Leni Riefenstahl Riefenstahl, Leni (Vol. 190) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

*Das blaue Licht [The Blue Light; director and screenwriter with Béla Balázs] (film) 1932

Sieg des Glaubens [Victory of Faith; director] (documentary film) 1933

Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht [Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces; director] (documentary film) 1935

Triumph des Willens [Triumph of the Will; director; screenwriter with Walter Ruttmann] (film) 1935

Olympia Part One: Fest der Völker [Olympia Part One: Festival of the People; director and screenwriter] (documentary film) 1938

Olympia Part Two: Fest der Schönheit [Olympia Part Two:...

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Susan Sontag (essay date 6 February 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” In Under the Sign of Saturn, pp. 73-105. New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1980.

[In the following essay, originally published in the February 6, 1975, edition of New York Review of Books, Sontag argues that Riefenstahl's The Last of the Nuba expresses a “fascist aesthetic” in its representation of the human body, which is further reflected in Riefenstahl's films.]


First Exhibit. Here is a book [The Last of the Nuba] of 126 splendid color photographs by Leni Riefenstahl, certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years. In...

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Eric Rentschler (essay date fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rentschler, Eric. “The Use and Abuse of Memory: New German Film and the Discourse of Bitburg.” New German Critique, no. 36 (fall 1985): 67-90.

[In the following essay, Rentschler examines the use of a popular German song in five different German films from different eras of German history, asserting that Riefenstahl's use of the song in Triumph of the Will represents an act of historical revisionism.]

From which authority does the president get briefed on World War II history? a) The Young Lions; b) Das Boot; c) Hogan's Heroes.

Correct answer: b) Das...

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Linda Schulte-Sasse (essay date spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic.” Cultural Critique, no. 19 (spring 1991): 123-48.

[In the following essay, Schulte-Sasse examines Riefenstahl's mountain films—Blue Light and Tiefland—in terms of the notion of a “fascist aesthetic.”]

In labeling a text “Nazi” or “fascist,” critics often restrict their criteria (to the extent these are articulated at all) to content-based motifs such as the valorization of a Führer or leader figure, the exaltation of nature, the glorification of the military and of death, or the negative portrayal of “racial” (especially...

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David B. Hinton (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hinton, David B. “The Blue Light and the Mountain Films.” In The Films of Leni Riefenstahl, Second Edition, pp. 1-24. London: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Hinton recounts Riefenstahl's emergence into the world of filmmaking—first as an actress and later as a director—and presents an overview of the preproduction history of Riefenstahl's directorial debut, The Blue Light.]

Although Leni Riefenstahl's directorial career did not begin until 1931 with her first feature film, The Blue Light, she had already been in films for more than five years. She began her film career as the star actress in the films of Dr. Arnold Fanck,...

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David B. Hinton (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hinton, David B. “The Nuremberg Trilogy.” In The Films of Leni Riefenstahl, Second Edition, pp. 25-62. London: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Hinton provides a detailed analysis of the structure, cinematography, and editing of Triumph of the Will, while offering additional commentary on Riefenstahl's short films Victory of Faith and Day of Freedom.]

The Blue Light brought Leni Riefenstahl to the attention of not only the international film world, but to someone whose admiration for her work would far outweigh the opinions of critics: Adolf Hitler. Known to be an insatiable moviegoer, Hitler saw and admired The Blue...

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Robert Sklar (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sklar, Robert. “The Devil's Director.” Cineaste 20, no. 3 (1993): 18-21.

[In the following essay, Sklar asserts that Riefenstahl's pretenses to artistic filmmaking are at the core of the ongoing controversy surrounding her work.]

The man who directed the first Nazi fiction feature, S. A. Man Brand (1933), found steady work as a filmmaker in postwar West Germany. The director of Baptism of Fire (1940), a documentary celebrating the Luftwaffe's aerial triumph over Poland, also made films after World War II. The man who directed the notoriously anti-Semitic Jud Süss (1940) twice went on trial after the war for crimes against humanity, but...

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Thomas Elsaesser (review date February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elsaesser, Thomas. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.” Sight and Sound 3, no. 2 (February 1993): 15-18.

[In the following review of The Sieve of Time, Elsaesser explores Riefenstahl's film career within the context of German cinema during the 1930s.]

Leni Riefenstahl at 90: photographed by Helmut Newton in a pair of rainbow-coloured leggings, stiletto heels, a fur-trim coat, leaning against a sports car parked on a gravelled driveway. The clash of associations, the campy bad taste, the sheer improbability of this apparition (fronting an interview with Riefenstahl in Vanity Fair, September 1992) is suitably disconcerting. Is this...

