Leni Riefenstahl

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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

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[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...

(This entire section contains 866 words.)

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itself, merely served as the set dressing for a film that was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary.Triumph of the Will is undoubtedly the film of the Reich's Party Convention; however, the Convention itself had also been staged to produce Triumph of the Will, for the purpose of resurrecting the ecstasy of the people through it. (p. 301)

Leni Riefenstahl made a film that not only illustrates the Convention to the full, but succeeds in disclosing its whole significance. The cameras incessantly scan faces, uniforms, arms and again faces, and each of these close-ups offers evidence of the thoroughness with which the metamorphosis of reality was achieved…. These particular close shots … seem to assume the function of removing things and events from their own environment into strange and unknown space. The dimensions of that space, however, remain entirely undefined. It is not without symbolic meaning that the features of Hitler often appear before clouds.

To substantiate this transfiguration of reality, Triumph of the Will indulges in emphasizing endless movement. The nervous life of the flames is played upon; the overwhelming effects of a multitude of advancing banners or standards are systematically explored. Movement produced by cinematic techniques sustains that of the objects. There is a constant panning, traveling, tilting up and down—so that spectators not only see passing a feverish world, but feel themselves uprooted in it. The ubiquitous camera forces them to go by way of the most fantastic routes, and editing helps drive them on…. [Here] total movement seems to have devoured the substance, and life exists only in a state of transition.

The film also includes pictures of the mass ornaments into which this transported life was pressed at the Convention. Mass ornaments they appeared to Hitler and his staff, who must have appreciated them as configurations symbolizing the readiness of the masses to be shaped and used at will by their leaders. The emphasis on these living ornaments can be traced to the intention of captivating the spectator with their aesthetic qualities and leading him to believe in the solidity of the swastika world…. Triumph of the Will not only explores the officially fabricated mass-ornaments, but draws on all those discovered by the wandering cameras: among them such impressive tableaux vivants as the two rows of raised arms that converge upon Hitler's car while it slowly passes between them; the bird's-eye view of the innumerable tents of the Hitler Youth; the ornamental pattern composed by torchlights sparkling through a huge cloth banner in the foreground. Vaguely reminiscent of abstract paintings, these shots reveal the propagandistic functions pure forms may assume.

The deep feeling of uneasiness Triumph of the Will arouses in unbiased minds originates in the fact that before our eyes palpable life becomes an apparition—a fact the more disquieting as this transformation affected the vital existence of a people…. This film represents an inextricable mixture of a show simulating German reality and of German reality maneuvered into a show. Only a nihilistic-minded power that disregarded all traditional human values could so unhesitatingly manipulate the bodies and the souls of a whole people to conceal its own nihilism…. [The] Reich's eagle, frequently detailed in the film, always appears against the sky like Hitler himself—a symbol of a superior power used as a means of manipulation. Triumph of the Will is the triumph of a nihilistic will. And it is a frightening spectacle to see many an honest, unsuspecting youngster enthusiastically submit to his corruption, and long columns of exalted men march towards the barren realm of this will as though they themselves wanted to pass away. (pp. 301-03)

Siegfried Kracauer, "Conflict with Reality," in his From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (copyright 1947, © 1975 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1947, pp. 297-307.∗

David Gunston

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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 of the Will]. At this date, it is unnecessary to try to find anything fresh to say about this film which remains today both an historical document of the utmost importance, and an example of what screen propaganda can do, though it never did so before and probably will never do so again. Its tremendous impact can still arouse almost any audience: even those who profess to be profoundly bored with the whole thing are seldom reacting completely objectively, and must also admit to vague feelings of disquiet when the screening is over, the rantings and cheerings silenced, the banners and torches stilled. What can be stressed is the way it evolved naturally out of the mountain films, also how much the great [Nazi] Party Congress held at Nuremberg from September 4-10, 1934 was in fact a gigantic show staged for the making of this film. The use of cloud effects has already been mentioned; similarly the old houses and architectural details of the city of Nuremberg itself were used effectively in a way that had already been explored in The Blue Light…. We tend to forget,… that this Congress was "actually staged for the camera like some colossal Hollywood production," only more so. Kracauer's description of it as "an inextricable mixture of a show simulating German reality and of German reality manoeuvred into a show" is an apt one [see excerpt above]…. (pp. 14-15)

Two conclusions cannot escape anyone seeing Triumph of the Will: it could never have been made by anyone not fanatically at one with the events depicted, nor equally could it have been made by anyone not profoundly encompassed by the medium. (p. 15)

David Gunston, "Leni Riefenstahl," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1960 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XIV, No. 1, Fall, 1960, pp. 4-19.

