Leni Riefenstahl

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Susan Sontag (essay date 6 February 1975)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9325

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 the intractable mountains of the southern Sudan live about eight thousand aloof, godlike Nuba, emblems of physical perfection, with large, well-shaped, partly shaven heads, expressive faces, and muscular bodies that are depilated and decorated with scars; smeared with sacred gray-white ash, the men prance, squat, brood, wrestle on the arid slopes. And here is a fascinating layout of twelve black-and-white photographs of Riefenstahl on the back cover of The Last of the Nuba, also ravishing, a chronological sequence of expressions (from sultry inwardness to the grin of a Texas matron on safari) vanquishing the intractable march of aging. The first photograph was taken in 1927 when she was twenty-five and already a movie star, the most recent are dated 1969 (she is cuddling a naked African baby) and 1972 (she is holding a camera), and each of them shows some version of an ideal presence, a kind of imperishable beauty, like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's, that only gets gayer and more metallic and healthier-looking with old age. And here is a biographical sketch of Riefenstahl on the dust jacket, and an introduction (unsigned) entitled “How Leni Riefenstahl came to study the Mesakin Nuba of Kordofan”—full of disquieting lies.

The introduction, which gives a detailed account of Riefenstahl's pilgrimage to the Sudan (inspired, we are told, by reading Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa “one sleepless night in the mid-1950s”), laconically identifies the photographer as “something of a mythical figure as a film-maker before the war, half-forgotten by a nation which chose to wipe from its memory an era of its history.” Who (one hopes) but Riefenstahl herself could have thought up this fable about what is mistily referred to as “a nation” which for some unnamed reason “chose” to perform the deplorable act of cowardice of forgetting “an era”—tactfully left unspecified—“of its history”? Presumably, at least some readers will be startled by this coy allusion to Germany and the Third Reich.

Compared with the introduction, the jacket of the book is positively expansive on the subject of the photographer's career, parroting misinformation that Riefenstahl has been dispensing for the last twenty years.

It was during Germany's blighted and momentous 1930s that Leni Riefenstahl sprang to international fame as a film director. She was born in 1902, and her first devotion was to creative dancing. This led to her participation in silent films, and soon she was herself making—and starring in—her own talkies, such as The Mountain (1929).

These tensely romantic productions were widely admired, not least by Adolf Hitler who, having attained power in 1933, commissioned Riefenstahl to make a documentary on the Nuremberg Rally in 1934.

It takes a certain originality to describe the Nazi era as “Germany's blighted and momentous 1930s,” to summarize the events of 1933 as Hitler's “having attained power,” and to assert that Riefenstahl, most of whose work was in its own decade correctly identified as Nazi propaganda, enjoyed “international fame as a film director,” ostensibly like her contemporaries Renoir, Lubitsch, and Flaherty. (Could...

(This entire section contains 9325 words.)

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the publishers have let LR write the jacket copy herself? One hesitates to entertain so unkind a thought, although “her first devotion was to creative dancing” is a phrase few native speakers of English would be capable of.)

The facts are, of course, inaccurate or invented. Not only did Riefenstahl not make—or star in—a talkie called The Mountain (1929). No such film exists. More generally: Riefenstahl did not first simply participate in silent films and then, when sound came in, begin directing and starring in her own films. In all nine films she ever acted in, Riefenstahl was the star; and seven of these she did not direct. These seven films were: The Holy Mountain (Der heilige Berg, 1926), The Big Jump (Der grosse Sprung, 1927), The Fate of the House of Habsburg (Das Schicksal derer von Habsburg, 1929), The White Hell of Pitz Palü (Die weisse Hölle von Piz Palü, 1929)—all silents—followed by Avalanche (Stürme über dem Montblanc, 1930), White Frenzy (Der weisse Rausch, 1931), and S.O.S. Iceberg (S.O.S. Eisberg, 1932-1933). All but one were directed by Arnold Fanck, auteur of hugely successful Alpine epics since 1919, who made only two more films, both flops, after Riefenstahl left him to strike out on her own as a director in 1932. (The film not directed by Fanck is The Fate of the House of Habsburg, a royalist weepie made in Austria in which Riefenstahl played Marie Vetsera, Crown Prince Rudolf's companion at Mayerling. No print seems to have survived.)

Fanck's pop-Wagnerian vehicles for Riefenstahl were not just “tensely romantic.” No doubt thought of as apolitical when they were made, these films now seem in retrospect, as Siegfried Kracauer has pointed out, to be an anthology of proto-Nazi sentiments. Mountain climbing in Fanck's films was a visually irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führer-worship. The character that Riefenstahl generally played was that of a wild girl who dares to scale the peak that others, the “valley pigs,” shrink from. In her first role, in the silent The Holy Mountain (1926), that of a young dancer named Diotima, she is wooed by an ardent climber who converts her to the healthy ecstasies of Alpinism. This character underwent a steady aggrandizement. In her first sound film, Avalanche (1930), Riefenstahl is a mountain-possessed girl in love with a young meteorologist, whom she rescues when a storm strands him in his observatory on Mont Blanc.

Riefenstahl herself directed six films, the first of which, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht, 1932), was another mountain film. Starring in it as well, Riefenstahl played a role similar to the ones in Fanck's films for which she had been so “widely admired, not least by Adolf Hitler,” but allegorizing the dark themes of longing, purity, and death that Fanck had treated rather scoutishly. As usual, the mountain is represented as both supremely beautiful and dangerous, that majestic force which invites the ultimate affirmation of and escape from the self—into the brotherhood of courage and into death. The role Riefenstahl devised for herself is that of a primitive creature who has a unique relation to a destructive power: only Junta, the rag-clad outcast girl of the village, is able to reach the mysterious blue light radiating from the peak of Mount Cristallo, while other young villagers, lured by the light, try to climb the mountain and fall to their deaths. What eventually causes the girl's death is not the impossibility of the goal symbolized by the mountain but the materialist, prosaic spirit of envious villagers and the blind rationalism of her lover, a well-meaning visitor from the city.

The next film Riefenstahl directed after The Blue Light was not “a documentary on the Nuremberg Rally in 1934”—Riefenstahl made four non-fiction films, not two, as she has claimed since the 1950s and as most current whitewashing accounts of her repeat—but Victory of Faith (Sieg des Glaubens, 1933), celebrating the first National Socialist Party Congress held after Hitler seized power. Then came the first of two works which did indeed make her internationally famous, the film on the next National Socialist Party Congress, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935)—whose title is never mentioned on the jacket of The Last of the Nuba—after which she made a short film (eighteen minutes) for the army, Day of Freedom: Our Army (Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht, 1935), that depicts the beauty of soldiers and soldiering for the Führer. (It is not surprising to find no mention of this film, a print of which was found in 1971; during the 1950s and 1960s, when Riefenstahl and everyone else believed Day of Freedom to have been lost, she had it dropped from her filmography and refused to discuss it with interviewers.)

The jacket copy continues:

Riefenstahl's refusal to submit to Goebbels' attempt to subject her visualisation to his strictly propagandistic requirements led to a battle of wills which came to a head when Riefenstahl made her film of the 1936 Olympic Games, Olympia. This, Goebbels attempted to destroy; and it was only saved by the personal intervention of Hitler.

With two of the most remarkable documentaries of the 1930s to her credit, Riefenstahl continued making films of her devising, unconnected with the rise of Nazi Germany, until 1941, when war conditions made it impossible to continue.

Her acquaintance with the Nazi leadership led to her arrest at the end of the Second World War: she was tried twice, and acquitted twice. Her reputation was in eclipse, and she was half forgotten—although to a whole generation of Germans her name had been a household word.

Except for the bit about her having once been a household word in Nazi Germany, not one part of the above is true. To cast Riefenstahl in the role of the individualist-artist, defying philistine bureaucrats and censorship by the patron state (“Goebbels' attempt to subject her visualisation to his strictly propagandistic requirements”) should seem like nonsense to anyone who has seen Triumph of the Will—a film whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker's having an aesthetic conception independent of propaganda. The facts, denied by Riefenstahl since the war, are that she made Triumph of the Will with unlimited facilities and unstinting official cooperation (there was never any struggle between the filmmaker and the German minister of propaganda). Indeed, Riefenstahl was, as she relates in the short book about the making of Triumph of the Will, in on the planning of the rally—which was from the start conceived as the set of a film spectacle.1Olympia—a three-and-a-half-hour film in two parts, Festival of the People (Fest der Völker) and Festival of Beauty (Fest der Schönheit)—was no less an official production. Riefenstahl has maintained in interviews since the 1950s that Olympia was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, produced by her own company, and made over Goebbels's protests. The truth is that Olympia was commissioned and entirely financed by the Nazi government (a dummy company was set up in Riefenstahl's name because it was thought unwise for the government to appear as the producer) and facilitated by Goebbels's ministry at every stage of the shooting2; even the plausible-sounding legend of Goebbels objecting to her footage of the triumphs of the black American track star Jesse Owens is untrue. Riefenstahl worked for eighteen months on the editing, finishing in time so that the film could have its world premiere on April 29, 1938, in Berlin, as part of the festivities for Hitler's forty-ninth birthday; later that year Olympia was the principal German entry at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Gold Medal.

More lies: to say that Riefenstahl “continued making films of her devising, unconnected with the rise of Nazi Germany, until 1941.” In 1939 (after returning from a visit to Hollywood, the guest of Walt Disney), she accompanied the invading Wehrmacht into Poland as a uniformed army war correspondent with her own camera team; but there is no record of any of this material surviving the war. After Olympia Riefenstahl made exactly one more film, Tiefland (Lowlands), which she began in 1941—and, after an interruption, resumed in 1944 (in the Barrandov Film Studios in Nazi-occupied Prague), and finished in 1954. Like The Blue Light,Tiefland opposes lowland or valley corruption to mountain purity, and once again the protagonist (played by Riefenstahl) is a beautiful outcast. Riefenstahl prefers to give the impression that there were only two documentaries in a long career as a director of fiction films, but the truth is that four of the six films she directed were documentaries made for and financed by the Nazi government.

It is hardly accurate to describe Riefenstahl's professional relationship to and intimacy with Hitler and Goebbels as “her acquaintance with the Nazi leadership.” Riefenstahl was a close friend and companion of Hitler's well before 1932; she was a friend of Goebbels, too: no evidence supports Riefenstahl's persistent claim since the 1950s that Goebbels hated her, or even that he had the power to interfere with her work. Because of her unlimited personal access to Hitler, Riefenstahl was precisely the only German filmmaker who was not responsible to the Film Office (Reichsfilmkammer) of Goebbels's ministry of propaganda. Last, it is misleading to say that Riefenstahl was “tried twice, and acquitted twice” after the war. What happened is that she was briefly arrested by the Allies in 1945 and two of her houses (in Berlin and Munich) were seized. Examinations and court appearances started in 1948, continuing intermittently until 1952, when she was finally “de-Nazified” with the verdict: “No political activity in support of the Nazi regime which would warrant punishment.” More important: whether or not Riefenstahl deserved a prison sentence, it was not her “acquaintance” with the Nazi leadership but her activities as a leading propagandist for the Third Reich that were at issue.

The jacket copy of The Last of the Nuba summarizes faithfully the main line of the self-vindication which Riefenstahl fabricated in the 1950s and which is most fully spelled out in the interview she gave to Cahiers du Cinéma in September 1965. There she denied that any of her work was propaganda—calling it cinema verité. “Not a single scene is staged,” Riefenstahl says of Triumph of the Will. “Everything is genuine. And there is no tendentious commentary for the simple reason that there is no commentary at all. It is history—pure history.” We are a long way from that vehement disdain for “the chronicle-film,” mere “reportage” or “filmed facts,” as being unworthy of the event's “heroic style” which is expressed in her book on the making of the film.3

Although Triumph of the Will has no narrative voice, it does open with a written text heralding the rally as the redemptive culmination of German history. But this opening statement is the least original of the ways in which the film is tendentious. It has no commentary because it doesn't need one, for Triumph of the Will represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater. How the 1934 Party convention was staged was partly determined by the decision to produce Triumph of the Will—the historic event serving as the set of a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary. Indeed, when some of the footage of Party leaders at the speakers' rostrum was spoiled, Hitler gave orders for the shots to be refilmed; and Streicher, Rosenberg, Hess, and Frank histrionically repledged their fealty to the Führer weeks later, without Hitler and without an audience, on a studio set built by Speer. (It is altogether correct that Speer, who built the gigantic site of the rally on the outskirts of Nuremberg, is listed in the credits of Triumph of the Will as architect of the film.) Anyone who defends Riefenstahl's films as documentaries, if documentary is to be distinguished from propaganda, is being ingenuous. In Triumph of the Will, the document (the image) not only is the record of reality but is one reason for which the reality has been constructed, and must eventually supersede it.

The rehabilitation of proscribed figures in liberal societies does not happen with the sweeping bureaucratic finality of the Soviet Encyclopedia, each new edition of which brings forward some hitherto unmentionable figures and lowers an equal or greater number through the trap door of nonexistence. Our rehabilitations are smoother, more insinuative. It is not that Riefenstahl's Nazi past has suddenly become acceptable. It is simply that, with the turn of the cultural wheel, it no longer matters. Instead of dispensing a freeze-dried version of history from above, a liberal society settles such questions by waiting for cycles of taste to distill out the controversy.

The purification of Leni Riefenstahl's reputation of its Nazi dross has been gathering momentum for some time, but it has reached some kind of climax this year, with Riefenstahl the guest of honor at a new cinéphile-controlled film festival held in the summer in Colorado and the subject of a stream of respectful articles and interviews in newspapers and on TV, and now with the publication of The Last of the Nuba. Part of the impetus behind Riefenstahl's recent promotion to the status of a cultural monument surely owes to the fact that she is a woman. The 1973 New York Film Festival poster, made by a well-known artist who is also a feminist, showed a blond doll-woman whose right breast is encircled by three names: Agnès Leni Shirley. (That is, Varda, Riefenstahl, Clarke.) Feminists would feel a pang at having to sacrifice the one woman who made films that everybody acknowledges to be first-rate. But the strongest impetus behind the change in attitude toward Riefenstahl lies in the new, ampler fortunes of the idea of the beautiful.

The line taken by Riefenstahl's defenders, who now include the most influential voices in the avant-garde film establishment, is that she was always concerned with beauty. This, of course, has been Riefenstahl's own contention for some years. Thus the Cahiers du Cinéma interviewer set Riefenstahl up by observing fatuously that what Triumph of the Will and Olympia “have in common is that they both give form to a certain reality, itself based on a certain idea of form. Do you see anything peculiarly German about this concern for form?” To this, Riefenstahl answered:

I can simply say that I feel spontaneously attracted by everything that is beautiful. Yes: beauty, harmony. And perhaps this care for composition, this aspiration to form is in effect something very German. But I don't know these things myself, exactly. It comes from the unconscious and not from my knowledge. … What do you want me to add? Whatever is purely realistic, slice-of-life, which is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me. … I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, what is living. I seek harmony. When harmony is produced I am happy. I believe, with this, that I have answered you.

That is why The Last of the Nuba is the last, necessary step in Riefenstahl's rehabilitation. It is the final rewrite of the past; or, for her partisans, the definitive confirmation that she was always a beauty freak rather than a horrid propagandist.4 Inside the beautifully produced book, photographs of the perfect, noble tribe. And on the jacket, photographs of “my perfect German woman” (as Hitler called Riefenstahl), vanquishing the slights of history, all smiles.

Admittedly, if the book were not signed by Riefenstahl one would not necessarily suspect that these photographs had been taken by the most interesting, talented, and effective artist of the Nazi era. Most people who leaf through The Last of the Nuba will probably see it as one more lament for vanishing primitives—the greatest example remains Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques on the Bororo Indians in Brazil—but if the photographs are examined carefully, in conjunction with the lengthy text written by Riefenstahl, it becomes clear that they are continuous with her Nazi work. Riefenstahl's particular slant is revealed by her choice of this tribe and not another: a people she describes as acutely artistic (everyone owns a lyre) and beautiful (Nuba men, Riefenstahl notes, “have an athletic build rare in any other African tribe”); endowed as they are with “a much stronger sense of spiritual and religious relations than of worldly and material matters,” their principal activity, she insists, is ceremonial. The Last of the Nuba is about a primitivist ideal: a portrait of a people subsisting in a pure harmony with their environment, untouched by “civilization.”

All four of Riefenstahl's commissioned Nazi films—whether about Party congresses, the Wehrmacht, or athletes—celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader. They follow directly from the films of Fanck in which she starred and her own The Blue Light. The Alpine fictions are tales of longing for high places, of the challenge and ordeal of the elemental, the primitive; they are about the vertigo before power, symbolized by the majesty and beauty of mountains. The Nazi films are epics of achieved community, in which everyday reality is transcended through ecstatic self-control and submission; they are about the triumph of power. And The Last of the Nuba, an elegy for the soon-to-be extinguished beauty and mystic powers of primitives whom Riefenstahl calls “her adopted people,” is the third in her triptych of fascist visuals.

In the first panel, the mountain films, heavily dressed people strain upward to prove themselves in the purity of the cold; vitality is identified with physical ordeal. For the middle panel, the films made for the Nazi government: Triumph of the Will uses overpopulated wide shots of massed figures alternating with close-ups that isolate a single passion, a single perfect submission: in a temperate zone clean-cut people in uniforms group and regroup, as if they were seeking the perfect choreography to express their fealty. In Olympia, the richest visually of all her films (it uses both the verticals of the mountain films and the horizontal movements characteristic of Triumph of the Will), one straining, scantily clad figure after another seeks the ecstasy of victory, cheered on by ranks of compatriots in the stands, all under the still gaze of the benign Super-Spectator, Hitler, whose presence in the stadium consecrates this effort. (Olympia, which could as well have been called Triumph of the Will, emphasizes that there are no easy victories.) In the third panel, The Last of the Nuba, the almost naked primitives, awaiting the final ordeal of their proud heroic community, their imminent extinction, frolic and pose under the scorching sun.

It is Götterdämmerung time. The central events in Nuba society are wrestling matches and funerals: vivid encounters of beautiful male bodies and death. The Nuba, as Riefenstahl interprets them, are a tribe of aesthetes. Like the henna-daubed Masai and the so-called Mudmen of New Guinea, the Nuba paint themselves for all important social and religious occasions, smearing on a white-gray ash which unmistakably suggests death. Riefenstahl claims to have arrived “just in time,” for in the few years since these photographs were taken the glorious Nuba have been corrupted by money, jobs, clothes. (And, probably, by war—which Riefenstahl never mentions, since what she cares about is myth not history. The civil war that has been tearing up that part of the Sudan for a dozen years must have scattered new technology and a lot of detritus.)

Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl's portrait of them evokes some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive corrupting “critical spirit.” The book bonfire of May 1933 was launched with Goebbels's cry: “The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit.” And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November 1936, it was for having “typically Jewish traits of character”: putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling. In the transformed thematics of latter-day fascism, the Jews no longer play the role of defiler. It is “civilization” itself.

What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic. In Riefenstahl's casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly—as in Lévi-Strauss—the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organization, or thinking that is being extolled. Riefenstahl strongly recalls fascist rhetoric when she celebrates the ways the Nuba are exalted and unified by the physical ordeals of their wrestling matches, in which the “heaving and straining” Nuba men, “huge muscles bulging,” throw one another to the ground—fighting not for material prizes but “for the renewal of the sacred vitality of the tribe.” Wrestling and the rituals that go with it, in Riefenstahl's account, bind the Nuba together. Wrestling

is the expression of all that distinguishes the Nuba way of life. … Wrestling generates the most passionate loyalty and emotional participation in the team's supporters, who are, in fact, the entire “non-playing” population of the village. … Its importance as the expression of the total outlook of the Mesakin and Korongo cannot be exaggerated; it is the expression in the visible and social world of the invisible world of the mind and of the spirit.

In celebrating a society where the exhibition of physical skill and courage and the victory of the stronger man over the weaker are, as she sees it, the unifying symbols of the communal culture—where success in fighting is the “main aspiration of a man's life”—Riefenstahl seems hardly to have modified the ideas of her Nazi films. And her portrait of the Nuba goes further than her films in evoking one aspect of the fascist ideal: a society in which women are merely breeders and helpers, excluded from all ceremonial functions, and represent a threat to the integrity and strength of men. From the “spiritual” Nuba point of view (by the Nuba Riefenstahl means, of course, males), contact with women is profane; but, ideal society that this is supposed to be, the women know their place.

The fiancées or wives of the wrestlers are as concerned as the men to avoid any intimate contact … their pride at being the bride or wife of a strong wrestler supersedes their amorousness.

Lastly, Riefenstahl is right on target with her choice as a photographic subject of a people who “look upon death as simply a matter of fate—which they do not resist or struggle against,” of a society whose most enthusiastic and lavish ceremonial is the funeral. Viva la muerte.

It may seem ungrateful and rancorous to refuse to cut loose The Last of the Nuba from Riefenstahl's past, but there are salutary lessons to be learned from the continuity of her work as well as from that curious and implacable recent event—her rehabilitation. The careers of other artists who became fascists, such as Céline and Benn and Marinetti and Pound (not to mention those, like Pabst and Pirandello and Hamsun, who embraced fascism in the decline of their powers), are not instructive in a comparable way. For Riefenstahl is the only major artist who was completely identified with the Nazi era and whose work, not only during the Third Reich but thirty years after its fall, has consistently illustrated many themes of fascist aesthetics.

Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Last of the Nuba. More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.

Such art is hardly confined to works labeled as fascist or produced under fascist governments. (To cite films only: Walt Disney's Fantasia, Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here, and Kubrick's 2001 also strikingly exemplify certain formal structures and themes of fascist art.) And, of course, features of fascist art proliferate in the official art of communist countries—which always presents itself under the banner of realism, while fascist art scorns realism in the name of “idealism.” The tastes for the monumental and for mass obeisance to the hero are common to both fascist and communist art, reflecting the view of all totalitarian regimes that art has the function of “immortalizing” its leaders and doctrines. The rendering of movement in grandiose and rigid patterns is another element in common, for such choreography rehearses the very unity of the polity. The masses are made to take form, be design. Hence mass athletic demonstrations, a choreographed display of bodies, are a valued activity in all totalitarian countries; and the art of the gymnast, so popular now in Eastern Europe, also evokes recurrent features of fascist aesthetics; the holding in or confining of force; military precision.

In both fascist and communist politics, the will is staged publicly, in the drama of the leader and the chorus. What is interesting about the relation between politics and art under National Socialism is not that art was subordinated to political needs, for this is true of dictatorships both of the right and of the left, but that politics appropriated the rhetoric of art—art in its late romantic phase. (Politics is “the highest and most comprehensive art there is,” Goebbels said in 1933, “and we who shape modern German policy feel ourselves to be artists … the task of art and the artist [being] to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy.”) What is interesting about art under National Socialism are those features which make it a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China aims to expound and reinforce a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics—that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in physique magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy. Riefenstahl's promotion of the beautiful and the healthy, it must be said, is much more sophisticated than this; and never witless, as it is in other Nazi visual art. She appreciates a range of bodily types—in matters of beauty she is not racist—and in Olympia she does show some effort and strain, with its attendant imperfections, as well as stylized, seemingly effortless exertions (such as diving, in the most admired sequence of the film).

In contrast to the asexual chasteness of official communist art, Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing. A utopian aesthetics (physical perfection; identity as a biological given) implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a “spiritual” force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic (that is, women) is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse. Thus Riefenstahl explains why Nuba marriages, in contrast to their splendid funerals, involve no ceremonies or feasts.

A Nuba man's greatest desire is not union with a woman but to be a good wrestler, thereby affirming the principle of abstemiousness. The Nuba dance ceremonies are not sensual occasions but rather “festivals of chastity”—of containment of the life force.

Fascist aesthetics is based on the containment of vital forces; movements are confined, held tight, held in.

Nazi art is reactionary, defiantly outside the century's mainstream of achievement in the arts. But just for this reason it has been gaining a place in contemporary taste. The left-wing organizers of a current exhibition of Nazi painting and sculpture (the first since the war) in Frankfurt have found, to their dismay, the attendance excessively large and hardly as serious-minded as they had hoped. Even when flanked by didactic admonitions from Brecht and by concentration-camp photographs, what Nazi art reminds these crowds of is—other art of the 1930s, notably Art Deco. (Art Nouveau could never be a fascist style; it is, rather, the prototype of that art which fascism defines as decadent; the fascist style at its best is Art Deco, with its sharp lines and blunt massing of material, its petrified eroticism.) The same aesthetic responsible for the bronze colossi of Arno Breker—Hitler's (and, briefly, Cocteau's) favorite sculptor—and of Josef Thorak also produced the muscle-bound Atlas in front of Manhattan's Rockefeller Center and the faintly lewd monument to the fallen doughboys of World War I in Philadelphia's Thirtieth Street railroad station.

To an unsophisticated public in Germany, the appeal of Nazi art may have been that it was simple, figurative, emotional; not intellectual; a relief from the demanding complexities of modernist art. To a more sophisticated public, the appeal is partly to that avidity which is now bent on retrieving all the styles of the past, especially the most pilloried. But a revival of Nazi art, following the revivals of Art Nouveau, Pre-Raphaelite painting, and Art Deco, is most unlikely. The painting and sculpture are not just sententious; they are astonishingly meager as art. But precisely these qualities invite people to look at Nazi art with knowing and sniggering detachment, as a form of Pop Art.

Riefenstahl's work is free of the amateurism and naïveté one finds in other art produced in the Nazi era, but it still promotes many of the same values. And the same very modern sensibility can appreciate her as well. The ironies of pop sophistication make for a way of looking at Riefenstahl's work in which not only its formal beauty but its political fervor are viewed as a form of aesthetic excess. And alongside this detached appreciation of Riefenstahl is a response, whether conscious or unconscious, to the subject itself, which gives her work its power.

Triumph of the Will and Olympia are undoubtedly superb films (they may be the two greatest documentaries ever made), but they are not really important in the history of cinema as an art form. Nobody making films today alludes to Riefenstahl, while many filmmakers (including myself) regard Dziga Vertov as an inexhaustible provocation and source of ideas about film language. Yet it is arguable that Vertov—the most important figure in documentary films—never made a film as purely effective and thrilling as Triumph of the Will or Olympia. (Of course, Vertov never had the means at his disposal that Riefenstahl had. The Soviet government's budget for propaganda films in the 1920s and early 1930s was less than lavish.)

In dealing with propagandistic art on the left and on the right, a double standard prevails. Few people would admit that the manipulation of emotion in Vertov's later films and in Riefenstahl's provides similar kinds of exhilaration. When explaining why they are moved, most people are sentimental in the case of Vertov and dishonest in the case of Riefenstahl. Thus Vertov's work evokes a good deal of moral sympathy on the part of his cinéphile audiences all over the world; people consent to be moved. With Riefenstahl's work, the trick is to filter out the noxious political ideology of her films, leaving only their “aesthetic” merits. Praise of Vertov's films always presupposes the knowledge that he was an attractive person and an intelligent and original artist-thinker, eventually crushed by the dictatorship which he served. And most of the contemporary audience for Vertov (as for Eisenstein and Pudovkin) assumes that the film propagandists in the early years of the Soviet Union were illustrating a noble ideal, however much it was betrayed in practice. But praise of Riefenstahl has no such recourse, since nobody, not even her rehabilitators, has managed to make Riefenstahl seem even likable; and she is no thinker at all.

More important, it is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism—more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal or rather ideals that are persistent today under the other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders). These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest as well as tautological to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympia only because they were made by a filmmaker of genius. Riefenstahl's films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached and which is expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as the youth/rock culture, primal therapy, anti-psychiatry, Third World camp-following, and belief in the occult. The exaltation of community does not preclude the search for absolute leadership; on the contrary, it may inevitably lead to it. (Not surprisingly, a fair number of the young people now prostrating themselves before gurus and submitting to the most grotesquely autocratic discipline are former anti-authoritarians and anti-elitists of the 1960s.)

Riefenstahl's current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful—as a filmmaker and, now, as a photographer—do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. Riefenstahl is hardly the usual sort of aesthete or anthropological romantic. The force of her work being precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas, what is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now, when people claim to be drawn to Riefenstahl's images for their beauty of composition. Without a historical perspective, such connoisseurship prepares the way for a curiously absentminded acceptance of propaganda for all sorts of destructive feelings—feelings whose implications people are refusing to take seriously. Somewhere, of course, everyone knows that more than beauty is at stake in art like Riefenstahl's. And so people hedge their bets—admiring this kind of art, for its undoubted beauty, and patronizing it, for its sanctimonious promotion of the beautiful. Backing up the solemn choosy formalist appreciations lies a larger reserve of appreciation, the sensibility of camp, which is unfettered by the scruples of high seriousness: and the modern sensibility relies on continuing trade-offs between the formalist approach and camp taste.

Art which evokes the themes of fascist aesthetic is popular now, and for most people it is probably no more than a variant of camp. Fascism may be merely fashionable, and perhaps fashion with its irrepressible promiscuity of taste will save us. But the judgments of taste themselves seem less innocent. Art that seemed eminently worth defending ten years ago, as a minority or adversary taste, no longer seems defensible today, because the ethical and cultural issues it raises have become serious, even dangerous, in a way they were not then. The hard truth is that what may be acceptable in elite culture may not be acceptable in mass culture, that tastes which pose only innocuous ethical issues as the property of a minority become corrupting when they become more established. Taste is context, and the context has changed.


Second Exhibit. Here is a book to be purchased at airport magazine stands and in “adult” bookstores, a relatively cheap paperback, not an expensive coffee-table item appealing to art lovers and the bien-pensant like The Last of the Nuba. Yet both books share a certain community of moral origin, a root preoccupation: the same preoccupation at different stages of evolution—the ideas that animate The Last of the Nuba being less out of the moral closet than the cruder, more efficient idea that lies behind SS Regalia. Though SS Regalia is a respectable British-made compilation (with a three-page historical preface and notes in the back), one knows that its appeal is not scholarly but sexual. The cover already makes that clear. Across the large black swastika of an SS armband is a diagonal yellow stripe which reads “Over 100 Brilliant Four-Color Photographs Only $2.95,” exactly as a sticker with the price on it used to be affixed—part tease, part deference to censorship—on the cover of pornographic magazines, over the model's genitalia.

There is a general fantasy about uniforms. They suggest community, order, identity (through ranks, badges, medals, things which declare who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognized), competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence. But uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms—which are erotic materials and photographs of SS uniforms are the units of a particularly powerful and widespread sexual fantasy. Why the SS? Because the SS was the ideal incarnation of fascism's overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards. The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful. (One is not likely to come across a book called “SA Regalia.” The SA, whom the SS replaced, were not known for being any less brutal than their successors, but they have gone down in history as beefy, squat, beerhall types; mere brownshirts.

SS uniforms were stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity. Compare the rather boring and not very well cut American army uniform: jacket, shirt, tie, pants, socks, and lace-up shoes—essentially civilian clothes no matter how bedecked with medals and badges. SS uniforms were tight, heavy, stiff and included gloves to confine the hands and boots that made legs and feet feel heavy, encased, obliging their wearer to stand up straight. As the back cover of SS Regalia explains:

The uniform was black, a colour which had important overtones in Germany. On that, the SS wore a vast variety of decorations, symbols, badges to distinguish rank, from the collar runes to the death's-head. The appearance was both dramatic and menacing.

The cover's almost wistful come-on does not quite prepare one for the banality of most of the photographs. Along with those celebrated black uniforms, SS troopers were issued almost American-army-looking khaki uniforms and camouflage ponchos and jackets. And besides the photographs of uniforms, there are pages of collar patches, cuff bands, chevrons, belt buckles, commemorative badges, regimental standards, trumpet banners, field caps, service medals, shoulder flashes, permits, passes—few of which bear either the notorious runes or the death's-head; all meticulously identified by rank, unit, and year and season of issue. Precisely the innocuousness of practically all of the photographs testifies to the power of the image: one is handling the breviary of a sexual fantasy. For fantasy to have depth, it must have detail. What, for example, was the color of the travel permit an SS sergeant would have needed to get from Trier to Lübeck in the spring of 1944? One needs all the documentary evidence.

If the message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life, its trappings have been sexualized. This eroticization of fascism can be remarked in such enthralling and devout manifestations as Mishima's Confessions of a Mask and Sun and Steel, and in films like Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising and, more recently and far less interestingly, in Visconti's The Damned and Cavani's The Night Porter. The solemn eroticizing of fascism must be distinguished from a sophisticated playing with cultural horror, where there is an element of the put-on. The poster Robert Morris made for his recent show at the Castelli Gallery is a photograph of the artist, naked to the waist, wearing dark glasses, what appears to be a Nazi helmet, and a spiked steel collar, attached to which is a stout chain which he holds in his manacled, uplifted hands. Morris is said to have considered this to be the only image that still has any power to shock: a singular virtue to those who take for granted that art is a sequence of ever-fresh gestures of provocation. But the point of the poster is its own negation. Shocking people in the context also means inuring them, as Nazi material enters the vast repertory of popular iconography usable for the ironic commentaries of Pop Art. Still, Nazism fascinates in a way other iconography staked out by the pop sensibility (from Mao Tse-tung to Marilyn Monroe) does not. No doubt, some part of the general rise of interest in fascism can be set down as a product of curiosity. For those born after the early 1940s, bludgeoned by a lifetime's palaver, pro and con, about communism, it is fascism—the great conversation piece of their parents' generation—which represents the exotic, the unknown. Then there is a general fascination among the young with horror, with the irrational. Courses dealing with the history of fascism are, along with those on the occult (including vampirism), among the best attended these days on college campuses. And beyond this the definitely sexual lure of fascism, which SS Regalia testifies to with unabashed plainness, seems impervious to deflation by irony or overfamiliarity.

In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. In the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear. But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic? How could a regime which persecuted homosexuals become a gay turn-on?

A clue lies in the predilections of the fascist leaders themselves for sexual metaphors. Like Nietzsche and Wagner, Hitler regarded leadership as sexual mastery of the “feminine” masses, as rape. (The expression of the crowds in Triumph of the Will is one of ecstasy; the leader makes the crowd come.) Left-wing movements have tended to be unisex, and asexual in their imagery. Right-wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface. Certainly Nazism is “sexier” than communism (which is not to the Nazis' credit, but rather shows something of the nature and limits of the sexual imagination).

Of course, most people who are turned on by SS uniforms are not signifying approval of what the Nazis did, if indeed they have more than the sketchiest idea of what that might be. Nevertheless, there are powerful and growing currents of sexual feeling, those that generally go by the name of sadomasochism, which make playing at Nazism seem erotic. These sadomasochistic fantasies and practices are to be found among heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, although it is among male homosexuals that the eroticizing of Nazism is most visible. S-M, not swinging, is the big sexual secret of the last few years.

Between sadomasochism and fascism there is a natural link. “Fascism is theater,” as Genet said.5 As is sadomasochistic sexuality: to be involved in sadomasochism is to take part in a sexual theater, a staging of sexuality. Regulars of sadomasochistic sex are expert costumers and choreographers as well as performers, in a drama that is all the more exciting because it is forbidden to ordinary people. Sadomasochism is to sex what war is to civil life: the magnificent experience. (Riefenstahl put it: “What is purely realistic, slice of life, what is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me.” As the social contract seems tame in comparison with war, so fucking and sucking come to seem merely nice, and therefore unexciting. The end to which all sexual experience tends, as Bataille insisted in a lifetime of writing, is defilement, blasphemy. To be “nice,” as to be civilized, means being alienated from this savage experience—which is entirely staged.

Sadomasochism, of course, does not just mean people hurting their sexual partners, which has always occurred—and generally means men beating up women. The perennial drunken Russian peasant thrashing his wife is just doing something he feels like doing (because he is unhappy, oppressed, stupefied; and because women are handy victims. But the perennial Englishman in a brothel being whipped is re-creating an experience. He is paying a whore to act out a piece of theater with him, to reenact or revoke the past—experiences of his schooldays or nursery which now hold for him a huge reserve of sexual energy. Today it may be the Nazi past that people invoke, in the theatricalization of sexuality, because it is those images (rather than memories) from which they hope a reserve of sexual energy can be tapped. What the French call “the English vice” could, however, be said to be something of an artful affirmation of individuality; the playlet referred, after all, to the subject's own case history. The fad for Nazi regalia indicates something quite different: a response to an oppressive freedom of choice in sex (and in other matters), to an unbearable degree of individuality; the rehearsal of enslavement rather than its reenactment.

The rituals of domination and enslavement being more and more practiced, the art that is more and more devoted to rendering their themes, are perhaps only a logical extension of an affluent society's tendency to turn every part of people's lives into a taste, a choice; to invite them to regard their very lives as a (life) style. In all societies up to now, sex has mostly been an activity (something to do, without thinking about it). But once sex becomes a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism is about: a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental.