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Ella Leffland (review date 26 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Leffland, Ella. “The Life but Not the Times.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 September 1993): 13.

[In the following review, Leffland faults Riefenstahl for failing to question her own moral responsibilities regarding her role in Nazi Germany in Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir.]

In 1989, Leni Riefenstahl's memoir was about to be published by Doubleday when the book's editor and its translator received threatening phone calls and the project was dropped. Now, four years later. St. Martin's Press is bringing out the book [Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir] under the same editor. No translator is credited on the title page.

It is evident that...

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Penelope Mesic (review date 10 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mesic, Penelope. “Explanations, Accusations, No Regrets.” Chicago Tribune Books (10 October 1993): 6-7.

[In the following review, Mesic criticizes Riefenstahl for ignoring the moral and ethical questions surrounding her life and work in Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir.]

It is one of the more telling ironies of Nazism that Hitler, while envisioning a master race of supermen, surrounded himself with lumpen physiques and mediocre minds. The only real superman among Hitler's favorites was a woman. Her name was Leni Riefenstahl and there was nothing she couldn't do. Beautiful, educated and clever, she demonstrated artistic brilliance as a dancer and superb physical...

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Jeremy Murray-Brown (review date November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Murray-Brown, Jeremy. “Festival of Smoke.” New Criterion 12, no. 3 (November 1993): 74-8.

[In the following review, Murray-Brown asserts that the central interest of Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir lies in Riefenstahl's descriptions of her relationship with Adolf Hitler.]

Soon after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, an incident occurred in the town of Konskie in which a number of Poles were massacred by German soldiers in reprisal for Polish partisan attacks on Germans. Photographs were taken, one showing the bodies of the murdered Poles lying on the ground. Also present in Konskie that day was a uniformed woman in charge of a German...

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Robert von Dassanowsky (essay date May 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: von Dassanowsky, Robert. “‘Wherever You May Run, You Cannot Escape Him’: Leni Riefenstahl's Self-Reflection and Romantic Transcendence of Nazism in Tiefland.Camera Obscura, no. 35 (May 1995): 106-29.

[In the following essay, von Dassanowsky offers a critical reading of Riefenstahl's Tiefland within the context of feminist film theory, arguing that Tiefland expresses a pre-feminist consciousness and a rejection of Nazism.]

The discussion over the always-provocative topic of Leni Riefenstahl, tainted genius, has become topical to cinematic and cultural study yet again with the publication of Riefenstahl's autobiography in German in...

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Laurence Goldstein (review date fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldstein, Laurence. “The Spectacle of His Body.” Michigan Quarterly Review 34, no. 4 (fall 1995): 680-702.

[In the following review of Olympia, a book of photographic stills from Riefenstahl's film Olympia, Goldstein addresses the question of whether or not Riefenstahl's images from the 1936 Olympics are based on a “fascist aesthetic.”]

Olympia is a reprint of the 1937 volume Schönheit Im Olympischen Kampf (Beauty in the Olympic Struggle), a sequence of some 270 stills, or frame enlargements, from Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl's documentary of the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. The volume coincides with the...

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Victoria Alexander (essay date July-August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alexander, Victoria. “Adolph, Leni, and Jesse.” Films in Review 47, nos. 7-8 (July-August 1996): 76-7.

[In the following essay, Alexander discusses the significance of Riefenstahl's documentary Olympia to her career as a filmmaker.]

Actresses are always lamenting their lack of power in the film industry, citing salary inequity with male stars, superficial parts, and only one female studio head (Dawn Steele) championing their cause. Imagine what the situation was like for women in the film industry in the 1930's—and in Europe. Leni Riefenstahl was an actress and part-time filmmaker who was handpicked by Adolph Hitler to film the annual Nazi rally, a...

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Ruth Starkman (essay date winter 1997-1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Starkman, Ruth. “Mother of All Spectacles.” Film Quarterly 51, no. 2 (winter 1997-1998): 21-31.

[In the following essay, Starkman presents an overview of Riefenstahl's life and career and argues that The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, a documentary film directed by Ray Müller, expresses a sense of awe regarding Riefenstahl's status as both filmmaker and a charismatic personality.]

When Ray Müller, director of The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, attempts to film Riefenstahl walking and talking at the former UFA film studios in Babelsberg, Germany, she refuses and responds angrily, “Talk? As I'm walking? No! …...

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William Cook (essay date 11 February 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cook, William. “Shooting Hitler.” New Statesman 131, no. 4574 (11 February 2002): 40-1.

[In the following essay, Cook discusses Riefenstahl's deep sea documentary Impressions under Water and comments on the filmmaker's “arresting” career.]