Marshall Lewis

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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.

Ulrich Gregor

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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 purified versions that evade mention of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, still outspokenly fascistic in spirit. The films celebrate sport as an heroic, superhuman feat, a kind of ritual. This is especially apparent in the narration, which constantly resounds with words like "fight" and "conquest," and also in shots, for example, of marathon races through the forest that are stylized in Nordic mystery. Even Tiefland contains that demagogic contrast between the noble mountain people and the enchained, civilization-sick people of the city or lowlands…. These few illustrations should suffice to demonstrate the difficulty of separating Leni Riefenstahl's seemingly "unpolitical" films from her blatant propaganda works. Both emanate from a unified mind….

[Riefenstahl's films are] typical products of a fascist (or prefascist) mentality. (p. 25)

Ulrich Gregor, "A Comeback for Leni Riefenstahl?" in Film Comment (copyright © 1965 by Lorien Productions, Inc.; all rights reserved), Vol. III, No. 1, Winter, 1965, pp. 24-5.

Leni Riefenstahl

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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 the film with a purer eye and see it, as I said to you, as film-verite. From this point of view, the film had … such importance that it introduced a certain revolution in the style of newsreels, which were then filmed in a purely static fashion. I had sought to make a striking and moving film. A poetic and dynamic film. But it was while working on the film that I began to feel that I could do that. Previous to that I knew nothing at all about it. Everything came from the rhythm.

If you ask me today what is most important in a documentary film, what makes one see and feel, I believe I can say that there are two things. The first is the skeleton, the construction, briefly; the architecture. The architecture should have a very exact form, for the montage will only make sense and produce its effect when it is wedded, in some fashion, to the principle of this architecture. But that has no value as a general example, for one may also arrive at showing certain things in the opposite way, by making the montage and the architecture discordant. Can one explain everything? Perhaps these things basically come from a gift that one has or does not have….

The second is the sense of rhythm….

[The nature of the connection between the rhythm and the architecture is exemplified in Triumph of the Will.] I wanted to bring certain elements into the foreground and put certain others in the background. If things are all at the same level (because one has not known how to establish a hierarchy or chronology of forms) the film is doomed to failure from the start ("Kaput"). There must be movement. Controlled movement of successive highlight and retreat, in both the architecture of the things filmed and in that of the film. (p. 393)

Leni Riefenstahl, "Leni Riefenstahl" (1965), in an interview with Michel Delahaye, translated by Rose Kaplin, in Cahiers du Cinema in English (translation copyright © 1966), No. 5, 1966 (and reprinted in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967, pp. 387-402).


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[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 Fraenkel; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston and Roger Manvell), Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1971, pp. 75-98.

Ken Kelman

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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 ancient Nuremberg with primal Teutonic fire, to liberate the energy and spirit of the German people through a dynamic new movement with roots deep in their racial consciousness.

Riefenstahl's choice of motifs to repeat and emphasize is greatly facilitated by the staged nature of the events, in which most of these images were deliberately conceived to function "live". (p. 163)

Animation, that is the imparting of spirit or life to matter, is achieved by close-up and angle of vision. Most remarkable here is the episode of flags parading, in which there are the merest glimpses of those bearing them. Close-up plunges the viewer into the midst of flags that seem to move of themselves, and in longer shots the camera angle obscures any human presence. Again, "reality" becomes figurative, things move as if charged with supernatural power, with a will of their own, or more precisely, the will of Hitler….

[Hitler's] arrival on earth, the start of the film, is worthy of particular examination, being a statement of the key themes of Triumph, and an unusually inspired (even for Riefenstahl) development of them.