Sadomasochism has always been the furthest reach of the sexual experience: when sex becomes most purely sexual, that is, severed from personhood, from relationships, from love. It should not be surprising that it has become attached to Nazi symbolism in recent years. Never before was the relation of masters and slaves so consciously aestheticized. Sade had to make up his theater of punishment and delight from scratch, improvising the decor and costumes and blasphemous rites. Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.


  1. Leni Riefenstahl, Hinter den Kulissen des Reichparteitag-Films (Munich, 1935). A photograph on page 31 shows Hitler and Riefenstahl bending over some plans, with the caption: “The preparations for the Party Congress were made hand in hand with the preparations for the camera work.” The rally was held on September 4-10; Riefenstahl relates that she began work in May, planning the film sequence by sequence, and supervising the construction of elaborate bridges, towers, and tracks for the cameras. In late August, Hitler came to Nuremberg with Viktor Lutze, head of the SA, “for an inspection and to give final instructions.” Her thirty-two cameramen were dressed in SA uniforms throughout the shooting, “a suggestion of the Chief of Staff [Lutze], so that no one will disturb the solemnity of the image with his civilian clothing.” The SS supplied a team of guards.

  2. See Hans Barkhausen, “Footnote to the History of Riefenstahl's Olympia,Film Quarterly, Fall 1974—a rare act of informed dissent amid the large number of tributes to Riefenstahl that have appeared in American and Western European film magazines during the last few years.

  3. If another source is wanted—since Riefenstahl now claims (in an interview in the German magazine Filmkritik, August 1972) that she didn't write a single word of Hinter den Kulissen des Reichparteitag-Films, or even read it at the time—there is an interview in the Völkischer Beobachter, August 26, 1933, about her filming of the 1933 Nuremberg rally, where she makes similar declarations.

    Riefenstahl and her apologists always talk about Triumph of the Will as if it were an independent “documentary,” often citing technical problems encountered while filming to prove she had enemies among the party leadership (Goebbels's hatred), as if such difficulties were not a normal part of filmmaking. One of the more dutiful reruns of the myth of Riefenstahl as mere documentarist—and political innocent—is the Filmguide to “Triumph of the Will” published in the Indiana University Press Filmguide Series, whose author, Richard Meram Barsam, concludes his preface by expressing his “gratitude to Leni Riefenstahl herself, who cooperated in many hours of interviews, opened her archive to my research, and took a genuine interest in this book.” Well might she take an interest in a book whose opening chapter is “Leni Riefenstahl and the Burden of Independence,” and whose theme is “Riefenstahl'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.” Etc.

    As an antidote, let me quote an unimpeachable source (at least he's not here to say he didn't write it)—Adolf Hitler. In his brief preface to Hinter den Kulissen, Hitler describes Triumph of the Will as “a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement.” And it is.

  4. This is how Jonas Mekas (The Village Voice, October 31, 1974) salutes the publication of The Last of the Nuba: “Riefenstahl continues her celebration—or is it a search?—of the classical beauty of the human body, the search which she began in her films. She is interested in the ideal, in the monumental.” Mekas in the same paper on November 7, 1974: “And here is my own final statement on Riefenstahl's films: If you are an idealist, you'll see idealism in her films; if you are a classicist, you'll see in her films an ode to classicism; if you are a Nazi, you'll see in her films Nazism.”

  5. It was Genet, in his novel Funeral Rites, who provided one of the first texts that showed the erotic allure fascism exercised on someone who was not a fascist. Another description is by Sartre, an unlikely candidate for these feelings himself, who may have heard about them from Genet. In La Mort dans I'âme (1949), the third novel in his four-part Les Chemins de la liberté, Sartre describes one of his protagonists experiencing the entry of the German army into Paris in 1940: “[Daniel] was not afraid, he yielded trustingly to those thousands of eyes, he thought ‘Our conquerors!’ and he was supremely happy. He looked them in the eye, he feasted on their fair hair, their sunburned faces with eyes which looked like lakes of ice, their slim bodies, their incredibly long and muscular hips. He murmured: ‘How handsome they are!’ … Something had fallen from the sky: it was the ancient law. The society of judges had collapsed, the sentence had been obliterated; those ghostly little khaki soldiers, the defenders of the rights of man, had been routed. … An unbearable, delicious sensation spread through his body; he could hardly see properly; he repeated, gasping, ‘As if it were butter—they're entering Paris as if it were butter.’ … He would like to have been a woman to throw them flowers.”


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2045

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.

Eric Rentschler (essay date fall 1985)

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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 Boot.

Das Boot, featuring a World War II U-boat commander nicknamed Der Alte who refuses to give the Heil Hitler salute, coats a Konrad Adenauer veneer of humanism on fascist soldiers and sailors. This film presents a reassuring image of wartime Germans that our administration believes to be accurate: most were conscripts drafted to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis.

Carrie Rickey1

What happened in the past is too monstrous for us to be able to forget it or to domesticate it ridiculously with our Sunday speeches. If wounds would not always open up and bleed anew, as long as we live, how should we live with them? All honour to politicians who help in this direction with an honest heart.

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg2

From an AT&T advertisement: “On taking leave of Germany … and his teammates. His tour of duty was over. This was his final good-bye. He remembered all the good times, the joking and that special closeness that comes from sharing not only victory, but defeat.

As he shook hands with Willi, Rolf, Dieter and the others, he realized they had become brothers. And that was something he'd never forget.”

Time Magazine, 27 May 1985

‘Reagan is emotional,’ an anonymous adviser said in recalling why the President did not want to visit a concentration camp. He said, ‘Oh God, I know about (the Holocaust), but do I have to see it?’

quoted in Los Angeles Times, 6 May 19853


I want to undertake a journey in time, to track a text in a number of contexts, to trace German film history through various epochs, to traverse the larger field of German history as imaged in a series of different spaces and settings. What I have in mind is an exercise in intertextuality. This does not mean, though, a simple play with texts and their recycling, an attempt to pinpoint certain borrowings and influences, a study of creative and promiscuous recourse to tradition. This essay has a curious trajectory, one that will take us from the Nazi Party Congress of 1934 to postwar Adenauer Germany, from there to a look at returned soldiers from the World War I trenches on the streets of Berlin, and, stepping back in time a step further, to a small town's tribute to those who died during the Great War, before, in conclusion, moving to the present, reliving a celebration devoted to forty years of peace since 1945. The five examples I will be using include a documentary by Leni Riefenstahl, a short film by Straub/Huillet, epic features by Fassbinder and Reitz, and the ABC News coverage of President Reagan's visit to Bitburg. In each case we will come upon similar elements: a song, a performance, a spectacle. The song to which I am referring is “I Once Had a Comrade,” a tune from the 19th century commonly used throughout German history during military ceremonies. In essence, then, we will consider five adaptations of the same song and seek to comprehend how each performance imparts to it different meanings, providing five distinct adaptations of history. These five examples, so I hope, likewise suggest in miniature something like an overview of New German Film, starting with the fatal past that spawned it, the initial critical resolve, subsequent subjective approaches to reclaiming history, more current lapses into a less acute sensibility, and, finally, the imposing and continuing challenges to those seeking to capture memory and preserve a regard for the special terms of German experience today. The article could well bear the title “From Triumph of the Will to Bitburg: New German Film and the Specter of the Past.” But I do not need to be so shameless; the history I will be recounting is shameless enough.

Any attempt to generalize about national cinema presupposes, as Philip Rosen suggests, a certain intertextuality to which one attributes a particular “historical weight,” a shared nexus of patterned meanings, generic formulas, socio-political impulses and influences, as well as a common cultural existence.4 I have previously argued that the most crucial project of New German Film over the last two plus decades has been a forwarding of discourse in the face of ready-made history, a battle that has involved a struggle against the dominant cinema in Germany and its investment in a bankrupt legacy, a conscious resolve to challenge the establishment media and their hold over the circulation of fantasy wares and information, and, finally, a continuing awareness of how American occupation has colonized and shaped German public images and private dreams.5 The strength of New German Film comes from its variety and heterogeneity, the many different ways in which it seeks to engage the past and address the present. In this endeavor these filmmakers have stimulated a regard for the powers of imagination, memory, and subjectivity, all of which function as potential sources of resistance against the mechanisms that stifle human response, vitiate public and private experience, and hinder the open flow of information and ideas.

Eccentric agents of historical memory, New German directors represent a wide spectrum of formal possibilities, ranging from Brechtian concepts of distanciation and epic realism to self-indulgent narratives that frame private obsessions against wider backdrops. One finds markedly documentary attempts at collecting forsaken bits and pieces lest they be consigned to the dustbin of history. Likewise, there remain filmmakers who couch their reclamations of history, however critically minded, in the trappings of straightforward narratives, hoping thereby to engage larger audiences. From Straub/Huillet's minimalism to Kluge's discursive willfulness; from Fassbinder's reconstructions of the past which display a profound awareness of their present significance to Syberberg's desire to exorcize traumas and evoke phantasms in acts of cinematic mourning; or, Sanders-Brahms' very personal account of a shared moment in time with her mother during World War II. One could go on at length: Achternbusch's attempt to atone for the death of six million Jews, Fechner's images of middle-class family life over many decades, Brückner's poignant revisitations of the 1950s and 1960s—among many others. And, to be sure, we might recount some less convincing examples of the same endeavor. And we dare not forget a growing number of commercial filmmakers in West Germany today eager to forego such critical and topical impulses for more accessible and popular generic models, people like Wolfgang Petersen, Hans W. Geissendörfer, as well as the large majority of the younger generation at work today in the Federal Republic.

Before I proceed to my first example, we need to take a look at the Uhland text that will be recycled in five different contexts. Originally bearing the title “Der gute Kamerad” (“The Good Comrade”), the poem was written between the 5th and 14th of September, 1809. Its three verses run as follows:

Ich hatt' einen Kameraden,
Einen besseren findst du nit.
Die Trommel schlug zum Streite,
Er gieng an meiner Seite
In gleichem Schritt und Tritt.
Eine Kugel kam geflogen,
Gilt's mir oder gilt es dir?
Ihn hat es weggerissen,
Er liegt mir vor den Füssen,
Als wär's ein Stück von mir.
Will mir die Hand noch reichen,
Derweil ich eben lad'.
Kann dir die Hand nicht geben,
Bleib du im ew'gen Leben,
Mein guter Kamerad!

A literal English translation:

I had a comrade, you won't find a better one. The
drum called us to battle, he walked at my side, in
the same step and pace.
A bullet flew through the air, was it for you or was
it for me? It tore him away, he lies at my feet, as if
he were a part of me.
He tries to reach out for my hand just as I am
reloading. I can't give you my hand, rest in all
eternity, my good comrade!

Only two of the examples I will be working with use the actual lyrics of this text. Nonetheless, each instance retains a sensitivity for the song's emotional connotations and the male bond dramatized in these verses, ones deeply engrained in the collective mind of Germany, lines that have taken on considerable resonance in the course of the song's endless performances at public ceremonies and military demonstrations.


This first clip, from Riefenstahl's record of the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg of 1934, Triumph of the Will (1935), comes from the tenth sequence of twelve. Staged in the Luitpold Arena, it provides a tribute to the war dead, an event whose main participants are Hitler, Himmler of the SS, and Lutze of the SA, plus an all but faceless cast of thousands of soldiers from both organizations. Although homage is paid to those who fell on the fronts of World War I, solemnly and dramatically, the sequence above all circles around other, more recent, casualties, namely the errant SA-members Hitler purged on June 30 shortly before the Congress. Three figures marching down a cleared lane, flanked by the faithful, laying wreaths at a monument for the war dead: an act of mourning, ceremonial in tone, subdued in its choreography, impressive in its grandiosity, straightforward in its presentation. The invocation of the song, “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden,” which we hear unclear as to whether it comes from an on- or offscreen source, is not only appropriate, but likewise telling in its suggestiveness. The memory of dead comrades provides a pretext for a double revision of history, an act of rewriting inherent in this seemingly direct performance.

The terms of this directness deserve closer scrutiny. Looking at this spectacle, the viewer gains the impression of witnessing finished events, fixed for all time, complete as they stand, self-enclosed and beyond question. The scene apparently leaves nothing out and demands no search for anything beyond what one sees.6Triumph of the Will in general and this sequence in particular amount to ready-made reality, a vision arranged in such a way as to deny all challenges and to answer any questions, an approach that disguises a construction as the natural state of affairs. Individual shots provide images of plenitude, yet remain exceedingly uncluttered: the compositional rhythms are marked by geometrical precision and an all-consuming architectonics. Every movement within these frames is controlled, be it the progress of the leaders down the wide lane, be it the deferent attention of the massed soldiers, be it the careful tracking camera seeking to encompass the procession from right to left. The shots, without exception, totalize, alternating between long-shot glimpses of the entire spectacle and closer, more emblematic shots of the Reichsadler and the swastika. Not for a second does anything appear uncertain or unexpected. This amounts to a triumph of a mise-en-scène both highly stylized and seemingly devoid of frills.

For all of this self-containment and imaginary persuasiveness, the film does not completely succeed in erasing its rhetorical bias, at least for viewers resistant to its intended subject effect, people who refuse to become overwhelmed by these sequenced events. I might add that not only National Socialists have succumbed to this film's allure; over the years, Riefenstahl's epic chronicle has engaged a vast community of cineastes eager to praise its artistic accomplishment.7 The mise-en-scène of the film in fact represents an attempt to overcome a possible source of discord, to heal some glaring wounds within the New Order. The emotional tenor of the evocation, the tribute to the war dead, by extension places Hitler and his minions alongside these comrades as their legitimate protectors now, ones who have intervened and replaced a moribund leadership who betrayed the front generation's interests at Versailles. Hitler marches as well among the ranks of the living, members of a nation reformed and reshaped by National Socialism, a compact and “united movement.” Likewise, though, the scene painstakingly works at demonstrating how Hitler continues to enjoy the trust and fealty of the SA, despite the recent executions of Röhm and his followers. This is the subject of a speech later in the sequence, where Hitler talks of the matter in a roundabout way, as “a black shadow” that has spread over the movement. Interestingly, the sequence images Hitler and Lutze at the memorial in a way causing the former's shadow to envelop the latter's, the two bodies merging, suggesting in two different shots that Hitler and the SA are one, comrades who march in unison amidst a united nation.

Another matter deserves attention and bears consideration in light of the Bitburg ceremony. For all the ostensible control marshalled by the film's director, an artist who had a vast number of cameramen and technicians at her disposal, not to mention nearly unlimited means and access, Riefenstahl complained bitterly about this particular sequence. She had wanted to track Hitler, Himmler, and Lutze from a small vehicle. However, she, as the director put it, “lost one of the most beautiful shots” because the SA would not allow her to enter the lane with her car.8 She had to move her camera elsewhere; the event admitted only certain perspectives and what she considered a more limited vantage point.

Images of plenitude which in fact reflect a circumscribed perspective, a revision of the past meant to legitimate a present order, a mode of representation aiming to eradicate all discursive traces for the sake of a fixed image of history, a choreographed procession meant to honor the war dead, but more than anything to address the needs of the moment: we have here in nuce the basics of Bitburg. This denigration of memory for the sake of contrived history, the white-washing of the past to dress up the present, likewise represents an abuse of the film medium painfully recollected and ardently eschewed by Young German filmmakers of a later generation. The systematic control of images and imagination in Nazi Germany remained an experience of seminal importance to the post-Oberhausen directors. In confronting a burdensome legacy, they needed not only to address German history, but also German film history, in a way that recoded the past in appropriate alternative images.


The use of the song “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden” in Triumph of the Will, far from merely illustrative, indeed contains interpretive connotations, even if they remain implied, not underlined, an emotional effect of an imposing event. Riefenstahl seeks above all a unification of the various elements at her disposal: composition, editing, sound, and movement. The implied response is determinate, the result of careful orchestration and planning, not intellectual or analytical, but rather affective and tangible, a response that implicates viewers in the diegesis, sweeping them up into the onscreen movement, erasing the distance between spectator and spectacle. Clearly, the strategy employed in Straub/Huillet's Machorka-Muff (1963) could not be more different.

The eighteen-minute short film first caused much controversy when it circulated in private screenings at Oberhausen in 1963, having been rejected by the festival selection committee. Based on Heinrich Böll's biting satire, “Hauptstädtisches Journal” (“Bonn Diary”), the oblique and elliptical narrative contains the reflections of a reactivated officer called to the West German capital by the Ministry of Defense. Machorka-Muff receives a warm welcome, word that he has been promoted to a general, and the go-ahead for his plans to establish an Academy for Military Memories, plans that have found official favor in the German parliament. Böll's story appeared originally shortly before the elections of 1956, in which the populace voted on the rearmament of the Federal Republic. Straub, in keeping with the radical and critical resolve of Young German filmmakers who had gathered in Oberhausen to issue a manifesto in 1962,9 was motivated by the memory of this event as well as its place in a larger history of militarism: “Machorka-Muff is the story of a rape, the rape of a country on which an army has been imposed, a country which would have been happier without one. What does it mean to make films in Germany, or rather, to make films against that stupidity, depravity, and that mental laziness which, as Brecht remarked, are so characteristic of that country?”10Machorka-Muff, in essence, is a film depicting the abuse of memory, at the same time attempting to activate memories in a way engaging them in a historical dialogue.

Making a film in Germany, for Straub/Huillet at least, means confronting the past abuses of image-makers in that country.11 It means a systematic negation of what movies have done in the past, a thorough-going challenge to the way films tell stories, to how they present history. As Straub is fond of saying: “Ninety percent of the films made are based on contempt for the people who go to see them.” Above all, this discursive alternative implicates the spectator in the narrative process, not as a mindless consumer, part of a captive audience, but rather as someone who has room to breathe and a chance to progress with the story, a story presented austerely, minimally, devoid of titillating appeal and cathartic pay-offs. Machorka-Muff barely manages to uphold the pretense of a fiction film: its amateur actors are stiff, the dialogue (in a Brechtian fashion) is spoken in monotone, the characters allow for no identification, the camera cuts suddenly and arbitrarily between spaces (e.g., Machorka-Muff leaves the hotel room, he enters Inn's car, and we see him back in bed at the hotel), thus undermining the viewer's sense of participating in an homogeneous and coherent diegetic field. Instead, the film displays a marked aperture, a constant opening up to the world as a polyphony of voices, a multiplicity of texts mirroring a distinct historical context.

Quite literally the film explodes as Machorka-Muff muses at the café overlooking the Rhine. Earlier, in the film's second shot, he gazed at the capital by night and concluded: “There are vital forces waiting to be released.” As he celebrates his triumph and peruses the day's papers, the film erupts into a series of articles and headlines from the conservative press, editorials in the Deutsche Tagespost, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt. The camera places the viewer in position of a critical reader, focusing with emphasis on certain key passages, channelling attentions through a series of texts which evoke the rearmament of West Germany, official and church apologias for the measure, and in general reflect a public sphere readily beholden to shadowy figures like Machorka-Muff and all he represents. This sequence interrupts the film's already marginal narrative, providing a break in the story's progression, time to pause and reflect about what Straub termed “the rape of a nation” and its legitimators, factors still operative when he and his wife made the film during the final phases of the Adenauer era.

As the General, garbed in his new uniform, dedicates the Academy for Military Memories, a place where historical revisionists find official sponsorship for their activity, the camera stresses Machorka-Muff's act of reading as a process, a labor. The entire ceremony takes on the appearance of a site of meaning construction: we see the band at work playing the obligatory song; we watch the mason carefully lay the cornerstone; we glimpse Machorka-Muff's solemn tap on the structure. The shots here circumscribe the event insofar as they present a close view of single activities orchestrated for a certain purpose. Put in another way: the sequence draws our attention to the fabricated character of this occasion, laying bare its structure in a double sense, both as a contrivance and a travesty.

One crucial image, a shot held for many seconds, essentializes the reflective and reflexive impetus of Straub/Huillet's counter-cinema. As the tune “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden” begins, the onscreen space remains empty, quite literally a tabula rasa, the “Leerstelle” spoken of by reader-reception theory, a blank space. This gap serves a number of functions. Just as the camera lingered over the General's uniform, studying its buttons and fabric in relation to the speech text in the officer's hand, thereby establishing a connection between a certain role and a certain way of speaking, the empty shot also imparts a dramatic sense for the grain of a text. We become able to see the music,12 to read its importance in this setting, to reflect on the meaning of this song and the tradition it implies, a tradition the Academy for Military Memories means to restore, a legacy that Straub/Huillet every bit as forcefully want to undermine. If the groundlaying sequence as a whole makes us privy to the enshrinement of those forces seeking to sand off the rough edges of the past, at the same time painstakingly showing this event as a human labor, it every bit as crucially involves the spectator in the construction, providing space to see through the historical fiction presented here.

The tribute to the war dead in Triumph of the Will amounted to something of a white-washing of history, a cleansing of the past, the eradication of “black shadows.” Machorka-Muff stands as a film seeking to resist these same forces still at work many decades later. Instead of whitewashing history, it washes the image white, pausing for a moment to allow the viewer to grasp the larger continuities at work, the insidious “forces waiting to be released,” remnants of a past still very much operative in the film's Adenauer era setting as well as Straub/Huillet's filmmaking present of 1962. Machorka-Muff was one of Young German Film's earliest signs of life; it remains to this day a critical work marked by history lessons and formal energies which can only evoke a profound regret for how far New German directors have come since then.


Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), with its amalgam of identification and distance, also engages an active spectator. Along with Max, the barkeeper, one of the director's surrogate onlookers, we witness the clash between opposing discourses, a conflict foregrounded as a battle between texts and their interpretation. Above all, Berlin Alexanderplatz stresses the personal resonance of “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden,” subjectivizing the song and the memories it evokes for the singer as well as placing this performance in a wider field of meaning, having it presented before a hostile group at a table and a sympathetic friend onscreen, and at the same time making the offscreen spectator privy to dynamics that go far beyond the single occasion. The altercation takes place in the second episode of the fifteen-and-a-third hour film; Franz has just found employment as a hawker of the Völkischer Beobachter in a subway passage. Outfitted with a swastika armband, he speaks with a Jewish merchant about the meaning of his new occupation. He then confronts his old buddies, Dreske and two others, communists with whom he used to run before becoming disillusioned. The scene in the bar, Franz's Stammkneipe, continues the discussion, bringing the disagreement to a head between individuals convinced of their cause and a certain vision and a single person surrounded by a world of conflicting voices, cast by material necessity into a role which he as a basically apolitical soul does not fully comprehend.

In accordance with the heteroglossia of his textual basis, Döblin's epic novel of 1929, Fassbinder orchestrates his narrative in a way meant to underline the place of his hero in a contradictory, confusing, and compelling world, a historical space bounded by different forces and influences, a pre-formed reality constantly being reshaped and continually providing a multitude of diverse possibilities and positions. Clearly a personal adaptation, Fassbinder's rendering involves one man's attempt to find his way through the streets of Berlin during the late 1920s, to mold a personal discourse in the midst of this clamor, to constitute himself as a subject despite the objective historical and social vicissitudes which stand in the way of this wish. Elsewhere I have discussed how the film dramatizes modernity as something of a vast slaughterhouse, in this way making Franz Biberkopf's life story a very violent one, a tale in which he constantly finds himself and his body threatened by outside forces and moved by uncontrollable urges.13 Reality and the modern world inscribe themselves on his body, leaving distinct traces of their workings on his person. The sequence at issue here involves Franz in a strategic battle, one in which he employs a series of texts in order to defend himself against possible physical violence. We become inscribed in the event as onlookers, at one level sympathetic like Max, hoping Franz will succeed, and yet at the same time, as an audience with a retrospective awareness of German history, able to discern the social importance of the dialectic here.

The sequencing and positioning of texts within the scene deserve close scrutiny. Dreske and his comrades strike up the “International” in an effort to provoke Franz. They then challenge him to sing along. Franz, hoping to defuse the situation, promises a song, in the meanwhile telling a joke. The short tale about a sandwich which does not allow for easy digestion is told while Franz continues to eat. It suggests in the wider terms of this narrative a body of experience not so easily assimilated, much like Franz's confrontation in the scene with his own past as a progressive. He then goes on to recite a poem, one written by a fellow inmate during his four-year sojourn in Tegel, a space to which the camera flashes back during Franz's recounting. This text as well bears notice. It addresses the various troubles a person has becoming a “male subject” in this world, the challenges posed by a state patriarchy, the vulnerable status of one's frail body. Earlier, Franz was asked repeatedly by a Nazi war invalid whether or not he was “a German man.” Fassbinder, as is well known, recycled the large novel as above all a love story between two men.14 More importantly, though, he shaped Döblin's novel in a way that drew attention to its historical dynamics, as an account of soldiers returned from the World War I front, like Franz and Dreske, trying to find their way through the streets of the postwar city, seeking to understand where the front lies in a 1000-voiced reality. On crucial and repeated occasions we will see how these male subjects do violence to each other—and notably, to women. The story's chronology begins with the beating of Ida; the discourse's end comes in the strangling of Mieze. In the present sequence, Franz's poem provokes comment, lending itself to criticism. Fritz tells him he should take note of what the state does to him, memorizing a few lines does not suffice.

Franz then capitulates to the emphatically repeated call for a song, not reflecting long before he begins to sing “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden.” In no way, though, does Fassbinder stage the spectacle in a straightforward manner. First of all, he links the present event with a performance earlier in the film, the moment where a confused and recently released Franz stood in a courtyard and sang “Die Wacht am Rhein,” thus establishing a connection between two moments of crisis, ones in which the ex-soldier takes recourse to familiar tunes and the body of experience they connote. The period Franz spent in Tegel, four years, parallels the duration of the First World War. The time behind bars and at the front involves affective relationships with other men, male bonds containing a strong emotional, indeed homosexual, dimension. The song reflects on the power of these attachments just as Fassbinder's rendering of it reflects on the undeniable element of unrequited love in Franz's relationship to his former comrades, people whose resentment appears akin to the jealousy of a jilted lover. Second, by his cuts to the group at the other table and its hostile silence, Fassbinder stresses the loaded atmosphere, unmediated, for the moment at least, by Max's kinder gaze. At the same time, though, Franz's recitation takes on the character of a private recollection linked to a war experience as well as a previous moment of trouble. The relatively long takes show Franz singing almost to himself, framed in a way that doubles his image, suggesting a shadow of the past and how it inheres in the present person. Tegel and World War I have left their marks on Franz and likewise relate to the world Dreske and his chums want to change.

As the situation becomes even more volatile, Franz lets out all stops and taunts the group with the openly chauvinistic “Die Wacht am Rhein,” almost provoking the fight he has so studiously sought to avoid. As the sequence comes to a conclusion, the music box in the bar (without apparent cause) starts playing the “Deutschlandslied,” yet another instance in which a single text reflects on the larger text of an embattled postwar republic and the general context of a filmmaker's desire to comprehend the special terms of German history in this century and to engage the viewer as an active participant in this exploration of the past. Fassbinder does this, on one level, by constantly shifting between the private and the public, moving back and forth between personal histories and a larger framework, always bearing in mind the retrospective advantage of the spectator in the present. On another level, he irritates the spectator by forcing an identification, at least in part, with a politically incorrect position, aligning our sympathies with a purveyor of the Nazi Party organ, creating a tension between our investment in the story and our knowledge of the larger history from which it is derived. This, of course, is hard to swallow. Like the sandwich described by Franz, the scene does not make for easy digestion; in fact, it keeps on coming up.

A central earmark of Fassbinder's discursive strategy remains the manner in which he shows how texts have a crucial shaping force, providing points of identification and sources of conflict. History for Fassbinder appears as a result of semiosis and amounts to a many-voiced phenomenon; his stories invariably contain a multiplicity of embedded narratives, just as his films, repeatedly and insistently, focus on protagonists desperately seeking to etch out their own story against the challenges posed by 20th-century German history. Out of the bloody spectacle of that past, Fassbinder fashioned texts informed by a discourse endeavoring—albeit in a style quite different from Straub/Huillet, one marked by another mode of address altogether—to lay bare the foundations of West German reality, to provide a relationship to the past which presupposes the standpoint of the present and which commingles both in one larger dialogical exchange.


Despite their clearly divergent formal strategies and visual styles, Straub/Huillet and Fassbinder both act as facilitators, engaging the viewer in a dialogue about the German past. In each case, the audience takes part in the construction of meaning, an activity fostered by Straub/Huillet's empty spaces for reflection as well as Fassbinder's dynamic notion of spectatorship, his inscription of multiple viewers both on- and offscreen. Machorka-Muff and Berlin Alexanderplatz suggest points of access outside of their respective diegesis, an inter- and extratextual space transcending the depicted fiction, an independent realm beyond the films' action and setting, in essence, then, meanings that are not fixed and determinate, but rather bound in a discursive relationship to the spectator and an economy with interests other than only providing pleasure and seeming plenitude. Do we find an equally active notion of spectatorship and historical engagement when we turn to Edgar Reitz's Heimat, without a doubt the most celebrated epic account of 20th-century Germany to issue from the 1980s?

Our expectations, of course, are considerable. The film found inordinate resonance when it first played on German television during the fall of 1984, a warm reception both by viewing audiences and media critics,15 almost (and I stress the word) universal praise for its rendering of German history as “a history of small people who live their lives in dignity,”16 a reflection of a nation's evolution from the end of World War I to the very present from the perspective of a village in the Hunsrück region. The work came as the culmination of Reitz's own career, the consequential product of a director, who, since the early 1960s and the beginnings of Young German Film, has seen himself as an agent of historical memory. I quote from his programmatic essay of 1979, “The Camera Is Not a Clock: Regarding My Experience Telling Stories from History”: “Film has much in common with our ability to remember. It provides not only the possibility to preserve images and events from the march of time, but also the possibility to merge the present and the past in a way which infuses the one with the other.”17 A film directed against what Reitz decried as the international terror of American aesthetics, the forces, for instance, which had coopted German history in the TV-series Holocaust,18Heimat was emphatically billed as an attempt to reclaim one's own past, as a film “made in Germany.” A mixture of oral history, evocation to the haptic realities of the everyday and their sensual concreteness, of Reitz's and Peter Steinbach's reworking of more than sixty years of German experience couched in images of a changing landscape, Heimat also concerns itself with the history of certain technologies, especially photography and radio, i.e., sight and sound, the essentials of cinematic medium. The question remains, though, to what degree the film allows for the reflexivity and retrospective powers Reitz promises.

The sequence of the war memorial comes from the first episode of Heimat. It is set in 1922, three years now since Paul Simon has returned from the front. In the midst of a ritual ceremony, the obligatory remembrance of those who fell during World War I and the dedication of a monument in the town square, we confront a disturbance. As the village band plays “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden,” we see an old man walking down the lane with a small monument of his own in hand, weeping as he supplies an idiosyncratic rendering of the song, replacing “a bullet flew through the air” with “a bird,” making the military tune into a folk song. Paul Simon, who escaped the fate of those being remembered, wonders who this figure is; he is told that it is the baker Böhnke who lost three sons in the war.

This personalization of the text contains elements reminiscent of Fassbinder. The song is linked to the body: the past has imprinted itself on the baker, leaving him with a sorrow etched on his face and the symbolic expression of castration clutched in his hands, the miniature monument that stands for the parts of him lost in the war. The subjective response stands at odds with the public demonstration, suggesting a dissonance between the ritual act of remembrance and the actual fact of human suffering, a disparity between the perspective of a mythic community and that of an estranged individual, an antimony between the organizational structures of public life and the lived realities of single persons. This is an outside perspective, one introduced by the gaze of Paul, an individual who throughout the sequence looks at the village with a growing discontent, and will later leave for America. The baker offers a moment of discord, a resistance to the codified containment of emotion; he, like Paul, has to go “outside” Schabbach to satisfy his sense of lack. A private slant on a public event, an audience engaged by an onscreen spectator, a figure who wears the past on his body like a uniform: in a number of ways, the scene is redolent of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Both films use the song as an expression of profound loss which has a jarring effect on its audiences.

The earlier portion of the sequence, prior to the baker's outburst, also seems to duplicate elements found in Machorka-Muff. We find before us a construction site, a piece of stone in the middle of Schabbach, as the ex-soldiers Paul and Glasisch Karl look on. The scene foregrounds the dedication as a production and a labor, concentrating on Eduard's choreography and the mise-en-scène for the occasion as involving an elaborate unveiling mechanism, the coordination of a speaker, a schoolgirl chorus and a local band. In cutting about the ceremony and tracking around the event, the camera allows for a sense of different responses to the spectacle: the affirmative gesture of a priest, the spontaneous cry of Hänschen Betz, the blank stares of some peasants, the ironic comments of others. As in Straub/Huillet, Reitz's direction provides a certain distance from the goings-on, one marked by humor and analysis as well as insight into the fabricated nature of the moment.

We witness the dynamics of the ceremony and the preparations for the event, at once feeling a certain distance and yet, at the same time, an undeniable bit of suspense: will Eduard's contraption work? Reitz scripts the ceremony so that we gain a realization of its wider connotations: we listen to the chauvinistic speech of an imported speaker, who voices larger social forces at work in the postwar landscape and a spirit of revision eager to rewrite the defeat of World War I as a triumph of heroic spirit, a pathos looking forward to a national revival and a new savior. Reference is made to the proliferation of such events and a virtual memorial industry—with the same ceremonies, the same speeches. Reitz, throughout the sequence, though, remains fixed on the village, embodying these tendencies at large in various denizens of Schabbach, finding individual representatives in each case for wider sociopolitical phenomena, echoes as it were. The microcosm of a small community mirrors the macrocosm of a nation. The passage gains its critical power above all from Reitz's privileging of Paul's gaze, a minority view of the community. The initial part of the ceremony will come to a close and at the same moment the downpour of rain will cease, a sort of ritual catharsis. The introduction of baker Böhnke after this indicates that there remain energies and emotions not so easily cleansed and purged. It is important that Paul relays our gaze to the old man, linking the perspectives of outsiders in a village of insiders.

Heimat concerns itself with the technology of seeing and hearing over the past six decades. It has a discursive narrator who provides an ongoing commentary at the start of various episodes.19 The film arbitrarily leaps from black-and-white to color in an endeavor to add an epic element to its workings. In its initial episode, Heimat aligns its narrative point of view with an individual ill at ease in the small village, critical of its narrowness, a character who looks at the community with skepticism and impatience. Unfortunately this marginal perspective, which works so effectively in the first episode, will be lost when Paul sets off for America. Curiously and tellingly, Reitz will forsake the critical gaze for the entire spectrum of German history from 1928 to 1955, not reinstating the outsider's perspective until episode nine, “Hermännchen.”

In the first episode, we also learn of the fate of another outsider living in a community of insiders, the difficulty encountered by Appollonia as a foreigner to Schabbach, her marginal existence in the town. She appears in a dialogue with Maria, the two speaking in a cellar, a subterranean space demonstrating the underworld of Schabbach, as the arrangements for the public ceremony are taken care of above by the town's men. Appolonia—like her only defender, Paul—will depart from the narrative. She will never be heard from once she leaves the Hunsrück. Schabbach and the homeland will, after this initial episode, take on the proportions of a closed system, lacking an outside perspective until much later in the film, displaying a markedly exclusionary propensity, a penchant shared by most of Heimat. The film, made by a director who once regretted how the German past had been colonized by American entrepreneurs in Holocaust, contains many funerals and acts of mourning. Oddly enough, the film all but ignores the major calamity of 20th-century German history, the genocide of the Jews. Even odder yet, though: a film that has started off so assertive in its distanced perspective, so analytical in its portrayal of the homeland, relinquishes that point of view totally when it approaches the Third Reich, exactly that juncture in German history where such a slant might prove most productive—and necessary.

If we mourn in Heimat, it is for members of the small community. The sweeping epic, so concerned with capturing a wide spectrum of human experience, allows much space for certain kinds of emotional demonstration and absolutely none for others. What we have here is a troubling mode of historical discourse, an approach bearing out what Saul Friedländer describes as a general tendency of numerous recent attempts to reflect on the trauma of the German past, namely a spirit of exorcism. I quote from his study, Reflections of Nazism, where he characterizes this exorcism and its motivations: “To put the past back into bearable dimensions, superimpose it upon the known and respected progress of human behavior, put it in the identifiable course of things, into the unmysterious march of ordinary history, into the reassuring world of the rules that are the basis of our society—in short, into conformism and conformity.”20Heimat proved to be successful in Germany precisely because it recounted the most disturbing portion of German history in a way that disavowed burdensome aspects of that past, abandoning the critical framework of the film's initial episode, confronting the Third Reich and at the same time evading it, neutralizing and concealing the experience of fascism while simultaneously binding the audience to the narrative by an undeniable appeal to their emotional persons and powers of identification—and definitely not their critical faculties.