This year, one of the world's most remarkable filmmakers marks her 100th birthday by releasing her first film in nearly 50 years. Impressions under Water is the result of a quarter-century of diving in the Indian Ocean, and it promises to be just as arresting as her directorial debut, The Blue Light, the mystical mountain movie she made 70 years ago. Yet Leni Riefenstahl will always be remembered...

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Susan Tegel (essay date 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tegel, Susan. “Leni Riefenstahl's ‘Gypsy Question.’” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 23, no. 1 (2003): 3-10.

[In the following essay, Tegel provides a factual account of the legal proceedings surrounding the question of Riefenstahl's use of gypsy concentration camp victims as extras in her film Tiefland.]

Leni Riefenstahl's 100th birthday celebrations on 22 August 2002 were marred by an announcement from the Frankfurt Prosecutor's Office. That day was chosen to make public the decision to launch a preliminary investigation into claims that she had denied the Holocaust. This was for comments she made about the fate of the Gypsy extras whom she used in her second and last feature film, Tiefland (The Lowlands). In an interview published in the colour supplement of the Frankfurter Rundschau on 27 April 2002 she had claimed: ‘After the war we have seen again all the Gypsies, who worked on Tiefland. Nothing has happened to a single one’1. In her memoirs, first published in 1987, she wrote that after the war she had ‘bumped into many of my Tiefland Gypsies’2. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2000 when asked what was the greatest lie perpetrated against her, she had replied: ‘That I was in a concentration camp and there engaged Gypsies for my film’. She even had letters from the Gypsies recalling that this had been ‘the greatest time of their lives’3. From ‘many’ to ‘all’ was a leap too far. ‘Few’ would have been more accurate and those few she is unlikely to have ‘bumped into’.

Tiefland (Riefenstahl Film, 1954) was Riefenstahl's second and last feature film. Set in Spain, it was based on Eugene d'Albert's eponymous opera of 1903. A favourite opera for Hitler, he first saw it as a young man in Vienna in 1908 and requested its performance for his official visit to the Vienna Staatsoper seven months after Anschluss4. This has led to recent speculation that the film may have been at Hitler's ‘suggestion’ or even his ‘wish’5. Herbert Windt, composer for Triumph of the Will, provided the music, based on motifs from the opera. Plans to film in Spain had to be abandoned once France was invaded. It was then, Riefenstahl claims in her memoirs, that she decided to use Gypsies, in the belief that their physiognomy closely resembled that of Spanish villagers6. Tiefland was a film she not only directed but, like Das blaue Licht, also scripted and starred in. Furthermore, she also danced, taking the role of Marta, a Gypsy-like character, and performing a woeful Flamenco. A mock Spanish village was built in Krün near Mittenwald in the Bavarian Alps. Shooting began in late summer 1940 and continued on and off for most of the war. Outdoor filming also took place in the Dolomites and briefly in 1943 in Spain itself. Indoor filming took place in Berlin and in 1944 in Prague. Sound synchronization was nearing completion as the war ended, while editing, re-editing and resynchronization continued after the war. The premiére finally took place in early 1954.

Shot in black and white, Tiefland was the third most expensive film produced during the Third Reich—the first and second both being in colour7. Goebbels, though not directly involved in the financing, complained about the cost, recording in December 1942 that a total of over five million has already been ‘frittered away’8. As a director, Riefenstahl was never an employee of a film company. She always had her own company though after 1933 she worked closely with the state. By a subterfuge, her Olympia company was funded by the state and once that film was completed she set up a production company in her own name, Riefenstahl-Film GmbH9. Funding for this most likely came from Hitler's Kulturfond, itself amongst other things the recipient of royalties for Mein Kampf10. Shortly before the outbreak of war Riefenstahl was in negotiations with Albert Speer about a giant studio to be built for her at the cost of the state, on land donated by the state, in Berlin-Dahlem, near to her home11. When Riefenstahl experienced difficulties with Tiefland in 1942, Martin Bormann, head of the party chancellery and ‘secretary to the Führer’, made it clear that no obstacle should be put in her way. He also thought it would do well financially.

As you know the founding and promotion of the Riefenstahl company was on the express orders of the Führer. The costs of the Tiefland film, which has been in production for two years is, on the Führer's instructions, to be administered by me12.

She enjoyed other financial benefits: foreign exchange, hard to come by during wartime, was made available to her when she filmed in the Italian Tyrol in 1940, 1941 and 1942, and in Spain in 194313.

