Riefenstahl, Leni (Vol. 16)
Leni Riefenstahl 1902–
(Born Helene Riefenstahl) German director, scriptwriter, actress, author, and photographer.
Riefenstahl is best known for Triumpf des Willens (Triumph of the Will), a documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Germany. More than a record of an event, Triumph of the Will is believed to be a masterpiece of propaganda that effectively persuaded many Germans to follow Hitler. Though her artistry is undeniable, Riefenstahl's alleged political affiliations handicapped her later career.
Riefenstahl was a student of director Arnold Fanck, the father of the German mountain cinema, and starred in several of his films. Her interest developed into a desire to make her own films, and Riefenstahl formed her own production company. She directed and starred in her first film, Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), the story of an ideal community versus a corrupted one—a theme that reemerged in her later works.
Hitler admired her work, and in 1934 approached her to make a film. The result, Triumph of the Will, is, according to Riefenstahl, "purely a historical film … a documentary." It is generally believed that Riefenstahl was more involved with the Nazi party and Hitler than she admits. Her next film, Olympiad, is considered by many to be an exceptional rendering of the 1936 Olympics, though some find it only a glorification of the Aryan ideal of physical perfection.
The end of World War II signalled the beginning of a long series of hardships for Riefenstahl, resulting from her affiliation with the Nazis. Only Tiefland (Lowlands), which Riefenstahl made before the war, was released after she became a figure of controversy. Various projects were started, then had to be abandoned. Undaunted, Riefenstahl traveled to Africa where, equipped with a small camera, she produced two books of photography. These books concerned critics because they view African tribesmen as idealized objects, an attitude reminiscent of Nazi ideology.
Riefenstahl presents an enigmatic figure in the history of the cinema. Although it is important to divorce the propagandist purposes to which her art was applied from the artistic quality of her work, it cannot be denied that Riefenstahl created works of sometimes frightening vision: frightening because the genius of her work lies in its emotive power, rather than its appeal to intellectual or humanistic ideals.
[Triumph of the Will] represents the complete transformation of reality, its complete absorption into the artificial structure of the [Nuremberg] Party Convention…. [The] Convention could evolve literally in a space and a time of its own; thanks to perfect manipulation [on the part of the Nazis], it became not so much a spontaneous demonstration as a gigantic extravaganza with nothing left to improvisation. This staged show, which channeled the psychic energies of hundreds of thousands of people, differed from the average monster spectacle only in that it pretended to be an expression of the people's real existence. (p. 300)
It was Hitler himself who commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to produce an artistically shaped film of the Party Convention. In her book on this film, she incidentally remarks: "The preparations for the Party Convention were made in concert with the preparations for the camera work." This illuminating statement reveals that the Convention was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but also as spectacular film propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl praises the readiness with which the Nazi leaders facilitated her task. Aspects open here as confusing as the series of reflected images in a mirror maze: from the real life of the people was built up a faked reality that was passed off as the genuine one; but this bastard reality, instead of being an end in itself, merely served as the set dressing for a film that was...
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[A] slight story, diffuse script, and [Riefenstahl's] sheer inexperience, could hardly have failed to make the final result anything but weak and insipid. Yet The Blue Light retains a powerfully atmospheric impact, and remains an intense, dedicated, unique screen poem, "a film of extraordinary beauty." An anonymous contemporary critic pin-pointed its great fault when he wrote "It is the cameraman's film, and therefore not a film at all." [Hans] Schneeberger met the natural beauties of the landscape with every artifice of careful composition, soft focus, time-lapse work (for the rising and setting of sun or moon) and coruscating filter-handling that gave rocks, trees, water, mist, sunshine, and peasant faces in close-up a magical effect…. All these intoxicating influences, whilst causing the tyro director to attempt the almost impossible task of making the film and taking the leading role, confirmed in her a tremendous ambition to be a film-maker of originality and power. (p. 12)
Leni Riefenstahl's first film for the Nazis was Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith—1933), celebrating the first Nazi Party Congress after Hitler came to power. A short, powerful, yet compared with later productions a modest piece of screen propaganda, it revealed in its maker great gifts in the realm of editing for maximum mass effect. (p. 14)
Rarely has any film commission been so faithfully executed [as Triumph...