The film may have served as a comforting domicile for a nation's TV audience, an experience that allowed people once again to feel at home with a notion that, according to Reitz, has in all epochs of modern German history suggested a “painful mixture of happiness and bitterness.”21 No doubt, Reitz has done considerable sugarcoating here. In the words of Gertrud Koch, a critic expressing a decidedly minority view in the Federal Republic: “What is being buried in Heimat is not the ‘simple truth’ of the ‘small people’ that morality does not thrive on an empty stomach but the precarious consensus that one cannot speak of German history without thinking of Auschwitz.”22 Hardly the inexorable agent of historical memory, Heimat, after a very impressive start, lapses. Ultimately, it served to foster a collective amnesia, dramatizing in a stunning way the forgetfulness that can lie in remembering. And here we are only a few steps away from the discourse of Bitburg.


Bitburg, ostensibly a public ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, was less a matter of remembering than a rewriting of history. Framed from its inception as a media event, President Reagan's visit to the small cemetery stimulated a wide-ranging controversy about the German past and American investment in it, about the kinds of questions New German filmmakers had so often addressed over the last two decades. In the midst of this gallimaufry of impassioned editorials, official equivocation, and pressure from the German government to go through with the planned agenda, one repeatedly focused on the graves of 49 Waffen-SS soldiers situated among the 1,887 German war dead in the Bitburg cemetery. Concerned spokespersons wondered why, in an ostensible act of mourning for the war dead, so many other war dead were going unremembered, an objection that occasioned Reagan's infamous equation of the dead Nazi soldiers with concentration camp victims. It is curious: as media experts carefully and thoroughly analyzed public response to Bitburg and plotted its potential ramifications, they said very little about the event itself, its staging, its mise-en-scène, its terms.

It seems appropriate to speak of the seemingly straightforward ceremony as a dominant fiction,23 the encoding of history in an all but invisible discourse, one presenting spurious harmonies while repressing all sources of potential disturbance and contradiction. Even the liberal press took things at face value, claiming, as John Corry in the New York Times, that “the significance was not in what happened, but what it meant.”24 Quoting from his commentary of May 6: “Bitburg came and went on television yesterday after dominating coverage of President Reagan's trip to Europe all week. On television, the visit to the German military cemetery was brief, wordless and, from the White House point of view, all that could be hoped: a solemn President simply placed a wreath against the base of a stone tower. There were few glimpses of demonstrators, and none at all, apparently, of SS graves.” This account ignores a host of considerations, naturalizing a demonstration that was choreographed every bit as carefully as Triumph of the Will, a public spectacle that unfolded in self-evident terms, which, nonetheless, if we look carefully, contains numerous signs of painstaking construction.

If Straub/Huillet and Reitz imaged commemoratory ceremonies as both human constructions and human labors, matters bound in a larger nexus of events, the ABC News coverage of the Bitburg visit gives the viewer the impression of being present while matters take their course with a self-understood obviousness. We hear nothing about the Reagan aide Michael Deaver and how he looked over the cemetery beforehand, checking the shooting site for the most advantageous camera angles. No mention is made of the change in plans that came after the public outcry: originally, the mise-en-scène was to have included numerous close-ups of the President, casting him in a star role, a role Reagan no longer wanted to assume after the imbroglio.25 If we see next to no onscreen audience but only players, this clearly reflects official choice, an exclusionary act that made Bitburg into a closed set and sought to eradicate all possible sources of spontaneity and opposition. What we have here is something akin to a scene shot on location for a commercial production: the onscreen actors march down the lane pretending that the camera is not present, taking part in an exhibition whose real audience is not there, just like a fiction film being recorded under controlled circumstances for future popular audiences.26 Peter Jennings expresses his thanks for pictures “provided by the combined resources of German television,” neatly glossing over the state of affairs. The images we see are the same ones screened on German television; they are in fact the only moving images captured of the event, the sole perspective allowed on the occasion by the institutional forces that staged it.

The visual style here remains deceptively simple and straightforward, in the main an extended long-shot pan to the left capturing Reagan, Kohl and the two generals as they walk along the north side of the cemetery and progress toward the memorial. A bit of zooming, some cuts that regroup the players, a close-up of a bugler: nothing seems obtrusive, everything appears self-evident. Peter Jennings correctly identifies the song we hear, even providing the original title in a heavily accented German. (Throughout his commentary he manages to botch a series of factual details: Stauffenberg becomes “Schlaufenberg,” the attempted assassination of Hitler of July 1944 is described as having taken place in Munich, etc.) It seems obvious: this song goes with this kind of ceremony, things could not be more natural. But they are not. In an event so carefully controlled and constructed, one that left nothing to happenstance, a drama meant as a symbolic demonstration of reconciliation, it seems appropriate to insist on deeper significance in this blend of a song and images. Riefenstahl, as we have seen, used “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden” as a simultaneous appeal to the war dead and the living soldiers, likewise concealing the recent deaths of other comrades and the reasons for the SA-purge. The Bitburg ceremony similarly rewrites the past, making the two heads of state and their generals representatives of forces marching in unison, individuals involved in a common cause. It is as if the spectacle were really celebrating forty years of consequential Cold War, an anti-communism that has united the U.S. and Germany as comrades involved in a struggle against the Soviet Union.27 Reagan's visit to the grave of the quintessential “kalter Krieger,” Konrad Adenauer, earlier on the same day seems in this regard only a fitting portion of a larger agenda.

It is crucial that no words are spoken during the Bitburg ceremony, that images are allowed a primacy of solemn persuasiveness. Reagan would go on to talk at the Bitburg Airbase, supplying an interpretation of the demonstration: “Our duty today is to mourn the human wreckage of totalitarianism, and today, in Bitburg cemetery, we commemorated the potential good and humanity that was consumed back then, 40 years ago.” Reagan's reading of the Third Reich has much in common with the mystifying popular historiography of the 1950s, attempts to absolve the Germans of war guilt by placing the blame on Hitler and his demonic leadership. I quote Reagan: “The war against one man's totalitarian dictatorship was not like other wars. The evil world of Nazism turned all values upside down. Nevertheless, we can mourn the German war dead as human beings, crushed by a vicious ideology.” Reagan is quite conversant with the language of exorcism, forwarding a discourse about evil and suffering which speaks stridently where restraint would be more appropriate, which casts its portrayal of the past in the form of anecdotes and stories lifted from Reader's Digest, which only broaches the question of the Holocaust as an afterthought, a response to public outrage.

The Bitburg ceremony signifies strongly in its absences: its exclusion of reference to the Jewish dead, its lack of protesters, its disavowal of those who died in the war against fascism elsewhere, its denial of the SS-graves—the latter being particularly conspicuous in that the TV news camera does not for an instance let us know where these lie in relation to the public figures, in effect literally disclaiming their actual existence by this act of non-representation. Otherwise so image-hungry cameramen did not record the unsettling events that transpired soon after Reagan and Kohl drove off. Two wreaths for the fallen comrades of the SS, hidden during the official ceremony, were placed next to the ones left at the memorial by the President and the Chancellor. Some days later, on May 15, Marvin Kalb published a story in the International Herald Tribune containing interviews with bystanders, claims from a young man that Germans and Americans were working well together until the Jews started making trouble, or the comment of an old woman that Reagan only stayed at the cemetery for eight minutes “because of the Jews.” The Bitburg cemetery visit was a newsworthy event. It is only in hindsight, though, that we can begin to reconstruct the larger picture.

Some concluding thoughts are in order. The Bitburg ceremony replicated a fatal past, both in terms of its presentation and its abuse of historical memory. It comes as the function of a dominant discourse seeking to eradicate all other possible interpretations, allowing only one set perspective, suggesting that this vantage point contains the definitive version—even to the point of absurdity. (The whole time the viewer has one overriding question: where are the SS graves and why do we not see them?) At previous junctures in recent West German history, the country's filmmakers have gathered together to reflect on important moments in a way forefronting the continuities between past and present, in a manner allowing alternative points of view. I am thinking here of collective productions like Germany in Autumn,The Candidate,War and Peace. Peter Jennings makes a poignant reference to the constant clicking of cameras as the four figures walk through the cemetery. Amidst these photographers were no German filmmakers. They would not have gained access if they had sought it. Beyond that, though, no one seems to have considered making a film about this event. (How easily can one imagine a Kluge-esque exercise about the difficulty of celebration in Germany, replete with documentary footage and expressive historical material.) Even if someone had, they would not have found increasingly conservative film subsidy committees and anxious TV-editors ready to support their undertakings, much less commercial producers.28

It is indicative of the devolution of New German Film that its most heralded reconstruction of the past since the death of Fassbinder bears more than passing resemblance to the construction of Bitburg: a similar sort of exclusionary practice, a lack of outside points of view when they are most needed, a predilection for anecdotes and pathos in place of analysis and retrospection, and, above all, a normalization of the past that has a soothing effect on the present. “Some old wounds have been reopened,” Reagan said in his speech at Bergen-Belsen, “and this I regret very much because this should be a time of healing.” Bitburg, like most of Heimat, illustrates a forgetfulness in remembering. The dominant and influential history lesson has not come from reflexive and irreconcilable souls like Straub/Huillet and Fassbinder; instead, as Carrie Rickey points out, one reproduces the popular mythology of Das Boot.

One German director, an individual who has gained notoriety for his passionate concern with Hitler and the forces projected into the figure, championed Reagan's performance in rhetoric frighteningly reminiscent of the Third Reich. I quote from Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's article on Bitburg: “The picture of the lonely politician who believes himself to be in the right: how encouraging that would be for democracy, which so often degenerates into the exercise of majority opinions, its politicians to the mere executors of majority transactions.”29 We end then with official history firmly and unshakingly enshrined as the dominant discourse, with few willing or able to continue the critical endeavor that was once the hallmark of New German Film.30 The present moment is not an encouraging one. With the atrophy of New German Film comes the decline of alternative images about West Germany, different modes of representing an experience marked by fatal contours and a continuing state of emergency. The present situation is one of no experiments, a state of affairs summed up quite well in a phrase uttered by General Machorka-Muff towards the end of Straub/Huillet's film: “Opposition—what's that?”


  1. “Bitburg Briefs: A History Quiz,” LA Weekly, 10 May 1985, p. 16.

  2. “Bitburg,” On Film, 14 (Spring 1985), 37.

  3. George Skelton, “Image of Blundering Fought: Can Eloquence Calm the Furor? Aides to Wait, See,” Los Angeles Times, 6 May 1985, p. 17.

  4. Philip Rosen, “History, Textuality, Nation: Kracauer, Burch, and Some Problems in the Study of National Cinemas,” Iris, 2:2 (1984), 69.

  5. See West German Film in the Course of Time (Bedford Hills, NY: Redgrave, 1984).

  6. Cf. Christian Metz, “History/Discourse: Note on two Voyeurisms,” trans. Susan Bennett, Edinburgh '76 Magazine, p. 21.

  7. Cf. Jeffrey Richards, “Leni Riefenstahl: Style and Structure,” The Silent Picture, 8 (Autumn 1970), 19: “Both in style and in structure, the films of Leni Riefenstahl represent the peak of German film-making, a peak which it has never regained since and perhaps never will.” For a survey of literature on Riefenstahl, see Sandra Bernstein and Michael MacMillan, “Leni Riefenstahl: A Selected Annotated Bibliography,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 2 (1977), 439-57.

  8. As quoted in Richard Meran Barsam, Filmguide to “Triumph of the Will” (Bloomington/London: Indiana Univ. Press, 1975), p. 54.

  9. Straub/Huillet did not sign the document. Nonetheless, they were in touch with many of the signatories and clearly acted as an influential example in the Young German Film's early years.

  10. Quoted in Richard Roud, Straub (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 29.

  11. See The Cinema of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum (New York: Film at the Public, 1982), pp. 5-6, particularly the filmmakers' comments regarding German directors and Fritz Lang.

  12. Cf. Karsten Witte, in Herzog/Kluge/Straub, ed. Peter W. Jansen and Wolfram Schütte (Munich: Hanser, 1976), p. 182. Witte describes the scene similarly, claiming the white passage allows “sound to have space to step into the image.”

  13. See “Terms of Dismemberment: The Body in/and/of Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980),” New German Critique, 34 (Winter 1985), 194-208.

  14. See his essay, “Die Städte des Menschen und seine Seele. Alfred Döblins Roman Berlin Alexanderplatz.” The article appeared first in Die Zeit on 14 March 1980. It was reprinted in Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Harry Baer, Der Film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Ein Arbeitsjournal (Frankfurt am Main: Zweitausendeins, 1980), pp. 6-9, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Filme befreien den Kopf, ed. Michael Töteberg (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1984), pp. 81-90.

  15. For an exhaustive collection of media response to Heimat, see Presse-Stimmen, ed. SFB-Pressestelle und der Abteilung Fernsehspiel des SFB (West Berlin: Sender Freies Berlin, 1984), 2 vols.

  16. Karsten Witte, “From: Of the Greatness of the Small People: The Rehabilitation of a Genre,” see “Dossier on Heimat” in this issue.

  17. Liebe zum Kino (Cologne: Verlag KÖLN 78, 1984), p. 106.

  18. See “Unabhängiger Film nach Holocaust?” in Liebe zum Kino, pp. 98-105. See also Andree Tournes, “Inquiry on Holocaust,” trans. Charlotte Vokes-Dudgeon, Framework, 12 (1980), 10-11. [See also the special NGC issue on Holocaust, 19 (Winter 1980). The editors.]

  19. Gertrud Koch is mistaken when she attributes to Glasisch Karl a sovereignty he surely does not posses. See her comments in this issue, “‘That's Why Our Mothers Were Such Nice Chicks,’” especially her claim that Glasisch Karl's introduction “evokes a rather conventional epic mode, the tradition of the omniscient narrator who peers through windows and into the hidden rooms and tells us how it really happened.” From the beginning, Reitz marks Glasisch Karl as a limited intelligence, someone obsessed by a woman he cannot have, an individual scarred by his war experience, a person who stands at the margins of the events, constantly seeking entrance to the mainstream of Schabbach's history. In this sense he is another example of Reitz's eccentric narrative personas, much like the boy Torsten in Stunde Null/Zero Hour (1976), someone who registers rather than passes judgment on what he sees.

  20. Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, trans. Thomas Weyr (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 106-7.

  21. “The Camera Is Not a Clock,” p. 109.

  22. “How Much Naivete Can We Afford? The New Heimat Feeling,” reprinted in “Dossier on Heimat” in this issue.

  23. I take the phrase from “Jacques Rancière: Interview. The Image of Brotherhood,” trans. Kari Hanet, reprinted in Edinburgh '77 Magazine, pp. 26-31. Rancière uses the phrase to describe “the privileged mode of representation by which the image of the social consensus is offered to the members of a social formation and within which they are asked to identify themselves” (p. 28).

  24. “TV: Search for Meaning at Bitburg,” New York Times, 6 May 1985.

  25. See David Ehrenstein, “Bitburg: A Film by Reagan,” On Film, 14 (Spring 1985), 36.

  26. Cf. Metz, “History/Discourse,” p. 23. “During a film-show the public is present to the actor, but the actor is absent to the public, and during the shooting, when the actor was present, it was the public which was absent. So the cinema manages to be both exhibitionist and secretive.”

  27. Jean-Marie Straub put it aptly in his “Text,” On Film, 14 (Spring 1985), 37: “The truth is that this old crocodile Reagan had wanted to manifest and celebrate there over dead bodies the solidarity and reconciliation of American capitalism with the capitalism of those who under the direction of Adolph Hitler launched a crusade against what they called bolshevism.”

  28. For one example, among many current indications, of the depleted state of things in West German film during the mid-1980s, see Helmut H. Diederichs, “‘Filmverlag der Autoren’ seit der Übernahme durch Rudolph Augstein,” epd-Film, September 1985, pp. 22-26.

  29. “Bitburg,” p. 37.

  30. One notable exception to the rule was Eberhard Rechner's three-part television documentary, Der Prozess/The Trial (1984).

Principal Works

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*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: Festival of Beauty; director and screenwriter] (documentary film) 1938

Tiefland [The Lowlands; director and screenwriter] (film) 1954

Die Nuba: Menschen wie von einem andern Spern [The Last of the Nuba] (photography and prose) 1973

Korallengarten [Coral Gardens] (photography and prose) 1978

Memoiren [Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir] (memoir) 1987; published in the United Kingdom as The Sieve of Time: The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl

Wunder unter Wasser [Wonder under Water] (photography and prose) 1990

Olympia [edited by Kenneth Brownlow] (photography and prose) 1995

Impressionen unter Wasser [Impressions under Water; director] (documentary film) 2002

Leni Riefenstahl: Ein traum von Afrika [director] (documentary film) 2003

*A re-edited and re-scored version of Das blaue Licht was released in 1952 under the title Die Hexe von Santa Maria (The Witch of Santa Maria).

†Riefenstahl's screenplay was adapted from the opera by Eugene d'Albert.

Linda Schulte-Sasse (essay date spring 1991)

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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 Jewish) groups. Although these motifs clearly pervade National Socialist culture, one can question whether, on the one hand, they are present in all of Nazi culture, and whether, on the other hand, they are unique to that culture. Already in the thirties and forties Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin offered analyses of Nazi culture that went a step further by concentrating on structural as well as thematic tendencies of fascism. Both thinkers address Nazism's attempt to break down the boundaries between the aesthetic and real life and the mobilization of technology for this purpose. Brecht enlists a metaphor of political discourse as theater to describe Nazism's destruction of the public sphere; Benjamin portrays the same process as an “aestheticization of political” life, engineered as spectacle for but also by the masses.1 National Socialism, like other forms of fascism, is of course far too heterogeneous and inconsistent to be reduced to any single strategy or set of motifs. Nevertheless, Brecht's and Benjamin's theorization of National Socialism points to the impossibility of understanding fascism without addressing its structural tendencies, without examining modes of address in its artistic and “political” texts as well as the institutionalization of these texts. This is not to suggest that predominant textual motifs are not important—only that they are inextricably connected to textual strategies and, in particular, to processes of aestheticization.

Yet rather than offering the consolation of a neat taxonomy separating a “fascist text” from a “non-fascist text”—and thus allowing contemporary critics to place National Socialism at a comfortable distance—a structural approach to the “fascist aesthetic” likewise opens a Pandora's box. The reason is that it automatically raises the same two questions as do content-based definitions, only with greater urgency: First, do the majority of narrative texts produced during the Third Reich qualify as “fascist texts” in any strict sense? Do they, in other words, break down the boundary between the aesthetic and life and thereby lead the spectator into an aestheticized activism? Second, do various contemporary (non-Nazi) phenomena that live off the same tension between reality and the imaginary and likewise attempt to transgress the boundary between the imaginary and the “real” then qualify as fascist? The latter is particularly disconcerting in its implicit suggestion that fascism, if understood in a structural sense, may be alive and well in American political discourse—which is increasingly determined by the dissemination of aestheticized images—and in many other phenomena in contemporary societies currently discussed as features of postmodern societies. Since 1945 the terms “Nazi” and “fascist” have been used so restrictively as to shed little light on Nazism's success in evoking a collective identity in its constituents, or so loosely as to signify a historically useless catchword for whatever its user opposes (and allowing this user to mythify the self as a romanticized opponent of the hegemonic order).

Before offering some tentative answers to these questions in the final section of this essay, I would like to reconsider the notion of fascist aesthetics using the quintessential articulator of the Nazi film aesthetic, Leni Riefenstahl, as my point of departure. I intend to examine, however, not her celebrated propaganda vehicles, but her two feature films, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht, 1932) and Tiefland (1954), as works that occupy the gray zone between films whose content, production, and distribution history render them clear examples of “Nazi propaganda” and films clearly dissociated from National Socialism or its antimodern precursors. The two films challenge rigid criteria of taxonomization, since neither can be branded a “Nazi” film in a specific chronological sense, nor can they be absolved from such a labeling, because they feature Riefenstahl as director, producer, and acting “star” and because they belong to the suspicious “mountain” film genre that Susan Sontag labels “an anthology of proto-Nazi sentiments” (76).

The process from inception to release (or rerelease) of The Blue Light and Tiefland spans a period from the early thirties to the fifties; whatever their appeal, in each case it pre- and postdated the Nazi regime.2The Blue Light, on which the leftist filmmaker and critic Béla Balázs collaborated,3 originally had its premiere in 1932 and was released a second time after the popular success of Riefenstahl's Olympia in 1938. Since the original film negatives were eventually lost, Riefenstahl gathered outtakes, redubbed the voices, and again released the film in 1952. Tiefland's origin is even more controversial, since it was produced during the war and employed Gypsies held in concentration camps. Riefenstahl originally planned a film version of Eugen d'Albert's 1903 opera of the same title in 1933. Although she began filming in 1940, various circumstances, including political upheaval, demands on her by the NSDAP, and illness, delayed the completion of filming until 1944. She was not able to finish editing Tiefland until after the war and after she had undergone “denazification.” Finally the film was distributed by Allianz in 1954, when it enjoyed “some critical success.”4

Public response to the two films has ranged from adulation of Riefenstahl's genius for “sheer pictorial beauty” (34)5 to condemnation of the films as transparent expressions of Nazi ideology. This disparity is consistent with the general assessment of Riefenstahl as either a genius victimized by her times or a diabolical manipulator. Perhaps because of this ambivalence she has been the object of a singular fascination among the public and scholars alike, as indicated by the use of such epithets as “legend,” “fallen goddess,” or “deceptive myth” to describe her. The controversy surrounding Riefenstahl can be summarized in two alternative positions: the minimizing of her “Nazi connection” based on an endorsement of the transhistorical sanctity of the artistic sphere,6 and, on the other hand, the insistence—articulated most vocally by Siegfried Kracauer and Sontag—that her entire career displays a direct connection to Nazi aesthetics and ideology, including her feature films with their romantic anticapitalism and semiotically charged use of landscape.7

For obvious reasons 1933 cannot be treated as a magic year in which all earlier art forms were aborted, and much can be learned by exploring Nazism's indebtedness to generic traditions, both literary and filmic, as Kracauer's and Sontag's critiques suggest. Like Sontag, I consider the exculpation of Riefenstahl as an apolitical artist merely in search of pristine beauty ludicrous. Nevertheless, restricting the issue to the terms of a binary opposition—whatever “side” one chooses—does not bring one much closer to grasping “fascist” textual strategies in a way that transcends an individual case. I prefer to eschew a personalized debate on the exaltation or excoriation of an individual and search for criteria in assessing the films that allow for both historical specificity and problematic continuities. In doing so I will propose an operative distinction between a fascist text and the more general category of a modern8 narrative that is informed by a certain type of antimodern nostalgia as a means of addressing whether—despite the thematic and cinematic continuities between Riefenstahl's fiction films and her Nazi propaganda vehicles—the former in fact contains inherently fascist traits. I will argue that while Nazi art and rhetoric are pervaded by a nostalgic longing for an ideal located in a vaguely defined past, this category does not suffice to distinguish it from other artistic forms.


The Blue Light, the first film that Riefenstahl ever directed, closely adheres to the “mountain” film genre in which she had previously worked as an actress and dancer, most frequently under the directorship of Arnold Fanck. In the film, the mountain girl Junta (Leni Riefenstahl) is considered a witch by the villagers of Santa María in the Italian Dolomites, since she is the only one able to scale Mount Cristallo without falling to her death. The village has already lost numerous young men to the lure of the mysterious blue light which emanates from the mountain with every full moon. The Viennese painter Vigo (Mathias Wiemann) comes to the area and, attracted to Junta, begins living in the primitive mountain retreat she shares with the shepherd boy Guzzi. One evening Vigo follows Junta up the mountain to the source of the light, a crystal grotto. Hoping to secure financial prosperity for Junta and for the impoverished village, he directs the villagers to the grotto, where they mine the crystals. Later, discovering her grotto ravished, Junta falls despondently to her death. The villagers continue living in prosperity and revere her memory.

In a recent essay, “Fatal Attractions,” Eric Rentschler carefully examines the complex history of The Blue Light's various incarnations.9 The original 1932 version surrounded Junta's tale with a frame story set in the present, in which the villagers tell her legend to a visiting honeymooning couple. Riefenstahl's reconstruction of the film in 1952 omits the frame. Thus, if one examines the evolution of The Blue Light, one ends up with two stories: one about Junta herself, and one explicitly about the modern world's relationship to her. The frame accompanying the original version creates, as Rentschler says, a tension between a modern present and a past lost to modernity. Although the modern couple is deeply affected by Junta's legend, a distance remains between the couple's present and Junta's nostalgic world. The appearance of the modern honeymooning couple is particularly conclusive, since the elision of the couple's gender distinctions through the aviator glasses and trenchcoats they wear and the woman's position at a car's steering wheel suggests a decadent Weimar culture with its threat to patriarchy, for which Junta's tale serves as “a needed corrective” (Rentschler 63). Yet the scene is more than just a commentary on Weimar decadence; it also provokes a critical commentary on a modern relationship between the imaginary and the real, for the imaginary reconciliation embodied in the story of Junta could hardly survive in the real world of modernity.

The loss of the frame in the 1952 version may deemphasize the distance between the real and the ideal, but need not erase it, since there still remains a disjuncture between Junta's legend and the timeless present to which her legend is addressed. With or without the frame, the film depends on a sense of loss of an Other space that somehow “used to be.” Yet both versions offer the observer (within or outside the text) subjected to modern pressures a compensatory pleasure in savoring that loss. Whereas the 1932 version appears evaluative in its perspective, the later version reflects a tragic, Spenglerian view of the struggle between the elemental and civilization, between a nonalienated union with nature and forms of alienation engendered by exchange value: the demise of Junta's realm appears lamentable but virtually inevitable. It seems the 1952 version cannot decide whether to be an anticapitalist narrative. Crucial to the film's ambivalent position is the sympathetic painter Vigo, who among the film's characters comes closest to providing a figure of spectator identification. He, like the spectator, is an outsider from a secularized world, and with him we explore the enigmas posed by the narrative: Who are the lost boys? Who is Junta? Why do they fear her? When Vigo shifts from observer to agent in the narrative (i.e., when he provides the villagers with the knowledge with which they can demystify nature in the service of instrumentality), he does so with the sincere conviction that the material gain will benefit Junta as well, promising her she will “no longer have to go around in rags and barefoot!” Without the sympathetic Vigo, the weight of negative semantic markers10 would fall decidedly upon the villagers (i.e., civilization), whose cruelty to Junta is portrayed as a kind of mob behavior. These sadistic tendencies, coupled with the villagers' repression through cultural mores, institutionalized religion, and superstition, colors the spectator's sympathetic response to their fear for their sons' lives. The society seems gleichgeschaltet, with the villagers displaying synchronized movement, as when three blackclad old women turn simultaneously to exchange hostile gazes with Junta. An irony lies in the fact that Vigo, the figure most responsive to the freedom from cultural repression that Junta represents, is simultaneously the figure whose actions destroy nature and Junta with it. Because of Vigo's dominant role, the story fails to provide an unambiguous space (either in the anticapitalist or the nostalgic, modern vein) from which the narrative trajectory can be evaluated. It also provides a commentary on the ambivalent role of the intellectual and the artist as agents in modern societies, since their intentions rarely coincide with the effect of their intervention.

I would like to pursue the question of whether either of these versions is a fascist narrative or in fact merely a modern, romantic narrative characterized by a tension between an instrumental, modern reality and something that is Other—be it nature, woman, or art—and by a nostalgic longing for that Other as a space of reconciliation, a space of redemption lost to modernity. Thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Max Weber to Jürgen Habermas have described modernity as compartmentalized with different realms of praxis, and since the eighteenth century the realm of the aesthetic has been treasured for offering an imaginary space of solace free from commerce, alienation, and the agonia of modern life. A constitutive aspect of fascism, on the other hand, is that it attempts to dissolve the boundary between the institutionally separated spheres of modern reality and to provide a space of reconciliation, albeit a Schein- or illusory reconciliation, within reality. The space of reconciliation otherwise offered by the aesthetic is expanded to penetrate all aspects of life. As Benjamin suggests with his category of the “aestheticization of politics,” the compartmentalization of modernity is broken down, and the aesthetic sphere begins to permeate others, including that of politics. It seems to me that despite Nazism's undeniable exploitation of the structure of modernity (and specifically its exploitation of romantic motifs), The Blue Light in both of its versions exemplifies a modern and not a fascist structure, in which Junta remains an inaccessible Other ultimately lost to Vigo and to the spectator who occupies Vigo's fictional space. In other words, although The Blue Light shares thematic and stylistic traits with many Nazi films (and different artistic forms), it lacks structural elements characteristic of a fascist discourse. While the same can be said of many films produced during the Third Reich, others have at least moments in which the boundaries between the aesthetic and the real begin to dissolve. I will return to this broader discussion in the third section of my essay.

A central example for the preservation of the imaginary as imaginary in the film is the metaphor of the blue light that can never be captured, i.e., made real within modernity, but can only be destroyed by modernity. Underlying the light metaphor are two allusions that support the interpretation of the film as a modern text. It can be read first as a demonic natural force reminiscent of the Tannhäuser legend, in which young men are lured to their deaths in the Venusberg. For the villagers, Junta is nothing less than a demonic and destructive Venus whose eroticism threatens their social order; the innkeeper can be likened to a kind of Eckhart figure attempting to protect his offspring from the lure of dissolution (Entgrenzung). Just as Eichendorff's Marmorbild contrasts Venus with the madonna-like Bianca, Riefenstahl's editing frequently juxtaposes Junta with Lucia, a young woman who represents domesticity and containment of eroticism, suggested by the contrast between the head scarf that tightly binds her hair and Junta's free-flowing hair. Yet the demonization of Junta is restricted to the point of view of the villagers (i.e., society), and the film's exposition strongly aligns the spectator with Junta as the victim of an internally repressed people constantly shown closing windows to shut out the light of the full moon, and thus the danger of eroticism or the dissolution of boundaries. The scene in which Junta is conspicuously left outside while the villagers enter the fortifying vessel of the massive town church illustrates how the community's Christian bonding serves to ostracize those outside the social order.

Second, the blue light, with its obvious allusion to Novalis's blue flower, represents a general romantic longing, or Sehnsucht, linked to woman.11 This Sehnsucht springs from an awareness of lack, creating a desire that eludes fulfillment and in being “mined,” to borrow Rentschler's term, is destroyed. The film displaces Junta, as object of desire, to the space of representation, and thus upholds the gap between the real and the imaginary Other that is constitutive of the modern. As discursive phenomena, Junta and the blue light remain a focal point of nostalgia standing in for a fulfillment, for a presence that can never be achieved. The romantic motif of language within the film augments Junta's inaccessibility. She understands the signs of nature, recoiling from Vigo after “reading” an apparent message in a crystal, but fails to comprehend Vigo's language, just as she utterly lacks comprehension of his “world.” Vigo appears to possess some insight into this modern structure when he remarks that “it couldn't be more beautiful” if they were able to communicate via language.

Stylized poses, filters, shadows, and other cinematic techniques work throughout the film to equate Junta with a Sehnsucht for that which is always already beyond the reach of the pedestrian being. Vision becomes a weapon with which Vigo captures Junta when he paints her, when he watches her sleep, and finally when he finds her corpse: “In a subjective shot that aligns the camera's gaze with that of the onscreen artist, we see how the male look virtually metamorphoses Junta's countenance” (Rentschler, “Fatal Attractions” 62). Rentschler draws parallels between the vampire in Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Vigo sucking the lifeblood out of Junta. While this reading is accurate, it should not be overlooked that Vigo's appropriation of Junta is simultaneous with his loss of her, and the final close-up shot of Vigo shows a tear rolling down his cheek. Vigo's role as the textual representative of the viewer's subject-position reinforces the nostalgic, aestheticizing effect of this text—an effect that undermines a purely fascist appropriation of the narrative. (It is interesting in this context that Riefenstahl's defense of her Nazi past consists in likewise restricting herself to the utopian space of the aesthetic. She insists that her art was untouched by any motivation other than the pursuit of “beauty”: “Whatever is purely realistic, slice-of-life, which is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me. … I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, by what is living. I seek harmony” [Sarris 394].)


As is implicit in its title, Tiefland has in common with The Blue Light the basic antimodernist constellation of civilization opposing nature. Yet Tiefland shifts the source of narrative conflict and aligns the spectator more decidedly with one set of values: in the film, the shepherd Pedro (Franz Eichberger) comes from the mountains into the lowlands with the skin of a wolf that he killed with his bare hands. He sees the Gypsy girl Martha (Leni Riefenstahl) dancing in the tavern of Roccabruna and falls in love with her. Marquis Don Sebastián (Bernhard Minetti) also sees Martha and proceeds to make her his mistress. Don Sebastián is hated in the entire region for his exploitation of the peasants, whose water source he has rechanneled to supply the cattle he raises. He also has large debts with the mayor and is thus forced to marry the wealthy mayor's daughter. In order to keep Martha at his disposal, he marries her to Pedro. When in the night of both marriages Don Sebastián comes to be with Martha, Pedro kills him exactly as he had killed the wolf. Pedro and Martha return to the mountains.

As a means of contrasting the structure of Tiefland with that of The Blue Light, I would like to draw upon Jürgen Link's analysis of what he calls “the social psychological drama.” This genre, which dates back to the mid-eighteenth century and includes both popular narratives and “high” art, is constituted by varying relationships between two central factors: social class and “natural human qualities” (121-55).12 Link conceptualizes these two factors as axes on a matrix, with each character in a given drama located somewhere on the matrix according to his or her specific combination of class and character: “aristocracy and evil,” “bourgeoisie and virtue,” etc. He analyzes how in later forms of the social psychological drama the ever increasing dominance of the “natural human” axis at the expense of the social axis coupled with the simplification of the former to a basic plus/minus “heart” scheme has led to a devolution of the genre to kitsch, which fulfills a socially affirmative function in its avoidance of social contradictions. In other words, modern popular narratives tend increasingly to define their characters simply as “good” or “heartless,” neglecting the complicating relations between character and social class addressed by a Schiller or a Lessing.

Tiefland can likewise easily be conceptualized in terms of the axes of social class versus “natural human qualities,” betraying an indebtedness to the paradigm of the bourgeois tragedy and its historical descendents in popular literature. The relationships in Tiefland illustrate how the film reproduces a configuration dating back to the bourgeois tragedy, albeit in reductive, sentimentalized form. The predictable inverse relationship between possession of social power and positive human qualities leads to typical, black-and-white characterizations. The dominance of binary oppositions makes for easy resolution (whether “happy” or “tragic”) of conflict. An element not generally found in the enlightenment tradition is the glamorized portrayal of figures whose enigmatic origins and life-style place them outside the social order. As in the bourgeois tragedy, the forces driving the narrative action forward are located largely on the side of social class, while spectator sympathy or rejection is elicited largely at the “human” level. Each character can be easily located on a basic scale from “good” to “evil,” a constellation carried to an extreme by the verbal motif of the “devil” linked with Don Sebastián and underscored by his physiognomy and behavior (defiance of moral laws). Moreover, social power and “good” human characteristics tend to be in inverse proportion to each other. Tiefland bears out what Link cites as another trend in the devolution of social psychological drama to kitsch: the reduction of unstereotypic combinations of traits that permit the appearance of an ambiguous figure such as Schiller's Lady Milford, who is unchaste, but still “good” (Link 138). Instead, Riefenstahl's film displays the most typical combinations possible: the lecherous, evil aristocrat, the honest miller, the “pure” shepherd, etc. With its traditional binary oppositions, Tiefland is far less ambiguous than The Blue Light in its assignment of value; the former belongs more unabashedly in the tradition of sentimental anticapitalism, linking wealth one-sidedly with materialistic values.

The same matrix does not work as well for The Blue Light. Despite the occasional tendencies of the villagers toward mob behavior, the characters from The Blue Light cannot be relegated to diagonally opposite ends of the matrix as in Tiefland, since the former, with its indebtedness to the romantic tradition, operates with ambiguities rather than binary oppositions. All characters are essentially “good,” although the villagers display narrow-mindedness and sadistic mob behavior, and Vigo unintentionally destroys Junta.

Thus, although the narrative elicits a strong sympathy for the mistreated Junta, no character is depicted as “evil.” Social class as a power factor is virtually absent. It disappears as a narrative factor, except as reflected in the degree to which characters display an “enlightened” attitude (connoting instrumentality, practicality, and progress, as opposed to naïveté and superstition), which implies formal education and exposure to a rationalized, secularized society. Instead, the characters are identified by their place on two central scales: one ranging from “superstition” to “enlightenment”; the other, from “alienation from nature” to “mystical union with nature.” The relationships between the two are arbitrary, for the most “enlightened” figure, the artist Vigo, also has a greater “feeling” for nature than do the superstitious villagers.