In the released version, which is also now available on video and runs to 97 minutes, the extras appear in four (possibly five) sequences, approximately 6 minutes in total14. They came from two camps. At least 51 were taken came from Maxglan, a Gypsy internment camp or collection camp (Sammellager) on the outskirts of Salzburg which had been set up in the autumn of 1939 when many Gypsies were being rounded up. They were used for filming in Krün in the autumn of 1940 and again in the summer of 1941. In 1942 indoor filming took place in the Berlin-Babelsberg studios with approximately 66 extras, taken from the Berlin Marzahn Gypsy internment camp, first set up at the time of the Olympics to ‘clean up’ Berlin. It is possible that some Marzahn Gypsies were also used in Krün in 1942. This is based on statements of surviving extras or relatives of those who died but is not apparent from the extant documents. These camps can best be described as SS special camps, special places of internment which had elements of protective custody and at the same time were embryonic ghettos15. In the postwar period Gypsies have experienced difficulty in obtaining compensation, given the unwillingness of the authorities to designate these places of internment ‘concentration camps’16.

In March 1943 Maxglan was liquidated; most of the inmates were sent to Auschwitz. The large Reinhardt family or clan, for an unknown reason, were sent instead to Lackenbach, set up in 1940 in the Burgenland (in the east of the Ostmark as Austria had been renamed) for the numerous non-itenerant Gypsies in the area17. This accounts for the survival of some individuals who have played a role in the postwar period in calling Riefenstahl to account. Almost all of the Marzahn inmates were despatched to Auschwitz in March 194318.

It is not difficult to establish the fate of the extras once they arrived in Auschwitz. Lists of the Maxglan extras are available, thanks to the fastidiousness of the Criminal Police, who dealt with the Gypsies as a-socials, while the Gestapo looked after the Jews19. Names, dates and places of birth appear on a number of lists which detail exactly when each extra was taken from Maxglan and returned. This was stipulated in a contract drawn up between the Labour Office (with the approval of the Criminal Police) and Riefenstahl's company20. For Marzahn we have a list of extras because by the time they were used for filming in Babelsberg a social equalization tax (Sozialausgleichsabgabe) for Gypsies-had been introduced which Riefenstahl's film company was obliged to pay21. Like the Jews and the Poles previously, the Gypsies were now expected to pay a 15٪ surtax on their income tax on the grounds that they did not pay dues to the German Labour Front22. A list from Riefenstahl's film company dated 6 April 1943 provides the names of 66 extras, taken the previous year from Marzahn, for whom this tax had been paid from 27 April 1942 onwards. The total was RM (Reichsmark) 3060.45—that is 15٪ for 66 adult Gypsies, taken out of their earnings, with the number of days worked indicated. Some individuals were paid marginally more than others for the same number of days worked. All were paid more—approximately RM 17 or 18—than the daily rate of RM7 which had been paid to the Maxglan extras, but for the latter the company also bore the costs for food and lodging23. By the time the tax list was produced most for whom this tax had been paid were in Auschwitz. This list is less detailed than the Maxgian Criminal Police list: there is no first name, merely an initial, no birth date, nor place of birth. Nevertheless, it is still possible to show that many died in Auschwitz. Death lists from Auschwitz have been published24. The extras' names from both camps can, in many cases, be matched against the names on the death lists. This has been done for 4825. One problem is with ascertaining the legal last name and with navigating one's way through the way in which the Auschwitz lists have been compiled. Not every name has so far been traced, but this is no reason to assume a higher survival rate of the 116 extras listed.

One of the last surviving Gypsy extras is Zäzilie Reinhardt, now age 76. She went from Maxglan to Lackenbach. With the support of Rom e V, a Cologne-based local Gypsy association, it was decided to take civil action against Riefenstahl for stating a blatant untruth that all the extras had survived. Once Riefenstahl got wind of the planned action, her partner, Horst Kettner, on behalf of her production company, issued a press statement on 7 August to the effect that she had never meant this, that she regretted the persecution and suffering of the Gypsies during the National Socialist period, but only now had learned of the terrible fate of her extras. He added that at the time of filming she had not known that they would be deported to concentration camps or to Auschwitz, that many witnesses confirmed the courteous treatment accorded to the extras during filming, and that after the war a number of extras expressed themselves very positively about the experience.

A press conference was called in Cologne on 16 August to announce the civil action. A deadline had been set for noon the previous day for a written retraction to be issued. A fax arrived just in time. The faxed letter, dated 14 August, was signed in a very firm hand. Riefenstahl gave an undertaking never to assert again or allow to be asserted again that all the extras had survived. She had received good legal advice, for she was in no position to deny her words: they had been taped, she had authorized the interview, and signed the transcription as a true record. She had chosen to retract rather than be taken to court.

