Leni Riefenstahl Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Siegfried Kracauer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 866 words.)

David Gunston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Marshall Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Ulrich Gregor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

Leni Riefenstahl

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 611 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Ken Kelman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

Richard Meran Barsam

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2265 words.)

Paul D. Zimmerman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 329 words.)

David B. Hinton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 2076 words.)