Thus, the failure of the narrative to focus on “good” vs. “evil,” but rather on irreconcilable differences, eliminates the possibility of a clear-cut resolution to conflict as in Tiefland; instead, the basic tragic conflict is resolved when one set of values (nature) nostalgically subjugated to another (instrumentality). The film contains a contradictory tension concerning a mystical union with nature and erotic attractiveness that would be impossible in a “social psychological drama” such as Tiefland.

In its valorization of “virtue,” its happy ending, and its triumph of heart over social class, Tiefland adheres more closely to a model—however sentimentalized—of enlightenment literature than to a model of romantic literature, as does The Blue Light with its ambiguities. Its story culminates not in the tragic loss of a utopian space as does the earlier film, but in its fulfillment (happy ending). Nevertheless, since the fulfillment offered by the text is a displacement into the imaginary and since it again relies on the tension between social modernity (inside and outside the text, i.e., including the viewer's modernity) and the mountain sanctuary to which the lovers flee, Tiefland also typifies a modern rather than a fascist narrative. Despite the significant differences between The Blue Light and Tiefland, both exhibit a modern structure in their narrative and cinematic privileging of one spatial sphere, the mountains, and of woman. The special status they assign to the mountains and to woman is analogous to the status of the aesthetic in modern societies as the sphere untouched by banalities and duplicities of everyday life.

Each film involves essentially two narrative spaces with only one figure (Vigo/Martha) capable of traversing several spaces relatively unscathed. The spatial constellation of Tiefland is actually triadic if one considers not only the mountain—lowlands opposition, but also the split within the lowlands between the spaces of aristocratic intrigue, predominantly the Marquis's stone fortress, and the peasant spaces, predominantly the mill. Although bound by social laws and lacking the pristine freedom of the mountains, the latter represents a positive force of community imbued with a closeness to nature; indeed, the mill is the locale in which the eventual union of Martha and Pedro occurs.13

The exhilarating effect of Tiefland's mountain scenes, which usually begin with an expansive low-angle, open-air shot of backlit mountains, cumulus clouds, and soaring birds, depends largely on their position in the film's syntax: they are strengthened by their stark deviance from the aura of constraint permeating the lowlands. The scene in which Don Sebastián first appears, for example, stresses visually the literally weighty force of social class. It begins with a long shot of the stone fortress, followed by a cut to the interior. The camera travels in a circular motion around the large room before revealing the Marquis in an oversized chair behind an oversized table. The camera's self-conscious dwelling on the Marquis's massive surroundings points not only to the linkage between the emptiness and coldness of the stone fortress and his character, but to his confinement in his stone prison and aristocratic coding. Throughout the film the castle scenes are marked by a preponderance of barriers: the latticework on the large doors and windows suggests imprisonment; even Martha's four-poster bed is draped by fabric that seems to imprison her while Don Sebastián constantly reminds her of his obsessive power over her. When Don Sebastián seduces Martha, we see only their shadows, dominated by the shadow of a lattice-framed door in the background, suggesting a spider web in which Martha is enmeshed.

Both films enlist the semantic traditions of water and wine in delineating their spatial distinctions. Massive waterfalls feature prominently in the nature scenes, suggesting Freudian connotations of “natural” sexuality and serving as backdrops for the “innocent” eroticism of the Naturkinder Junta and Pedro. In Tiefland water also becomes a significant narrative motif as the natural, God-given life-force of the farmers, withheld unnaturally by the despotic Don Sebastián.14 The scene in which workers divert the natural flow of the water away from the farmers recalls the picks that decimate Junta's crystal grotto in The Blue Light. No shot in either film clearly reveals the faces of the workers; if visible at all, they are shown from a distance or take the form of shadowy silhouettes. Each scene highlights close-ups of picks and shovels, giving the impression that instruments work independently, and implying an abstract representation of modernization, of instrumental forces at work.

Tiefland self-consciously aligns wine with the maligned wealthy classes and with sexuality. Don Sebastián signals his rejection of the mayor's rich daughter by insisting on drinking water rather than wine with her. His insistence, by contrast, that Martha drink wine with him constitutes his first sexual innuendo in a stylized seduction scene culminating in Martha's knocking over the glasses and spilling the red wine as the Marquis carries her off. The spilled wine becomes a visual metaphor of Martha's violation, representing virgin blood. The shot recalls a similar strategy from The Blue Light, when the plundering of Junta's grotto is followed by a jump cut to a circle of male hands joining in a toast. Again red wine spills conspicuously on the tablecloth below, suggesting at once deflowering and death, as Junta is sacrificed to instrumentality.

The redemptive space that is indistinguishable from woman in The Blue Light is inhabited in Tiefland by a male, Pedro, who shares a number of characteristics with Junta (as well as with the prepubescent shepherd boy Guzzi). Both manifest a mystical union with nature coupled with an absolute oblivion to the “ways of the world.” They also possess an unconscious eroticism that exercises considerable influence over others. In The Blue Light the repressed villagers channel this erotic attraction into a hostility absent in Tiefland, where Pedro is an object of playful female desire, as in the scene when he is positioned conspicuously at the end of a long rectangular table, at a distance from an “audience” of giggling peasant girls leering at him. Significantly, both Junta and Pedro are shown sleeping in strikingly similar poses: their bare chests are highlighted by an almost celestial lighting, their erotic, restless movements suggest an innate sensuality.

Despite his unambiguously male diegetic role as the agent who eventually appropriates Martha, Pedro is in some ways feminized. He is a nurturant figure when he, like Junta, serves milk (providing the third element in the wine-water motif chain), or when he nurses the unconscious Martha, rendering him almost a male counterpart of Klaus Theweleit's “white nurse” (1: 90-199). The softness of his features and curly blond hair suggest femininity, especially in contrast with the sharp. Mephistophelian features of Don Sebastián (cf. also the obvious male sexual overtones in the nickname of “wolf” the peasants give Don Sebastián, as well as his steer, from which, as the story stresses, he does not obtain material gain,15 versus Pedro's association with the lambs he is forever rescuing). An undifferentiated, not-yet-modernized society can be portrayed as androgynous.

The “wholesome” Pedro nonetheless lacks the qualities of enigmatic otherness that characterize Junta and that are essential to the structure of modernity, for he is too well integrated with the peasants as representatives of “civilization.” His relative social integration makes sense with regard to gender, for it is woman who has been “a receptacle for all kinds of projections, displaced fears and anxieties … brought about by modernization” (Huyssen 52). The role of enigma in Tiefland is again reserved for woman; Martha, like Junta, functions as a disturbance or what Teresa de Lauretis calls a “mythical obstacle” (de Lauretis 103-57). Their murky origins and their lack of “civilized” training place them in similar positions as total outsiders (Junta is called a “witch,” Martha “the stranger”). Just as it remains inexplicable how Junta mastered mountain-climbing, Martha “never learned” to dance but has it “in her blood.” Both exercise a mesmerizing effect on others, on children and adults alike. Moreover, they are the specularized objects on which the films' titillating effects depend. Although Martha is specularized throughout the film, nowhere is this more crucial than in the tavern dance scene, which exhibits ample evidence of how the innocence of Riefenstahl's characters “contrasts with the less than innocent strategies of [her] camera” in depicting woman “as an erotic presence and a seductive force” (Rentschler, “Fatal Attractions” 64).16 The scene begins as Pedro passes the tavern and peers through the window (traversing with his eyes a barrier to erotic pleasure) at Martha's body, fetishized by a series of shots fragmenting her body parts, which move sensuously with the rhythm of the music. Shots of Martha alternate with shots traveling through the crowd of lustful men, creating a frenzy that ceases only when Don Sebastián enters, closes the door, thus shutting Pedro literally and figuratively “out of the picture,” and appropriates Martha with his masterful gaze. The scene encapsulates the narrative's central events, when Pedro hands over the wolf's skin to Don Sebastián to obtain a “reward,” and when Martha feverishly shoves away a spectator who lunges toward her. But most importantly, it establishes Martha/Riefenstahl as the consummate representation of desire, as much through reaction shots of dazzled men as through her Carmen-like erotic presence.

One could scarcely find in film history a more typical example of the paradigm that Laura Mulvey put forth in 1975, in which the woman acts “as object of the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film … isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualized” (13). Leni Riefenstahl was in the unusual position in film history of playing a dual role as both object of the gaze and controlling eye behind it.17 Yet, particularly from a feminist vantage point, it is tempting to overstress the notion of a conscious decision behind Riefenstahl's self-fetishization, as I believe Ruby Rich does when she states that Riefenstahl “was granted ‘permission’ by the patriarchy to be privileged in its power in exchange for adopting its values” (208, my emphasis). It seems to me that Rich underestimates a possible slippage between the roles of object and controller, and the fact that the enunciating agency in a film is not totally identifiable with (or controlled by) the director or writer, but is located in a larger ideological apparatus.18 Moreover, precisely those readings delineating the affinities of Riefenstahl's early and late work to fascist aesthetics imply that she had “adopted” such values well before Hitler seized power. I am suggesting that—her opportunism notwithstanding—Leni Riefenstahl's project may not have been deliberate complicity with the patriarchy “in exchange” for privilege, but that an internalized acceptance of woman's role as object permitted her narcissistically to enjoy fetishizing her own body. John Berger has discussed the split self engendered in women by Western culture as comprising a “female” side that is surveyed by others (analogous to Mulvey's object of the male gaze) and a “male” side that constantly surveys the self being surveyed (analogous to the male looker [45-47])—yet only with the help of relatively recent feminist analysis has the complicitous function of these contradictory roles been articulated. I believe that Leni Riefenstahl's film practice exercises this very dual role and that it does not necessarily “play along with,” but naturalizes and relishes the objectified role of woman in patriarchy.

Through her own fetishizing camera work Riefenstahl/Martha remains, like Junta, an allegory of desire. Although Don Sebastián renders her an object of exchange (first with a Gypsy, then with Pedro), she nonetheless remains an elusive object of desire for him. Just as Junta is appropriated by male vision at the end of The Blue Light, Martha is finally appropriated by Pedro, again in a manner consistent with Mulvey's original paradigm: “[A]s the narrative progresses she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalized sexuality, her show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone” (13). As suggested by Mulvey's description, Martha's “redemption” comes at the expense of her eroticism (at least for the pleasure of the viewer), but likewise at the expense of sexual vitality in general. The exorcism of this vitality is achieved as Pedro kills the “wolf” Don Sebastián (i.e., bestial and merely possessive sexuality) to obtain his “reward” and complete the circular closure of the narrative. The film's final scene is a long, backlit pastoral image of Martha and Pedro walking in the mountains, turning so that they are walking with their backs to the camera, as in the romantic tradition of painting,19 into a celestial beam of sunlight. The scene despecularizes both figures, who blend into the overwhelming natural background and at the end of the scene are barely distinguishable. As they pass by, their gaze focuses neither on each other nor on the camera, but on space, giving them a glazed, exalted look, a look oblivious to the spectator and to the modern world below.

The trajectory of Tiefland carries Martha from a state of “unnatural” oscillation among spaces to a Heimat, a space of reconciliation where she cannot be contaminated by the alienation of civilized existence, where, indeed, her earlier social stigma (embodied in the villagers' mocking laughter) no longer matters. The unity of redemptive space and woman as the Other of modernity, initially present but lost in The Blue Light, is achieved in the course of Tiefland. Instead of the “real” woman being rendered an icon as when the live Junta becomes ossified in the form of a photograph, in Tiefland the icon of woman fused with nature (as in Pedro's vision of Martha's face projected against the clouds) is rendered “reality” within the text. Yet a consistent alignment of the spectator's position with Pedro (suggested by Mulvey's model) would oversimplify the dynamics of the film, since it finds its satisfying resolution in the distant projection of a unified male and female. The ending sublates gender, as woman's nostalgic function gives way to that of the united couple enshrined in a state of premodern harmony. This is not to say that the film in any way disrupts a patriarchal discourse, but that Pedro's (and the spectator's) desire for Martha gives way to the spectator's desire for the harmony they as a unit represent. The final composition, which shows the couple's backs to the camera, allows them to function as a (united) surrogate viewer for the spectator, who looks into the distance with them. Yet they remain decidedly at a distance inaccessible to the spectator; thus, as in The Blue Light, the space of reconciliation remains imaginary, distant from the “lowlands” of the narrative and of the spectator, which are necessarily characterized by alienation and social divisiveness. Hence the space of solace offered by each film is defined as a geographic one—following the mountain film genre—and as a temporal one. The films' mountain regions preserve an unalienated existence that—as a projected, imaginary state—cannot be located in any specific time or place, but in a distant and imprecise past characterized most crucially by its freedom from the modern pressures against which conservative movements from the mid-nineteenth century through the Third Reich reacted.


Is there, as Kracauer and Sontag suggest, a linear route from glaciers to Gleichschaltung; that is, does the fascination with the elemental common to these and other “mountain” films bear a direct relation to Nazi ideology? Of the two films I have discussed, The Blue Light in my view comes closer to a fascist aesthetic precisely in the ambiguity with which it regards the relationship between instrumentality and idealism, between the rational and the sentimental. Through its refusal to negate either position (to relegate either to the “minus heart” side of the matrix), the film flirts with the possibility of transgressing the institutional boundary between the imaginary and the real that I claimed at the beginning of this essay as constitutive of a fascist aesthetic. Or, more precisely, it does not reproduce the split of the real and the imaginary on the diegetic level in order to reconcile this very split at the end, as do popular narratives that are more narrowly modern. By refusing reconciliation on the diegetic level (which would displace the possibility of such a reconciliation into the imaginary), the film seems to insist on a mimetic evaluation of reality, because that which comes close to a unity with nature is doomed to be destroyed. It is Junta's “mors ex machina” (Jürgen Link) that prevents the text from offering a merely imaginary reconciliation of modern tensions, although the ideal thus retreats to a nostalgic distance, remaining, to use Lacan's term, an objet a. This ultimately is a critical commentary on modernity—a commentary that could easily be associated with a search for a “real” redeemer. Tiefland, on the other hand, with its roots in a sentimentalized enlightenment tradition, maintains a greater distance from a fascist aesthetic, since it clearly upholds its separation of the rational and sentimental. Running the risk of sounding as though I wished to impute a certain intention to the film, I would go so far as to suggest that Tiefland reflects the ideology of the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany with its rationalistic orientation. Such a structure depends on the complementary relationship of a rationalized reality and the possibility of an imaginary retreat to sentimentality through art and specifically through narrative. Even with Tiefland's heinous production history, the imaginary reconciliation offered by the film fully accords with the function of the sentimental in a society based on an enlightenment tradition.

I would thus strongly question whether there exists a necessary connection between films of the “mountain” genre and National Socialism—despite the recurrence of these motifs in Nazi art and the fact that in the context of the Third Reich and its precursors the films reinforced a dangerous antimodernism and could thus be mobilized to function as part of a broad propaganda apparatus. The step from The Blue Light or Tiefland to Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935) with its (in)famous opening scene rendering Hitler a celestial and all-pervasive presence emerging from the clouds is indeed a logical one. The crucial difference is that Triumph of the Will clearly does transgress the boundaries of the imaginary, merging the political and the aesthetic, and permitting the individuals attending the rally and those reliving it through the technological apparatus the experience of a collective decentering (Entgrenzung). National Socialism would, of course, have been unthinkable without all the genres, movements, and images from which it borrowed; it builds on a foundation of modernism and uses nostalgia to “colonize the fantasy life” (Rentschler) of its constituency. But it goes beyond this by trying to introduce the imaginary into the public sphere, by conflating the imaginary with modern reality, as Riefenstahl's narrative films—even The Blue Light—do not. To be sure, The Blue Light exhibits, as Rentschler points out, the “kitsch of death,” which Saul Friedländer considers the bedrock of Nazi aesthetics.20 Yet the “kitsch of death,” while indeed a favorite topos and image in Nazi films, derives from other movements stressing the search for decentering experiences, such as European aestheticism. Examples of a “kitsch of death” predating Nazism are Heinrich Mann's Göttinnen (1903), whose protagonist, Violante d'Assy, dies in a state of intoxication (Rausch) having become a work of art, or the popular nineteenth-century icon of the dead girl from the Seine. Again, National Socialism turns the “kitsch of death” experience into something real, inspiring and organizing people to march intoxicated to their own deaths; it dissolves the distinction between the imaginary and the real, translating the mass ornament into a mass event. Whereas traditionally the instrumental is opposed to decentering experiences, it is here that I see the category of the instrumental as crucial: the mass experience of intoxication can only be orchestrated with careful planning. The transgression of the separate realm of the aesthetic, or, more precisely, the introduction of the aesthetic into reality, requires an actual mediation of the instrumental and decentering experiences in a new mode of the political.

I would like to return to the questions I posed at the outset regarding the degree to which a structural definition of a fascist text overlaps with the historical phenomenon of National Socialism. The first question was whether the majority of “entertaining” film narratives produced during the Third Reich can be considered “fascist texts,” if this is to mean anything more than having been produced under a fascist state. I believe an attempt to suggest that all Nazi films should be “fascist” leads to the dead end of regarding the Nazi takeover in 1933 as a sudden break or historical aberration, as a cultural revolution more radical than has ever occurred in history. It would lead us back to the Hull and Leiser21 positions because of which most scholarship on Nazi cinema has advanced considerably. Apart from the fact that propaganda minister Goebbels's film policies favored a high proportion of entertainment films over directly political films, it would have been indeed unique if an entire narrative tradition had been overturned in a mere twelve years.

However, without getting involved in the quagmire of categorizing Nazi films as “P” (politisch = political), “H” (heiter = comedies), or “E” (ernst = serious) as did Gerd Albrecht in the late sixties, I contend that a reasonable percentage of Nazi feature films do have at least moments that transgress the boundaries between the imaginary and real life and aestheticize the political through extradiegetic references. As accessible examples I would cite Request Concert (Wunschkonzert, 1940) with its transcendence of physical space and its spiritual reunification of a dispersed German community through the memory of the 1936 Olympics (which it presents through documentary footage) and through the radio, or The Great Love (Die grosse Liebe, 1942), where the spectacles Zarah Leander orchestrates fulfill a similar function. Although they make no direct reference to events outside of their textual boundaries, any of the “genius” biographic films produced in the early forties could likewise transgress the imaginary, since all construct aestheticized images of Germany's cultural past to create a sense of collective identity in the present, to inspire the spectator to celebrate the consciousness of being “German”—a consciousness that can be carried beyond the theater.22 While the merging of the aesthetic and the “real” in the preceding examples fosters an illusory harmony, the same strategy can function to fortify opposition to an Other, as in Jew Süss (Jud Süss, 1940) with its concluding exhortation, “keep our race pure.” Steve Neale has suggested how the exhortation breaks the boundaries of classical narrative closure and connects the imaginary with the world of the spectator: “[I]t aligns the subject as in a position of struggle vis-à-vis certain of the discourses and practices that have been signified within the text, and signified in such a way as to mark them as existing outside and beyond it” (31). I believe Neale's definition of propaganda can be linked with the Benjaminian analysis of how fascism erases boundaries, in that it posits as fundamental to the propagandist text the attempt to rupture textual boundaries, in contrast to the classical realist text, which marks closure as closure and demarcates “a definite space and distance between the text and the discourses and practices around it. [Propaganda] is … a continual process of marking the discourses and practices signified within the text as existing outside it, and as existing outside it in conflict” (31).

The second “automatic” question was whether the term fascist, if understood in a structural sense, can be extended to include contemporary phenomena that blur the distinction between reality and the imaginary. Such an application is to be sure problematic, given the inflationary and hence trivializing manner in which the term has been wielded, particularly in the sixties and seventies. Again, let me stress that National Socialism represented the intersection of far too many historical, economic, social, and psychological factors to permit a simplistic analogy with any other historical conjuncture. Nevertheless, it is worth considering structural similarities between National Socialism's attempt to aestheticize political life and the tendencies in a wide range of discourses in contemporary societies today to generate a sense of public euphoria and well-being, usually through images and sounds produced by the electronic media. Just as in Triumph of the Will “reality” was staged for the purpose of spectacle, current political acts are likewise staged for aesthetic reproduction, with the difference that today's political spectacles can be conveyed instantaneously.23 This increasing dependency on spectacle and imaginary dissolution extends from political imagery and televised news to commercials, televised religion, sports events, rock concerts, and music videos. It works to undermine reasonable debate and foster an intermittent state of anesthesia, or what Brecht called “sleepwalking.” Particularly in the cases of political discourse and televised religion, pervasive imagery elides the distinction between public icon and private “friend,” to the effect of affirming faith in a leader figure. Although there could scarcely be two political figures with more different leadership styles than the demagogical hysteric Hitler and the relaxed, intimate, pseudo-pal Ronald Reagan, the similarity of Reagan as an actor and Hitler's training by an actor points to the importance of aesthetic illusion for the success of both men, expressed by Brecht in a reference to Hitler and easily applicable to Reagan (or almost any other modern politician):

Let's observe above all the way he acts while delivering his big speeches that prepare or justify his slaughters. You understand, we have to observe him at that point where he wants to make the public feel with him and say: yes, we would have done the same thing! In short: where he appears as a human being and wants to convince the public that his actions are simply human and reasonable, and thus to give him their blessing. That is very interesting theater!


A crucial difference is that while modern political leaders, particularly in the United States, reinforce a sense of euphoric membership in a collective (one that is strongly invoked in selective moments such as the seizing of hostages or other acts subsumable under “terrorism”), this collective is paradoxically characterized by an ideology of individualism that generally precludes the kind of unqualified subservience demanded of Hitler's constituents. Moreover, in the United States the aestheticization of politics tends to engender political passivity (reflected in extremely low participation in elections in the U.S.) rather than the activism that characterized National Socialism. Although an allegation that any modern society today repeats the National Socialist experience would be absurd, many societies—and precisely those most technologically advanced—exhibit processes of aestheticization that foster a public so homogenized as to realize the Nazi notion of Gleichschaltung beyond its potential in the 1930s and 1940s. Such a conception of “fascist” tendencies may allow us to address a continuity that is more problematic than ever.


  1. See, for example, Brecht, 501-657, and Benjamin, “Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit,” 471-508, and “Pariser Brief,” 482-95.

  2. Riefenstahl planned both a ballet version and a remake of The Blue Light in England with Pier Angeli and Lawrence in the roles of Junta and Vigo respectively. Neither came about.

  3. Riefenstahl expunged his name from the credits in later releases of the film.

  4. See Courtade and Cadars, 240-41. For a detailed account of the film's arduous production history, see Hinton, 83-106, Berg-Pan, 163-75, and Riefenstahl, Memoiren, 216-20, 354-71, 515-19. Jean Cocteau prepared French subtitles for the film.

  5. Marguerite Tazelaar in the New York Herald Tribune, May 9, 1934; as quoted in Infield, 34.

  6. Cf., for example, Kevin Brownlow's comments, as quoted in Rentschler: “Art transcends the artist. … politics and art must never be confused. … these old adages are forgotten instantly when the name of Riefenstahl is raised. And it is our fault. We have ourselves been the victims of insidious propaganda.”

  7. See Kracauer and Sontag.

  8. I would like to clarify my use of the term “modern,” lest it be confused with “modernist,” a term often used to refer to a type of text whose content and form are conceived in opposition to bourgeois culture. By “modern” I mean instead a narrative structure for which a gap between the real and the imaginary is constitutive. The resultant nostalgic, romantic mood of many modern texts is not characterized by an awareness of and critical reflection on the gap between the aesthetic and reality (thus “romantic” does not refer to early German romanticism, which indeed had a limited awareness of this gap). I, of course, do not mean to classify modern texts as a whole but to point to a recurrent prototype found in high culture and especially prevalent in popular culture.

  9. I am indebted to this article for many insights regarding The Blue Light. Indeed, my own essay began in its earliest stage as a conference response to Rentschler's reading of the film.

  10. A. J. Greimas's term “semantic markers” has been applied by Jürgen Link and others in charting the structure of a narrative according to the positive and negative traits of its characters. “Plus” and “minus” signs signify possession or lack of qualities: e.g., “plus materialistic” typically combines with “minus heart.”

  11. Cf. Rentschler's description of the crystal grotto as “womblike” in “Fatal Attractions” (64).

  12. All translations from the Link essay are my own.

  13. The peasants in Tiefland take on allegorical dimensions as forces of nature at the film's conclusion. With their black capes flapping ominously in the stormy wind, the village men function like a Greek chorus, observing and prodding Don Sebastián to his fate.

  14. Water assumes a different connotation when Martha is first admitted to Don Sebastián's castle, and a subjective shot leads through massive gates to a symmetrically placed fountain, against which she is subsequently positioned. The fountain with its playful waste of water channeled into an ornamental design again serves as a contrast to the “natural” flow of water in the mountains, and also suggests a kind of recreational sexuality, calling to mind the sexual romping of Freder and a playmate around a similar fountain in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).

  15. Indeed, Don Sebastián's obsession with the steers reveals a “sick” egotism (riddled with erotic implications), since his financial destitution is at least in part a result of his failure to permit his serfs the use of water on his drought-stricken farmlands, which would enable them to pay their dues. He puts the peasants in a classic double-bind situation: threatening to drive them off the land if they fail to pay their dues, and withholding the means with which they could do so.

  16. To be sure, Junta's gesture of throwing a half-eaten apple at Vigo's feet is a narrative act suggesting the conscious adoption of a role as Eve-like temptress.

  17. Perhaps for this reason Riefenstahl has been no less fetishized by some critics than by the camera. Cf., for example, Infield's description of her attending the premiere of Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935): “Wearing a white fur coat and a low-cut gown that revealed her ample breasts, Riefenstahl smiled and waved to the cheering throng”—this in a book written in 1976 and criticizing Nazism's “antifeminism” (3).

  18. See, for example, Silverman, 11.

  19. See Rentschler's “Fatal Attractions” for a discussion of Riefenstahl's (and the mountain film's) indebtedness to romantic painting, especially that of Caspar David Friedrich: “Like Friedrich, Riefenstahl transforms landscapes into emotional spaces, granting to exterior nature an interior resonance” (51).

  20. Also see Rentschler, “Fatal Attractions,” 59.

  21. I am referring to some of the earliest studies on Nazi cinema: Hull and Leiser.

  22. I have discussed this aspect of the “genius” film in “National Socialism's Aestheticization of Genius” and in “A Nazi Herstory.”

  23. For some interesting analysis of modern political spectacles in the form of “Gesamtkunstwerk,” see Rentschler, “The Use and Abuse of Memory,” or Jochen Schulte-Sasse, “Electronic Media and Cultural Politics.”

Works Cited

Albrecht, Gerd. Nationalsozialistische Filmpolitik: Eine soziologische Untersuchung über die Spielfilme des dritten Reiches. Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke, 1969.

Benjamin, Walter. “Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit.” Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 1. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980.

———. “Pariser Brief,” Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 3.

Berg-Pan, Renata. Leni Riefenstahl. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin, 1972.

Brecht, Bertolt. “Der Messingkauf.” Gesammelte Werke. Vol. 16. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1967.

Courtade, Francis and Pierre Cadars. Geschichte des Films im dritten Reich. Munich: Hanser, 1975.

de Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Friedländer, Saul. Reflections of Fascism. New York: Harper, 1982.

Greimas, A. J. Structuralist Semantics: An Attempt at a Method. Trans. Daniele McDowell and Alan Velie. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1983.

Hinton, David B. The Films of Leni Riefenstahl. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1978.

Hull, David Stewart. Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Huyssen, Andreas. “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other.” After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.

Infield, Glenn B. Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.

Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.

Leiser, Erwin. Nazi Cinema. Trans. Gertrud Mander and David Wilson. New York: Macmillan, 1974.

Link, Jürgen. “Von ‘Kabale und Liebe’ zur ‘Love Story’—Zur Evolutionsgesetzlichkeit eines bürgerlichen Geschichtentyps.” Literarischer Kitsch. Ed. Jochen Schulte-Sasse. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1979. 121-55.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975).

Neale, Steve. “Propaganda.” Screen 18.3 (1977).

Rentschler, Eric. “Fatal Attractions: The Blue Light.October 48 (1989): 47-68.

———. “The Use and Abuse of Memory: New German Film and the Discourse of Bitburg.” New German Critique 36 (1985): 67-90.

Rich, Ruby. “Leni Riefenstahl: The Deceptive Myth.” Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film. Ed. Patricia Erens. New York: Horizon, 1979.

Riefenstahl, Leni. Memoiren. Munich: Alfred Knaus, 1987.

Sarris, Andrew, comp. Interviews with Film Directors. Indianapolis: Bobbs, 1967.

Schulte-Sasse, Jochen. “Electronic Media and Cultural Politics in the Reagan Era: The Attack on Libya and Hands across America as Postmodern Events.” Cultural Critique 8 (1987-88): 123-52.

Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “National Socialism's Aestheticization of Genius: The Case of Herbert Maisch's Friedrich Schiller—Triumph eines Genies.Germanic Review, forthcoming.

———. “A Nazi Herstory: The Paradox of Female Genius in G. W. Pabst's Neuberin Film, Komödianten (1941).” New German Critique 50 (1990): 57-84.

Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, 1972.

Theweleit, Klaus. “The White Nurse.” Male Fantasies. Trans. Steven Conway. Vol. 1. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987. 90-199.

David B. Hinton (essay date 1991)

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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, the founder of the “mountain film” genre so important to the German cinema during the 1920's and 1930's.

Forgotten today in his native Germany and neglected in most film histories, Dr. Fanck is nevertheless one of the most colorful figures in German film history. He was one of those early film pioneers who stumbled into the new art form rather than passionately seeking it out. His first film, Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs (The Miracle of Skiing) was made in 1919, and was nothing more than a skiing film with no pretense of a plot. At that time, Fanck had only seen one film in his life, and his passion was the mountains and not the cinema. When he sat down to edit his first film in his mother's kitchen, he suddenly realized that he had no idea of what to do or how to start. Fanck relates in his memoirs how he then decided to travel to Berlin with the intention of seeing as many films as possible, hoping to learn the secrets of the art of editing. But unfortunately for Fanck, instead of seeing a masterpiece of editing such as D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, he saw such films as Lubitsch's Madame Dubarry (Passion), which he found too theatrical to be of help to him in assembling his all-action and no-theatrics skiing films.

Fanck finally learned editing the way most people do, through painstaking trial and error. When he had finished the editing of The Miracle of Skiing, he then discovered that none of the established distributors was interested in buying the film. At a time when German cinema was becoming world-famous with such expressionist classics as Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, no one was interested in the nature world of Dr. Fanck. Never one to accept defeat, Fanck proceeded to rent film theaters on his own and to attract his own audiences to prove the distributors wrong. The overwhelming success that he had in various German cities finally convinced the distributors that his films did have a public, and a buyer was found for his film. He continued to make more films in the same vein, first Im Kampf mit dem Berge (In Battle with a Mountain) and then Eine Fuchsjagd auf Skiern durchs Engadin (A Foxhunt on Skis through Engadin). Although each of these films broke box office records, Fanck slowly realized that the public would not continue to pay for films that merely recorded adventurous exploits in the mountains, and that if he wanted to keep his public, plots and dramatic structure would have to be added, no matter how simple.

For his next film, Der Berg des Schicksals (The Mountain of Destiny), Fanck used as the basis of his plot the true story of the first climbing of the Guglia di Brenta in Italy. A famous climber had attempted to scale the mountain, but failing after four attempts, left a tablet inscribed “This far but no further—no human feet will ever climb to the summit of Guglia di Brenta.” Starting with this bit of real-life melodrama, Fanck enlarged the story by having the climber's son successfully climb the mountain in the course of a rescue expedition. It was only the barest of story lines, but obviously enough to enable Fanck to build an exciting action-adventure film around it.

In making these films, Dr. Fanck always remained an outsider to the rest of the German film industry. He wasn't interested in working in the huge studios of Neubabelsberg near Berlin; he only wanted to disappear again into the Alps to make his next film. In developing the mountain film genre, Fanck initiated one of the earliest realist movements in cinema history, and that is where his true importance lies. Primarily as a result of his experience in Berlin, Fanck believed that the cinema had to be different from the theater. Since his first concern was to capture on film the true beauty of nature, he had no use for studios, sets, make-up, or any of the other trappings of cinema that he regarded as theatrical and non-cinematic. He wanted his films to be realistic, and if he couldn't capture what he wanted shooting in nature, he wouldn't try to fool his audiences through artificial means. Although the demands of his increasingly dramatic films caused him to violate these principles on occasion, his striving for realism was often so intense and so successful that critics thought his nature shots were studio constructed.

Fanck also reacted against the unnatural, expressionistic school of acting predominant in so many German films of the day. He wanted natural movements, and his only concern for his actors was with their athletic abilities and how they performed from a distance, not with their acting abilities in close-up. In keeping with these beliefs, he employed amateur actors and complete unknowns. This principle would later be subverted as his repertoire company of amateurs became established professionals. If Fanck had been a film theoretician as well as filmmaker, committing his thoughts to paper in the manner of Sergei Eisenstein, his beliefs would have made far more of an impact in German film history and he might have escaped the oblivion to which he is now consigned. Fanck's beliefs were intuitive and not part of an explicitly established theory of film, and Fanck was not the sort of person to spend hours writing about them at a desk. He remained a stranger to the film industry throughout his career, and when he stopped making mountain films and tried his luck in other genres, his creative career was over.

Fanck's films became steadily more dramatic and more successful, finally attracting the attention of Hollywood. After The Mountain of Destiny, Fanck made eight more films in the years 1925-1934.1 The most famous of these was unquestionably S.O.S. Eisberg (S.O.S. Iceberg), the first film to be made on location in Greenland (with the assistance of the famous Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen) and made in both German and American versions (with Tay Garnett directing the American version) for Universal.

But even though Fanck's historical importance is in developing and defining the “mountain film” genre, his importance for the rest of German cinema is not through his own films, but through his “discoveries”—the people he brought to film. Among those who owe their start in cinema to Dr. Fanck are Luis Trenker, who first acted in Fanck's films and later became a successful actor-director of his own mountain films; the cameraman Hans Schneeberger, who learned the techniques of camerawork from Fanck and went on to become the cameraman for Josef von Sternberg's famous The Blue Angel; Sepp Allgeier, the head cameraman for Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will; the cameraman Henry Jaworsky, who later worked for Riefenstahl and after the war went to America for a successful career in Hollywood; Hans Ertl, one of the major cameramen for Riefenstahl's Olympia; and of course, Leni Riefenstahl herself.

Unlike Fanck's own accidental entry into the world of film, Riefenstahl's was planned and deliberate, and totally indebted to Fanck. In her 1932 book on her experiences in Fanck's films, Riefenstahl tells the story:

I stood tired and worn out on the platform, waiting for my train, which was already late. I had to clench my teeth, because the pain in my knee was starting to pierce again. Despite the pain, I tried not to think of the Doctor, who had ordered me to have an operation and a lengthy recuperation. I tried to forget my worries about the crack in my knee joint suffered in a dancing leap.

I started to concentrate on the posters on the wall of the train station. Suddenly I became aware of a gigantic poster of powerful figures climbing a dangerous rock cliff. Underneath the picture were the words: “Berg des Schicksals (Mountain of Destiny) a film from the Dolomites by Dr. Arnold Fanck.”

Just then I was tortured by the sad thought: what if I would never be able to dance again? And then suddenly I remembered that I had an appointment to keep, and here I was, standing hypnotized at this picture, at this towering rock cliff and the men who were climbing it.

I seemed to be waking from a dream when at the same moment the train departed and disappeared into the Kleiststrasse tunnel. But I did not regret that I had waited for nothing. The film in the poster was playing at the Nollendorf Theater at the other side of the square, and I decided to let the appointment take care of itself. A few minutes later I was sitting in the movie theater.

Beginning with the first shots, I was strangely affected by what I saw: mountains and clouds, alpine slopes and naked rock cliffs moved past me. I was looking at a strange and foreign world. Who would have thought that the mountains were so beautiful? I knew them only from postcards; they seemed lifeless and rigid, but yet they intoxicated me with their undreamt-of splendor. The longer the film ran, the more my excitement increased. The beauty and strength of the film attracted me so much that, even before the film was over, I had decided to visit the mountains and see them for myself.

Benumbed, agitated, and filled with a new desire, I left the movie theater. I was sleepless for most of the night, while I lay pondering if it was really the nature in the film that gripped me so much, or the artistic way in which the film was made.

Out of my dreams came reality, and a few weeks later I was standing for the first time at the foot of the mountains. After seeing the movie every evening for a week, I found that I could no longer endure to remain in Berlin. With joy I looked at the first rock cliff, wanting to hail it as a new friend, and greet it as an acquaintance. I sensed with a puzzling certainty that from now on, they would be a part of my life, and that they would have a special significance that I could then only vaguely begin to fathom.