In view of the retraction, the civil action had to be dropped but the press conference still went ahead. It took place at the Nazi Documentation Centre for the City of Cologne in El-De Haus, previously Gestapo headquarters for Cologne. The panel included investigative journalist Günther Wallraff, and Ralph Giordano, writer and filmmaker, who recalled the powerful effect which Riefenstahl's documentary films (Triumph of the Will and Olympia) had once made on him when a Jewish schoolboy in Hamburg, and also on his ‘Aryan’ classmates. Reinhardt was interviewed by the chairman of Rom e V, Kurt Holl, and questioned by journalists. Her memory was very sound.

The evening of the press conference a 7-minute film went out on a programme, Aspekte, on ZDF, made by Nina Gladitz, who in the 1980s had had her own legal run-in with Riefenstahl for an earlier documentary on the subject of the extras. It began with the press conference, the dispute being characterized as one between David and Goliath, for until now no one had dared to take legal proceedings against Riefenstahl, much less accuse her of Holocaust Denial. The film moved quickly to two interviews with surviving extras—Reinhardt and another extra, Anna, who wished to remain anonymous26. Both mentioned for the first time a new story about one of the extras. It was Anna's story which Reinhardt confirmed. Riefenstahl had been injured and the then 20-year-old Anna had doubled for her in a riding scene. Wanting to reward her for doing so well, Riefenstahl told her that she would be granted a wish. At a loss, the girl consulted her mother who suggested that she ask that her two brothers be released from Dachau and Buchenwald and her sisters from Ravensbrück. But Riefenstahl replied that she could only arrange for one release. The mother decided on the one son, Matthias Krems, who had a heart condition. Approximately 2 weeks later he appeared in Salzburg. He never worked as an extra. Brother and sister were later deported to Auschwitz; only the latter survived. The voiceover comments that this Buchenwald release can be verified in the documents.

In an Open Letter published the following week in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Riefenstahl's birthday the Anna story was repeated27. Also, in the Open Letter the daughter of another extra, Rosa Winter, referred to her mother's brush with Riefenstahl. Winter had previously published her story in 198728. Fearing that her family was to be deported, she had run away from the film set. She was arrested and kept in a Salzburg prison, where Riefenstahl visited her. She refused to go back to the set and was then sent to Ravensbrück which, miraculously, she survived. Riefenstahl has often referred to her Gypsy extras as her ‘darlings’. Such stories suggest a different relationship.

Riefenstahl has won many lawsuits against media allegations about her past, though she has not won every case. Twice she has gone to court over the Gypsy extras. On the first occasion in 1949, and with legal aid, she won against Helmut Kindler, the publisher of a Munich mass circulation journal, Revue. A one-page spread entitled ‘The “unfinished” of Riefenstahl: what is happening with Tiefland?’ included five photographs—three were of the extras—and a small amount of text. Riefenstahl objected to several statements: that the film had cost over RM7 million, when normally a film cost RM200,000; that she only had to ask for money for it to be given; that for the role of the shepherd she had selected a Viennese bank teller from 2000 mountain troops who had filed past her several times; and finally—and most damaging—that the 60 [sic] Gypsy extras from Berlin and Salzburg were ‘film slaves’ taken from a concentration camp. Some of Kindler's evidence came from Erika Schmachtenberger (subsequently Groth-Schmachtenberger), a very fine ethnographic and nature photographer, who on a walk in the Alps had come upon the film set in September 1941 and stayed to take a number of stills, especially of the Gypsy extras in Spanish costume29. She photographed the young Zäzilia Reinhardt. Greatly enlarged, it served as the backdrop for the press conference. Schmachtenberger not only provided Kindler with some of her photographs but also her notes made during filming30.

Revue did not actually claim that most of the extras had subsequently died in Auschwitz; it merely posed the question as to whether they had survived. The article appeared a week after the acquittal in Hamburg of Veit Harlan, the director of Fud Süss, on the charge of ‘crimes against humanity’—the only Third Reich film director to be so charged. His use of Jewish extras in that film was an issue31. Revue's purpose was to remind readers of Riefenstahl's previous powerful role as director, her lavish funding, perfectionism and treatment of the ‘film slaves’. The Gypsies were described as being taken from

concentration camps in Berlin and Salzburg, who initially were excited at the prospect of exchanging work in munitions factories with film work. Yet Leni did not let them off easily. Scenes, which other directors would shoot six or seven times, were repeated twenty-five to thirty times. Also her treatment lacked a feminine tenderness. In the evening the Gypsies were escorted by gendarmes back to their camp. How many will have survived the concentration camps32?

