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.