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From the opening [of Triumph of the Will], a heavily mystical sequence of a lone airplane flying above a cloud bank and then dropping down to reveal the ancient spires of Nuremberg, to the final imposing shot of the massive swastika-clutching eagle, Miss Riefenstahl never allows a static moment. Triumph's greatness as a film, then, is because of this woman who, before our eyes, constructs a world out of nothing and imbues it with an essence of reality so authentic that many times we are forced to shake ourselves out of the visual trance her superb virtuoso editing style places us in, and staggeringly accept the truth that the world we see was built out of segments of film and a powerhouse of cinematic talent. (p. 23)
Marshall Lewis, "'Triumph of the Will'," in Film Comment (copyright © 1965 by Lorien Productions, Inc.; all rights reserved), Vol. III, No. 1, Winter, 1965, pp. 22-3.
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[Junta was, so The Blue Light] would like to tell us, a child of the secretive world of nature, a person who stands apart and beyond the world of reason and civilization that could corrupt the better world of nature. Riefenstahl sharply separates a romantic, intuitive, nature-bound existence (glorified with all possible camera lyricism) from a more urban, civilized way of life that, of itself, smacks of decadence. And the mystical cult of a nature-mountain world is contrasted with profane, "plain" reason, the former being rather more holy, prior and predestined….
[In Triumph of the Will] she succeeded in bringing to the screen the pomp of Naziism as a splendiferous and sacred spectacle. Above all, the film bestowed an aura of holy consecration on the personage of Der Führer. As the film opens, Hitler is likened to an Olympian god in a plane settling to earth through the clouds. The film suggests that the earth is awaiting its redemption, embodied in Hitler. The cameras … revel in ever-new, grandiose settings and in masses of people manipulated by dictatorial power. The dehumanizing that typified Nazi theatrics was stylized with great camera technique and formal pomp into a mendacious aesthetically embellished mystique….
Leni Riefenstahl's films about the Olympia Games, Fest Der Volker (Festival of the People) and Fest Der Schonheit (Festival of Beauty) are, even in their...
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I knew that in all of my films, whatever they were, whether it concerned Triumph of the Will, Olympia or Tiefland, there was … yes: let us say purity. Yunta [in The Blue Light] was a young girl, intact and innocent, whom fear made retract at any contact with reality, with matter, with sex; and, later, in Tiefland, the character of Martha was nearly the same. But I didn't know this. I was searching. When I got somewhere, it was unconsciously.
I only know that I have a great love for beauty. The form taken by beauty, and not only its exterior form but its interior form. I only know how happy it makes me when I meet good men, simple men. But it repulses me so much to find myself faced with false men that it is a thing to which I have never been able to give artistic form. (p. 389)
[Triumph of the Will] is purely historical. I state precisely: it is film-verite. It reflects the truth that was then, in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary. Not a propaganda film. Oh! I know very well what propaganda is. That consists of recreating certain events in order to illustrate a thesis or, in the face of certain events, to let one thing go in order to accentuate another. I found myself, me, at the heart of an event which was the reality of a certain time and a certain place. My film is composed of what stemmed from that. (pp. 392-93)
[We are now] able to consider...
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ROGER MANVELL and HEINRICH FRAENKEL
[Riefenstahl] lifts what would have been a dreary parade of rhetoric, marches, and mass spectacle into an evocation of what Hitler meant to her personally and to the German people, and it is this emotionalism which is conveyed through the whole tempo of [Triumph of the Will], with its rhythmic cutting, its carefully contrived sequences binding the ancient traditions of Germany (seen in the architecture of Nuremberg, for example) with the near-deification of Hitler as he is received by the assembled masses of his supporters. (p. 78)
Triumph of the Will remains a kind of spectacular curiosity, a mine of source material for the study of Hitler and the organization of the Nazi rallies, a social and psychological phenomenon reflecting all the emotional naiveté with which the German people responded to Hitler's nationalistic dictatorship during its initial stages. But Olympiad remains a monumental study in athletics, an unequalled record in its own right well over thirty years since its first release. The opening twenty minutes are brilliant as propaganda, either conscious or unconscious; the international tradition of the Olympic Games is exploited to create a grand climax with the arrival of the flame in Hitler's Germany…. (pp. 96-7)
Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, "The Film in Nazi Germany-ii," in their The German Cinema (© 1971 by Roger Manvell and Heinrich...
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Triumph of the Will did come to surpass Potemkin as the ultimate in cinema propaganda. This is for one essential reason: Triumph is a true documentary, completely made up of "actual" footage—the ultimate in incontrovertible credibility. The wonderful paradox here is that under any conditions but this absolute reportorial truth, the propaganda itself would be quite incredible….