The judge decided against Revue: they were wrong about the film's finances and the selection of the shepherd, though we now know that Revue was probably closer to the truth on both counts33. Furthermore, the judge accepted the description of one witness, former SS Major (Sturmbannführer) Dr Anton Böhmer, Head of the Salzburg Criminal Police, and hence also of Maxglan, that Maxglan was a ‘welfare camp’ rather than a concentration camp34. In the last year of the war Böhmer lost his post for disobeying orders and, for a brief period, even became a concentration camp inmate himself35. This may have lent his testimony an element of credibility, but it also tells us something about the context of that trial held 6 months after the establishment of the Bundesrepublik. Fined DM600 plus costs, Kindler was required to publish a retraction in several Bavarian papers. He returned to the fray in 1952 when, 2 days before Riefenstahl's final denazification appeal, Revue published a photograph of her taken while witnessing one of the first atrocities of the war. She had been filming in Poland in early September 1939 and was at Konski36. Shortly afterwards she returned to making feature film37.

On the second occasion Riefenstahl sued documentary filmmaker Nina Gladitz, whose Zeit des Schweigen und der Dunkelheit (Time of Silence and of Darkness) on the Tiefland extras was shown in 1982 on Westdeutsche Rundfunk in Germany and Channel 4 in Britain. Maxglan extras were interviewed in the film, mainly by Zäzilie Reinhardt's cousin, the late Josef Reinhardt. Zäzilie Reinhardt was not interviewed. After first attempting criminal charges Riefenstahl had to resort to civil law, taking out an injunction forbidding further screenings and suing for gross defamation. The case dragged on for several years from 1983 to 1987. The issues were also different from those raised during the Revue trial.

Riefenstahl lost on several counts. The extras interviewed claimed that Riefenstahl had appeared at the camp with two men to select them. Riefenstahl insisted that she had never set foot in the camp. There is no evidence to confirm this one way or the other, though given her interest in physiognomy it is unlikely that she would have delegated the task. In any case, the Freiburg judge did not find this particular assertion damaging to her reputation38. The surviving extras claimed that they were compelled to work on the film and that they had not been paid. Work was compulsory for all adult Gypsies, but filming also included children for whom work was not compulsory. The Gypsies worked under guard and at night were locked in a barn where they slept on straw. Any escapes were to be immediately reported to the Criminal Police. Riefenstahl did pay the extras, a derisory sum, and not the amount she claimed in court. They never saw this money because it went direct to the camp fund. All of these conditions are stipulated in the contract39.

Riefenstahl won on only one point: the statement made by the extras that she knew they were destined for Auschwitz, but did nothing to help them. She insisted that she did not know where they would be sent. Himmler's so-called Auschwitz decree, which led to the deportation of Gypsies to Auschwitz, was issued in December 1942 after both groups of extras had finished filming. Several months later both the Marzahn and Maxglan camps were liquidated. Gladitz's film could be shown but subject to cuts relating to this last point. It was withdrawn.

Once Riefenstahl issued her retraction Rom e V still made several demands: the names of all the extras and their fates should be added to the video; those with small speaking parts should be described as Klein Darsteller, that is, minor actors, rather than as extras; the surviving extras should now be compensated, not only for their labour, but also for the suffering to which Riefenstahl contributed through denying the fate of their murdered relatives. Rom e V also handed over documents to the Frankfurt State Prosecutor to investigate Holocaust Denial §130/3. A few days after the press conference on Riefenstahl's birthday the Prosecutor's Office informed Rom e V that they had decided to begin a preliminary investigation. But just over a month later they decided not to proceed, in that Riefenstahl had given an undertaking not to persist with her incriminating assertion. However, she was found guilty of §189/1—maligning the memory of the dead, but would not be prosecuted given her age and because it was not in the public interest. This decision was subsequently made public on 18 October 2002.

Riefenstahl has escaped being taken to court for the first time. But she has also had for the first time to retract her words or face either civil or criminal charges. Her extras had no ‘happy end’ and she has now been forced to desist from saying that they did. Whether she will accede to Rom e V's demands to pay them and add their names to the credit remains to be seen.


  1. Heribert Fritz and Mareen Linnartz, ‘“Ich bin sehr müde”, Leni Riefenstahl über ein Leben im Schatten Hitlers, ihren ersten Film seit 60 Jahren und die Sehnsucht nach dem Tod’, Frankfurter Rundschau, 27 April 2002.

  2. Leni Riefenstahl, The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl: The Sieve of Time (London, 1992), p. 358.

  3. The Independent, 20 October 2000.

  4. Brigitte Hamann, Hitlers Wien: Lehrjahre eines Diktaturs (Munich, 2001), p. 92, cited in Jurgen Trimborn, Riefenstahl, eine deutsche Karriere (Berlin, 2002), p. 319. In English, see Hamann, Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (New York, 1999), p. 64.