In the beginning all is without form and void. The documentary genre is maintained by making it clear we are in an airplane which is flying the Führer to Nuremberg. But the essential impact of the sequence is far, infinitely removed, from the merely reportorial…. The endless processions of clouds suggest both an eternal realm of the spirit and the primeval chaos out of which worlds are created. Soon the earth does emerge, born from the clouds. The ancient spires of Nuremberg are wrapped in mist like the afterbirth of the heavens. Hitler, the genius of the German renaissance, now nears the earth. The shadow or spirit of his airplane travels over the streets, touching the city, possessing it. The plane makes contact with the earth. The German people await their leader. The airplane door opens, there is mysterious, suspenseful emptiness. Crowds gape with expectation. Borne out of the heavens, Hitler now emerges, through the dark opening of his vessel, in the flesh.

Even in this most extravagant and romantic passage the technical bounds of "documentary" are never strained beyond the breaking point. The Führer's ministry on earth which follows—complete with speeches or sermons or prophecies, and vast throngs, titanic structures or miracles—never exceeds "correct" reportage. Thus Riefenstahl ultimately succeeds by virtue of her objective genre and material, combined with her intensely but subtly subjective vision, in creating perhaps the definitive cinematic obliteration of the division between fantasy and "reality". (p. 166)

Ken Kelman, "Propaganda as Vision—'Triumph of the Will'," in Film Culture (copyright 1973 by Film Culture), Nos. 56 & 57, Spring, 1973, pp. 162-66.

Richard Meran Barsam

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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 struggle, with its Marxist implications, is symbolized on one side by a two-legged werewolf (the landlord) and on the other by four-legged predators (the wolves who attack the peasants' sheep). Set in eighteenth century Spain, it is a rich costume drama, notable for the strength of its story and for Riefenstahl's direction…. (p. 18)

In Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl imposes her vision upon realistic footage to achieve a wholly unique form of nonfiction film: the propaganda documentary. (p. 27)

As Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler before her, Leni Riefenstahl gives artistic expression to an heroic conception of life…. The world of the Nazi leaders seems like Valhalla, a place apart, surrounded by clouds and mist, peopled by heroes, and ruled from above by gods. Much of the effectiveness of Riefenstahl's reinterpretation of German myth relies on the interplay of the heroic visual image and the heroic musical score. (pp. 27-8)

The slow, stately rhythm of the film is that of the imperial or religious procession. From beginning to end, we are aware of movement, a metaphor for progress. (p. 28)

[The] overall film is a triumph of organic unity. Themes are stated and restated, motifs are introduced and repeated, but all the individual elements of the film are subordinate to an overall structure which expresses and embodies the director's particular vision. All of the parts come together to create a whole, a crescendo of themes at the end, as the film moves from dawn to dawn, from air to earth, and back to air at the end. (p. 30)

In Triumph of the Will, the repeated use of the eagle, the swastika, and the "Horst Wessel" song both induces and helps to explain the emotional involvment of the leaders and their followers. (p. 32)

[There] is a discernible gap between the reality Riefenstahl records and the illusion she hopes to project. The myth … suggests that the Führer descends from the clouds, a region of light, and brings light with him; in turn, this light becomes energy in the food that he provides to fuel the activity of his men….

After the meal, the focus shifts from the men to boys in a rapid montage of youthful fun and games…. [It] effectively suggests that there is joy, fun, and friendship to be found in all aspects of communal activity, and in the life of the people under Hitler's rule. The sequence ends with a wipe-down, again a thematic and visual transition. In this instance, the visual transition also links groups of people—soldiers and peasants. Riefenstahl's intention,… is to demonstrate solidarity behind Hitler and the party. (p. 36)

The shift … from the specific entity of the troops to the larger symbolic whole of the party leadership is significant because it serves to reinforce the strong connection between abstract symbol of the party itself and the specific men who form its ranks and lead its movement…. It is at this point that Riefenstahl begins to flex the political muscle of the film, to show the official magnitude of Hitler's power, to transform personal magnetism into political leadership…. (p. 38)

Here Riefenstahl's dynamic montage gives way to static propaganda necessities as the mythic world of her film yields to the prosaic meeting in the vast congress hall. The speeches are vague, overblown, obligatory; like many political speeches, they reassure, confirm, and satisfy the listener rather than provoke him. (pp. 38-9)