I spent four weeks sightseeing, and then on the last day before my departure from Karersee, even in the last hours, I had a meeting that would change my destiny. I met Luis Trenker, the star of Mountain of Destiny. I spoke with him for a long time: long, hurried, and impatiently. “I am going to act with you in your next film,” I told him. “Certainly, you can count on it,” he laughed. He was at home in the mountains. He had grown up in them. “And mountain climbing?” he asked. “You can't climb? Such a young lady as you has no business being in the mountains,” he said.

“I want to learn,” I told him, “and I believe that I can do anything that I set my heart on.” Even if Trenker had told me a hundred times, and had tried to prove it with all the manly logic that he could muster, that my chances to play in a Dr. Fanck film were next to nothing, it would not have made the slightest impression on me. I was convinced that no matter what, my dreams would be realized. With this in mind, I returned to Berlin. I got in touch immediately with Dr. Fanck, who had just arrived in Berlin to make arrangements for a new film. I telephoned him and mentioned Luis Trenker's name, and we arranged to meet in a cafe. It was remarkable how I was able to instantly recognize him, since we hadn't arranged any recognition signs. But I knew immediately that he must be Dr. Fanck.

With a racing heart I sat down and started to speak. My only wish was to tell Dr. Fanck what beauty he had created for me with his films. I talked and talked while Dr. Fanck sat quietly, stirring his coffee. I didn't have the slightest idea what kind of impression my enthusiastic words were making on him. Only once did he ask me a question. He wanted to know what my profession was. He knew nothing about dancing, nor was he acquainted with my work. Only when we were saying good-bye did he make a request. He asked me to send him pictures and critical reviews of my dances. And then I was alone again, standing on the Kurfürstendamm.

It was 7 o'clock in the evening, and suddenly I felt abandoned. It was as if a hard fist had shattered my dreams, and jolted me into the reality that my dreams could not come true. What had actually transpired? Nothing substantial. I hadn't even asked Dr. Fanck if I could act in his films, and he hadn't mentioned the possibility. He had only listened and asked who I was. But I was still determined, and felt that I was being pointed towards a specific future.

The pain in my knee started to return. I felt that today my life had changed course and taken a different path, and because of this feeling, I decided to have the operation on my knee immediately. “A young lady like you mountain climbing?” Luis Trenker had teased. But he was more right than he could ever have imagined. With my knee in the condition that it was, I would never be able to mountain climb.

I went to the next telephone booth and tried to reach my Doctor. He was neither at the clinic nor at home. For months I had hesitated, but now I didn't want to put off the decision another moment. I must get healthy, so that I could go to the mountains. I got ready for the clinic, without even saying anything to my parents. Nor did I say anything to my friends. I wrote only to Dr. Fanck, because I had promised him the pictures and reviews. In the evening I entered the clinic. At eight o'clock the next morning I went under ether—and everything was forgotten.

On the fourth day a nurse came to me and announced a visitor. “Really, Nurse? Who knows I'm here?” To my surprise, Dr. Fanck had come to visit me.

“I brought something with me,” he said, and handed me a sheath of papers. I unwrapped it slowly. It was a manuscript. The title page read: “Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain), written for the dancer Leni Riefenstahl.” What I felt at this moment, I cannot put into words. I wouldn't even want to try. I laughed and cried. I laughed for my luck, and cried for my bed-ridden illness. How is it possible, I asked myself, that such a burning desire can be so quickly and so completely fulfilled? A desire that I had never confided to anyone.

For three months I had to lay in casts; three immeasurably long months in which I did not know if I would ever be able to move my legs again. Dr. Fanck ran through scene after scene with me. With admirable confidence he sat next to me, never showing any doubt about the success of the operation.

In the thirteenth week I was finally allowed to stand. Eight days later the Doctor and Nurse helped me take my first steps. I discovered that I could move my knee again. I could walk again! Joy broke out over the Doctor's face.

Shortly before Christmas I had progressed enough to be able to go to Freiburg, where Dr. Fanck had his own studio and where he could make a screen test of me. I applied my make-up, in large amounts. But a great load was taken off my mind when Dr. Fanck declared that his actors must do without make-up. He wanted a natural appearance, not a film appearance.2

With these somewhat melodramatic events, Leni Riefenstahl was introduced to the mountain world of Dr. Fanck and to the international world of the cinema. The Holy Mountain not only marked the beginning of Riefenstahl's film career, but a significant change in Fanck's films as well. For the first time, the female presence entered his previously all-male world and proved itself capable of performing the same feats of strength as the males, despite the skepticism of Luis Trenker. And the dancer motif of The Holy Mountain, inspired by Riefenstahl, brought a more serious artistry to his usually all-action films.

Today, it is impossible to see The Holy Mountain in any film archive. Riefenstahl owns an old nitrate print of the film, perhaps the last surviving copy in the world.

In The Holy Mountain, Leni Riefenstahl played the role of a young dancer named Diotima, and, true to her prediction, played opposite Luis Trenker. Her role employed the dancing talents that she had exhibited on stages throughout Europe before her knee injury, and she opens the film with a prologue presentation of her famous “Dance of the Sea.” It was Fanck's intention to have the dancer symbolize the ocean, and the male lead was to symbolize the mountains. This double symbolism would supposedly contrast two of nature's major elements, the mountains and the ocean, with man and woman. The success of the symbolism is a matter of conjecture.

As a project, however, The Holy Mountain appeared to be cursed from the beginning. During her first day of skiing lessons with Luis Trenker, Riefenstahl suffered a skiing accident and broke both ankles. She was in casts for four weeks. Hannes Schneider, a skiing champion playing one of the male leads, slipped on ice and had to lay in traction for six months. The cameraman Hans Schneeberger had an accident in a quarry and fractured a rib. And another of the male leads, Ernst Petersen, tore a tendon in his foot. With that kind of luck, it is not difficult to see why it took Fanck two years to complete the film. It finally received its premier in Berlin in December of 1926.

Once she had recovered from her accident, Riefenstahl plunged into learning the tricks of mountaineering with all the enthusiasm that she was to exhibit later while learning filmmaking. Although Fanck had cast female parts in his films before, they were foils and never the equals of the males. But Riefenstahl quickly corrected the sexual prejudice as she proved herself capable of skiing and climbing as well as any of the males. It must be remembered that at that time, the Alps were not the well-developed resorts that they are today, complete with chair lifts, tramways, highways, and hotels. They were quite undeveloped, with only primitive overnight huts in most areas for those few who ventured to explore. Dr. Fanck's films, publicizing the beauties of the mountains for large numbers of people for the first time, including such city dwellers as Leni Riefenstahl, must be given partial credit for making the Alps the tourist attractions that they are today. Those who participated in the films with Dr. Fanck must also be credited with having admirable endurance levels, since the primitive conditions of the time had to be endured not only for days, but often for months, while they waited for suitable filming weather. With the erratic nature of alpine weather, the bright sunny days that Fanck needed were few and far between.

Riefenstahl's next role for Fanck was not as significant as her first tailor-made role. The film, Der Grosse Sprung (The Great Leap), was meant to be a skiing farce in the slapstick style of American comedies. It was also meant to be a slap at some of the critics who had been panning Fanck's films, including one, Roland Schacht, who dubbed Riefenstahl “diese ölige Ziege” (this oily goat) in one of his reviews.3 The typically shaky Fanck plot concerned the adventures of “city slickers” in the unfamiliar terrain of the Alps, while the locals make fun of their inability to ski and navigate the mountains. The locals were played by members of Fanck's repertory company, with Luis Trenker playing the role of a peasant, cameraman Schneeberger leaving his camera to play the role of a skier, and Leni Riefenstahl, in a satirical reference to the Schacht review, playing a mountain goat herder. Exhibited in a country not exactly famous for slapstick comedies, The Great Leap was a commercial success.

The next Fanck film to feature Leni Riefenstahl was Die Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Piz Palü). In the direction of this film, which contained an unusual amount of dramatic scenes for a Fanck film, Fanck was assisted by the famous German director G. W. Pabst, the director of The Joyless Street and Westfront 1918, among others. Pabst was engaged to direct those scenes in which emotion rather than action dominated, and which therefore required considerable dramatic skills from Fanck's athletic actors.

The opening of The White Hell of Piz Palü reveals that Fanck had mastered the art of editing, despite his initial handicaps in the area. The film opens with a young couple (honeymooners) climbing a glacier. There is a very rapid montage of the woman slipping and falling, while Johannes, the husband, tries unsuccessfully to stop the fall and save her. The quick montage and reaction shots of the husband's face are very reminiscent of the Odessa steps montage from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Following the death of his wife, whose body was never recovered from the glacier, Johannes remains in the mountains and lives the life of a crazed hermit, haunted by feelings of guilt over the accident. Years later, another young couple arrives on the same scene. This time it is Maria (played by Riefenstahl) and Heinz, her husband. Their idyllic honeymoon in a mountain hut is interrupted only by Ernst Udet (playing himself), the famous German flyer, flying over their hut to drop a bottle of champagne by parachute. But as shown in the opening sequence, the mountain is cursed for young couples, and later, while Maria and Heinz are climbing, they become trapped on an inaccessible ledge. Coincidentally, the crazed Johannes is also trapped there by the same avalanche. Nearby, the avalanche has buried a group of students who had also been exploring the mountain. A rescue party is formed by the village, and during their search they descend into a glacial crevice looking for the students' bodies. It is the same kind of crevice that claimed Johannes' wife. This scene is undoubtedly one of the most visually impressive scenes in Fanck's many films, and was actually filmed in the depths of a glacial cave using the light of the magnesium torches carried by the members of the rescue party. The combined effect of the lights, their reflection on the ice in the cave, and the smoke from the torches create an extremely eerie, while yet realistic, effect.

Meanwhile, newspaper headlines announce that the famous flyer, Ernst Udet, is on his way to search for his lost friends by air. After repeated aerial shots to show Udet's skill in flying through the mountains (before the film no one had ever had the idea to use airplanes in alpine search-and-rescue missions), Udet finally locates his missing friends on the isolated ledge, and signals their location to the rescue party by tilting his wings. But it is still a long time before they can be reached by the rescue party, and the three are forced to spend another freezing night on the ledge. Maria's husband has become delirious from exposure. In the night, it appears that he is freezing to death and in his delirium must be forcibly restrained. Johannes takes off his coat, which he had previously offered to Maria, and wraps it around the freezing Heinz. He then climbs to a higher ledge far above the young couple, curls up, and dies. Before he climbs to the ledge, however, he leaves a note, and the film ends with the rescue of the couple and the reading of the note. Heinz and Maria have been rescued, and Johannes has joined his wife in a frozen death.

Pabst was responsible for directing those few scenes that were shot in a studio (a major Fanck concession) and the scenes on the ledge. But the action scenes of the rescue party, and particularly the descent into the glacier, were under Fanck's direction. Even though his films were short on plot, Fanck was a master at constructing action and building it to such dramatic crescendos that the audience was propelled along by the action alone. The White Hell of Piz Palü was certainly no exception to the Fanck style.

Furthermore, the engaging of Pabst to handle the dramatic scenes proved to be a wise decision, and the critics recognized Riefenstahl as a new dramatic actress instead of just another talented skier in Fanck's mountain films. A reviewer in Close Up wrote:

Here, as never before, is the living spirit of the mountains, vivid, rare, terrifying and lovely. Other mountain films we have had, but we have never had mountains—almost personifiable, things of wild and free moods, forever changing. Nobody who loves the hills could fail to be held by this tribute to their splendor. … For the heroine, Leni Riefenstahl, renewed and unexpectedly fresh, unexpectedly charming. A flowing free rhythm, breath-catching beauty, genuine alarm. Not blatant or manufactured, but sensed with authenticity. The star remains the mountains. …4

Riefenstahl was now beginning to compete with the mountains for the public's attention.

With the completion of The White Hell of Piz Palü, Riefenstahl's career with the indefatigable Dr. Fanck was far from over, and three more films were to follow. The next was Strürme über dem Montblanc (Storm over Mont Blanc), the story of a lonely man's struggle with the wild elements of nature while manning a weather observatory at the top of the famous mountain. Made in 1930, it was Fanck's first sound film, and is sometimes known as Avalanche.5 For this film, Fanck was innovative in his use of sound, particularly in having Bach and Beethoven beamed from the valley to the observatory station to relieve the monotony of the observer. The use of sound also proved that Riefenstahl, with a pleasant voice, would be able to make the transition from silent films to talkies without difficulty.

Besides his concentration on action, a definite pictorial style had also emerged in Fanck's films, one which would have a great impact on Riefenstahl's films. Fanck's favorite composition was low-angle shots of the mountain peaks with a backdrop of white, drifting clouds. Fanck wrote later in his memoirs:

Now that there is color film, it is finally possible to make beautiful mountain films. But with black and white film, when everything was coated in gray tones, it was always difficult to distinguish the climbers from the rock face. Consequently, I almost always had to work in silhouettes, with the climbers framed against the sky or against a clear horizon.6

Thus, out of necessity, a pronounced stylistic device emerged which can be found throughout Fanck's films. The same kind of shots used for the climbers on the rock face, with clouds floating in the backdrop, were to be used later for shots of Hitler in Triumph of the Will.

The next Fanck film was another skiing comedy in the style of The Great Leap, entitled Der Weisse Rausch (The White Frenzy). For this film, Leni Riefenstahl played a different role; instead of playing a peasant goat shepherd, she played a spoiled “brat” from the city who has arrived in the mountains to learn skiing. Her instructor was played by the veteran Fanck actor Hannes Schneider, a European skiing champion before he started appearing in Fanck's films. Riefenstahl learns the art of skiing so well that she becomes a competitor of her instructor, and the film includes a race in which they are joined by fifty international skiing champions of the day. Comic scenes included a slapstick skiing race and a humorous portrayal of two “city slickers” (“Zimmerleute” in German) who are barely able to stand up on skis, played by the real-life skiing champions Guzzi Lantschner and Walter Riml. Both were later to serve as cameramen for Riefenstahl's Olympia.

The White Frenzy was a thoroughly improvised film, and was Fanck's last skiing film. He had intended to make the film from footage taken from his earlier film, A Foxhunt on Skis through Engadin, but he quickly discovered that film stock had changed too much in the intervening years and that he was unable to match the grains. This discovery necessitated a panicked search for new and additional financing, largely accounting for the improvisation in the film.

While working with Fanck, Riefenstahl was as eager to learn filmmaking as she was skiing and climbing. Fanck resisted the idea of teaching Riefenstahl the techniques of filmmaking, but through persistence and the help of Fanck's crew, she was able to absorb the art down to the smallest detail. In an interview, Riefenstahl described how:

I soaked up Fanck's and his cameramen's experience until it became second nature. I needed no finder to know exactly which scene would require which focal length. I learned about over and underexposure effects and processing compensation. I got to know which lenses gave pinpoint sharp images and which affected sharp artistic results. Camera work became as interesting as using a paintbrush.7

As Riefenstahl learned filmmaking and started to consider the possibilities of the medium from her own aesthetic standpoint, she sensed that she and Fanck had two completely different personalities, ambitions, and approaches to the art. Riefenstahl found herself typecast as one of Fanck's mountain climbers, despite her critical dramatic success in The White Hell of Piz Palü. It was difficult for her to find roles besides Fanck's films, and her desire to enhance her career with better roles conflicted with Fanck's own ideas about the roles of actors and actresses. In 1928, while Fanck was making a documentary on the Winter Olympics (see Chapter III), Riefenstahl left Fanck to accept a role in a minor film entitled Das Schicksal derer von Hapsburg (The Destiny of the House of Hapsburg). The film was a failure, and it did nothing to establish Riefenstahl's dramatic standing. Although she returned to Fanck, she realized that for him the mountains were always the star of the film and the actors and actresses would always be in the background.

But it was not only in Fanck's approach to dramatic roles that Riefenstahl found objections. As each Fanck film defined more and more the nature of the mountain film genre, she began to question his approach to the genre itself. As she commented later:

Dr. Fanck had always made beautiful pictures, often with fairy-tale like qualities through the play of light, the snow, the ice, and the glittering results, but his plots were realistic. And I realized that for realistic plots, one should also have realistic, rather than fairy-tale like, visuals. That means, if a person wants to use such beautiful shots, then one should use a plot, either from fairy tales, legends, or ballads that are in agreement with the visuals. But when the plot concerns normal, realistic events, such as someone saving someone else, or someone flying, then the visuals should come out of real life as well. And with this feeling, that form and content should coincide, came the idea that I must write a ballad or a legend for such a film. That was the original idea. And for that reason I wrote Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light). …8

While on a hiking tour through the Dolomites, Riefenstahl visited a village where she heard a legend that fascinated her. When she heard it, she realized that it was exactly what she had been looking for, and while its memory was still fresh in her mind, she returned to Berlin determined to make the legend into a film.

Her first step was to write a preliminary treatment, sketching in a rough form the plot and the characters. After the treatment was finished, she pondered her next step. Scriptwriting was not part of what she had learned from Fanck and his crew, and she admits today that writing dialogue is not one of her strengths. Finally, after showing the treatment to friends, she sent it to Béla Bálazs, a Hungarian film critic and theorist who at that time was considered to be one of the best scriptwriters in Berlin. She had never met Bálazs, but as a critic he had defended Fanck's mountain films against the attacks of other noted German critics, and was well acquainted with Riefenstahl's career. After reading the treatment, he became very enthusiastic about its potential and about Riefenstahl's own ideas for the film, and offered to help her write the script. Working in day and night sessions, Riefenstahl and Bálazs, along with additional assistance from Carl Mayer, Murnau's famous scriptwriter, finished the script for The Blue Light. It was 1931, and for Béla Bálazs, who was not only Jewish but a dedicated Marxist, it was to be one of his last major labors in Germany.

To make the film, Riefenstahl organized a small, independent production company under the sponsorship of Sokal Film, which had provided the financial backing for several of Fanck's efforts. Walter Traut joined her as production assistant and business manager, starting a long association that would continue through World War II and the making of Tiefland. Hans Schneeberger, who had left Fanck to serve as Josef von Sternberg's cameraman for The Blue Angel, agreed to be the cameraman, and Mathias Wieman signed on for the male lead, playing opposite Riefenstahl, who took for herself the lead role of Junta, the mountain girl.

The financing was sufficient to buy the needed film stock and rent the equipment, but little was left over. Everyone working on the film agreed to work without salaries, in return for compensation later when the film was distributed and earning money. Riefenstahl and Schneeberger made a four-week tour of the Sarntal and the Dolomites, searching for the locations. A small, quaint village in Tessin that perfectly fit Riefenstahl's conception of the village of Santa Maria was found. Its picturesque valley setting with a high mountain waterfall in the background was ideal for Riefenstahl's romantic, legendary story. The mountain Crozzon in the Brenta-Dolomites was selected as the film's mysterious mountain. With the locations selected, filming began in the summer of 1931.

The Blue Light is the story of a mysterious light emanating from the summit of Mount Cristallo, which acts as a curse on the small village of Santa Maria at the foot of the mountain. Whenever the light of the full moon causes the blue light to appear, the young men of the village are lured to their deaths climbing the mountain in vain attempts to learn the secret of the light. Vigo, a young artist from Vienna, arrives in the village for his summer vacation, and despite the natural suspicion of the villagers, slowly learns about the curse that is plaguing the village. He makes the acquaintance of Junta, a young outcast from the village who lives alone in the mountains. She is shunned by the villagers and is regarded as a witch. When she appears in the village itself, she is chased and stoned. Following her through the mountains, Vigo falls in love with her and divides his time between her and the village. Later, when the blue light once again appears on Mount Cristallo, Vigo observes Junta climbing the mountain and follows her. He quickly realizes that Junta has discovered the secret that has so fatally eluded the villagers: the way to the summit and the source of the blue light. The effect is caused by the moon's light being reflected from a large cavern of beautiful crystals at the summit. Excited, he returns to the village and reveals his discovery. The next day the villagers follow Vigo to the summit, remove all the crystals from the cavern, and bring them to the village. Junta, walking in the valley, discovers a crystal that has accidentally been dropped and realizes what has happened. That night she attempts to climb the mountain again, but her treasured crystals, which had illuminated her previous ascents, are gone. She misses her footing and falls to her death. Her lifeless body is discovered by Vigo; in his attempt to help the village, he has killed his lover. The mysterious crystals of Mount Cristallo and the beautiful innocence of Junta, the mountain girl, have been lost forever by a misguided attempt to do right.

To bring her fairy tale legend to life while still retaining the unrealistic atmosphere she outlines earlier in this chapter, Riefenstahl pushed Fanck's techniques to their extreme. The film abounds with shots of mountain crags against a backdrop of drifting clouds, shots of Junta silhouetted against the sky, and quiet, pastoral shots. Maintaining another Fanck tradition, Riefenstahl insisted on doing all the difficult climbing scenes herself. When the script called for Junta to climb a sheer rock face without ropes, Riefenstahl did it on a mountain side without trying to duplicate the more dangerous feats in the safety of a studio set. She also persuaded Agfa, the film lab, to design a special film stock for her, which had a high green and red sensitivity and a low blue speed. The resulting effect was dreamy and romantic, cloaking the scenes with a light green effect. The stunning photography and strange atmospheric texture of the film contributed heavily to the film's popularity.

Although The Blue Light was a sound film, it was done in the style of early sound films, using sound only as an accompanying feature rather than as an integral element of the film. The dialogue is sparse, and, curiously enough, spoken in the Italian dialect of the region. Like Fanck's films, the plot is carried along by the interaction of the visuals rather than by the words spoken by the characters.

In a manner suggestive of Eisenstein, Riefenstahl has her camera study the faces of the villagers in close-up, characterizing their social situation as well as their feelings through a study of their faces. Like most of her stylistic devices, it was something that she would continue in the rest of her films. Instead of using professional actors, she employed villagers from the small village of Sarentino. It was no easy task to get them to perform before her cameras, since none of them had an idea of what a film was, and few of them had ever ventured beyond the secluded valley in which they were born. Riefenstahl's first attempts to even converse with them were silently rebuffed, so she rented a room in the village's small boarding house and spent days slowly making acquaintances in the village. She was determined to win their confidence, since their rugged, individualistic faces, which seemed to her to be right out of a Dürer etching, mirrored the right amount of suspicion and distrust for the villagers of Santa Maria. Slowly but surely the villagers came to trust her and finally agreed to do what she was asking.

When the shooting was finished, Riefenstahl then tackled the major task of editing. After making a rough cut, she was dissatisfied with her efforts and decided to consult Fanck for his advice. Fanck agreed to look at the film overnight. When Riefenstahl returned the next day, she found that Fanck had undone all of her editing splices and had taken the film completely apart. Three months of editing work was sitting on the floor of Fanck's editing room. Shocked and enraged, she threw the film strips into a laundry basket and took them home to start over again. But the experience proved to be beneficial. “This experience made me so critical toward my own work, that I ruthlessly left out everything that produced only length or monotony, no matter how much I liked the shot itself,” she later observed.9

The Blue Light was a success at its premier in Berlin on March 24, 1932. The Berliner Morgenpost was particularly excited about the performance of the villagers, noting that “appearing as if carved out of hard wood, they give the film background and color.”10 The photography of Hans Schneeberger was also applauded, although the credit must be shared with the director. Close Up was far less sympathetic in its review, and found the film to be straddling the fine line between art and kitsch:

There are films which unfold before your eyes as a broad unit, each scene rising necessarily from the previous ones, directly mediating ideas and emotion. And there are others, where you feel the effort, the thought: I want to give you the impression of romance, of mystery, etc. The Blue Light belongs to the second group, you have no direct contact, nor the impression of genuineness.11

Instead of detracting from the film, this criticism only shows how successful Riefenstahl was in realizing her intentions of using reality to create a fantasy world, with the visuals complementing the legendary story.

Although The Blue Light is available today on videocassette, like so many other films it was difficult to view after its original release. Consequently, most criticism of the film is repetitive and unoriginal, merely echoing the conclusions of those few who had actually viewed and studied the film. Foremost among these sources is the film historian Siegfried Kracauer, who, although he admired the film's photography, contended that the entire mountain film genre was “symptomatic of an antirationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize.”12 This critical reasoning has been continued by the American critic Susan Sontag, who argues that The Blue Light and the other mountain films in which Riefenstahl acted form the first panel in “Riefenstahl's triptych of fascist visuals.”13

To conclude that the mountain films were fascist in nature means to overlook the historical antecedents of the films, namely, the German Romantic movement, which revered the mountains as symbols of beauty and purity that were free from the corruptions of man. In his memoirs, Dr. Fanck acknowledged the Romantic origins of his work and lamented the death of Romanticism that now makes films like his impossible.14 Many scenes in Fanck's films and in The Blue Light have the same composition and visual concerns of the famous paintings of German Romanticism, particularly those by Caspar David Friedrich. Despite the emphasis on montage in Fanck's films, there was a mise-en-scene that was definitely Romantic; and in The Blue Light, in which montage is supplanted by the Romantic mise-en-scene, Romanticism is brought to the screen with the full force that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gave to Expressionism.

Romantic aesthetics have little to do with Nazi ideology, and while some elements of Romanticism might have been adopted by the Nazis, it must be remembered that Naziism was a hybrid and wholly unoriginal ideology that borrowed from everywhere, including Marxism. It was not the Romantic purity of nature that the Nazis admired, but the mystical, dark and foreboding aspects that so perfectly complemented Himmler's new Teutonic mythology. It was the vague and mysterious outlines of the German forest, not the stark and uplifting mountain peaks, that served as a symbol for Nazi irrationalism.

Furthermore, to hold that mountain films were conducive to Naziism disregards yet another important feature of the genre that is a total rejection of one of Naziism's most important tenets: the mountain films were decidedly anti-nationalistic. Mountains are constantly depicted throughout the genre as a unifying force that transcends national boundaries. The action can just as easily take place in the mountains and glaciers of Greenland (as it does in S.O.S. Iceburg), the Italian Dolomites (as in The Blue Light), or the Austrian Tyrol (in Luis Trenker's Berge im Flammen). Fanck was even reprimanded by Goebbels for not making films that took place in Germany. Italian, not German, is the spoken language of The Blue Light. And in Trenker's Berge im Flammen, love for the mountains causes old war enemies to forget political differences and become friends through mountain climbing.

Even with these similarities in the genre, it is worthwhile to note the significance of the changes that Riefenstahl made in the genre's formulas with The Blue Light. Fanck's films dealt with the beauty of the mountains and the adventure of human confrontation with nature. With his concentration on action and adventure in a realistic setting, the psychological motivations of his characters were not explored. But in The Blue Light, Riefenstahl not only shifted from Fanck's realistic treatment of nature to a fantasized version; she introduced the evil nature of humankind as a counterforce 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 human curiosity and greed. The mountain girl Junta, as an outcast from the village, represents the pure, trusting nature of humankind. 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, and not a preparation for him.

Another interesting critical approach to the study of The Blue Light and other mountain films is to compare them to another genre with similar concerns and styles, namely, the American western. As a genre, the western has much the same significance for the American cinema that the mountain films have for the German cinema. Further, both have distinct elements of composition that have a meaning of their own within the structure of the genre.

Both the mountain films and the western pit humans against nature as one of their central dramatic conflicts. In the mountain films, however, humans usually oppose nature for their own amusement (as in The White Hell of Piz Palü,The White Frenzy, and others), for recreation, or to prove something about themselves. In the western, it is humans against nature as a question of sheer survival. The mountain is there as something to be conquered; it is not a necessity of life that the mountain be scaled, only a fixation in the minds of those who attempt it. But in the western, nature (usually in the form of an intimidating desert) must be overcome in order for humans to survive or reach their destination. Thus, for the western, nature usually has a threatening aspect, as Peter Wollen discusses in his wilderness vs. garden thesis in his important critical study, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema.15 Garden or wilderness, it is an inescapable part of life. This concept of nature is reversed in the mountain films, where nature assumes an idealistic and idyllic role. The mountains are a positive force attracting humans because of their beauty. If they cause death, it is not because of an intrinsically evil nature (as in the desert, which tries to claim its victims), but because of some error or default by the person involved, as in the accident at the beginning of The White Hell of Piz Palü.

The differences in pictorial composition are also significant. One of the most common shots of the western is the horizontally composed long shot of the vast horizon, particularly evident in John Ford's Monument Valley westerns. The standard shot of the mountain film, however, is vertically composed, a low angle shot looking up at the mountains peaks with clouds drifting behind them. The purpose of the horizontal composition in the western is to convey the immensity of the physical surroundings, while the vertical composition of the mountain films reflects the loftiness, both physically and spiritually, of the peaks.

In 1952, renewed interest in the film in Germany and Italy prompted Riefenstahl to change and reissue The Blue Light. Riefenstahl recut the film, added a new soundtrack, and then reissued it under the title Die Hexe von Santa Maria (The Witch of Santa Maria), reflecting the villagers' view of Junta. In the new soundtrack, Leni Riefenstahl and Mathias Wieman speak their old roles. A framing story was added to the film to make it more contemporary. The new version opens with a young couple arriving in an auto at a village. As they get out of their car before the village guest house, they are met by a young girl who shows them a crystal and a picture of a young mountain girl, later revealed to be Junta. Entering the guest house, they ask the proprietor about the young girl with the enchanting visage in the picture. Ordering his son to “bring the book,” he begins to read a story from the book, and the original film begins. At the end of the film, when Junta dies, her face dissolves into the cover of the book, and the young lady in the framing story is seen looking into the waterfall.

Following the success of The Blue Light, Riefenstahl made one more film with Dr. Fanck, entitled S.O.S. Eisberg (S.O.S. Iceberg). Filmed on location in Greenland, S.O.S. Iceberg was Fanck's most ambitious film. It concerned a shipwrecked party on a floating but slowly melting iceberg, waiting to be rescued. The services of the pilot Ernst Udet were once again utilized, providing the film with stunning aerial footage of the Arctic never before seen in the cinema.

An American version of the film was made hand-in-hand with the German version, since the American studio, Universal, was providing the financial support for the film's production. The American version was directed by Tay Garnett and retained Riefenstahl as the leading actress. The White Hell of Piz Palü had been very successful in the United States, and Universal was anxious to cash in on Riefenstahl's new American popularity.

Riefenstahl later explained why she consented to make another film with Fanck after she had established her own reputation as a director:

One of the reasons that I decided to go to Greenland and make the film with Dr. Fanck was that he was unable to find an actress to fill the main role, because he demanded too many athletic talents. And also, Universal requested that I act in it. The proposition was financially very interesting for me, because I was also to act in the American version. And further, it gave me the chance to visit Greenland, which at that time, had been seen by only a few people. I have never regretted my decision.16

Her career with Dr. Fanck had now drawn to a close, but Riefenstahl was now to embark on the part of her career that would make her internationally famous, secure her place in the history of world cinema, and change her life forever.


  1. Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain), 1926; Der Grosse Sprung (The Great Leap), 1927; Das Weisse Stadion (The White Stadium), 1928; Die Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Piz Palü), 1929; Stürme über dem Montblanc (Storm over the Montblanc), 1930; Der Weisse Rausch (The White Frenzy), 1931; S.O.S. Eisberg (S.O.S. Iceberg), 1933; and Der Ewige Traum (The Eternal Dream), 1934.

  2. Leni Riefenstahl, Kampf in Schnee und Eis (Leipzig: Hesse und Becker Verlag, 1933), pp. 10-15. Translation by the author.

  3. Roland Schacht was the brother of Hjalmar Schacht, who became the Nazi minister of finance.

  4. Close Up, Territet, Switzerland, December 1929.

  5. A Perfunctory sound version of The White Hell of Piz Palü was released in 1935, and is generally the version seen today.

  6. Dr. Arnold Fanck, Regie mit Gletschern, Stürmen, und Lawinen (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1973), p. 146. Translation by the author.

  7. L. Andrew Mannheim, “Leni,” Modern Photography (February 1974), p. 113.

  8. “Filmografie,” Filmkritik (August 1972), pp. 436-437.

  9. Mannheim, op. cit., p. 117

  10. Berliner Morgenpost, Berlin, April 1932

  11. Trude Weiss, “The Blue Light,Close Up (June 1932), pp. 119-123.

  12. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), p. 112.

  13. Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” The New York Review of Books (February 6, 1975), p. 26.

  14. Fanck, op.cit., p. 165

  15. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univeristy Press, 1969), p. 94.

  16. “Filmografie,” op. cit., p. 437.

Further Reading

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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 has earned for its political message.

Haskell, Molly. “The Ride of a Valkyrie.” Washington Post Book World 23, no. 35 (29 August 1993): 1, 10.

Haskell characterizes the tone of Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir as “disturbing,” largely due to Riefenstahl's descriptions of the rapport between herself and Adolf Hitler.

Peucker, Brigitte. “The Fascist Choreography: Riefenstahl's Tableaux.” Modernism/Modernity 11, no. 2 (April 2004): 279-97.

Peucker explores the visual imagery in Riefenstahl's films “within a matrix of related cultural and aesthetic phenomena.”

Additional coverage of Riefenstahl's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 108, 220; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 16; and Literature Resource Center.

David B. Hinton (essay date 1991)

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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 Light. Always looking for proof of the “superiority” of German art, Hitler was undoubtedly aware that The Blue Light had won the Silver Medallion at the 1932 Biennale in Venice and was receiving critical claim abroad. Although it is probable that he was aware of her career in Fanck films long before he saw The Blue Light, their first meeting did not come until 1932. Hitler's introduction to Riefenstahl is described in the memoirs of Fritz Hanfstängl, an early supporter of Hitler.1 The meeting seemed to have made an impression on Hitler, since he was to remember Riefenstahl after his ascent to power the following year.

Throughout her acting and early directing career, Riefenstahl appears to have been totally unaware of, and uninterested in, German political affairs. Her late childhood years and early twenties were devoted entirely to her chosen career of dancing, a profession demanding endless hours of practice and exercise which left little time for anything else, particularly political activities. After leaving dancing for the film world, she threw into her new career all the energy that she had previously devoted to dancing. Her total devotion to her artistic concerns made her an accomplished artist but left her ignorant of the outside world.

At the same time that Riefenstahl was spending months on end in primitive mountain huts making films for Dr. Fanck, the Nazis were increasing their power in Germany. In 1933, they finally reached their goal with the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. The Nuremberg Party Rally, which had been growing in size from year to year until it had become a gigantic extravaganza attracting hundreds of thousands of participants, assumed an additional importance in 1933. Under the theme “Sieg des Glaubens” (“Victory of Faith”), it was to celebrate the Nazis' coming to power. It was to be one of the most important gatherings in the history of the party.

Only a few days before the beginning of the 1933 rally (the rally was customarily held in early September), Riefenstahl was unexpectedly summoned to the Chancellery in Berlin for a meeting with Hitler. As soon as she was ushered into his office, Hitler asked her how her preparations for the party rally film were progressing. The question left Riefenstahl speechless. Although Hitler had ordered Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry to give the film commission to Riefenstahl, the Ministry had never informed Riefenstahl. The equally surprised Hitler then informed Riefenstahl that she must go immediately to Nuremberg and see if it was still possible to arrange filming on such short notice. The film was to be made under the direct auspices of the Nazi Party, with distribution by the Propaganda Ministry through government offices. Although the party already had its own film unit, Riefenstahl was given complete artistic freedom and was allowed to select her own crew.

With this strange beginning, Riefenstahl arrived in Nuremberg without any advance preparations to film a historical event that was to run for days and involve hundreds of thousands of participants at numerous locations scattered throughout the city. She was accompanied by three cameramen: Sepp Allgeier (Fanck's chief cameraman), Walter Frentz, and Franz Weimayr. The result of their hastily organized efforts was a short film, only 1700 meters in length, entitled Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). The title, like her two other party rally films to follow, was taken from the title of the rally.

The film disappeared in the destruction at the end of the war, and no copies have been discovered since. Riefenstahl's own opinion of the film is that it has little significance in her work, even though she does believe that under the circumstances, it was well-made. The main importance of Victory of Faith is that it introduced Riefenstahl to the unfamiliar documentary film form. For the first time, she was away from the organized shooting of a carefully scripted, planned feature film and confronted with filming events over which she had no control. The film also introduced her to the different editing style required for a documentary. To her surprise, she found that she took to the new form naturally.

Victory of Faith also marked the beginning of her long association with film composer Herbert Windt, who was to score most of her films.2

Following the completion of Victory of Faith, Hitler urged Riefenstahl to return the following year and make a feature-length film about the rally. Riefenstahl, however, was preoccupied with plans to make a film version of the opera by Eugen d'Albert, Tiefland, which had been a Berlin favorite in the 1920's. She was not interested in making another documentary and suggested that Walter Ruttmann, the maker of Berlin—Symphonie einer Grossstadt (Berlin—Symphony of a Great City), make the film instead. Ruttmann was a major film innovator and pioneer in editing concepts.