  5. Trimborn, Riefenstahl, p. 320.

  6. Riefenstahl, Memoirs, pp. 66-68.

  7. Rainer Rother, Leni Riefenstahl: Die Verführung des Talents (Berlin, 2000), p. 233, note 17. Only Baron Münchhausen (1943) and Kolberg (1945) cost more.

  8. Elke Fröhlich (ed.), Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels (Munich, 1996), Teil 2, Diktate 1941-1945, vi. p. 456 (16 December 1942). This entry also appears in Louis Lochner (trans. and ed.), The Goebbels Diaries (London, 1948), p. 186.

  9. Hans Barkhausen, Footnote to the history of Riefenstahl's Olympia, Film Quarterly, 28 (1974), pp. 8-12. Erwin Leiser, Nazi Cinema, Gertrud Mander and D. Wilson (trans.) (London 1974), quotes (pp. 140-141) a letter of Goebbels to the Charlottenburg court dated 30 January 1936: ‘The Olympia-Film Co. Ltd, is being founded at the government's request and with government funds … since the state is unwilling to appear publicly as the film's producer’. And 1 month later: ‘It is clearly impracticable to have the ‘Treasury itself acting as film producer’. See also Rother, Leni Riefenstahl, pp. 91-93.

  10. Jürgen Trimborn, Riefenstahl, pp. 342-343, 546, notes 122 and 125.

  11. Rother, Leni Riefenstahl, pp. 110-115.

  12. Bundesarchiv, Martin Bormann to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reichs Chancellery, 2 August 1942, BA R 43/II 810b, B1.81. The letter is cited in Rother, Leni Riefenstahl, p. 124. Trimborn, Riefenstahl, p. 325, and appears in the documentary, Zeit des Schweigen und der Dunkelheit (1982).

  13. Trimborn, Riefenstahl, p. 325.

  14. Tiefland has been available on video since 1998 Arthaus/Arte edition (1088) copyright remains with Riefenstahl. The video is 97 minutes long while the 1953 released film is 99 minutes (2695 metres).

  15. Sybil Milton, Vorstufe zur Vernichtung Die Zigeunerlager nach 1933, Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 43 (1995), in particular pp. 123, 129-130.

  16. Erika Thurner, National Socialists and Gypsies in Austria, Gilya Gerda Schmidt (trans.) (Tuscaloosa), pp. 27-29; Wolfgang Benz, Das Lager Marzahn, in Helge Grabitz, Klaus Bästleîn and Johannes Tuches (eds), Die Normalität des Verbrechens (Berlin, 1994), pp. 260-279. The Berlin Senate finally decided in 1987 that Marzahn had been a Zwangslager, that is, a camp in which they were compelled to remain.

  17. Erika Thurner, National Socialists and Gypsies in Austria, p. 27.

  18. Reimar Gilsenbach and Otto Rosenberg, Berliner Zeitung, 17-18 February 2001.

  19. Landesarchiv Salzburg, RSTH 1/346/1940 and RSTH 1/3 46/1941. Some of the documents are also reproduced in Henry Friedlander and Sybil Milton (eds), Archives of the Holocaust (New York and London, 1991), pp. 178-180, and in Thurner, Die Verfolgung der Zigeuner, in Christa Mitterrutzner and Gerhard Ungar (eds), Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes, Widerstand und Verfolgung in Salzburg 1934-1945 (Vienna and Salzburg, 1991), p. 504.

  20. Salzburg, RSTH 1/346/1940.

  21. Part of this list is reproduced in Gilsenbach and Rosenberg, Berliner Zeitung, 17-18 February 2001; the complete list appeared on the Rom e V website. 3 until 16 September 2002.

  22. Guenter Lewy, The Persecution of the Gypsies (Oxford, 2000), p. 100.

  23. Ibid. According to the production manager, Rudolf Fichtner, testifying on Riefenstahl's behalf in 1949, the Berlin extras were paid between RM20 and 25 and certainly not less than RM15 per day. The production director, Max Hüske, also said that the Berlin extras were paid directly. Dokumentation Österreichische Widerstand. Vienna (hereafter DÖW) E 185/18/3. These witnesses, for whatever reason (one can surmise a good reason), were giving false information.

  24. Sterbebücher von Auschwitz, Death Books from Auschwitz (Munich, 1995), 3 vols; Memorial Book: the Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Munich, 1993), 2 vols.

  25. Rom e V website. 3 until 16 September 2002.

  26. German Gypsies are often unwilling to be identified, not surprising given the long history of persecution and the detailed ‘race’ records kept by Robert Ritter's notorious Berlin Institute for Racial Research (Rassenhygienische und bevölkerungsbiologische Forschungsstelle).