[The] dark, smoky mystique of the SA rally reinforces the men's blood brotherhood and suggests their mythic origins in fire; in the next scene, a sunlit youth rally, the emphasis is on the same political idea—massed troops in support of the Führer—but the atmosphere is different. The boys are fresh and uninitiated; they know nothing of smoke, fire, or purges of disloyal members from their ranks. Here, as in many places in the film, Riefenstahl juxtaposes light with dark, leaders with troops, boys with men, peace with war, and the kinetic with the static. (pp. 46-7)

[At an outdoor rally,] Leni Riefenstahl returns to the main theme of her film: the deification of Adolf Hitler…. Here the people are reduced to architectural patterns, deprived of their individuality in favor of some larger communal ideal. This is accomplished through the use of flags, as if they were costumes, to cover the participants…. From this point on, Riefenstahl continues to develop the godlike presence that began with motif and music in the early moments of the film. Now the controlling images are the recurrent shots of the huge architectural eagle and swastika and, of course, the forest of flags. Now while the canvas is crowded to the borders with men, we are given a clear picture of only one of them; the rest are supporting characters, faceless and unidentified…. (pp. 49-50)

Maintaining the consistent growth of her principal theme, Riefenstahl has now advanced Hitler to yet a higher level. In his speech, he makes reference to the "lord who has created our nation"; through the theater and film of this spectacle, he has become that lord of creation. Now the early sequences of the film assume an added significance; here, Riefenstahl suggests that the Führer is the lord, that he has descended to walk among his people, to bring them food, and to receive their vows. He gives life to the individual German and to the whole state in an ever-expanding sense of wholeness. (pp. 51-2)

Riefenstahl controls [a sequence portraying a memorial service] with consummate artistry, juxtaposing the dead with the living, the past with the present, the men with their leader, and finally, the spiritual with the material. The flags are consecrated with the leader's personal touch, while the booming cannons remind us both of the dead and of the military strength of the living Nazi power. In the beginning, Hitler emerged as if from the clouds, so now he moves among his men as if he were a god. Riefenstahl has created as apotheosis—and the reverse of it, too—for Hitler has come down to his people as the living embodiment of their beliefs.

In Riefenstahl's mythic conception, Hitler resembles a Christ figure, and in this second visit to Nuremberg since assuming power, a "second coming," he brings food (an action parallel to Christ's turning water into wine), he raises the dead (Christ and Lazarus), he drives the moneychangers from the temple (the purge of the dissident SA men), and he delivers a sermon from the mount (the last major speech in which the "dark shadow" is contrasted to the remaining faithful forces, the metaphorical "light" of his world). In her adaptation of German myth, Riefenstahl shows that Hitler is a political hero to his people, and by appealing to the viewer's familiarity with German myth and music, she further suggests that he is a culture hero. (p. 57)

The film does not end on this mythic note, as artistic structure and symbolism might suggest. The source of the party strength is embodied in Hitler's will and gestures and symbols are effective in conveying that strength, but the true source of Nazi power lies in the artillery and the troops. For propaganda purposes, it is that strength which must be paraded before the public and the film audience. The film has characterized Hitler as the Nazi spiritual leader; all that remains is to chronicle the physical measure of that strength. (p. 58)

Triumph of the Will demonstrates the power of the rhythmic montage to provide multi-leveled impressions of each scene, no matter how minor. This retains the viewer's attention; moreover, it creates the excitement and anticipation which give the film its essence. Furthermore, this montage is appropriate editing for propaganda films because it forces the viewer to see and to feel exactly what the director wishes. No single scene in the film exemplifies this better than this lengthy parade of German military forces. (p. 59)

Thematically, the parade sequence confirms the idea that Germany is a massed, marching column of men. Cinematically, the montage cuts the uninterrupted wholeness of the parade into pieces and then reassembles them to produce an even larger concept of wholeness. The space and the subject are fixed—a single roadway and a parade of men; Riefenstahl manipulates and redeems that prosaic space and subject with the omniscience of multiple camera positions and the dynamics of her editing. In sequence after sequence, the troops march past the Führer; anticipation builds, not to relief, but only to more anticipation. (pp. 59-60)