Her suggestion that Ruttmann make the film is indicative of Riefenstahl's lack of political sophistication at the time. Ruttmann was well known to have communist sympathies and was no friend of the Nazis. Riefenstahl was a good friend of Ruttmann but obviously had only concerned herself with his artistic beliefs and not his political philosophy. The same is true of her relationship with Béla Bálazs in The Blue Light; he, too was a very outspoken Marxist. Riefenstahl was an admirer of Ruttmann's kind of filmmaking, observing once, “What Fanck did with mountains, Ruttmann did with a city.”3

Equally as strange as Riefenstahl's suggestion was Ruttmann's willingness to make the film. Despite his own political sympathies, Ruttmann was enthusiastic about making the film as a documentary of an important event. But Ruttmann's ideas went further than merely recording the event. He wanted to make the film a history of the Nazi movement, from its earliest days to the present, with the rally serving as a backdrop. Ruttmann proceeded with his plans, and Riefenstahl left for Spain to begin arrangements for the filming of Tiefland.

After the collapse of her Tiefland project (see Chapter IV), Riefenstahl returned to Germany in the middle of August, 1934. When she returned, she was informed by Rudolf Hess that Hitler had demanded that she, not Ruttmann, make the film. Ruttmann's ideas about a party history film did not appeal to the Nazi hierarchy, who were oddly reluctant to have films deal with this subject.4 And furthermore, Hitler was anxious to have Riefenstahl expand on the work that she had begun with Victory of Faith.

What is known of Ruttmann's plans for Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) reveal what the film would have been like had it been planned as a propaganda film rather than a documentary. Ruttmann's plan was to begin the film with a prologue which would dramatically reenact historical events from before the rally. The film was to open with shots of the frenzied German stock market in 1923, with rampant inflation driving stock prices to astronomical figures. The stock market scene would end with a trick shot of the market being flooded with a deluge of the worthless paper money of the Reich government. Then Ruttmann intended to show the other major event of 1923, Hitler's unsuccessful. “Beer Hall Putsch” in Munich. The film would then be brought to the present with shots of Hitler in his airplane, on the way to the party rally in Nuremberg. A kaleidoscope of Nazi history would then be seen through Hitler's eyes, edited in the distinct Ruttmann style: the World War and the hated Versailles Treaty; unemployment and inflation, and scenes of economic misery; the unsuccessful Putsch and Hitler's imprisonment in Landsberg Prison; Hitler at his prison desk, writing Mein Kampf; the first copies of Mein Kampf rolling off the printing presses; and finally, the victory of the movement. With the victory, Hitler lands in Nuremberg.5

None of Ruttmann's footage survives, and it is not known how much he actually shot. But what he had filmed, Riefenstahl found unusable. As she described it:

It was a chaos. He evoked the historical by use of headlines and such. You cannot create with paper in that way. The wind blew paper—poof! And the headlines were revealed. I couldn't use a meter.6

She did use Ruttmann's titles, however, for the film's opening. “I am not gifted at writing titles and dialogue,” Riefenstahl notes. “I only do the visuals well.”7

According to Riefenstahl, she met again with Hitler and agreed to take over the filming from Ruttmann if Hitler would agree to three conditions. First, that the funds for the film be arranged by her private company rather than by the Nazi Party. Second, that no one, not even Hitler or Goebbels, be allowed to see the film before it was finished. And third, that Hitler never ask her to make a third such film.8 Hitler agreed to the conditions, and Riefenstahl left for Nuremberg to begin preparations for what would become another turning point in her career—the filming of Triumph of the Will.

At this point, several interesting questions emerge. The first: Why was Hitler so eager to have Riefenstahl make the film when the party already had its own film unit? The answer rests in Hitler's amateurish devotion to art (or at least his often misguided conception of it), a result of his own frustrated attempts at an artistic career in Vienna. Both Hitler and Goebbels had long hoped that the German cinema would produce a film to rival Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in artistic importance. And in Riefenstahl, Hitler saw the makings of a German cinema artist. Hitler did not trust the party film unit to create a work of art; they were useful at newsreels, but not cinema classics. Hitler and Goebbels often differed on the nature of Nazi propaganda; Hitler felt that politics and art should not be mixed, while Goebbels felt that the two could be subtly combined. Goebbels did not like the idea of inviting a party outsider to film the party rally, but the wishes of Hitler prevailed.

The second question concerns why Riefenstahl was so interested in keeping the film production separate from the party. The answer rests in the nature of Riefenstahl's relationship with Goebbels. Goebbels resented Riefenstahl not only for her unwillingness to join the Nazi Party, but because of his sexist attitudes toward women. Throughout her career, he constantly attempted to thwart the work of Riefenstahl, the only woman director in German cinema. Goebbels could countenance actresses in their stereotyped roles, but a woman director was too great a step for the propaganda minister. In addition, Goebbels, always jealous of his own power and personal position, resented Riefenstahl's access to Hitler and her ability to influence his decisions. During an interview with the author, Albert Speer commented on the intensity of Goebbels' animosity towards Riefenstahl and noted that Goebbels' opposition was known throughout the filming of Triumph of the Will.

If Riefenstahl was to consent to make another film under the direction of the Nazi Party and the Propaganda Ministry, she would risk the artistic freedom she enjoyed with her own production company. Also, from The Blue Light throughout the rest of her work in film, she preferred to work with her own production company rather than for studios and government agencies. The problem was settled through the creation of an “Abteilung Reichsparteitag Film, Leni Riefenstahl Film” (Party Rally Film Division, Leni Riefenstahl Film Company), a division of the company she had originally formed to make The Blue Light. Later, she followed the same procedure during World War II when her company made films for the German government.

Riefenstahl arranged for Ufa, the German studio giant, to provide the financing for the film. In return, UFA had the distribution rights. Unlike Victory of Faith, which had been financed and distributed by the government, Triumph of the Will was produced along regular commercial lines.

Regardless of whether one accepts Riefenstahl's contention that the film is a documentary recording of an historic event, or, as some critics have charged, a deliberately conceived instrument of political propaganda, it is impossible to divorce the film from the historical events that occur in it. It is also impossible to understand the true importance of the film without understanding the historical background of these events. Provided with the necessary background information, certain sequences take on an added significance that would not otherwise be perceived during a viewing of the film.

The Nuremberg Party Rally of September 4-10, 1934, of which Triumph of the Will is the official document, occurred at a momentous time in the history of the Nazi movement. The importance of this period is emphasized in the opening of the film, with the only titles (done by Ruttmann) to appear in the film, thereby becoming the film's only explicit statement: “September 4, 1934. 20 years after the outbreak of World War I, 16 years after German woe and sorrow began, 19 months after the beginning of Germany's rebirth, Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers.”9

Only nineteen months since Hitler's ascent to power in Germany, his hold on that power was yet to be solidified. Two events which occurred before the rally had a decisive influence on what would happen at the rally. First, Hitler recognized the necessity of making peace with the German military before his grasp of power could be complete and secure. He was only too aware of what had happened before when he reached for power without the support of the military, ending in the disastrous suppression by the armed forces of his famous “Beer Hall Putsch” in Munich in 1923. Hitler's personal distrust of the German military, grounded in his dislike of the old German aristocracy which staffed the officer corps, was rivaled by the military's dislike of the Nazi S.A.10 It was well known that Ernst Röhm, the commander of the S.A., envisaged the S.A. becoming the sole military force of the land, replacing the Wehrmacht and the German High Command.

To consolidate his power, Hitler was not above striking a deal with the Wehrmacht at the expense of his old party comrades in the S.A. On April 11, 1934, five months before the Party Rally in Nuremberg, Hitler met with leaders of the German armed forces on board the cruiser “Deutschland,” and a pledge of support for Hitler was exchanged for a promise to eliminate Röhm, subordinate the S.A. to the army, and insure that the armed forces would remain the only military force in Germany.11 The result of this agreement was the famous Röhm purge of June 30, 1934, only a little more than two months before the rally. Röhm and his top followers were assassinated in a wave of executions across the country, and Viktor Lutze, a previously unknown figure, was named to replace Röhm.

The second major event to influence the rally was the death of Reichspresident Otto von Hindenburg on August 2, 1934. Hindenburg's death allowed Hitler to consolidate the office of President, which had been held by Hindenburg, with that of Chancellor, already held by Hitler. With this move, Hitler became both the head of state and the leader of the government. Because of his previous pact with the military, there was no opposition to Hitler's consolidation of executive authority. Shots of military figures seen several times throughout Triumph of the Will indicate through their presence their support of Hitler and his party. In a hypocritical note, the rally itself was officially convened in memory of the recently departed Hindenburg, who had never been favorably regarded by the Nazis and who had been one of their major obstacles to power. It was not his memory but his death that the Nazis celebrated in their official eulogies.

With the army appeased and executive power now concentrated in Hitler's hands, the only possible threat to Hitler's power now lay within his own party. A purge on the scale of the Röhm purge could not help but have a major effect on the morale of the party, and no one knew what the aftermath might bring. With these events in mind, Hitler's address to the assembled members of the S.A., shown in Triumph of the Will, becomes a moment of great tension and high drama. William L. Shirer, an eyewitness, described the event:

Hitler faced his S.A. stormtroopers today [September 9, 1934] for the first time since the bloody purge. In a harangue to fifty thousand of them, he “absolved” them from blame for the Röhm revolt. There was considerable tension in the stadium and I noticed that Hitler's own S.S. bodyguard was drawn up in front of him, separating him from the mass of brownshirts. We wondered if just one of those fifty thousand brownshirts wouldn't pull a revolver, but no one did. Viktor Lutze, Röhm's successor as Chief of the S.A., also spoke. He has a shrill, unpleasant voice, and the S.A. boys received him coolly, I thought.12

It is ironic that one of the film's most visually exciting sequences filmed largely from a specially constructed elevator behind Hitler's rostrum, becomes also an emotionally charged sequence in which Hitler's life was believed to be in danger from members of his own party. But all that is revealed in the film of Shirer's remarks is the presence of the S.S. guard separating Hitler from the brownshirts.

Understanding the historical background of the film is necessary when approaching the film as a document, but it reveals nothing of the nature of Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker. For that, the film itself must be studied apart from its historical background.

Riefenstahl insists that she used no prepared script for the filming of Triumph of the Will but relied on her own intuitive editing style. In interviews, she has been quite explicit about her approach:

I didn't write a single page of text for either Triumph of the Will or Olympia. The moment I had a clear picture of the film in my head, the film was born. The structure of the whole imposed itself. It was purely intuitive. Starting from that idea, I sent the technical crew out on different tasks, but the true establishment of the form began with the editing.13

Despite its lack of written guidelines, Triumph of the Will lends itself to formal study. The film can be broken down into thirteen different sequences, with each sequence involving at least one event of the party rally, and sometimes more. This breakdown of sequences is not a purely arbitrary one; it is, rather, the manner in which the film divides itself, with the transitions between sequences discernible through the standard cinematic devices of fades and dissolves.

Though each sequence might be one event, that one event often consists of several parts. For example, the first sequence, “Hitler's Arrival,” has two parts: Hitler's arrival by plane at the airport, and his parade from the airport to his Nuremberg hotel.

The thirteen sequences, with titles for later references, are:

  • I. HITLER'S ARRIVAL. Hitler's arrival at the airport and parade into Nuremberg.
  • II. HITLER'S SERENADE. On the night of Hitler's arrival, crowds wait outside his hotel window while a military band plays marching music.
  • III. THE CITY AWAKENING. An attempt to conjure the mood of the city of Nuremberg awakening in the morning. Also, a montage of scenes taken at the tent city which housed thousands of rally participants.
  • IV. THE FOLK PARADE. A folk parade, and an inspection of flag bearers by Hitler.
  • V. OPENING OF THE PARTY CONGRESS. Opening remarks by Rudolf Hess, and speech excerpts from other Nazi leaders.
  • VI. THE LABOR CORPS. A flag ceremony in honor of the dead of World War I, and a speech by Hitler to the Labor Corps, which is making its first appearance at a Nazi Rally.
  • VII. LUTZE ADDRESSES THE S.A. Viktor Lutze makes an evening address to the S.A.
  • VIII. THE HITLER YOUTH. Hitler addresses the Hitler Youth.
  • IX. REVIEW OF THE ARMY. Hitler and Göring review military maneuvers.
  • X. THE EVENING RALLY. The approach of the spotlit flags and a speech by Hitler.
  • XI. HITLER AND THE S.A. The memorial wreath ceremony, the advance of the flags, a speech by Hitler, and the consecration of the flags.
  • XII. THE PARADE. Hitler reviews a parade in front of the city hall of Nuremberg.
  • XIII. THE CLOSING. Entry of the party standards and Hitler's closing speech.

This sequential breakdown of the film facilitates the study of three of the most important aspects of the film. One is the actual chronological order of the events depicted in the film. Another is the relationship of the sequences to each other and with the overall editing pattern of the film. And the third is the internal editing pattern of each sequence, which can be approached independently as “mini-films.”

One of the most common errors made about Triumph of the Will is the belief that the film is a straight, chronologically ordered record of the Party Rally. One critic has observed that:

Triumph of the Will is structured straightforwardly enough, in the most literal documentary narrative tradition, events proceeding according to strict chronological order, starting with Hitler's arrival in Nuremberg, continuing through processions, rallies, and speeches in the order that they happened, and ending with the Führer's final address.14

By using source material available on the rally15, it is possible to compare the construction of the film with the chronological order of the events during the rally. Table 1 shows the relationship of each of the thirteen sequences to the chronology of the rally. It reveals that Triumph of the Will is not “in the most literal documentary narrative tradition” but almost totally ignores chronological order in its structure.16

If actual documentary chronology was not Riefenstahl's guide in constructing the film, then what were her guidelines? Her own remarks provide the most accurate answer:

If you ask me today what is most important in a documentary film, what makes one see and feel, I believe that 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. … The second is the sense of rhythm. … In Triumph of the Will, for example, I wanted to bring certain elements into the foreground and put others into the background. If all things are 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. 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.17

Later, she becomes even more specific:

I made everything work together in the rhythm. … I was able to establish that with the same material, edited differently, the film wouldn't have worked at all. If the slightest thing were changed, inverted, the effect would be lost. … There is first of all the plan (which is somehow the abstract, the precise of the construction); the rest is the melody. There are valleys, there are peaks. Some things have to be sunk down, some have to soar.18

This concept of highlight and retreat, peaks and valleys, can be applied perfectly to Triumph of the Will through observing the arrangement of each sequence within the film. The film both begins and ends with a “peak,” sequences of pronounced emotional excitement, and the highlights and retreats throughout the film are distinctive.

It had been Riefenstahl's original plan to begin the film with the “City Awakening” sequence. In her early editing experiments, however, she found that the sequence lacked sufficient dramatic power for a film opening. The sequence of Hitler's arrival in Nuremberg, which records the emotions of the crowds greeting Hitler, was substituted, and the “City Awakening” sequence was placed later in the film as one of the “valleys.”

The first and last sequences, each of them a “peak,” serve as a frame for the film. Because of the editing employed, the subject matter, and the complete domination of both sequences by Hitler, they are the strongest emotional and visual sequences of the film.

Throughout Triumph of the Will, sequences of high intensity are usually followed by more restrained sequences, creating a rhythmic pattern between the sequences.

An in-depth analysis of each sequence reveals even further how the film works:


If the viewer retains just one impression or distinct memory of Triumph of the Will, it will almost surely be the opening of this sequence. Almost all film history references to the film deal with this sequence, usually resurrecting Siegfried Kracauer's criticism of the mystical significance of Hitler's airborne arrival, which will be discussed later.

The film opens with Ruttmann's titles appearing on the screen to the accompaniment of heavy orchestral music, scored by Herbert Windt in true Wagnerian style. Riefenstahl made a wise decision to begin the film with the titles, since when combined with Windt's stirring music, they give the film a dramatic opening of their own.

The opening is a black screen, and then suddenly a statue of an eagle appears, clutching a swastika—the symbol of the Nazi Reich. Large letters spell out the film's title: Triumph des Willens. The next frames reveal “Produced by order of the Führer … Directed by Leni Riefenstahl,” and then continue with the Ruttmann titles.

Windt's music plays a key role in forming the audience response to the titles. Beginning with sorrowful, mournful notes that underline the message of the titles, “20 years after the outbreak of World War, 16 years after German woe and sorrow began,” the character of the music changes to an uplifting, triumphant nature with the appearance of the title “19 months after the beginning of Germany's rebirth.” This is the first indication of the important role to be played by Windt's music throughout the film.

After the titles, the mood changes again with the appearance of the visuals. The music becomes subdued, and shots of cloud banks taken from the air appear. The effect of these cloud shots is dreamy, and as some have suggested, mystical, because of the slow speed in which the viewer is transported. The cloud banks are of the steep and billowy kind perfect for such scenes. The audience is rarely aware that the shots are filmed from a plane.

In his book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer compares a still of cloud formations taken from Storm over Mont Blanc, the Fanck film in which Riefenstahl acted, with a still of the cloud formations from Triumph of the Will to demonstrate that “emphasis on cloud conglomerations indicates the ultimate fusion of the mountain and the Hitler cult.”19 He also observes, “The opening sequence of Triumph of the Will shows Hitler's airplane flying towards Nuremberg through banks of marvelous clouds—a reincarnation of All-Father Odin, whom the ancient aryans heard raging with his hosts over the virgin forests.”20 This “Hitler arriving as a God from the heavens” interpretation has become the standard critique of the opening sequence, unfortunately to the point of cliché. While the artist is not always capable of controlling the response of the audience to a film or what impressions the film might create, intended or not, it is certainly possible to say that Kracauer's reading of the sequence attributes to it far more symbolism than it deserves. As observed earlier, the cloud shots were standard stylistic devices of the mountain films, originated by Fanck and continued by Riefenstahl in The Blue Light. By the time of Triumph of the Will, this was already one of Riefenstahl's established compositional devices. It is not unusual to expect that she would use it in Triumph of the Will, particularly since she was striving to make the film on an artistic, stylized level rather than as a simple newsreel recording. Olympia also begins with the same traveling-through-the-air device in its prologue, with the audience being projected through the skies of Europe until a descent, similar to Hitler's descent to Nuremberg, is made into the Berlin Olympic Stadium.

In Triumph of the Will, the clouds suddenly part and the medieval city of Nuremberg appears below. With the appearance of the city, the accompanying music becomes “Das Horst Wessel Lied,” the anthem of the Nazi Party. The complete plane is shown for the first time. Succeeding shots alternate between shots of the plane and of the city directly below, establishing a rhythm of shots. The shots of the city show long columns of troops marching through the streets below, reemphasizing the titles “Adolf Hitler flew to Nuremberg again, to review the columns of his faithful followers.” The shadow of the plane is seen reflected on the marching columns below.

Throughout this sequence, the editing pattern is highly visible. From the emergence of the plane to Hitler's entry into his hotel, the editing is a measured, rhythmical alternation of object-spectator, object-spectator, a one-to-one rhythm that flows throughout the sequence. The object is either the plane or Hitler, and the spectator is either a close-up of one particular member of the crowd or a shot of the crowd itself. As an example, the following is an abbreviated shot log of the first eight shots of the parade:

  1. Parade starts, long shot (LS) of car leaving.
  2. Medium shot (MS) of Hitler in car.
  3. MS of crowd.
  4. Close-up (CU) of Hitler.
  5. MS of crowd (from left).
  6. MS of Hitler (from behind).
  7. MS of crowd (from right).
  8. CU of Hitler.

This same rhythm was also used in alternating shots of the plane in the air with the city of Nuremberg below. The editing of this established rhythm is fast-paced throughout the sequence, with each shot being roughly the same length. The fast-paced editing adds to the emotional intensity already inherent in the sequence.

The camera point-of-view in this sequence is also noteworthy. The camera point-of-view makes this sequence unique, since it changes repeatedly between that of the camera and the subjective viewpoint of Hitler himself. Throughout the scene of the plane landing, the camera viewpoint is objective third person, recording both the spectators and Hitler. But with the beginning of the parade scene, the viewpoint suddenly shifts to that of Hitler. The parade is seen through the eyes of Hitler; the car passes under a bridge and the view looking up at the bridge is Hitler's viewpoint. The parade route is seen through Hitler's eyes, particularly when viewing non-human or inanimate objects, such as the tracking shots of a statue, a fountain, and a cat perched on a window ledge. They are the fleeting glimpses a person sees of an object while passing by.21

Just as in the editing, the selection of camera angles calls attention to itself. Every possible camera angle is used: aerial shots, eye-level, ground-level, and overhead shots. There is always movement as the camera tracks or pans the event.

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, however, Riefenstahl used telephoto lenses that were capable of putting one face in close-up out of a crowd at a distance of thirty to forty meters, allowing 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 film merely recorded existing reality. The medium should not be judged guilty merely because of what it records.

Riefenstahl does use close-ups for more than cinema verité. 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 Hitler's hotel. In close-up study, their faces appear to be those of statues rather than living beings; they are reminiscent of the heroic faces found on the statutes 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 best described as “statues on film,” which will not only recur throughout Triumph of the Will but will also become the major motif for the prologue of Olympia.

Another editing trait of Riefenstahl's already apparent is the technique of “dissection of detail.” Following a shot of uniformed S.S. men standing in a row, there is a tracking close-up down the row with the S.S. men interlocking their hands on each other's belts to form a human chain. The close-up is of the hands gripping the belts. This attention to the details of an object, rather than to the object as a whole, is a Riefenstahl trademark. While the technique, thus explained, might not seem very significant, it is one of the many artistic devices that separate Triumph of the Will from mere newsreel footage.


This sequence must be regarded as one of Riefenstahl's deliberate emotional valleys, following the emotional intensity of the previous sequence. A crowd is standing outside Hitler's hotel, waiting for a chance to see their Führer. Torches and spotlights are everywhere, and a band is playing martial music.

It is one of the scenes in which Riefenstahl utilized the aerial searchlights that had been requisitioned from the Luftwaffe for her use. At that time in the history of filming, techniques for shooting at night were still to be developed and refined, and Riefenstahl depended on these powerful searchlights to provide the lighting for her night shots. The light from the searchlights, many of which were directed upward into the sky, plus the light and smoke from the torches held by the crowd, lend an eerie effect to this sequence. It is very reminiscent of the spectacularly filmed scene in Fanck's The White Hell of Piz Palü, where the rescue party descends into a glacial crevice and the entire scene is filmed with the light from hand-held magnesium torches.


A lyrical attempt to convey the feeling of the city of Nuremberg awakening in the morning, this sequence is heavily influenced by Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, a film Riefenstahl admired. The sequence opens with a shot of church spires silhouetted against the dawn, then an indoor shot of a window being opened to show the city below, and a swastika flag unfurling in front of the window. The sequence continues with slow tracking shots of the city coordinated with equally slow and dreamy music, underlining the sleepiness of the dawn hours. To make known the time of day in a film that otherwise knows no time, there is a shot of church spires along with a bell striking seven on the soundtrack. Ruttmann used a clock face in similar fashion throughout Berlin to show the day's progression in time.

The rhythm of the “city awakening” shots is very slow, and the editing almost invisible. The tracking shots of the city are taken at the angle and speed of a person casually strolling along the sidewalk, and with the exception of a brief glimpse of a few human heads at the bottom of a frame, there is no human presence.

The sequence then changes mood, as aerial shots of a huge tent city are seen on the screen to the accompaniment of martial music, laughter, and voices on the sound track. Masses of people are seen on the ground, in contrast to the preceding city scenes. The tent city awakens and commences the morning chores.

Because of the preoccupation with what the film reveals of Nazism, an important feature of the film is often overlooked. Triumph of the Will is more than a document of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally; it is a document of the city of Nuremberg. The viewer is given a sense of the historic beauty of this medieval German city—an important contribution in view of the city's near total destruction in World War II. In several instances, the film rivals the so-called “city symphony” films in catching the atmosphere and flavor of a city at a given historical moment. In an interview, Riefenstahl revealed that when Hitler was trying to convince her to make the film, one of his selling points was based on his awareness of her interest in the old city, and particularly her fascination with the poetry of Heinrich von Kleist, Nuremberg's famous poet.22


Lasting five minutes, this sequence contains no significant events. It involves a parade through Nuremberg of peasants in their native folk costumes, then ends with an inspection by Hitler of a group of flag-bearers and Hitler's departure by auto.

The editing of this sequence differs from that of the first sequence because it lacks the central subject of Hitler around which to construct the editing. Without Hitler's presence for most of the sequence, the editing is slower-paced. Close-ups are used extensively to capture the flavor of the parade.

Following the folk parade, the folk music in the background changes to the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied, and Hitler enters to inspect a group of flag-bearers. Close-ups of the flag-bearers follow, done in the same “statues on film” style used in the first sequence. In an excellent example of Riefenstahl's well-constructed editing, a shot of Hitler raising his hand in the “Heil” salute is followed immediately by a close-up of a flag-bearer jerking his head to attention.

Following the inspection, Hitler makes a grand exit by car. Succeeding shots show other Nazi leaders also departing in their chauffeured limousines: Rudolf Hess, S.A. Chief Lutze, Goebbels, and Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach. Differences in the crowds and location indicate that the shots were not made at the same time or place, but were merely edited in at this point for no obvious reason.


This sequence contains the first words to be spoken in the film, those of Rudolf Hess as he opens the party congress. In each of Riefenstahl's films, she deliberately delayed narration and dialogue for at least the first ten minutes of the film, establishing the dominance of the visuals. Besides Hess's opening, the sequence also contains a succession of edited excerpts from the speeches of other Nazi leaders.

Considerable confusion has arisen concerning the brief speech excerpts at the end of the sequence. Writing in his memoirs, Albert Speer, the architect and chief planner of the party rallies, noted that during Riefenstahl's 1935 party rally film (Tag der Freiheit, or Day of Freedom), certain footage was accidentally spoiled and was reshot in a studio reconstructed to look like the Kongresshalle, where the original footage was made.23 The spoiled footage described by Speer sounded very much like the excerpted speeches in the 1934 Triumph of the Will, since Speer describes Hess, Streicher, and Rosenberg having to redeliver their lines. Speer also notes that Hess revealed true acting abilities when he was able to repeat his introduction of Hitler in the empty studio just as he had done in front of cheering thousands during the actual rally.

Riefenstahl, who was a close friend of Speer, challenges his memory on this point, noting first that Speer's date is wrong, and that the film was the 1934 Triumph of the Will and not the 1935 Day of Freedom. Furthermore, Riefenstahl states that only a short amount of footage of Julius Streicher was reenacted and refilmed, and not the flamboyant introduction by Hess that Speer described.24

According to Riefenstahl, all the speakers except Streicher were filmed during their actual appearances at the rally. But when Streicher gave his speech, the cameraman ran out of film and Riefenstahl was left without footage of the Nazi Gauleiter of Nuremberg, one of the most important men present. Realizing that she dare not leave Streicher out of the film, Riefenstahl decided to restage his address and had the Kongresshalle podium rebuilt in a Berlin studio. Streicher appeared, redelivered his lines, and the reshot footage was inserted into the film. It is an inconsequential addition, since the footage lasts for less than a minute in the film and cannot be seen as any different from the other excerpts.

But how could Speer make such a great mistake about the introduction by Hess? Riefenstahl's gentle correction of Speer is supported by other witnesses and photos in her private collection. During the preparation for filming in the Kongresshalle, Riefenstahl asked Hess to stand at the podium while she made adjustments in the footlights needed for filming indoors. Hess was asked to tell Riefenstahl when the heat of the lights became unbearable for a speaker at the podium, an important consideration when filming the fiery orations of the Nazi leaders. Hess took his assignment seriously and added his own dramatics. Riefenstahl recalls that Speer was present at that time and must have incorrectly concluded that she was filming the incident. Hence, the faulty recollection in his memoirs.

The opening shot of the sequence is a night shot of a flood-lit eagle grasping a swastika, one of the emblems used on the rally grounds. Since the opening of the Congress occurred during the morning, this shot must be regarded as a symbolic establishing shot having nothing to do with the events to follow. Riefenstahl chose to open several other sequences with similarly symbolic shots.

There is no discernible editing pattern in this sequence, which actually contributes little to the film and only demonstrates the fine line between art and tedium in documentary filmmaking. The speech excerpts are so short they are meaningless, and it has been suggested that their only purpose was to introduce the nation's new leaders to a pre-television society.25


This sequence presents one of the most difficult questions of the film. Although Riefenstahl denies that any of it was staged for her film, it presents some scenes that seem so obviously done for the camera, rather than for the crowd participating in the scene, that the appearance of staging, intended or not, is given. The dramatic devices used are interesting but detract from the documentary quality of the rest of the film: a “Sprechchor” for orchestrated crowd chants, a central narrator leading the Sprechchor, and well-orchestrated ordering and shouldering of spades and raising and lowering of flags.

The sequence opens with a close-up of the Labor Corps flag fluttering in the sky. The Labor Corps, Hitler's solution for the German unemployment problem, is making its first public appearance at this rally. Then follows a series of shots using the “dissection of detail” technique mentioned earlier. A medium shot of four Nazi standards against the sky is followed by a close-up of one of the standards. Not content with a mere parade of details and objects, Riefenstahl feels compelled to examine them more closely. With her, filming is more than a question of recording on film; the recording must be artistic. Another example in this sequence is a scene with the Labor Corpsmen standing in a row with their spades resting in front of them. A series of shots shows a close-up of the corpsmen's boots, then another close-up of hands folded on the spade handles, and then a medium shot of two rows of men with their ordered spades. The montage is typical of Riefenstahl's conscious attempts to establish a rhythm of editing.

Hitler is introduced to the Labor Corps by Konstantin Hierl, the leader of the Labor Corps, with the statement that “52,000 men are awaiting the orders of their Führer.” As the figure is mentioned, there is a long shot of the crowd to stress the size of the crowd. Later, when Hitler makes reference to “millions of our comrades,” the same device is used.

Following Hitler's introduction is a scene using the orchestrated narrator-respondent routine. With one very “Germanic”-looking young corpsman as the “narrator,” the scene shows close-ups of the narrator standing within the ranks, asking of his other corpsmen, “Where do you come from, comrade?” A series of close-ups shows other corpsmen responding “From Silesia,” “From Bavaria,” and so on, until virtually every significant area of Germany has been named, indicating the national support of the Nazi movement. The gestures of the participants, and especially those of the over-enthusiastic narrator, are overdone and make the sequence one of the film's weakest.

Next, the Nazi slogan of “Ein Volk, Ein Führer, Ein Reich” (One people, one leader, one nation) is shouted by the crowd and illustrated by the film. The crowd chants “Ein Volk!” and there is an accompanying shot of a Labor Corpsman holding a flag, with columns of Labor Corpsmen standing behind him. Then “Ein Führer!” and a close-up of Hitler taken in the familiar low-angle against the sky style. And finally, “Ein Reich” along with a shot of a large mounted eagle clasping a swastika, indicating that the German state is now the Nazi state.

Suddenly a voice starts calling out the major battles of World War I, against a shot of a row of flagbearers. As each battle is called out, the flags are lowered even further until they touch the ground, visually symbolizing the disgrace of Germany with each defeat. The voice then cries out, “But you are not dead—you are still alive—in Germany!” and the flags are quickly raised into the air. The sequence concludes with Hitler's speech to the corps.


The new S.A. chief, Viktor Lutze, addresses a night gathering of the S.A. Use is made again of magnesium torches and searchlights, making the sequence an interesting fusion of light, darkness, and smoke. Judging from Shirer's remarks about Lutze being coolly received by the S.A. men at the rally, it is interesting to note the end of this sequence, with Lutze's car being enthusiastically surrounded by S.A. men trying to shake his hand.


This entire sequence is constructed around the person of Hitler, using his entrance, his speech, and his exit as the dramatic loci. It is the anticipation and then realization of Hitler's presence by the assembled thousands of Hitler Youth that gives the sequence its high emotional intensity.

As in so many other sequences, this one opens with a symbol, a close-up of the bell of a bugle playing a fanfare. Succeeding shots of members of the Hitler Youth pounding fiery cadences on drums set the tempo of the sequence. Even when he is not present, Hitler dominates the action, as the opening shots of Hitler Youth standing on their toes around the entrance reveal. As the crowd strains for a look, the noise level on the soundtrack increases and reaches its height with the appearance of Hitler. Riefenstahl is not merely a master of film editing but of sound mixing as well.

Shots of Hitler are always cross-cut with close-ups of members of the audience, taken with telephoto lenses. There are never two consecutive shots of Hitler in this sequence; each shot is cross-cut with a crowd close-up.

The sequence ends with Hitler's departure by car, with the crowd singing “Unsere Fahne flattert uns voran” (Our flag waves before us), the official Hitler Youth song written by their leader, Baldur von Schirach.


Although not the last of the film, the events in this sequence were among the last of the rally. The significance of the sequence is that it contains the only footage not taken by Riefenstahl's own camera crew. It shows army maneuvers performed under Hitler's watchful eye, and it was raining at the time. Riefenstahl later learned that the footage shot by her crew was completely spoiled and unusable, so she assembled this short sequence from footage taken at the same time by a UFA newsreel crew. Considering the nature of the footage and its rather unexciting content, it is a wonder that Riefenstahl bothered to include it at all.


This sequence begins and ends with Nazi pageantry, from the entrance of thousands of flags in the beginning to the torchlight parade at the end. Searchlights are again used to illuminate the night action. The story behind this sequence is related by Albert Speer in his book, Inside the Third Reich.26 The event is a rally of the “Amtswalter,” the party bureaucrats whose overweight, middle-aged physiques did not fit Speer's carefully planned rally aesthetics. As a solution to their physical presence, Speer suggested having the “Amtswalter” march in at night carrying thousands of flags, thereby hiding their appearance. The searchlights were trained on the flags and on the great eagle which overlooked the podium. The cameramen were able to overcome the lighting handicaps, and the results are impressive as the flood of flags advance on the podium and the spotlit eagle.

Following the entrance of the “Amstwalter” and the flags, Hitler addresses the crowd. In a departure from previous editing style, there are no close-ups of anyone in this sequence but Hitler, obviously due to the inability to use telephoto lenses at night in an unlit crowd. This absence of inserted close-ups gives the sequence a unique aspect, however, since Hitler is the only human being seen. In previous sequences, while the crowd was faceless, it was nevertheless visible. But here people are so hidden by the thousands of flags that they are rendered faceless, literally as well as figuratively. While everyone else is hidden in flags and darkness, Hitler stands alone on the podium, bathed in the light of the searchlights.


This sequence can be divided into four sections: the wreath ceremony, the flag entry, Hitler's speech, and the flag “consecration.”

An opening shot of a giant stone eagle and swastika dissolves to a long shot taken from the elevator which had been installed on one of the giant flagpoles behind the podium. The long shot is of Hitler, S.A. Chief Lutze, and S.S. Chief Himmler walking down the large empty aisle in the middle of the parade field, with thousands of S.A. men gathered on both sides of them. The soundtrack is noiseless, with only somber and muted music to establish the funereal mood. The long shot from the podium is replaced by a long shot from the opposite end, and the three men are seen approaching the columns of the War Memorial. They pause before a large wreath resting in front of the memorial. They bow their heads in silence, and the music stops. They salute, there is a quick insert of a swastika, and they turn and leave as the music resumes.

The composition of the above scene emphasizes the enormity of the Nuremberg rally. The men massed on the parade ground number in the tens of thousands, yet the scene owes its effectiveness to the three solitary figures walking in complete silence through their midst. It is a very moving scene and illustrates the flair for dramatics evident throughout the rally. The photographing of the scene also reveals Riefenstahl's uncanny ability to select the ideal camera location to capture the action in the most dramatic way possible. For this scene, the camera had to be apart from the crowd and the three figures; Riefenstahl's decision to build the elevator to film extremely high angle shots reflects her film background. In Fanck's films and in The Blue Light, it was always possible in the mountains to film from any elevation to obtain the best composition within the frame. In her elevated shots, low-angle shots, and use of elevators, firetruck ladders and rooftops, Riefenstahl was only applying a fundamental practice of the mountain films to the documentary.

Although Riefenstahl's fame rightfully rests on her ability as a film editor, her striking composition within the frame should not be overlooked. Her cameramen relate the zeal with which Riefenstahl would tell them how she wanted each scene filmed and from what location and what angle. By the time of Triumph of the Will, she had reached that state of mind that all film directors must someday reach, seeing the world in terms of the camera and the frame instead of through one's own eyes. Her ability to compose within the frame can be seen most strikingly in this sequence. Following the wreath scene, there is a parade of flags into the stadium similar to that in the previous scene, only more visible since it was filmed in broad daylight. There is one continuous shot in which the frame is filled completely with flags. Nothing can be seen but the flags, which move up, down, and forward as if they had lives of their own. Although something of the beauty of this composition can be seen in a still, its true beauty is revealed through the animation of the flags within the frame.