  27. Offener Brief, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 22 August 2002.

  28. Rosa Winter, Soviel wie eine Asche, in Karin Berger, Elisabeth Holzinger, Lotte Podgornik and Lisbeth Trallosi (eds), Ich geb dir einen Mantel, dass du ihn noch in Freiheit tragen kannst: Widerstehen im KZ, Öesterreichische Frauen erzählen (Vienna, 1987), pp. 77-81.

  29. I am grateful to Nina Gladitz for this information about Erika Groth-Schmachtenberger, whom she once interviewed.

  30. DÖW E 185/18/3.

  31. Susan Tegel, “‘The Demonic Effect’: Veit Harlan's Use of Jewish Extras in Fud Süss (1940),” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 14 (2000), pp. 215-242.

  32. Revue, 12:1 (1949), p. 18. It covered one page and included five photographs.

  33. See above: note 8; Trimborn, Leni Riefenstahl, p. 333.

  34. DÖW E 185/3.

  35. Thurner, Die Verfolgung der Zigeuner, p. 622, note 32.

  36. Revue, 16 (19 April 1952), pp. off. Jürgen Trimborn has shed new light on the Konski atrocity and Riefenstahl's role in Poland: see Trimborn, Leni Riefenstahl, pp. 292-317.

  37. Riefenstahl, Memoirs, p. 261, is countered by Trimborn. See also Rother, Leni Riefenstahl, p. 142.

  38. Ibid., Memoirs, p. 364.

  39. Salzburg, RSTH 1/346/1940.

Susan Tegel was a member of the panel for the Rom e V press conference, Cologne, 16 August 2002. She is preparing a chapter on the Tiefland extras for the forthcoming Volume 4, The Aftermath in the series: The Gypsies during the Second World War, part of the Interface Collection of the Gypsy Research Centre of the Universite Rene Descartes, Sorbonne, published with the support of the European Commission. Formerly head of history at the University of Hertfordshire, she is the author of Jew Süss/Jud Süss (Trowbridge, 1996) and is now writing a book on aspects of Nazi cinema for Hambledon London Books.

Michael Mackenzie (essay date winter 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mackenzie, Michael. “From Athens to Berlin: The 1936 Olympics and Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia.Critical Inquiry 29, no. 2 (winter 2003): 302-36.

[In the following essay, Mackenzie analyzes Riefenstahl's representations of the athletic body in Olympia in terms of physical discourses that were popular in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s.]


In 1931, two years before the National Socialists seized power in Germany, Berlin was announced as the location of the 1936 Olympic games. The appointment to host the Olympics was for the Nazi state a problematic, burdensome inheritance from the Weimar Republic era. The ideologues...

(The entire section is 13776 words.)

Ed Meza (essay date 15 September 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Meza, Ed. “Riefenstahl's Indelible, Infamous Legacy.” Variety 392, no. 5 (15 September 2003): 51.

[In the following obituary, Meza observes that, although Riefenstahl was unrepentant about her role in Nazi Germany, she was nonetheless granted a respectful tribute by various German officials on her one hundredth birthday.]

Teutonic helmer and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, whose cinematic paeans to the Third Reich forever tainted her postwar career, died Sept. 8 in her sleep. She was 101.

Despite her reputation as a Nazi sympathizer, the Berlin-born Riefenstahl always maintained it was beauty that she was trying to capture in her films,...

(The entire section is 779 words.)

Mark Steyn (essay date 20 September 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Cautionary Tale.” Spectator 293, no. 9137 (20 September 2003): 64.

[In the following obituary, Steyn asserts that Triumph of the Will is as artificially fabricated as any big-budget Hollywood movie, observing that the film expresses the subordination of the individual.]

Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant cinematographer and editor who could compose and edit anything, except, in the end, her own life. If only she'd been able to snip one problematic decade out of her 101 years, we'd know her as a game old gal who in her sixties went off to live with an African tribe, in her seventies learned to scuba dive, and at the age of 98 survived a...

(The entire section is 1282 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Conrad, Peter. “Leni Riefenstahl, 1902-2003.” Observer (14 September 2003): 6.

Conrad discusses the lasting influence of Riefenstahl's body aesthetic, as represented in her film Olympia, on contemporary popular culture.

Deutschmann, Linda. “Introduction: Triumph of the Will (Der Triumph des Willens, 1935).” In Triumph of the Will: The Image of the Third Reich, pp. 1-14. Wakefield, N.H.: Longwood Academic, 1991.

Deutschmann outlines how Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will has ongoing relevance within the world of film scholarship, despite the universal condemnation the film...

(The entire section is 180 words.)