Between the end of the previous scene and the end of this one, the focus of the film has shifted from Hitler, as spiritual leader, to Hitler as head of the military forces…. In the final scene, Riefenstahl returns to focus on Hitler as party leader; but the last scene is really the penultimate—or next to last—element in the structure of the film, for it leads us not to the conclusion but back to the beginning. Moreover, it provides a vital insight into the dynamic theory of personality on which the film is based. (p. 61)

The text and delivery of [his closing speech] give Hitler the opportunity to proclaim his own deity, and he exploits the opportunity with histrionic techniques ranging from waving arms, to pounding fists, to visionary stares and enraptured ranting. But Riefenstahl's close-up view is extraordinary, too, for it appears to contradict the carefully made portrait that she has been creating until now. Obviously such a contradiction does not derive from any conscious attempt on the filmmaker's part, but rather emerges from the reality of the moment itself…. In order to emphasize the text of the speech, Riefenstahl focuses directly on the speaker and does not build any montage to give the moment extra significance. As a result, Hitler does not appear as an aloof, detached figure, or a spiritual power, or a fearful military leader; instead, he appears as an excited politician carried away with himself. (pp. 63-4)

[This speech] seems notable not for its length or content, but for its hollow phrases and empty vision….

Riefenstahl does not dwell on this irony, but brings the film to its climax. (p. 64)

The final sequence is a return to a strong statement of unity and solidarity…. Here Riefenstahl returns to complete the theme of a German renaissance by suggesting a kind of spiritual resurrection through the Führer's leadership. The quest appears to be a slow, tedious one, requiring discipline, hard work, and a massed effort. Led by the spirit of their Führer, the men begin their quest; their goal—and the propaganda message of this film—is a triumph of the will. The cumulative effect of the film suggests that they will triumph over individuality, adversity, and disunity with the strength and determination of their will. Thus, the mass is related to the leader [and the quest to the goal] … and, with the titles, the film is completed. (p. 65)

Riefenstahl's art is to perceive the essence of a real situation and to transfer the form, content, and meaning of that essential moment to the screen. In short, she is a poet. Through her handling of myth, she extends the meaning of the immediate moment by enriching its cultural significance. In the history of world cinema, Triumph of the Will stands as Riefenstahl's brilliant fusion of prosaic film footage with her mythic vision of reality. (pp. 70-1)

Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will reminds us of Hitler's plans for creating a German renaissance through Nazi party unity and military strength. Unintentionally, it recalls our memories of a madman whose ideas of rebirth led to genocide. It reminds us of unspeakable evil, of the ghastly stillness that moves one now in the ruins of Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, Treblinka, and Belsen. It reminds us that man can be irrational, that people can follow false gods, and that it is all too humanly possible to make Hell seem like Heaven. The film does all of this and more, and yet it has another great power—cinematic power. The power and the paradox of Triumph of the Will is that it can repel us and attract us at the same time. (p. 72)

Richard Meran Barsam, in his Filmguide to "Triumph of the Will" (copyright © 1975 by Richard Meran Barsam), Indiana University Press, 1975, 82 p.

Paul D. Zimmerman

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"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 that is mystically Wagnerian. The film posits the vision of an ideal community and of a corrupted one. This same worship of beauty, strength, struggle and communal purity surely informs "Triumph of the Will" and the African books. This is not to say that "The People of Kau" is Fascist art per se. It does, however, signal the danger of an esthetic that ignores human complexities for a more primitive ethic—one that is fascinated by power rather than humanism, and therefore all the more ready to serve power.

Paul D. Zimmerman, "Leni's 'Triumph of the Will'," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 22, November 29, 1976, p. 72.

David B. Hinton

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[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)

Critics have often observed that the use of close-ups in the film is an insidious propaganda device. It has also been implied that these close-ups were staged to achieve the greatest effect. In reality, Riefenstahl [in Triumph of the Will] used telephoto lenses that were capable of putting in close-up one face out of a crowd at a distance of thirty to forty meters, which allowed her to record unnoticed the emotional reactions of members of the crowd. The fanaticism evident on the faces was already there, it was not created for the film. The medium should not be judged guilty merely because of what it records.