The sequence contains an important address by Hitler, during which he refers to the Röhm affair as “the shadow that spread over our party,” and then absolves the assembled S.A. men of any responsibility for the shadow. As was done with the “Ein Volk, Ein Führer, Ein Reich” scene in the Labor Corps sequence, visuals are used to pictorialize Hitler's words. Hitler tells the crowd, “Our party stands like a rock,” and the accompanying shot shows Hitler standing alone in the center of a massive stone podium. In the composition of the shot, Hitler appears to be a statue growing out of the rock of the podium. Taken together with the statement of Hess in the last sequence of the film, that “Hitler is the party, the party is Hitler,” the allegory becomes obvious.

The final section of the sequence is the “consecration” of the flags, which Hitler performs by pressing the Nazi “blood flag” (the name given to the Nazi flag that was carried during the Beer Hall Putsch, during which several Nazis were killed) against other flags held by S.A. men. Often overlooked by film observers who are not familiar with Nazi mythology, this act was one of the many quasi-religious acts performed by the Nazis as party ideology became gradually elevated to religious status.


More than any other sequence, this is the filmed record of an event (the parade of September 9, 1934), and to film it, expansive and imaginative camera angles were employed. Given the monotony of a parade of uniformed men lasting over five hours, it was necessary to seek out as many different camera angles as possible to avoid transferring the monotony to the film itself. There are shots from rooftops and towers, from within the marching ranks, and shots that are framed in the window arcades of some of Nuremberg's oldest pieces of architecture.

The sequence begins with a low-angle tracking shot down a row of huge, unfurled flags along the parade route. Through the use of unusual camera angles, such as this low-angle shot, Riefenstahl calls the audience's attention to the beauty of detail which may not be observed by the unaided eye but which is accentuated through riveting the audience's attention to the frame. Her style is to go deeper into objects than any casual observer would; not content with the spectator's long shot, she explores the object closer, with a medium shot and finally a close-up. And sometimes the pattern is reversed, with surprising results. A shot shows a close-up of a hand outstretched in the Nazi salute. The camera pulls back, and the hand is revealed to be Hitler's.

Again, Riefenstahl's attempts to liven up a monotonous event yield pictorially pleasing results. With proper composition, a beauty can be created that exists only by virtue of its spatial relationships within the frame, a beauty not to be found in the unbounded reality outside of the frame. S.A. men march into an empty frame, with the combination of their ranks, columns, and projected shadows before them forming a striking pattern that gradually fills the frame as they march forward. Just as the artist composes within the limitation of the canvas, Riefenstahl composes within the frame and adds the extra dimension of film movement.


Consisting of two parts, the entry of the party standards and Hitler's speech, this sequence ranks with the first in establishing and reflecting high degrees of emotion and enthusiasm. Opening with a shot of an eagle and a swastika, it then shows Hitler entering the Kongresshalle to the accompaniment of cheers and martial music. Following Hitler's entrance, the party standards are paraded into the hall. The standards are patterned after those of Imperial Rome, with town names placed where the Roman standard read “S.P.Q.R.” Two columns of standards proceed down the narrow aisle and then diverge at the location of the camera. The standards are shown in close-up when they reach the camera placement.

Hitler's speech is his last to the 1934 rally, and he uses a prepared text. While the other Hitler speeches in the film are more interesting from the standpoint of observing the reactions of the crowd (his speeches to the Labor Corps and the Hitler Youth), or in an examination of the speech's content (the speech to the S.A.), this speech is most important as a character study of Hitler himself. The cool, composed Hitler that has so far been seen throughout the film suddenly gives way to an intensely animated Hitler, whose excitement feeds on itself. His gestures become dramatic, interpretive flourishes and facial expressions those of a seasoned actor. The editing of the speech does a masterful job of conveying the mounting excitement of the event. The crowd's enthusiasm increases almost in direct proportion to Hitler's, and the alternation of shots shows this reciprocal relationship between Hitler and the crowd. Whenever Hitler makes a point that arouses a great cheer from the audience, there is always a cut to the audience. At one point the enthusiasm and shouting of “Sieg Heil” becomes so great that Hitler cannot continue, and the camera trains itself on the agitated Hitler waiting to resume speaking.

In several instances, the editing becomes very expressive. Hitler asserts, “This racially best of the German nation demanded to be the leaders of the country and the people,” and the statement ends with a cut to Julius Streicher, the party's leading racist nodding his head in agreement. Hitler refers to the “old fighters” of the party, and the statement is followed with shots of Hess, Goebbels, and Goering, the leading “old fighters” of the party.

Both the sequence and the film end on a mystical note. There is a long shot of the hall, showing the crowd and the standards. The crowd begins singing “The Horst Wessel Lied” and the standards are raised, appropriately enough since the actual title of the song is “Die Fahne Hoch” (Raise the flags). Then there is a long tilting shot upward to a large swastika on the wall, and a close-up reveals marching S.A. men superimposed on the swastika. The shot is a low angle one showing the marchers against a cloud backdrop. The film that began with Hitler coming from the clouds ends with the men of the S.A. marching into them.

Much has been said about the making of the film, and most of what has been said is incorrect. Errors range from the number of cameramen used to the extent of the preparations made for the film in conjunction with the planning of the rally. Some of the errors are insignificant historical mistakes; it is of little real consequence whether thirty cameramen were used27 or 18, which was actually the case.28 But the question of advance preparations made for the film, and their effect on the rally itself, is a question of crucial critical importance.

In his book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer says:

… the Convention was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but also as spectacular film propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl praises the readiness with which 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 fake reality that was passed off as the genuine one; but this bastard reality, instead of being an end in 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.29

It is this critical observation by Kracauer that has repeatedly damaged the film's reputation as a documentary, yet the observation is riddled with inaccuracies and mistaken conclusions based on faulty facts.

First, there is the historical fact that Riefenstahl did not arrive in Nuremberg until approximately two weeks before the rally began. With such timing, it is difficult to say that the rally was planned with the film in mind. Kracauer's reference to Riefenstahl praising the cooperation of Nazi leaders for “facilitating her task” actually refers to the thanks Riefenstahl gave to those who helped her after her arrival in Nuremberg for making arrangements for the quartering of her camera teams and other trivial matters hardly worthy of the importance Kracauer attaches to them. The book Kracauer refers to at other points in his criticism (Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitag Films, which credits Riefenstahl as its author) is full of references to the difficulties she encountered in making the film, difficulties which would never have arisen if there had been careful advance planning. For example, it was difficult for speeches in the hall to be recorded, since only one row was made available for the sound equipment.30 Other references are made to film towers that were not completed until halfway through the rally.31 For many overhead shots, cameramen had to balance themselves precariously on the rooftops of the old houses of Nuremberg. There were other, more serious difficulties that were not reported. When Riefenstahl tried to engage one of Berlin's major cameramen to work on the film, he refused to work with her. When pressed for a reason, he stated that he “would not work under the direction of a women.”32

There are other reasons to doubt Kracauer's critical premises. His argument is supported by only one sentence taken from the Riefenstahl book: “The preparations for the Party Convention were made in concert with the preparations for the camera work.” This one sentence is not taken from the body of the text but from a caption for a photo, and photo captions, since they are usually tailored to fit the photo, are notoriously unreliable sources of information. There is the additional fact that since Kracauer wrote his criticism, it has been learned that Riefenstahl did not actually write her book. It was ghostwritten for her by Ernest Jäger, a German film magazine editor who had been commissioned by the publicity department of Ufa.33

An even more substantial question must be posed: is it really logical to presume that the rally, and the architecture designed for it, would have been any different without the presence of Riefenstahl and her camera crews? The history of the Nuremberg rallies indicates that, even though their filmic value was later appreciated, the rally was the central event of the party and was staged for the benefit of those hundreds of thousands actually in attendance. The film could only attempt to show the fanaticism that was evident at the rally; that Riefenstahl was able to capture these feelings on film as effectively as she did, particularly through her use of the telephoto lens to record reactions unnoticed, is a tribute to her abilities as a documentary filmmaker.

Also, it is not logical to presume that Albert Speer, the architect of the rally, would have altered his architectural plans for the one-shot benefit of Riefenstahl and her film crew. Riefenstahl filmed just one rally in its entirety, while the buildings were designed to stand for centuries. Speer's own memoirs point out that the raison d'être of Nazi architecture was quite independent of its cinematic possibilities.

As a final comment on the question, Speer denied in an interview with the author that the film and the rally were planned hand-in-hand. Terming Kracauer's statements “non-sense,” Speer noted that whenever he was approached to make an alteration or change in his plans in order to accommodate the film, he strenuously opposed it, since it might either change the harmony of his architecture or alter his central plans for the rally. He stated that he consented to only the slightest concessions for the filming, such as allowing more room on a platform for a camera, which were of such a trivial nature that they did not actually constitute concessions. The only notable concession that he did agree to was the placing of an elevator on the giant flag pole so that Riefenstahl could obtain the overhead shots that she desired, and even that concession was arranged only shortly before the beginning of the rally.

Even today, more than fifty years after the making of the film, the controversy continues.

The only thing conceded by all sides is the film's importance in film history; otherwise, critical opinion goes from one extreme to the other. The most dangerous error is to approach Triumph of the Will as either pure propaganda or pure documentary. It must be viewed as somewhere between the two. Perhaps the best definition of the film is that offered by Richard Corliss, who wrote that Triumph of the Will is “a sympathetic documentary of a propaganda event.”34

There is no doubt that at the time of the making of the film, Leni Riefenstahl was attracted to Hitler and the Nazi movement. She has never denied that fact. Triumph of the Will was made at an early moment in the history of the Nazi rule: the notorious Nuremberg race laws had not yet been passed, and even countries that were later to become enemies of Germany were represented officially at the Nuremberg rally by ambassadors and diplomats. The most conclusive evidence on Riefenstahl's behalf is the Gold Medallion awarded Triumph of the Will at the Paris World Exhibition in 1937. Had the film been regarded as pure Nazi propaganda, it would never have received such an award just two years before the outbreak of World War II.

In her attempts to enrich the film artistically and avoid newsreel reportage, Riefenstahl often took steps that will forever be open to critical interpretation. An artist's true intentions can never be fully understood, not at the time, and not many years later. But a work can and should be examined against the maker's previous works in an attempt to ascertain whether certain features are established stylistic traits of the artist and if they have a significance that can only be determined through an examination of the artist's total work. In the case of Leni Riefenstahl, such an examination reveals that the cloud motif at the beginning of Triumph of the Will is more of a stylistic device inherited from the mountain-film genre than a specifically intended “Odin descending from the heavens” theme.

The third member of Riefenstahl's trilogy of films for the Nazis is the short film Tag der Freiheit: Unser Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Army). Like Victory of Faith and Triumph of the Will before it, the heroic-sounding title is taken from the name the Nazis gave the party rally of that year (1935).

According to Riefenstahl, she received bitter complaints from leaders of the German army after the filming of Triumph of the Will. The generals felt that the army had been overlooked in favor of the party throughout the film. Indeed, the army appears only in a short sequence of the film (Sequence IX—Review of the Army) and even then, as observed earlier, only in newsreel footage edited in by Riefenstahl.

The wrath of the generals was so great that they brought their case directly to Hitler, and the result was Riefenstahl's first disagreeable words with Hitler. At a meeting with Riefenstahl at Rudolf Hess's Munich home, Hitler attempted to suggest an “artistic” compromise to the problem. His proposal was that Riefenstahl line up all the overlooked generals in a row and then have the camera slowly track down the row so that each general would be seen in the film and his ego placated. To make matters worse, Hitler suggested that this shot be used as the opening of the film. Riefenstahl turned down both proposals immediately; the proposed shot was precisely the kind she had tried to avoid throughout the film, and besides, she had already decided on how she wanted to open the film. When she refused the proposals, Hitler looked at her very coldly, remarked, “You are very obstinate. I only wanted to help you,” and left the room. But keeping his earlier promise to Riefenstahl, he made no further attempts to interfere with the film.

After this event, Riefenstahl resolved to try to soothe the ruffled feathers of the Wehrmacht generals. She agreed to return to the following party rally in 1935 and make a film exclusively about the Wehrmacht. She honored the promise and returned the next fall with six cameramen. Her heart was not in the project, though, and she was determined to make the film as quickly as possible. The film was financed by the party through Riefenstahl's own film company and was distributed to German theaters as a short by Ufa.

Day of Freedom was lost at the end of the war and remained lost until the mid-1970s when an incomplete print was discovered in the United States. It 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 and reminiscent of the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 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 is 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. There is a sequence of a tent city awakening in the morning and people performing their morning chores, just as in Triumph of the Will. There are also numerous low-angle shots of marching soldiers framed against a backdrop of clouds. A soldier blowing a trumpet turns until the horn of the trumpet completely fills the frame (also as in Triumph of the Will); this is followed by a dissolve to the Speer-designed eagle, rows of swastika flags, and then a final settling on an iron cross flag, representing the Wehrmacht. One pan shot across a large stadium audience gives the only indication (in the surviving print) that the film was made at the party rally. 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 eye 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.


  1. Fritz Hanfstängl, Hitler—The Missing Years (London, 1956).

  2. The Blue Light was scored by Giuseppe Becce, and Day of Freedom by the famous German film composer Peter Kreuder.

  3. Herman Weigel, “Interview mit Leni Riefenstahl,” Filmkritik (August 1972), p. 396.

  4. Only three German feature films dealt directly with Nazi Party history, and all three were made in 1933, the Nazi's first year of power. They were S.A. Mann Brandt,Hitlerjunge Quex, and Hans Westmar.

  5. Herman Weigel, “Randbemerkungen zum Thema,” Filmkritik (August 1972), pp. 427-428.

  6. Ibid., p. 428.

  7. Remarks made by Leni Riefenstahl during an interview with the author, August, 1975.

  8. Robert Gardner, “Can the Will Triumph?” Film Comment (Winter 1965), p. 29.

  9. Museum of Modern Art film print, Triumph of the Will. All references to the film itself refer to this complete print. For information on how this print was preserved through the war, see comments by Eileen Bowser, Museum of Modern Art Curatorial Assistant, in “Leni Riefenstahl and the Museum of Modern Art,” Film Comment (Winter 1965), p. 16.

  10. The S.A., or “Sturmabteilung,” were the so-called “Brown-shirts” of the Nazi Party. Besides being responsible for maintaining order at party meetings, they were the Nazi's street brawlers against rival political parties. They were in organization and purpose different from the S.S., or “Black-shirts.”

  11. Hamilton T. Burden, The Nuremberg Party Rallies: 1923-39 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967), p. 77.

  12. William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary (New York: Popular Library, 1940), pp. 20-21.

  13. Michel Delahaye, “Leni and the Wolf: Interview with Leni Riefenstahl,” Cahiers du Cinema in English (No. 5), p. 54.

  14. Ken Kelman, “Propaganda as Vision—Triumph of the Will,Film Culture (Spring 1973), p. 163.

  15. Burden, op. cit.

  16. The dates for the “City Awakening” sequence cannot be determined, but since they record no significant events, dates are not important. The remarks made by the various speakers in Sequence V, “Opening of the Party Congress,” were made on many different occasions and locations, and edited together for this sequence.

  17. Delahaye, op. cit., pp. 51-52.

  18. Ibid., p. 54.

  19. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947), illustrations 59-60.

  20. Ibid., p. 290.

  21. To obtain these shots, Riefenstahl had to make a personal appeal to Hitler for permission to have a cameraman ride with him in the automobile during the parade. (Comments by Riefenstahl to the author.)

  22. Kevin Brownlow, “Leni Riefenstahl,” Film (Winter 1966), p. 18.

  23. Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970), p. 62.

  24. Remarks made by Leni Riefenstahl during an interview with the author, August, 1975.

  25. David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), p. 75.

  26. Speer, op. cit., pp. 58-59.

  27. Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, The German Cinema (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), p. 78.

  28. Leni Riefenstahl, Hinter den Kulïssen des Reichsparteitag Films (Munich: Franz Eber Verlag, 1935), p. 9.

  29. Kracauer, op. cit., p. 301.

  30. Riefenstahl, op. cit., p. 20.

  31. Ibid., p. 24.

  32. Correspondence between Emil Schunemann and the Reichsfachschaftfilm e.V., (Berlin Document Center, Berlin).

  33. Riefenstahl has denied in an interview (Herman Weigel, “Interview mit Leni Riefenstahl,” Filmkritik, August 1972, p. 400) that she wrote the book, and says that it was written by Ernst Jäger. Her claim is substantiated by a receipt for Reichsmarks 1000 written by Jäger to Riefenstahl for the writing of the book, which can be found in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. Further, the former publicity director of UFA has sworn in an affidavit that Jäger was the author.

  34. Richard Corliss, “Leni Riefenstahl: A Bibliography,” Film Heritage (Fall 1969), p. 30.

Robert Sklar (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2596

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 won acquittal and resumed his career—along with just about every other German director who made films during the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.

The director of Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), on the other hand, still vital and vibrant in her ninety-second year, has not made a film for half a century. However often she found exoneration—through mandatory “denazification” proceedings after the war and innumerable libel suits over the decades—she remains forever accused.

The first three filmmakers—Franz Seitz, Hans Bertram, and Veit Harlan, for the record—are forgotten flotsam of the thousand year Reich. The fourth, Leni Riefenstahl, remains 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.

The Trial of Leni Riefenstahl is back in session. Sensing perhaps that age may someday take its toll, Riefenstahl has offered herself for scrutiny again in print and on film. Her autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, published in Germany in 1987 and in Britain in 1992 under the title The Sieve of Time, appears in the United States simultaneously with a three-hour biographical documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (titled originally in German Die Macht der Bilder, or The Power of Images).

Whether or not the law courts have absolved her, the court of public opinion awaits Riefenstahl's confession. At the end of his film, director Ray Müller gathers sixty years of the world's fear, awe, and outrage into a diffident proposal. “I feel,” he tells the vigilant nonagenarian, “that people are expecting an expression of guilt from you.”

“What am I guilty of?” Riefenstahl performs her self-defense with an air of guileless conviction that belies the obvious: she has said these words a thousand times, and they will never persuade those who accuse her.

“I can and do regret making the film of the 1934 Party Congress, Triumph of the Will,” she says, leaving the impression that what she regrets is the lifetime of trouble it brought her. “But no words of anti-Semitism ever passed my lips. Nor did I write any. I was never anti-Semitic and I never joined the Nazi party. So what am I guilty of? Tell me that. I didn't drop any atom bombs. I didn't denounce anyone. So where does my guilt lie?”

Good question, Leni Riefenstahl. With all the millions of words that have been spent on your case, even those who abhor you aren't always cogent why. You were ambitious. You shielded yourself from unpalatable horrors. Afterward, you lied. You were not abject. You were really a fascist after all. For this you were denied the chance to pursue your profession for half a century? If this is what you're guilty of, you're no different from nearly every other adult German during the Third Reich.

But the issue of your ‘guilt’ doesn't lie in these base but all too mundane motives and behaviors. By your own assertion, you were different. You were an artist. To your defenders, your talent absolves you: dealt a bad hand, you redeemed yourself through art. To your accusers, your responsibility also rests precisely here: granted the gift of genius, you were obligated to refuse its use in the service of evil.

If only you had been a hack like Seitz and company, we could forget if not forgive you. But you made those films, those arty monsters, and they have left us—defenders and accusers alike—in a philosophical swirl over artistry and its obligations. We can't agree, and you're not helping, and it has cost you a filmmaking career.

At this late date, can an additional 656 pages of autobiographical text and 182 minutes of original film footage, interviews, and documents clarify the muddle? Both works tread the usual chronological path through Riefenstahl's life (though only about one-third of her book covers the period through the making of Olympia, while the film devotes two-thirds of its time to that era).

Born to a bourgeois family in Berlin, she became a dancer and performed solo recitals in the early 1920s. By chance, she claims, she saw one of director Arnold Fanck's ‘mountain’ films and was enthralled by its mingling of mysticism and athleticism in a melodrama of mountain climbing in the high Alps. She became Fanck's leading actress and appeared in seven films in the genre. In 1932 she made her directorial debut and also starred in her own mountain film, The Blue Light.

It is odd how complacent Riefenstahl's many critics have been toward her self-obsession, self-promotion, and self-valuation. Her demonic aura so floods our vision that we fail to apprehend her work in any context—other than Nazism, of course. Was she of any significance as a dancer in relation, say, to Isadora Duncan or the Germany Mary Wigman? Was she of any importance as an actress, except as a kind of Pearl White of the German Alps? How does The Blue Light compare with the work of another first-time woman director, Leontine Sagan, whose Mädchen in Uniform (1931) was banned by the Nazis (Sagan left Germany for Britain).

Riefenstahl's own idea of a counterlife seems to be that of Marlene Dietrich. She writes of becoming an intimate of Josef von Sternberg when the American director was in Berlin making The Blue Angel. “You're very good,” he said, according to her account. “I could make you into a big star. Come to Hollywood with me!” Until the last minute, says Riefenstahl, it wasn't clear whether she or Dietrich was going, and she records her later regret at saying no (it was all because of some boyfriend).

No, she was not to be Eliza Doolittle to Sternberg's Professor Higgins, as Dietrich is said to have described herself. Her destiny was to become a female Faust to Adolf Hitler's Mephistopheles. Drawn to a political rally in early 1932, she heard the future Fuehrer's voice for the first time. “That very same instant I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget,” she writes. “It seems as if the earth's surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.”

She was impressed. Better yet, he was, too, of her. He had seen her mystical dances in her first mountain film, Fanck's The Holy Mountain (1926). The English language voice-over in Müller's film characterizes his attraction this way: “It is precisely these roles which created the image of Riefenstahl that Hitler so admired: the heroic superwoman. The queen of the mountains enthroned high among the peaks beyond the reach of the masses. An idol. A myth. Larger than life. In other words, exactly what Hitler himself so much wanted to be, but so conspicuously lacked the artistic talent to achieve.”

In other words, he needed her. Needed what she could do for him. Needed her spin. It's a nice notion, and it perfectly comports with the Riefenstahl myth: her resistance, Goebbel's enmity, the party's interference, her final acquiescence to the Fuehrer's entreaties, when she is assured that she is not making propaganda but is only recording the facts with complete freedom to do as she wishes.

“Hitler had not understood how unhappy his project would make me,” she writes. “My most passionate desire was to work as an actress. This documentary would be a burden—very far from the temptation that it was so often made out to be in later years.” She is not speaking here of Triumph of the Will, but about the other Nazi party rally film she made, Victory of Faith (Sieg des Glaubens), in 1933. Through the postwar years it has been considered a lost film, but some footage is included in Müller's documentary. “It's just a few shots I put together,” Riefenstahl disparages the project when Müller questions her about it. “It has nothing to do with my technique.”

The Victory of Faith footage makes for one of the most surprising and memorable sequences in Müller's film. A certain lack of precision, one might say disorder, seems to mark both the events and the filmmaking. “The Nazis had not yet learned to march like Nazis,” says the voice-over. “Hitler and Riefenstahl were still trying to get it right.” More than that, the Fuehrer was not yet undividedly the Fuehrer. Standing next to Hitler as he reviews his scurrying, confused troops is Ernst Röhm, head of the SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troopers). It looks for all the world like a joint command.

Hitler took care of the hierarchy problem by ordering Röhm's execution in June 1934. Riefenstahl's job was the image problem. The result was Triumph of the Will. “Hitler didn't want a political film, he wanted an artistic film,” she says to Müller. “Whether it was about politics or vegetables or fruit, I couldn't give a damn.”

Here we have the crux of the Riefenstahl Question. Triumph of the Will is not like Edward Weston's photographs of green peppers. Every shot was planned, every image calculated, to depict Hitler as the totally adored supreme leader. Riefenstahl tells Müller that the film was not propaganda because there was no voice-over commentary and no posed shots. One could say that a voice-over was not necessary because the entire film consisted of posed shots.

Triumph of the Will is “the best propaganda film of all time,” according to the Müller film's English voice-over. Certainly it's the most notorious propaganda film of all time, but if the claim of “best” has any merit—someone should subject it to a more thorough test—then it wins against a very thin field. There are remarkable shots and sequences in the film, to be sure, but don't judge it by its highlights clips. The full-length film is often dull and tiresome: its point, indeed, may be to stun viewers into somnambulistic adherence through a predominant style of repetition and bombast.

It seems incredible the length to which some of Riefenstahl's defenders—particularly among film scholars in the United States—have gone to endorse her self-proclaimed status as a great artist, regrettably ignorant of politics in her tireless quest for esthetic perfection. The answer perhaps lies in a laudable desire to protect creative persons from political persecution, however unsavory their work. A case might be made for Riefenstahl in spite of herself, rather than the case that has been made, which buys into her every self-aggrandizing claim.

Riefenstahl's defenders reach a point of absurdity when they compare her with Sergei Eiseinstein. It's somewhat disingenuous to link the two names as great film artists who were also propagandists for murderous regimes, when Riefenstahl denies that her works are propaganda at all. Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers require reassessment over the same issues of political responsibility to which Riefenstahl should be held. But that similarity does not qualify her films to be mentioned in the same sentence with The Battleship Potemkin among the masterpieces of film history.

Words like ‘best,’ ‘great,’ and ‘art’ ought to be resisted when discussing Leni Riefenstahl, just to avoid the cant and obfuscation which have become synonymous with her name. Give her the credit (and blame) that she deserves: she was a pioneer of what might be called mass cinematography, a producer and planner of film spectacles that required dozens of cameras, feats of coordination and logistics, and complex organization of footage for editing. Her films are mixtures of the remarkable—such as the diving scenes in Olympia, which involved splicing reverse action footage into the sequence to heighten the uncanny effect—and the commonplace.

Much cogitation has gone into the question, as the Müller voice-over puts it, to what extent her films are “expressions of the fascist spirit.” The answer is, of course they were—but so were a lot of other forms of artistic expression throughout Europe and the United States during the interwar years, when mass politics, mass culture, and the reaction against them circulated into a volatile mix.

“What is Leni Riefenstahl's sin?,” her autobiography quotes a British defender. “That Hitler admired her?” Indeed we might accept this as the source of her sin, except that she was the one who first admired him. The best that can be said of Riefenstahl is that she had a remarkable capacity for tunnel vision. In 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, she volunteered to make films of combat. Sent to Poland, she was photographed, she writes, with an expression of horror as a gun was pointed at her by a German soldier angry at her protesting brutal treatment of captured Poles. This picture is not among the illustrations in her memoir, but it does appear in Müller's film.

She immediately broke off filming the war and retreated to the Alps, spending the remainder of the war years making an atavistic revival of the mountain genre, Tiefland, completed around 1945 but not released until 1954. This project fostered yet another controversy, when she was accused after the war of having requisitioned gypsies from a Nazi concentration camp to appear as extras in her film. Riefenstahl's defense was that the gypsies were in a refugee camp, not a death camp. The English voice-over in Müller's documentary, however, refers to a “gypsy concentration camp.”

The postwar section of Riefenstahl's autobiography brings a tone of lamentation along with her aggressive defensiveness. Besides the slander and betrayal she describes as her everyday travail, she pictures herself as suffering from constant debilitating illnesses, for which frequent injections provide occasional relief. This semi-invalid figure, however, is confounded by her own tales of trekking through Africa, living with the Nuba tribe, and taking up scuba-diving in her seventies by convincing authorities that she was twenty years younger. Among the beguiling scenes in Müller's film are shots of Riefenstahl dancing with the Nuba—the first appearance of the footage she and her companion filmed among the African tribe, in addition to the photographs she published as books—and underwater shots of her alongside a giant stingray.

The imperious, decisive Riefenstahl of the documentary marks an intriguing contrast to her literary self-portrait as an unworldly, obsessive artist, more acted upon by the world than acting in it. As Müller and Riefenstahl are being filmed on the Nuremberg site of the 1934 Nazi party rally, he brings up the 1933 party rally film, Victory of Faith. Riefenstahl becomes flustered and angry as she realizes that Müller knows more about that film than she has conceded through, as one historian has put it, her usual “mixture of excellent arguments, omissions of fact, and highly inaccurate statements.” She grabs Müller by the arm, shakes him, and swears (the British term “bloody” in the English subtitles doesn't do justice to the word for American ears). This is the Riefenstahl we should remember.

Thomas Elsaesser (review date February 1993)

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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 nonagenarian femme fatale still worshipping at the fountain of youth, or is this a pose to make her part as the fluttering butterfly of the Third Reich more credible? Either way, the butterfly Riefenstahl is clearly made of steel: a specimen from a period that does not seem to diminish in scale as it recedes in time. For this incommensurability alone, the autobiography of the director of Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938)—two films that have come, rightly or wrongly, to epitomise Nazi narcissism—merits attention, even without the tediously irrelevant but apparently still lucrative frisson of how intimate she has been with the Führer.

From someone who has always professed her ignorance of the concentration camps, or of Gestapo terror acts, the title of The Sieve of Time is, to say the least, an odd choice. Self-critical irony or haughty defiance? The phrase seems to have been inspired by a line from Albert Einstein: “one must take comfort in the fact that time has a sieve, through which most trivia run off into the sea of oblivion”. If media interest in Riefenstahl's autobiography has focused on her personal ties with Nazi leaders, the book seems to have been written partly to redress the balance, to give more space to her life after 1945 (the Nazi era takes up less than 200 pages), and to record her formative period in the 20s, as a dancer, briefly with Max Reinhardt, then as a movie star in Arnold Fanck's The Holy Mountain (1927) and her own The Blue Light (1932).

Riefenstahl is the first to admit that she is no great writer; but she has an acute mind, and always knew how to capitalise on her considerable charm. The films, on the other hand, have always been controversial. And a number of key points emerge from the decades of debate:

  • —In Riefenstahl's work we can see the continuity of Weimar cinema (especially Fritz Lang) with Nazi cinema. This thesis is based on the similarity of certain recurrent visual motifs (wild landscapes, dramatic skies, heroic bodies), shared genres such as the mountain film, to which Riefenstahl contributed as actor and director, and finally, a monumentalism which Siegfried Kracauer, apropos of The Nibelungen and Metropolis, has identified as the “mass ornament”: a dehumanising, quasi-military, strictly hierarchical and patterned representation of crowds (originally borrowed, as Lotte Eisner has shown, by Lubitsch, Lang and others from Reinhardt's theatre spectacles of the 1910s).
  • —Riefenstahl is responsible for two masterpieces, which, while politically abhorrent or at any rate highly suspect, nonetheless continue to be aesthetically impressive, indeed brilliant textbook examples of how to make a stirring film out of a tedious event (a political party conference), and how to create a four-hour narrative of drama, human interest and suspense out of a two-week sports meeting.
  • —The reason we keep coming back to these films (and to their director) is because they have become prototypes of genres which to this day are central, if not to the cinema, then to the aesthetics of television. The coverage of presidential elections, political summits, the staging of the Olympic Games can all be traced back to Riefenstahl's invention of the ‘photo-opportunity’ which is Triumph of the Will. More critically, Riefenstahl's films are associated with the Nazi recognition that reality is an event which happens in order to be filmed.
  • —Taking these points together, it can be shown that Riefenstahl's career as an actor in the mountain films, as a film-maker of political documentaries, and as a photographer of vanishing African tribes is all of a piece, illustrating some of the quintessential features of fascist aesthetics and its visual imagination. This imagination continues to be fascinating to this day, because the kind of image-making it implies—which not only shows an abiding tendency to abstract the human figure and body from its historical and social inscription, but treats it as an empty sign or icon—means that the human figure can serve as a support for any kind of message, propaganda or advertising, all of which instrumentalise the body.

If this, broadly speaking, is the received wisdom on Riefenstahl the film-maker, does the autobiography contain anything which might help us settle the ‘controversy’? The answer on the whole is: no. Riefenstahl once again defends herself vigorously against her critics, chronicling the innumerable law suits and libel cases she has fought since 1945, and citing testimonies, documents, affidavits in her favour. The most poignant case is perhaps that against Erwin Leiser's Deutschland Erwache!, for using footage from Triumph of the Will as if it were documentary, and intercutting it with shots of concentration camps. Since her reputation rests on the skillful juxtaposition of material, and since to this day she adamantly insists on her film of the Nazi party rally being “a pure record of what happened”, her position is doubly ironic: a fact that entirely escapes her. The most politically damaging allegation she got the courts to clear her from was that she had used as extras in Tiefland (finally released in 1954) a family of gypsies she knew was destined for a death camp.

While none of this may cut much ice in Riefenstahl's favour, more inadvertently and only obliquely, The Sieve of Time does shed some light on what made her ‘tick’, and to this reader at least suggests some thoughts which imply a slightly different interpretation of her career. First, there is the importance of dance to her world view. From her earliest, father-defying passion for the Laban school of modern dance to her conception of herself as a self-expressive film-artist, a consistent line runs through her life which seems to focus on the body as total expressive fact. This needs to be seen historically. Not only was Ausdruckstanz something of an upper-middle-class craze in the 1910s and 20s (the Isadora Duncan phenomenon), but Riefenstahl also shared in its wider cultural significance as part of a German youth movement (the Wandervögel) which was progressive in inspiration, libertarian, and whose Freikörperkultur (free body culture) has to be seen in the context of Wilhelmine collars, corsets and covered piano legs. As was the case with so many other movements to do with the body and sport in the 20s, the Nazis were able to co-opt some of the dance movement's adherents during the 30s, until “self-discipline and ecstasy” (as one critic called it) became one of the central attractions of Nazi aesthetics.

It seems clear that Riefenstahl remained faithful to her early ideals in this respect, and not only as far as the outdoor life of skiing, hiking, swimming and diving is concerned. For instance, the autobiography leaves no doubt that she enjoyed sex, and liked talking about it—at a time when this was not fashionable. Not only did she have many affairs—with her cameraman, her fellow-actors, men she met almost anywhere and fancied—but film-making was evidently for her a very erotic and sexualised activity. On the set of The Holy Mountain, for instance, she played off Fanck against star Luis Trenker, keenly aware of the older man's sexual torment when she favoured Trenker.

Another telling episode occurs in 1932, when Riefenstahl starred in Fanck's S.O.S. Iceberg, produced by Paul Kohner. A dual-language, German-American co-production (the American version was directed by Tay Garnett and produced by Carl Laemmle at Universal), it was shot in Greenland by a team made up of a film crew and a scientific expedition (the latter, one gathers was necessary in order to get permission to film among the Eskimos, whom the Danish government wanted to protect from disease). Sandwiched between her first meeting with Hitler at Wilhelmshaven and his visit to her Berlin studio to look at photographs (and disapprove of some Käthe Kollwitz charcoal drawings on her wall), the Greenland trip takes in an escaped polar bear, a switch of lovers (from Hans Scheeberger to Hans Ertl), and a rescue by Ernst Udet, the stunt pilot in Fanck's films, of one of the scientists, Dr Sorge, whose boat smashed when a huge iceberg began to ‘calve’. There exists an account by Sorge himself (Mit Flugzeug, Faltboot und Filmkamera in den Eisfjorden Grönlands, Berlin 1933), which focuses on the research part of the expedition. Where Sorge mentions Riefenstahl, he complements her story, down to the details of her urinary problems and the fact that she not only kept a portrait of Hitler in a sealskin frame by her bed, but kept quoting—to jibes from the scientists—from her bedtime reading, Hitler's Mein Kampf.

What I think is significant about this episode is that Riefenstahl's pan-eroticism and nature worship was matched by a very down-to-earth, ‘modern’ appreciation of her own sexuality, which had little of the repressive, prudish atmosphere that surrounded Hitler. But it also tells something about the film-making milieu to which she belonged. It was Fanck, himself a curious mixture of the arctic explorer-scientist and autodidact film-technology freak, who taught Riefenstahl film-directing. The glimpses one gets of the milieu of mountaineering and movie-making are as intriguing as they are brief: Fanck, an independent producer, funded by UFA's American rival, Universal, with a crew partly on loan from UFA's prestigious but maverick Kulturfilm production unit, and made up partly of Fanck's First World War airforce cronies, with the troublesome Luis Trenker itching to make his own films; and Riefenstahl taking a rowing boat to sunbathe on an iceberg with one of the cameramen.


