Leni Riefenstahl 1902-2003
(Born Berta Helene Amalia Riefenstahl) German director, screenwriter, photographer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Riefenstahl's career through 2003. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Riefenstahl was one of the most visionary—and certainly most controversial—filmmakers of the early twentieth century. Her reputation, for better or worse, rests primarily on her cooperation with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party during World War II, resulting in the production of Triumph des Willens (1935; Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (1938), two documentaries which the Nazis used as tools of political propaganda. The lasting influence of her innovative filmmaking techniques on twentieth-century cinema is undisputed by filmmakers and scholars throughout the world, but the exact nature of her moral responsibility for so effectively promoting the cause of the twentieth century's most reviled fascist dictator remains a matter of heated debate. Robert Sklar, in an essay entitled “The Devil's Director,” summarized the significance of the continuing arguments surrounding Riefenstahl and her films, commenting that the director was at the center of “what may be the most significant controversy in the hundred year history of cinema: the question of a filmmaker's responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of political ideologies their work has glorified.”
Riefenstahl was born on August 22, 1902, in Berlin, Germany. During the early 1920s, she established herself as an exuberant and expressive modern dancer. In 1926, with her dancing career halted by a knee injury, Riefenstahl turned to acting and starred in a series of German “mountain” films, a popular genre of motion pictures that emphasized folk traditions and celebrated the pastoral simplicity of peasant life. She appeared in numerous films, including Der heilige Berg (1926; The Holy Mountain), Der grosse Sprung (1927; The Big Jump), and S.O.S. Eisberg (1932; S.O.S. Iceberg, among others. In 1931 Riefenstahl formed her own film production company, writing, directing, and starring in the mountain film Das blaue Licht (1932; The Blue Light). Hitler, who rose to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, was a longtime supporter of Riefenstahl's films, as he felt the emphasis on folk culture and natural landscapes supported his cause of German nationalism. Hitler asked Riefenstahl to film a documentary recording the 1934 rally of his National Socialist Party in Nuremberg. The result of this effort, Triumph of the Will, was internationally recognized as a tremendous cinematic achievement, for which Riefenstahl won the Gold Medallion award at the Paris World Exhibition. Pleased with this success, Hitler asked Riefenstahl to film a documentary of the 1936 International Olympics, which were being held in Berlin. With the release of the two-part Olympia in 1938, Riefenstahl was awarded the Gold Medal at the Venice Film Festival for her technical innovations and visually powerful documentary style. Riefenstahl, who met Hitler in 1932, remained a part of his social circle until shortly before his suicide in the final days of the war. During World War II, Riefenstahl declined an offer to serve as a documentary filmmaker of the war effort and worked instead on the filming of Tiefland (1954; The Lowlands), a dramatic movie adapted from the opera by Eugene d'Albert. Riefenstahl was married to a military officer in 1944, but the couple divorced in 1946. In the aftermath of World War II, Riefenstahl was arrested by French forces and spent several years in prison or under house arrest, during which she was tried on suspicion of being a Nazi collaborator. Although she was officially cleared of the charges, Riefenstahl spent the rest of her life protesting her innocence to the world and insisting that Triumph of the Will was not a propaganda film but merely an artistically filmed documentary of a historical event. Nonetheless, she was engaged in over fifty libel suits throughout the rest of her life, facing and countering ongoing charges regarding her associations with the Third Reich. The film she had begun during the war, Tiefland, was edited and released in 1954. With this exception, Riefenstahl's commercial film career ended after the war, as her association with Nazism caused her to be blacklisted by the movie industry. During the 1960s, Riefenstahl traveled to remote parts of the Sudan in Africa, where she photographed the Nuba tribe. The resulting pictures were later collected in Die Nuba: Menschen wie von einem andern Spern (1973; The Last of the Nuba). After 1968 she lived primarily in Berlin with her companion and film technician, Horst Kettner. In 1987 Riefenstahl published Memoiren (Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir), a work of over six hundred pages, describing in detail her personal friendship with Hitler and her experiences working in the German film industry. In the 1993 documentary Die Macht der Bilder; Leni Riefenstahl (The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl), director Ray Müller interweaves interviews with the ninety-one-year-old Riefenstahl with archival material concerning her life, work, and associations with Hitler and his inner circle. In 2002 Riefenstahl released a documentary on deep sea life titled Impressionen unter Wasser (Impressions under Water. Her 100th birthday was met with respectful tributes from several high-ranking German officials, as well as with yet another lawsuit regarding her use of gypsy concentration camp victims as extras during the filming of Tiefland. Riefenstahl died on September 8, 2003, at the age of 101.
Riefenstahl wrote, directed, and starred in two mountain films, The Blue Light and Tiefland, both embodying the traditional qualities of the genre in which Riefenstahl found such success as an actress. In The Blue Light, Riefenstahl plays Junta, an outcast girl who is the object of suspicion among the townspeople of a small village in the Dolomite mountains. The villagers regard her as a witch because she knows the secret of a mysterious blue light that emanates from the mountains every full moon and lures young men to their deaths. An artist vacationing in the village eventually learns that the source of the blue light is a cave, located high in the mountains, that is filled with crystals which reflect the light of the moon. In Tiefland, which is set in eighteenth-century Spain, Riefenstahl stars as a flamenco dancer abducted by an evil marquis who terrorizes her village. Her rescue comes in the form of a simple shepherd, with whom she escapes to the freedom of the mountains.
