead. She also went to Greece to film on the Games' original location. This material became Olympia, a film widely noted for its technical and aesthetic achievements, achievements that she had used to some extent in Triumph of the Will, where she had put cameras and cameramen on almost anything that moved. She put cameras at the top and bottom of the high jump to show the athletes in motion. She put cameras on boats to follow swimmers, and put cameras underwater to capture divers. She adopted the tracking shot and applied it to the documentary form, placing the camera on rails to follow the movement of the athletes.

Riefenstahl's achievements in the making of Olympia have proved to be a major influence in modern sports photography; everyone, including TV producers, photographs sports and Olympic events this way today, but she was the pioneer who made the innovations in camera placement and use and showed everyone who has followed her how to do it. She was also a masterful organizer, supervising as many as twenty three cameras and cameramen, giving them their assignments in a few minutes on the night before events, securing positions for them from the Olympic authorities, supervising digging holes and putting up riggings for the cameras, deciding which of the available cameras and lenses and film stock would be best for each use, and then spending two years editing the final result and writing the music herself for it.

World War II

During the Invasion of Poland (1939), Leni Riefenstahl was photographed wearing a Waffen-SS uniform and a pistol on her belt,[5] while accompanying German soldiers in Poland. On September 12, 1939, she was present in the town of Końskie during an execution of 30 civilians carried out in retaliation of an unspecified attack on German soldiers. According to her memoir, she tried to intervene but a furious German soldier held her at gun point and threatened to shoot her on the spot. Closeup photographs from that day survive, showing a distraught Leni. As a result of the events, Riefenstahl immediately went to meet Hitler, who at that time was in Zoppot (now Sopot, Poland) on the Baltic, watching the Battle of Hel.

In Zoppot, Riefenstahl used her personal influences to demand an audience with Adolf Hitler. However, by October 5, 1939, Leni Riefenstahl was already back in occupied Poland and filming Hitler's victory parade in Warsaw.

The History Channel, on its sister channel, History International, released a documentary entitled, Hitler's Women: Leni Riefenstahl. In it, the accusation is made that Riefenstahl was acutely aware that her films were propaganda. They point to evidence such as the fact that Hitler had a sit-down discussion between Riefenstahl and Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, at her personal German villa, to resolve differences the two were having which were causing strife in Hitler's early regime.

More interesting are the film clips of Riefenstahl dining with Goebbels and Himmler, and other top men of both the Brownshirt and SS branches of NSDAP, intercut with interviews with German historians and WWII scholars questioning how any one could appear at state dinners with top National Socialist officials (eating at the high table with them) and be completely unaware of what politics they were supporting. Furthering the connection, they cite the fact that Riefenstahl sent a celebratory telegram to Hitler after the successful military campaign in France, "Your deeds exceed the power of human imagination. They are without equal in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?"[6]

Lastly, they detail interviews with actual Gypsy survivors of the Holocaust, who refute Riefenstahl's claims that the concentration camp inmates she used for filming were not killed.[7] Reifenstahl herself, in interviews, claimed she wasn't aware of the nature of the internment camps.

Postwar accusations, professional disgrace

After World War II, she spent four years in a French detention camp. Her past was investigated by postwar authorities several times, but she was never convicted either for her alleged role as a propagandist or her use of concentration camp inmates in her films. In later interviews, Riefenstahl maintained that she was "fascinated" by the National Socialists but politically naïve and ignorant about the war crimes of which the Nazi officials were subsequently found guilty.

Postwar career, legacy, and personal life

Riefenstahl attempted to make films after the war, but each attempt was met with resistance, protests, sharp criticisms, and an inability to secure funding. In 1944, she married Peter Jacob, whom she later divorced, and in the 1960s began a lifelong companionship with Horst Kettner, who was forty years her junior. He remained with her until the end of her life.

She became a photographer and was later the first to photograph rock star Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca Jagger as a couple, holding hands after they were married, as they were both admirers. Jagger reportedly told Riefenstahl he had seen Triumph of the Will at least 15 times.