Riefenstahl creates a unique cinema: a cinema which transfigures "real life" while apparently recording it; which is essentially avantgarde while ostensibly conventional; which, in short, is dedicated to the creation of grand and ultimate illusion. (p. 162)
Triumph of the Will is structured straightforwardly enough, in the most literal documentary narrative tradition, events proceeding according to strict chronological order…. To the events themselves nothing is added (except some music), and apparently nothing left out save for purposes of economy. Yet Riefenstahl transfigures all, and this by the unobtrusive manipulation of standard cinema devices: camera set-ups and movement, editing, dissolves.
With these devices the basic images or motifs are varied, orchestrated. These motifs are: ancient things (buildings, statues, icons); the sky; clouds (or smoke); fire; the swastika; marching, the masses; Hitler. The central theme which they develop is that Hitler has come from the sky to kindle...
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Richard Meran Barsam
Riefenstahl was critically praised for writing, producing, and directing [The Blue Light], but her real fulfillment came from playing the role of the young woman who has no contact with the real world and who is, therefore, destroyed by it. This unhappy story expresses Rienfenstahl's belief that the artist must, at all costs, remain independent of the material world. In her own life, she has achieved artistic freedom, but at a great cost. Like Junta, she had her own intuitive feelings about nature and was destroyed by her naive disregard of the real world around her, the world she set out to avoid. (p. 9)
[Day of Freedom-Our Armed Forces (Tagder Freiheit-Unsere Wehrmacht), a beautifully photographed and edited film,] vaguely resembles Triumph of the Will, but it is little more than a skillful assemblage of factual footage and lacks any of the thematic or psychological interest of its famous predecessor. (p. 15)
Triumph of the Will is surprisingly free of reference to the specific evils which we associate with the Nazi doctrine…. Nonetheless, the film is a visual, sensual, kinetic, and cinematic marvel. In short, Triumph of the Will, like Birth of a Nation, embodies an overwhelming contradiction: it is cinematically dazzling and ideologically vicious. (pp. 17-18)
Tiefland [is] a romantic tale of poor peasants who rebel their oppresive landlords. Their...
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Paul D. Zimmerman
"The People of Kau" reflects a perfect marriage of artist and subject. The villagers seem to have built their village to suit Riefenstahl's specifications for scope and primitive mystery, their jumble of thatched towers rising from the rocks like magical mushrooms. The glistening, perfectly sculpted bodies satisfy her appetite for the sensual and the ideal. Perhaps not even a dreamer like Riefenstahl could have imagined the astonishing masking rituals that the warriors perform. Once, sometimes twice a day, out of a basically esthetic impulse, they paint their faces, transforming them into stunning abstract canvases…. Riefenstahl captures them like so many primitive Picassos, luminous against beautifully controlled backgrounds of remarkable depth.
Riefenstahl has also used her Leicas to document the stoicism of the Kau tattooing rituals, the bloody ballets of the gladiators and the sexual frenzy of the mating dances. But her interest is not really anthropological. There is no "family of man" here, no records of domestic intimacy, education or daily work. She is striving, instead, for heroic images—Africans transformed into idealized forms, heraldic figures, emblems of triumph and sacrifice. As a result, many critics have seen her African books as analogous to her Nazi propaganda films….
[Riefenstahl's first film] "The Blue Light," dramatizes beautiful protagonists engaged in a heroic struggle against a mountain...
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David B. Hinton
[In] The Blue Light, Riefenstahl not only shifted from Fanck's realistic treatment of nature to a fantasized version; she also introduced the evil nature of man as a counter-force to the purity of nature. The mysterious blue light that appears on the mountain top is an idealized beauty; it becomes deadly only because of man's curiosity and greed. The mountain girl Junta, as an outcast from the village, represents the pure, trusting nature of man. The villagers are distrustful and hateful and persecute Junta because they do not understand her. Since the Nazis revered the villages as the cornerstone of their concept of the Volksgemeinschaft, Junta emerges as a rejection of that concept. Her purity is obtained not through living in society (or the Volksgemeinschaft), but through living outside it and away from its corruptions. Consequently, Junta is not the Savior or Messiah figure that Siegfried Kracauer always associates with Hitler in German films, but a martyr who suffers Christ-like persecution (rather than Hitlerian worship) by being stoned by a mob of the villagers. If there is a Hitler figure in the film, it is the Viennese painter (an interesting coincidence) who mistakenly believes that he is saving the village by removing the crystals, when the real result is to destroy one of nature's beauties and cause the death of Junta. In this sense, The Blue Light is a warning against Hitler, not a preparation for him. (p. 23)...
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