Despite the questions surrounding the subject matter of the documentary, film scholars have noted that many effective innovations in the genre of propaganda documentary filmmaking were first utilized in the filming and editing of Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl employed highly stylized cinematography and editing effects to create an image of Hitler as an almost godlike power, portraying the Nazi Party as a strong, disciplined body representing German national unity and superior military force. Riefenstahl's camera placements and movements were carefully coordinated with the various events structuring the rally, which took place over the course of a week in September 1934. With eighteen cameramen at her disposal, Riefenstahl was able to film the rally from every conceivable angle, distance, and range of movement. Triumph of the Will opens with Hitler's arrival at Nuremberg by airplane in a sequence that visually situates him as a god emerging from the heavens. Below him, columns of troops march along streets crowded with eager spectators anticipating Hitler's arrival. Images of Nazi flags and an eagle clasping a swastika in its claws reinforce the film's association of the Nazi Party with the power of Hitler and the unity of his followers. During Hitler's speeches, Riefenstahl visually emphasizes his position of power and authority with low-angle shots looking up at him from below as he speaks from a high podium. In one sequence, three cameramen on roller-skates circle around Hitler as he promenades through the crowd. In another, thousands of men carrying Nazi flags march in formation against a dramatic backdrop of enormous searchlights illuminating the night sky. Such images capture and exaggerate the grandeur of the rally and suggest the scale of the party's influence. Riefenstahl's masterful editing techniques and musical soundtrack account for the structure and rhythm of the film, manipulating degrees of intensity designed to arouse the viewer's emotions.
Riefenstahl's documentary of the 1936 Olympic games was released in two parts—Olympia Part One: Fest der Völker (Olympia Part One: Festival of the People) and Olympia Part Two: Fest der Schönheit (Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty). Through her unique cinematography and skillful use of musical soundtrack, Riefenstahl creates a vision of athletes in the act of physical exertion that emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of the athletic body. She opens Festival of the People by invoking associations of the ideal body with elements of ancient Greek mythology and culture. This opening sequence creates a visual link from the idealized bodies as represented in ancient Greek statues to the mythical perfection of the living bodies of Olympic athletes. Throughout both segments of Olympia, Riefenstahl draws attention to the graceful, dance-like movements of the athletes, while downplaying such elements as the drama of competition, the responses of the spectators, and the results of the games. Riefenstahl additionally avoids any specific reference to the national or individual identity of any given athlete. Riefenstahl does provide occasional views of Hitler in his spectator's seat, however, it is well known that Hitler was opposed to the Olympic games, because their emphasis on international harmony and multicultural excellence were at odds with his racist, nationalist ideology.
Before the advent of World War II, Triumph of the Will and Olympia enjoyed international critical acclaim for their innovative and engaging cinematography. After the war, however, all critical discussion of Riefenstahl's films, including her earlier mountain films, has revolved around the question of the significance of her association with the Third Reich. Susan Sontag's 1975 article “Fascinating Fascism” has largely defined the terms of most subsequent discussion of Riefenstahl's works. The essay concerns Riefenstahl's 1974 photography collection The Last of the Nuba, and Sontag argues that Riefenstahl's photos, though not directly functioning as Nazi propaganda, nonetheless express a “fascist aesthetic” in their representation of the human body. Sontag has identified three types of film directed by Riefenstahl—the mountain films, the Nazi propaganda films, and the Olympic documentaries—labelling them as Riefenstahl's “triptych of fascist visuals,” all of which are ultimately about “the triumph of power.” Sontag's concept of a “fascist aesthetic” has become the linchpin of ongoing critical debate surrounding Riefenstahl's oeuvre. Whether critics agree or disagree with Sontag's argument, most have addressed the question of whether or not Riefenstahl's work represents a “fascist aesthetic.” Though Triumph of the Will has been widely recognized as purely a work of propaganda, there has been some discussion regarding Riefenstahl's thematic intentions in Olympia. Peter Conrad, commenting on Riefenstahl's visual references to ancient Greece in Olympia, has observed that her ability to create mythological images from modern events underlies her contribution to the promotion of the Third Reich. Conrad has noted that, “Fascism was mythic politics and Riefenstahl became its indispensable myth-maker.” Despite claims that Riefenstahl's portrayal of the athletes in Olympia embodies Sontag's “fascist aesthetic,” many critics have argued that Olympia works in opposition to Nazi values, citing that Hitler himself rejected the games and that the film pays significant tribute to African American gold medalist sprinter Jesse Owens. Recent commentators have addressed the question of why Riefenstahl was so relentlessly maligned after the war, while most other Nazi propaganda filmmakers were able to find work in the post-war film industry and avoid ongoing criticism for their pre-war film productions. Feminist critics have argued that Riefenstahl's status as a woman filmmaker attracted her a degree of criticism for her pre-war work that her male counterparts were ultimately spared. Robert von Dassanowsky has asserted that, “[i]t is a fact that cannot be denied in even the most contrived arguments on talent, fame, and political favoritism that male directors, actors, and writers continued to work in postwar Germany and Europe, whereas the end of the Reich was also the career fade-out for many female cinema artists of equal popularity.” However, though some modern and feminist scholars have made attempts to redeem Riefenstahl's critical reputation, a large majority of critics have retained questions regarding Riefenstahl's moral culpability for her wartime associations. In fact, most of the commentary surrounding Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir has revolved around Riefenstahl's refusal to apologize or admit responsibility for her work with the Third Reich.