Riefenstahl developed an interest in the Nuba tribe in Sudan and lived among the Nuba for various periods. Her books with photographs of the tribe were published in 1974 and 1976. She survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan in 2000.

At age 80, Riefenstahl lied about her age to get certified for scuba diving and began to pursue underwater photography. She released a new film titled, Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an idealized documentary on life in the oceans, on her 100th birthday—August 22, 2002.


Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep on September 8 2003, at her home in Pöcking, Germany, a few weeks after her 101st birthday. She had been suffering from cancer. She was buried in the Ostfriedhof (Eastern Cemetery) in Munich.



  • Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit - Ein Film über moderne Körperkultur (Ways to Strength and Beauty, 1926)
  • Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926)
  • Der Große Sprung (The Great Leap, 1927)
  • Das Schicksal derer von Habsburg (The Destiny of the Habsburgs, 1928)
  • Die Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Pitz Palu, 1929)
  • Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storm Over Mont Blanc, 1930)
  • Der weiße Rausch – neue Wunder des Schneeschuhs (The White Ecstasy, 1931)
  • Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932)
  • SOS Eisberg (SOS Iceberg, 1933)
  • Olympia (Part 1 Festival of the Nations, 1938) (uncredited, as nude model in opening sequence)
  • Tiefland (Lowlands, 1954)


  • Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932)
  • Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith, 1933)
  • Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1934)
  • Tag der Freiheit - Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom, 1935)
  • Festliches Nürnberg (Festive Nuremberg, 1937)
  • Olympia (Part 1 known as Fest der Völker/Festival of the Nations, Part 2 as Fest der Schönheit/Festival of Beauty, 1938)
  • Tiefland (Lowlands, 1954)
  • Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions, 2002)



  • Leni Riefenstahl by Leni Riefenstahl, autobiography (Picador Reprint edition, 1995, ISBN 0-312-11926-7)
  • Coral Gardens by Leni Riefenstahl (Harpercollins 1st U.S. edition, 1978, ISBN 0-06-013591-3)

First editions (in German):

  • Kampf in Schnee und Eis (Leipzig, 1933)
  • Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitags-Films (München, 1935)
  • Schönheit im olympischen Kampf (Berlin, 1937)
  • Die Nuba (München, 1973)
  • Die Nuba von Kau (München, 1976)
  • Korallengärten (München, 1978)
  • Mein Afrika (München, 1982)
  • Memoiren (München, 1987)
  • Wunder unter Wasser (München, 1990)


  1. Ray Muller, Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl (Germany: Motion Picture, 1993).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Glenn B. Infield, Eva and Adolf (New York: Gosset and Dunlap, 1974).
  4. Interview with Leni Reifenstahl for Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl, Die/The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, 1993.
  5. Polityka, Ścinki Taśmy.
  6. University of Pennsylvania, Obituary. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  7. The Guardian, Gypsies' Fate Haunts Film Muse of Hitler. Retrieved April 23, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bach, Steven, Leni—The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. New York: Knopf, 2007.
  • Eby, Lloyd. "The Problem of Leni Riefenstahl." The World & I, 9:2 (Feb. 1994), 118-125.
  • Hinton, David B. The Films of Leni Riefenstahl. Scarecrow Press, 2000. ISBN 1-57886-009-1
  • Infield, Glenn B. Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess. Crowell, 1976. ISBN 0-690-01167-9
  • Muller, Ray. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Documentary film, 1994.
  • Riefenstahl, Leni. Leni Riefenstahl—A Memoir. St. Martin's Press, 1993. ISBN 0-312-09843-X
  • Rother, Rainer. Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius. Translated by Martin H. Bott. Continuum International Publishing Group reprint edition, 2003. ISBN 0-8264-7023-8
  • Salkeld, Audrey. A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl. 1996. ISBN 0-7126-7338-5
  • Taschen, Angelika. Leni Riefenstahl: Five Lives. 2000. ISBN 3-8228-6216-9
  • Trimborn, Jurgen, trans. Leni Riefenstahl: A Life. New York: Faber and Faber, 2007. ISBN 0374184933

External links

All links retrieved October 25, 2022.


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