Riefenstahl does use close-ups for more than cinéma vérité. At the end of the sequence, close-ups are used in a consciously artistic rather than documentary style. Here, they are of the S.S. bodyguard, lined up outside of Hitler's hotel. In close-up, their faces appear to be those of statues rather than living beings; they are reminiscent of the heroic faces found on the statues of the favorite Nazi sculptor, Arno Breker. Like a sculptor using clay, Riefenstahl molds reality on film until it becomes more than reality, a technique that can best be described as "statues on film," and which recurs not only throughout Triumph of the Will, but will also become the major motif for the prologue of Olympia. (p. 42)

[Day of Freedom] is an unexciting film, and the viewer can see immediately that Riefenstahl was only fulfilling a commitment and not trying to make a cinema classic. Only the very beginning of the film is worthy of note. It opens with a shot of marching soldiers, obviously filmed in a set, marching through foggy darkness. Then a distorted wall, done in true expressionistic style … is shown, with a soldier standing in front of two windows in the wall. The dark silhouette of the soldier is shown looming against the sky. This staging is a significant departure from Riefenstahl's documentary style in Triumph of the Will, but is an indication of what was to come in the prologue of Olympia.

The rest of the film could have been taken directly from Triumph of the Will. As Riefenstahl herself admits, the style is identical. (p. 59)

The rest of the film is devoted to scenes of war maneuvers involving light artillery, machine guns, tanks, and smoke bombs, all performed under the watchful eyes of Hitler. The final shot of the film shows planes flying overhead in a swastika formation, which is then superimposed on a swastika flag.

What survives of the film is of little interest after the accomplishments of Triumph of the Will. The central part of the film, which Riefenstahl claims is the only interesting part, is a speech by Hitler, and it is missing from the surviving print. Day of Freedom is precisely what Riefenstahl admits it to be: a minor film made to satisfy the petty jealousies of German generals. (p. 60)

[Tiefland] is a beautiful and captivating film that expands on the work [Riefenstahl] started in The Blue Light. It also contains explicitly stated social comment, perhaps Riefenstahl's personal reaction to her earlier political naiveté. (p. 83)

The opening shot of Tiefland establishes its debt to the mountain film genre: sharp, craggy mountain peaks are shot against a cloud backdrop, with day-for-night photography setting the scene in the night time. (p. 86)

In filming Tiefland, Riefenstahl had several ideas in mind. One was to contrast the Hochland (highlands) and the Tiefland (lowlands), both as to their place in nature, and their effect on humans. The Tiefland cannot exist on its own; it is a dry and barren land without the water from the Hochland. The Hochland, unlike the Tiefland, has everything it needs, and for man is a paradise on earth because he can escape from his fellow man into the solitude of the mountains. The missing footage not only obscures these concepts but changes the ending of the film. When Sebastian dies and the camera goes into a close-up of his body, the missing footage showed raindrops slowly starting to fall into the palm of his hand. With the death of Sebastian, life returns to the low-lands. The few raindrops become a pouring rainfall, and succeeding shots depicted nature springing back to life, with water filling the irrigation ditches and life returning to the fields. (pp. 102-03)

Critically, Tiefland can best be examined by comparing it with her first film, The Blue Light. Both films concern themselves with the same problems, and Tiefland can be regarded as a more mature, more fully developed continuation of the ideas initiated in the first film.

In Tiefland, Riefenstahl continues to contrast, this time with more emphasis than in The Blue Light, the purity of life in the mountains with living in society in the lowlands. This contrast is a standard trait of the mountain film genre.

The Blue Light, however, was content to deal merely with human failings: the intolerance of the villagers toward Junta and their persecution of her. But in Tiefland, Riefenstahl goes further than human failings and examines the failings of society: a leader who ignores the pleas of his people, who forces them into suffering for his own benefit; the injustice of a feudal system that allows one man to divert communal water for his own needs; and the peasants' inability to redress their grievances within the established system. (p. 104)

Marta is more integrated into society than was Junta, who was a complete outsider. Instead of being Junta's symbol of purity and innocence, however, Marta is morally ambiguous. Although she lives a life of good intentions, her exposure to the evils of the world has affected her reactions to life. Thus she can never accept Sebastian even though he loves her and can promise her a comfortable life. Nor can she bring herself to trust the innocent and well-intentioned Pedro. The true Junta role in Tiefland is not Marta, but Pedro. In adding more psychological motivations to her characters than was evident in The Blue Light, Riefenstahl reverses the sexual roles. Rather than being like Junta, Marta is reminiscent of Matias, the Viennese painter. Both have good intentions, but both are nevertheless a part of society and possess its imperfections. And though Pedro lives in the mountains, apart from society like Junta, their reception by the people in the lowlands is different. Junta is feared and scorned by the villagers, but Pedro is only mocked and laughed at.

The conflicts in both films not only revolve around the imperfections of man and society, but around threats posed by nature. In The Blue Light, the threat is the mysterious blue light emanating from Mount Cristallo. It is a benevolent threat; it is only dangerous because man's curiosity has made it so. Its origins, however, are still in nature. The threat from nature in Tiefland is more plain: it is the lack of water in the lowlands, further complicated by Sebastian's refusal to share it. The threat in each film lies in nature, and a human being holds the key to the threat. And in each film, the human being who holds the key perishes through the actions of his fellow man: Junta in The Blue Light, and Sebastian in Tiefland. The major difference between the two films is in their endings. Tiefland ends happily with the uniting of Marta and Pedro, and their ascent into the mountains away from the lowlands. The Blue Light ends in tragedy, with the separation of the two lovers through the death of Junta. The Blue Light was a romanticized legend, and a tragic ending is in keeping with the atmosphere of the legend. But Tiefland, intended as social comment with no legendary basis, requires an ending that is proper to the theme of the film: the triumph of purity. (pp. 105-06)

[Riefenstahl hoped Penthesilea] would not be dependent merely on dialogue for its stylization and departure from reality. The movements and gestures of the actors were to be stylized as well, setting off their differences from modern man. Their clothing would be as simple and basic as possible, imitating the manner of Greek statues where the clothing merely drapes the body, serving to accentuate rather than to hide the contours of the human form.

Although Riefenstahl attempted to make a stand for the artistic use of monochromy in Tiefland, she was not theoretically opposed to the use of color and planned to film Penthesilea in color. But where most early color films used color as an attempt to heighten realism, Riefenstahl's intention was to use it as yet another device to set the film apart from reality. Color was to be sparsely rather than elaborately used, and she hoped to use subtle shades of color to create a hued, stone-like effect. She would apply the same experimentations in filters and emulsions to color that she had done in black and white.

Not a single scene was to be realistically photographed. Even the battle scenes were to be filmed in such a way that they appeared much like the ancient Greek bas-reliefs. They were to be filmed against a cloudless blue sky with a filter causing a greyish tone on the battlefield. It would be the reverse of the Olympia Prologue; instead of bringing statues to life, she would convert life into statues.

The most significant change in Riefenstahl's approach was her decision to stylize nature as well. She would not only use nature, as she had done in The Blue Light and Tiefland, but would add to it. (pp. 115-16)

Had Penthesilea been filmed, it would have been the first time that Riefenstahl tampered with nature before the filming; for her other films, the stylization was not through the sets, but through the photography and the editing. (p. 116)

[The] word "stylized," or, more precisely, "stylized reality," becomes the key to understanding Riefenstahl's approach to the cinema. Riefenstahl takes the material of reality: rocks, mountains, trees, people, and using this material shapes reality until it transcends itself. Camera placements, selection of settings, the use of varying emulsions, lights, and filters are her instruments of stylization….

Penthesilea also presents another important artistic concern found throughout Riefenstahl's films: the beauty of the human body, and the body's beauty enhanced through movement….

Indeed, all of Riefenstahl's films are dominated by two concerns: either the beauty of nature and physical surroundings, or the beauty of the human body, and, as a corollary, the beauty of the body in movement, either single (as in Olympia) or in mass (as in Triumph of the Will). (p. 117)

[In Penthesilea] The beauty of the bodies would again be emphasized through movement as well as appearance. Particularly in the battle scenes, which Riefenstahl envisioned as strange atmospheric events transpiring in whirling clouds of fog and dust, the bodies of the actors and actresses would assume their most heroic roles. (p. 118)

David B. Hinton, in his The Films of Leni Riefenstahl (copyright © 1978 by David B. Hinton), The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1978, 162 p.


Riefenstahl, Leni (Vol. 190)