Fanck was at heart a still photographer, forever experimenting with different lenses, exposure times and developing baths. Influenced by the Renger-Patsch tradition of the New Realism, he wanted to bring to his movies of mountain, ice and snow the textures and tonalities of the photographic print: using slow motion, backlighting, contrasts in scale and strong separation of background and foreground. None of this was lost on Riefenstahl when she came to shoot Triumph of the Will, and it may have some bearing on the argument of how ‘inept’ it is as a piece of film-making. Rather, I would argue that it strikes one as a camera(wo)man's film, introducing a certain photographic aesthetic into the hitherto shunned areas of crowds, power and politics. If Triumph of the Will is the triumph of form over substance, this is partly because it is a box of photographer's tricks, blended with point-of-view editing techniques picked from feature film-makers, squirrelled away like a film-school graduate, and then flamboyantly, impetuously shown off on a commission (affidavits to the contrary notwithstanding) she could not refuse. It is this ‘experimental’ dimension which to this day makes some documentary film-makers her most ardent fans, professing to have ‘learnt from her’. But these film-makers also know that when helping themselves from Triumph of the Will, a little goes a long way, for part of the potency of the film is that, in its genre, it goes too far—but on a road television documentary has often travelled since.

Fanck also put Riefenstahl in touch with Harry Sokal, the Jewish producer who backed her financially and logistically for The Blue Light, giving her the opportunity to found her own production company, a fact which was very important to her not only after 1945, when she argued in her defense that neither Triumph of the Will nor Olympia were ‘official’ Nazi films, commissioned and financed by the party.

The salient question, in a way, is not the extent to which Triumph of the Will has or has not influenced documentary film-makers (there are tributes not only from Grierson but also from Paul Rotha), but what kind of causal link—and therefore responsibility—can be established from this film to the Nazi newsreel tradition, and the countless documentaries and propaganda films made in the 30s and 40s. From a film-historical point of view, the malleability of the material through editing is less remarkable than the contribution made to the editing by the sound montage and Herbert Windt's score, sound obviously being the technology in which to be experimental in the 30s. It is here that Riefenstahl did something original: putting staged tableaux to movement, music and vocals. Hence the point Riefenstahl expends many pages refuting—that there was re-staging and re-shooting on Triumph of the Will, as mentioned in Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich—is something of a red herring. Speer, who acknowledges the difficulties Riefenstahl had, as an independent-minded woman, with the party hierarchy, confesses, somewhat disingenuously, to being shocked when Streicher, Rosenberg and Frank agree to re-takes in the studio. Hess, “with his special brand of ardour, turned precisely to the spot where Hitler would have been sitting, snapped to attention and cried: ‘Mein Führer, I welcome you in the name of the Party Congress’. He did it all so convincingly that from that point on I was no longer sure of the genuineness of his feelings”. Riefenstahl herself mentions the many re-shoots necessary for Olympia, mainly in connection with the stormy love affair she had with the American decathlon winner, Glenn Morris, which apparently made her miss some crucial heats in the competition.

Since Triumph of the Will and Olympia have to this day remained, for an international public at least, the best-known films the Nazi cinema produced, the fact that Riefenstahl directed both of them weighs against her when she protests her lack of interest in politics or propaganda. However, from a film-historical perspective, the films may not belong together as logically as is usually asserted. Olympia is stylistically quite different from Triumph of the Will. Yet even if one emphasises stylistic similarities (low-angle shots of erect bodies against an empty sky, and so on) there remain substantial differences in terms of function. While Triumph of the Will was made mainly in order to bind the leaderless SA to the Party, after the Röhm putsch and the ‘night of the long knives’, Olympia was a compromise project, negotiated between the regime and the Olympic Committee, which aimed to give to the world an image of the games as supra-individual and supra-national, a celebration of youth in communal competition. That these representations are carefully ‘constructed’ is evident, but this in itself hardly differs from the construction of the nation on the nine-o'-clock news. What is more indicative is the use the games, and Riefenstahl's film-making, seem to have been put to—namely to front another enterprise altogether, that of allowing the Nazis their first experiments with television, and the live transmission of events. The new technology and its potential preoccupied the various ministries involved much more than the ideological content of Olympia.

Two issues come into play here—one is that the Nazis, while keeping a tight rein on film production, did not consider film to be their main propaganda medium. As far as the audiovisual media were concerned, it was radio that interested them, and its penetration into the home and potential as a public address and alarm system were as significant as what was broadcast. During the war, simultaneous broadcasting and the emphasis on ‘live-ness’ became a crucial part of the morale-boosting, mass-mobilising function of the media. For these objectives, film was too slow a medium. One might even argue that the Nazi film industry was developed as an entertainment industry, for the films and stars acted as inducements to bring spectators to the newsreels. None of the technological or media-political considerations seems to have occurred to Riefenstahl: the memoirs make no mention of the presence of television cameras at the games.


There is perhaps a more important reason why it did not strike her. The way the cinema developed in Germany was not at all in the direction of Riefenstahl's own idea of cinema. In the 30s and 40s, UFA, Terra and Tobis—the three major production companies—were run by and large as studios churning out films designed to make money. While they were broadly in line with the regime, they continued a genre cinema already well established in the 20s whose mainstays were melodramas and comedies, musicals and bio-pics—genres whose formulas were often copied directly from Warner Bros or MGM prototypes. Where politics massively operated in the Nazi cinema was in the realm of personnel politics (the compliance of UFA in Hitler's racial policy is well documented) and in the style and content of the newsreel.

Not only was Riefenstahl an ‘independent’ producer/film-maker in a film business increasingly centralised and industrialised, but—as already indicated—hers was in inspiration an art and experimental cinema. While her films, as well as Fanck's, were released through UFA, UFA was not their production company: on the contrary, Fanck refers to himself as the “Freiburg School”, and had little but contempt for studio-bound film-making as practised in Neu-Babelsberg or Munich. Riefenstahl was less radical, but she too was committed to the outdoor view of cinema. Riefenstahl's aversion to being identified with propaganda, newsreel and commissioned films has, it seems to me, more to do with her self-image as a film-artist than with any attempt at political whitewash.

The question the memoirs prompt, then, when viewed from the point of view of film industry and film politics, is how did Riefenstahl fit into the Nazi cinema, as opposed to echoing motifs or tendencies of other Nazi films? The answer seems to be, not very well. For one of the puzzling aspects of her career is why she made only these two films, if she was so important to the regime. The one other film she worked on throughout the 30s and 40s was Tiefland, and what she documents about this project is a tale of failures and disappointments, of outright official betrayal.

It is here that Riefenstahl's paranoia is most noticeable. Perhaps in order to explain to herself the lack of support she received as a film-maker, she builds up Goebbels as her arch foe, though whether this tortured and highly eroticised relationship explains anything about her film-making career is less clear. It does demonstrate the fact that Riefenstahl was not very adept either tactically or analytically, revealing once again her tendency to personalise and sexualise whatever happened to her. In fact, Goebbels brings out the melodramatist and pulp novelist in her: “He said, looking round the dark, deserted street: ‘We can't stay here, you'll be drenched’. I glanced at my small Mercedes parked in front of the building … There was only one thing on my mind: nobody must see us … As we turned into the forest I saw him produce a gun from his raincoat pocket and thrust it into the glove compartment. Noticing my alarm, he smiled. ‘I never go anywhere without a weapon’ … He grabbed my breast and tried to force himself on me. I had to wrestle my way out of his arms … Besides himself with rage, he held me against the wall and tried to kiss me. His eyes were wide open, and his face completely distorted”.


To be fair, Riefenstahl knew there was a thin line between being the Führer's favourite film-maker and ending in disgrace, so there may have been a grain of truth in the paranoia, a sense of real terror, when trying to dodge not only Goebbels' grasping hands, but film commissions from the Party. Riefenstahl knew that these things could go horribly wrong, as they did in the case of her friend and cameraman, Willy Zielke. Zielke was commissioned by the Reichsbahn to make a film celebrating the German railway's centenary, giving the story of the inventors and developments from the steam engine to the diesel locomotive. In The Steel Animal, “Zielke had turned this difficult material into a thrilling picture. His locomotive looked like a living monster. The headlights were its eyes, the instruments its brain, the piston its joints, and the oil dripping from the moving pistons looked like blood … When the officials saw the movie, they were so horrified—according to Zielke—that they left the room speechless”. The film was not only not shown, the railway board had the prints destroyed. Riefenstahl tried to intercede, and arranged for Goebbels to see a print. He thought it showed talent, but found it too abstract for the public: “It could be a Bolshevist film”. “But that's no reason to destroy the film”, replied Riefenstahl. “I'm sorry, but the decision is entirely up to the Reichsbahn, which has financed the film”. More than the film was destroyed: Zielke's sanity suffered, and he was interned in a mental hospital, apparently blaming Riefenstahl for his committal.

Beyond the human element, the episode also shows that there were a number of nonfiction film-makers who tried to continue the more experimental and formal film-making of the 20s, like Walter Ruttmann's, influenced by Eisenstein and Russian film—an art cinema, in other words, with which Riefenstahl had a great affinity. With the beginning of the war, and the gearing of the industry into a more overt propaganda and morale-boosting machine, directors like Riefenstahl saw their opportunities for making films dwindle, and Riefenstahl herself became more and more marginalised compared to directors who, like top managers or the captains of industry, put themselves in the service of the regime. Directors like Veit Harlan and Wolfgang Liebeneiner, Karl Ritter, Gustav Ucicky and Josef von Baky fitted this industrial strategy completely, and had the same cynical attitude to keeping production going at any price (as with Harlan's Kolberg) as Speer had in the armament industries. It may be Riefenstahl's vague knowledge of this that made her so sensitive about the accusation of using gypsies from the concentration camp, for while the use of forced labour might have been possible for a major production, it adds insult to injury where the mostly aborted Tiefland project was concerned. However, she never seemed to realise that her cult of the body beautiful had become a blasphemy in a Germany where bodies were labour power to be worked to death in munitions factories or rocket test sites; this in turn made her incapable of seeing those who could not forgive her as anything other than personal enemies, motivated by spite and “human nastiness”.

Although it would be plainly absurd to suggest that Riefenstahl was a pawn of the Nazi regime, there is a sense in which she had little control over what became of her career, which was effectively finished before the outbreak of the war. The memoirs both know this and disavow this knowledge. How, then, can one understand Riefenstahl's “I only live for what is beautiful” other than as the desperate plea of someone who could never see herself in relation to any kind of history, or in any kind of social or political context, and who was therefore incapable of humour, wit or irony, but also incapable of recognition, reflection, remorse? The world view that inspired all her actions is certainly older than Nazism and goes deeper: the contrasts between nature and civilisation, between the simplicity of physical strength and the complications of social existence. Even the basic untruth of her position, namely that in order to glorify and romanticise unspoilt nature and simplicity, she had to deploy all the technological acquisition of civilisation, as well as participate in a state apparatus of Byzantine deviousness, is not of itself what makes her a Nazi: to that extent, Riefenstahl may have been a fellow-traveller and a beneficiary, but nothing like as brazenly as many a Party-member (which she was not) officially rehabilitated during the 50s and allowed to enjoy top positions in West German government, industry and the judiciary. Having survived so long would appear to have been a mixed blessing for her, since it traps her into perpetually having to downplay the brief period in her long life which alone still makes her news; yet the limelight also blocks her life from being looked at more kindly or more dispassionately. It is because she is still around that fingers will be pointed at her and, in turn, fans or ardent admirers will step into the breach.


Does it mean there is necessarily a tragic dimension to Riefenstahl's life? Perhaps not, but there are nonetheless ironies that make one pause, for she seems to have borne the brunt of public shame more openly and more frequently than the real culprits of the regime, most of whom, as far as film-making goes, were quite happily reintegrated into the industry. After 1945, the vast majority of them found work, even Veit Harlan, whose Kolberg and Jud Süss did not even split opinion between admirers and detractors the way Riefenstahl's films had always done. No, it was not the exposed nature of her films that put paid to her film-making career, but the fact that she was not ‘one of us’, that she had never really belonged in the first place. She was, it seems, as much an outsider to the film industry during the Third Reich as she was to be in the Federal Republic.

It is doubtful whether Riefenstahl fully understood even the film-historical side of the history in which she briefly played such a prominent part, for the memoirs give no clue to it. Yet it is difficult to take such a balanced view of Riefenstahl's memoirs or too charitable a view of her historical role. Compared to the aristocratic unrepentance displayed by another vieille dame indigne from Hitler's entourage, in Syberberg's Confessions of Winifred Wagner, the irritation provoked by The Sieve of Time comes less from Riefenstahl's apolitical aestheticism than from her sympathy-seeking. Shocked by the Holocaust as she now seems, and no doubt also aware of some dimensions of this story she does not touch on, she constantly buttonholes the reader, as if to absolve herself from a knowledge for which there could be no forgiveness, while evidently preferring the verdict of irredeemable naivety to that of culpable ignorance. Film history may not be able to help her out of this impasse, even where it can recognise that such an impasse exists.

Ella Leffland (review date 26 September 1993)

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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 Leni Riefenstahl, who was in her mid-80s when she wrote the memoir and is now 91, remains a highly charged subject more than half a century after she made The Triumph of the Will and Olympia. These two documentary films, the first depicting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and the second the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, established Riefenstahl's reputation as a director of genius who used her gifts in the service of the Nazis.

After the war, cinematic entrees were closed to Riefenstahl. She never made another film. Her insistence through the decades that she directed the documentaries solely as works of art, that the thought of propaganda never crossed her mind, has had the ring of a bald-faced lie. Yet it may be that her assertion is borne out by her memoir, whose title should be, “The Life But Not the Times of Leni Riefenstahl.”

Germany's defeat and revolution in 1918 are experienced by the young Leni “in a cloud of unknowing … my mind was turned on a tiny, exclusive world.” In 1932, when she first meets Hitler, “I was [politically] so ignorant that I wasn't even quite sure what concepts like ‘right’ and ‘left’ were.” In 1938 when German troops march into Austria. “I realized that these events would have a bearing on the premiere date [of Olympia, but] I wouldn't hear of delaying it.” In 1944 “the inferno of the aerial attacks grew more and more dreadful … yet we still wished to complete Tiefland, and in Prague we shot the very expensive final takes.” In 1945, asked by an American interrogator if she has never heard of Buchenwald, the answer is “no.”

Riefenstahl makes much of the political naiveté of the artist preoccupied with her work, but what emerges inadvertently from the book is an even stronger case for the incognizance she claims: that of a total narcissist unaware of anything that doesn't bear directly on herself. She has a kind of driving mindlessness, which makes it feasible that in her worship of power, and of the mystical and sublime, she filmed The Triumph of the Will in all the grand subjectivity of her passions. I would venture to guess that she belonged to the tradition of Teutonic romanticism, which dovetailed very smoothly into the blazoned Wagnerian scenario of the Nazis. Like too many others during the first flush of the National Socialist regime, she saw its iniquities—when indeed she took notice of anything—as kinks that would straighten out with time: meanwhile her aesthetic sensibilities marched enthusiastically in step with the regime's need to be seen as something of transcendent beauty. Nor does she deny that Hitler's personality dazzled her.

It is all dazzle and limelight. Regarding the brilliant Berlin festivities surrounding the Olympics, she writes. “I had no inkling of the human tragedies taking place behind all that gaiety.” Presumably in possession of an inkling now, she nevertheless makes no attempt in her book to shoulder the responsibility of having contributed artistically to the success of the Nazi machine. The memoir is a chronicle of self-worship and self-pity.

It is also an interesting book, in that hers has been a life marked by the most drastic high and low points and by an inexpungable stamina. Her promising career as a creative dancer having been ended by a badly damaged knee, she became the leading actress in Arnold Fanck's mystical, man-pitted-against-nature mountain films. These productions involved physical rigors amounting to torture, and Riefenstahl showed a fortitude that matched the intensity of her artistic drive, which in 1931 turned to directing. Her first picture an enormously successful mountain epic, called her to Hitler's attention. Although she says that Hitler had to argue her into making a documentary and that she agreed to do so against her will, feeling that the genre was alien to her, she directed four official Nazi documentaries between 1933 and 1936. Later, on her own, she directed a second mountain film, which was uncompleted at the war's end.

After the war, Riefenstahl entered a long period of poverty and hardship littered with unsuccessful attempts to get various film projects going. In the 1960s she re-established herself as an artist with her photographs of the Sudanese Nubans, a tribe of physically superb warriors untainted by modern civilization. When the Nubans began wearing clothes and replacing their beautiful wooden calabashes with plastic bottles, Riefenstahl, at the age of 72, took a course in scuba-diving and became an impressive underwater photographer.

It is a life jangling from the start with crises. Plans of all sorts catastrophically fall through. Her love affairs are many and turbulent. She is prone to excruciating illnesses and severe accidents—narrow escapes from death that are added to by the dangers of the mountain films with their driving blizzards and crashing avalanches. Her adventures in the Sudan are no less perilous, and in addition she has trouble with her crew. They abandon her. But the Nubans—or “my Nubans,” as she calls them—adore her. This is a fugue throughout the book: People are either Riefenstahl's worshipers or her enemies. Her life is a “continual rise and fall of triumph and attack.”

The reference to attack is not entirely unjustified. The press has at times been scurrilous. A German newspaper in 1976 described her as photographing very tall Negroes with enormous genitals, suggestively remarked that her assistant cameraman was also very tall and implied that she was at an age when she should be thinking about “a plot six feet deep, with a stone upon it.” Other attacks are quoted in the book, but Riefenstahl's definition of journalistic attack extends beyond sleaze to all references to her past connection with the Nazis. Why must that subject always be brought up? she asks. Why must people keep throwing Hitler in her face?

She was rumored to have been Hitler's mistress. This she denies in the memoir, and I am inclined to believe her. She was his pet film director, and he was the embodiment, the symbol, of a world divorced from the ordinary—a world higher, grander, mightier. Riefenstahl writes that when she first met him she made a distinction between his strong personality and his political notions, rejecting his racist ideas while hoping they were campaign rhetoric. This type of thinking continued within her after the symbol came to power and showed his colors clearly enough for anyone willing to see.

Perhaps if Leni Riefenstahl admitted that she took the wrong fork in the road, she would not keep having the past thrown up at her so unpleasantly. But there is no admitting when there is no understanding. If there are any expectations that in her memoir she does some soul-searching, they will be disappointed.

Penelope Mesic (review date 10 October 1993)

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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 courage as a skier and mountain climber—skills she put to use as an actress in films that established her fame in Europe while she was still in her early 20s. And yet her real talent, even genius, lay elsewhere, as a director of films.

The still vigorous Riefenstahl, now in her 90s, has recently written an autobiography, [Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir,] and it is most engrossing when it traces the filming of her breathtaking Olympia, made during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The games took place in a maelstrom of conflicting ideologies (the black American Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals, made the ubermenschen look sick); but Riefenstahl, heading a crew larger than any previously used in German filmmaking, displayed no particular favoritism toward German athletes as she created a driving epic—still exhilarating and available on videotape—of the athlete as the embodiment of the human will.

Just as accomplished but far more disturbing is her 1934 documentary Triumph of the Will. In that film, Riefenstahl put her ingenuity at the service of the Nazi party, providing a mesmerizing visual account of a historic rally held at Nuremburg, at which Hitler is shown captivating a flag waving, torch-bearing crowd of frenzied followers.

For its making, Riefenstahl had every facility Hitler could offer—18 cameramen, an elevator installed on a 140-foot flagpole so a camera could capture the scene from above; a squad trained on roller skates to maneuver smoothly around Hitler with a circling camera. The result was to bring an essentially static event—a talking head, or more accurately, a ranting one—to furious life. Riefenstahl's innovations created an appallingly effective piece of propaganda.

Leni Riefenstahl had quite a life—numerous love affairs (most reflecting the same self-absorption and disastrously poor judgment that shaped her politics), encounters with everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Mussolini and private meetings with Hitler, which gave rise, after the war's end, to rumors that she had been Hitler's mistress, which she denies. What keeps us reading this 669-page account, though, is our curiosity about her values. How could a woman so intelligent, sensitive and cultured lend her loyalties and her abilities to a cause so nauseating?

This is a question she never answers. Nor does she express regret, Riefenstahl proves once again to be a propagandist of the first order, this time on her own behalf. The image she builds up is of a young actress working 18-hour days, filming under perilous conditions on glaciers and on icebergs afloat in Arctic seas, or later, as a director, editing miles of footage taken at the Olympic games.

“Because of my huge workload I had been living inside a kind of egg, completely isolated from everyday events,” she writes. “I never listened to the radio or read any newspapers. As a result I didn't have the faintest idea that the works of [modern] artists were vanishing from museums and galleries, defamed and exhibited as ‘degenerate.’”

As another example of her political naivete, Riefenstahl recalls being shown around a French film studio before the war. Studio technicians sang the “Internationale” to protest her presence. Riefenstahl thought it was a tribute.

But the director does not always avow ignorance, saying that to the extent she noticed Hitler's racial policies she opposed them. Once, she says, she asked Hitler if he believed in God. “‘I believe in God and in a divine destiny,’ he responded. ‘And when the time is ripe, a new Messiah will come—he doesn't have to be a Christian, but he will found a new religion that will change the world.’ She claims to have retorted, ‘Only if he loves all human beings and not just the Germans.’”

Yet she willingly served Hitler and once carried a crucial message between the Fuhrer and II Duce. At the end of April 1936, Mussolini asked Riefenstahl to Rome to discuss a film project. In the course of the meeting he remarked that whatever happened, Italy would not interfere in Austria's internal politics. Recognizing this as a message, she reported the conversation to Hitler, who within a week declared the Locarno Pact to be null and void and ordered the Wehrmacht to march into the Rhineland. “A short time later,” Riefenstahl writes, “I found out that he had been encouraged to take that step by Mussolini's message. …”

After the war, Riefenstahl was excoriated for her involvement with the Third Reich. Held by the French, who confiscated her films, she spent several years in prison camps and in a mental hospital. In her book's first few hundred pages, the story flows out like a gush from a hydrant. But during her post-war period of disgrace, her story dwindles to a trickle of explanations and accusations.

For decades she struggled unsuccessfully to obtain backing for her film projects. At last, in the 1960s, she got funding for a documentary about a superbly handsome African people called the Nuba. Critics such as Susan Sontag saw in this work an obsession with dominance and physical superiority completely consistent with Triumph of the Will. But Riefenstahl argues—convincingly—that the photographs prove that Aryan superiority is not a view she espouses.

Can Riefenstahl have been as innocent as she claims? Of course not. Others, although further from the heart of power, saw not just with their eyes but with their principles and had no trouble assessing the nature of the evil around them. By insisting on her ignorance Riefenstahl makes herself sound ordinary, as common as any greedy little hausfrau, happy to wear the fur coat—no questions asked—that her husband “found” in the ghetto.

But Riefenstahl's story is a variation on that most Germanic legend, the tale of Faust's pact with the devil. To be allowed to do the work that she loved, she lost her soul. She became not one in a million, but one of the millions—self-absorbed, moved by the thrill of power and too beguiled by the Reich's benefits to herself to protest.

Jeremy Murray-Brown (review date November 1993)

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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 “documentary” film crew. She was Leni Riefenstahl, then thirty-seven years old and well known as Hitler's favored filmmaker. A photograph was taken of her, too.

These photographs taken at Konskie haunted Riefenstahl after the war when she was accused of being an eye-witness to Nazi atrocities. Although a German de-Nazification tribunal cleared her of this charge, she was so tainted by her association with Hitler and other Nazi leaders that she found it impossible to resume her career as a filmmaker. Tiefland, which she had been working on intermittently during the war and released finally in 1954, was her last film. She survived the difficult postwar years through one expedient after another and went on to make a brief splash as a stills photographer of certain African tribes. In 1987, aged eighty-five, she published her memoirs in Germany. These were translated anonymously and published in Britain in 1992 under the title The Sieve of Time. They have now been published in the United States as Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir.

In these pages, Riefenstahl explains why she was in Konskie that day in September 1939 and how the photograph of her came to be taken. It is one of many instances where she has found it necessary to justify, correct, refute, or excuse something about her past. But she gives no hint that she is aware of the irony that she, whose reputation among cinéastes rests on so-called “documentaries,” should find herself trapped by a visual document. In part her book is an attempt to score off what she terms her “enemies,” writers like Susan Sontag who have identified Nazi aesthetic themes in the photographs of her post-Hitler career. Alert readers are unlikely to find her explanations convincing.

Riefenstahl's book is very long and repeats much of what she has told about herself before in one form or another. Its narrative follows the arc of her long and turbulent life from its petit-bourgeois beginnings in the Kaiser's Germany (she was born in 1902) to its long downhill love affair with Africa. (She says she'd like to settle in Africa among the simple mud huts and naked people, but the rains and mosquitoes make it impossible.) As active in the latter half of her life as in her prime, she has survived through single-minded concentration on her own interests and through remarkable physical stamina. In her youth she was photogenic, with a good face and figure, and many men were attracted to her. But it does not seem that people liked her, apart from Hitler, nor will most readers find her self-portrait appealing.

The relationship with Hitler is the centerpiece of her book. Spread out over some two hundred pages, this is the fullest account Riefenstahl has yet given of it. She takes us from the day she first met Hitler in early 1932 to the final moments of the war, when, at the very end of April 1945, trying to hide herself away in Austria, she heard of his death (“A chaos of emotions raged in me. I threw myself on the bed and wept all night”). In the course of these pages Riefenstahl introduces us to the top Nazis and her work on the films that made her famous. It is this section of the book that the publishers must hope will attract readers.

Riefenstahl began her life in public as a dancer. When a knee injury threatened her future in this field, she turned to films. She was attracted to mountain films, a genre made popular in Germany by Arnold Fanck. In 1926 she appeared in her first film, The Holy Mountain, under Fanck's direction. Several others followed. Having learned from Fanck how films were made she then turned herself to directing. In 1932 she released The Blue Light, her first film as a director, a fable set in the Italian Dolomites.

Fanck, it seems, required performances upon rocks and ski slopes, the more dangerous the better, but not acting. Riefenstahl's “dancing” in The Holy Mountain is awful beyond belief. If it is true that Hitler found this dance the most beautiful thing he ever saw in a film, as Riefenstahl reports him saying, we can understand how the artistic tastes of these two drew them together. The Blue Light is nearly as awful. But Hitler, Riefenstahl says, admired this film too. It was another bond between them.

According to Riefenstahl, it was she who initiated contact with Hitler. Soon after completing The Blue Light, she found herself attending a rally at which Hitler spoke, during one of the election campaigns that marked the last year of the Weimar Republic. So smitten was she by his performance, she wrote to him. Hitler at once invited her to meet him at Wilhelmshaven, on the North Sea coast.

Riefenstahl's description of this first meeting sets the tone for what follows. It's as if she is imagining herself in a film with Hitler as her co-star and her book the draft of its screenplay.

Hitler takes a break from his campaigning to walk with her on the beach. They talk about films. Hitler persuades her to stay for dinner: “I seldom get the chance to speak to a real artist.” They walk some more on the beach, and he speaks passionately about his mission to save Germany:

We walked silently, side by side until, after a long silence, he halted, looked at me, slowly put his arms around me, and drew me to him. I had certainly not wished for such a development. He stared at me in some excitement but when he noticed my lack of response he instantly let go and turned away. Then I saw him raise his hands beseechingly: “How can I love a woman until I have completed my task?” Bewildered, I made no reply and, still without exchanging a word, we walked back to the inn; there, somewhat distantly, he said, “Good night.” I felt that I had offended him and regretted that I had come in the first place.

Her regrets notwithstanding, Riefenstahl lost no opportunity to exploit this all-important connection. When Hitler became Chancellor, he asked her to make films for the Nazi cause. Riefenstahl has always made a point of stressing that her obligations in this matter were to Hitler personally, as if this made a difference to her moral situation. Though she says she tried to resist Hitler, in the end she could not refuse to do as he asked. (Riefenstahl throughout portrays herself as the reluctant victim of circumstances. When things go wrong for her, it is always someone else's fault.) Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, was now in charge of all media activity in Germany, including film. In Riefenstahl's scenario, he made life as difficult as he could for her, while losing no opportunity to try to seduce her.

In short order, Riefenstahl then made three films featuring Hitler's Nazi rallies at Nuremberg, those of 1933, 1934, and 1935. They were given the same titles as the rallies themselves: Victory of Faith,Triumph of the Will, and Day of Freedom: Our Werhmacht. Hitler gave a reception for each one in turn. In 1936, Riefenstahl was contracted to film the Olympic Games, due to be held that year in Berlin. The assignment was backed by the Nazi government and it occupied her until the spring of 1938, when she released her film in two parts: Olympia: Festival of Nations and Olympia: Festival of Beauty. Hitler again attended its première, a gala affair which was held, at Riefenstahl's suggestion, on his forty-ninth birthday. She then toured Europe with the film, turning it into a propaganda triumph for the Nazi government. When she came to the United States, however, she found her films boycotted.

Of these four films that Riefenstahl made under Hitler's auspices, the first has apparently disappeared. The others, however, are available in video format in the United States, and two of them, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, are highly regarded in some film circles. To view them afresh after reading Riefenstahl's book makes one doubly alert to the fraudulent nature of the narrative she's now published. The films were, of course, designed as propaganda for Hitler's government, and they betray this motivation in the most obvious manner. In her book, however, as in the many interviews she's given since the war, Riefenstahl sets out to portray herself as a pure documentary filmmaker, one who was ignorant of politics and had to fight to preserve her integrity as an artist. Regrettably, many in academia and the media have aided and abetted her in this fiction.

We may surmise that to picture herself as one who, yes, was captivated by Hitler's magnetic personality and so “had no choice” but to submit to his will, but who knew nothing of what the Nazis were up to, was an alibi suggested to Riefenstahl by another Hitler favorite, Albert Speer, his wartime Minister of Armaments. As the designer of the Nuremberg tableaux that Riefenstahl captured on film, Speer was Riefenstahl's close collaborator in the production of both Victory of Faith and Triumph of the Will. His hand was also to be seen in the props and staging of the Olympic Games in Berlin.

Speer escaped the gallows at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal by inventing what the German historian Matthias Schmidt has called “the most cunning apologia by any leading figure of the Third Reich.” He presented himself as a non-political technocrat, at heart a decent man, who in an honest spirit of contrition accepted his part in Hitler's government, but who was ignorant of the atrocities that others committed. Building on this self-portrait in his writings, and thanks to a successful television mini-series based on them, Speer's popular image was elevated from the Chamber of Horrors, where it rightly belonged, to the Hall of Fame. Was it from Speer, one wonders, that Riefenstahl got the idea of devising a similar script to account for her own carryings-on in the Third Reich, perhaps hoping for a mini-series of her own?

Speer flits in and out of Riefenstahl's narrative and is portrayed by her always as a friend and ally right up to the end of the war. Within days of his release from Spandau prison in 1966, where he served the twenty-year sentence handed down by the allied court, Speer wrote to Riefenstahl suggesting they meet. Later, they spent five weeks walking together in the Dolomites, the location of many of Riefenstahl's mountain films. In these airy surroundings, the two survivors of the debacle of Hitler's Germany talk about the past. It is typical of Riefenstahl's memoirs that we learn nothing of substance about these conversations. The set and the actors are there, but the scene is trivialized.

As a literary performance, then, it must be said that Riefenstahl's book is on a par with her dancing. Her style, like Speer's, tends always toward melodrama and cheap sentiment. It exemplifies that form of kitsch that the Israeli historian Saul Friedländer has found both in Nazi art generally and in many postwar attempts to recapture its spirit. The passage quoted above in which Riefenstahl describes her first meeting with Hitler is a typical example of this style. But it is the same whether she writes of her lovers, or of her wartime marriage to an army officer, or of the Nazi inner circle. Hitler is the dictator of Germany, holding absolute power in his own person, preparing to unleash upon the world the most terrible forces of destruction. But his actions, on which the fate of millions depends, fade into the background to be replaced by moments of quiet intimacy with a talented young woman, Leni Riefenstahl. The Führer and she are fellow artists, she woos him with films in which he stars famously, he gives her lilacs, roses, a Meissen alarm clock. She visits him in the Reich Chancellery; they go on picnics; she's invited to lunch, “the only woman at the big luncheon table.” In Berlin, he comes by her apartment; in Munich, she visits his apartment. On occasions she's invited to the Berghof, his mountain aerie, which inspires him to talk about religion. Christmas often finds Hitler feeling lonely. Riefenstahl comes round for a private chat.

Trying to change the subject, I asked Hitler, “How did you spend Christmas Eve?” There was sadness in his voice: “I had my chauffeur drive me around aimlessly, along highways and through villages, until I became tired.” I looked at him, amazed. “I do that every Christmas Eve.” After a pause: “I have no family and I am lonely.”

“Why don't you get married?”

“Because it would be irresponsible of me to bind a woman in marriage.”

It's all a smokescreen, the stuff of supermarket tabloids. But suddenly the smoke clears, we've arrived at September 1939, and Riefenstahl is in the Reichstag listening to Hitler announce the outbreak of war. She at once offers herself for “combat reporting.” Within days of the Nazi attack on Poland, she has organized her film crew, obtained uniforms from the army, and rushed to the front line. Commanding generals, knowing who is her protector, point her forward to Konskie. There she is photographed and the incident occurs which causes her difficulty after the war. Riefenstahl says this incident made her abandon all wish to serve the war effort in her capacity as filmmaker. Nevertheless, she flies in a military plane from the Konskie front to Danzig, where she sits on Hitler's left at the celebratory luncheon given for senior officers. Soon after she flies to Warsaw, where her film crew records Hitler's review of the Wehrmacht's victory parade.

What does Riefenstahl expect her readers to make of this episode? Does she really think it has no greater moral significance than the name-dropping, gossip, and B-movie dialogue that fill most of her book? How could she be so close to the front line, so close to Hitler in his triumphal march across Europe, if she were not an ardent supporter of the Nazi cause? But the smokescreen quickly descends again. In Tiefland, a sappy story that was a popular opera in Berlin in the Twenties, Riefenstahl found another idealized image of Hitler. Working on this project provided her with a cover for whatever else she and her companies were doing for the war effort. By the time of her last meeting with Hitler, at the Berghof in 1944, she says, “I no longer believed in a German victory.” It was time to invent a different future for herself.

Riefenstahl's book, like her films, depicts the moral universe in which many Germans lived and worked in the Nazi era. If it were not for the symbiotic relationship between Hitler, herself, and her films, it's hard to believe her memoirs would attract a publisher. But the relationship certainly existed, if not exactly in the form she now presents it, and her films still circulate. Her book complements them. It is authentic at least in this respect: in it we hear again the voice of an unrepentant Hitlerite. His only fault was that he lost the war.

Robert von Dassanowsky (essay date May 1995)

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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 1987 and the subsequent release of the English translation. Additionally, a new documentary on the auteur by Ray Müller, Die Macht der Bilder Leni Riefenstahls known as The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl1 in the English-speaking world, premiered in the US at the New York Film Festival in 1993. The other recent effort to reassess Riefenstahl for popular consumption is the interview by Stephen Schiff in Vanity Fair, which presents her as a reborn diva, despite hefty critique of her association with Hitler as Nazi Germany's prime filmmaker.2 Schiff's suggestion that she was a highly talented and opportunistic aesthete, whose long life and contributions to the art will come to overshadow her political naivete in aiding Nazism, may seem like a revisionist stance on the filmmaker which buys into her own claims, but it is hardly that. Most of the widely diverse reportage on Riefenstahl manages to suggest this point. Attempts, however, at cogent analysis of her work are still scarce: David Hinton and Renata Berg-Pan's comprehensive reviews of Riefenstahl's career;3 B. Ruby Rich's investigation of the relevance of German Romantic painting to Riefenstahl's visions;4 Cooper C. Graham's Olympia study;5 Martin Loiperdinger's Triumph des Willens study;6 Gisela von Wysocki and Eric Rentschler's Bergfilm and Das blaue Licht examinations;7 Linda Schulte-Sasse's semiotic tracing of Das blaue Licht and Tiefland to German bourgeois tragedy;8 Thomas Elsaesser's article on Riefenstahl and art cinema;9 Helma Sanders-Brahms's essay, “Tyrannenmord.”10

Ray Müller's documentary, arriving as feminists are ever more vociferously arguing about Riefenstahl's place as a major female artist,11 offers little that is new, but it does stress the question that has been an undercurrent of many recent discussions on the filmmaker: what does the fact that Riefenstahl is a woman have to do with her continuous and overwhelming image as unrepentant Nazi agent? Richard Corliss, writing a review of the Müller documentary in Time magazine, pointedly makes this the center of his critique, asking more directly than others have in the past, why can Riefenstahl not escape her Nazi legend?12 Certainly Riefenstahl's political taint is not unique. Other artists tolerated or supported European fascism and continued their stardom in the postwar era: Céline, Roberto Rossellini, Salvador Dali, G. W. Pabst, Douglas Sirk, Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan, Gottfried Benn, Ernst Jünger, and Gustaf Gründgens, among others. Even Veit Harlan, the director of the anti-Semitic Jud Süss, who worked closely with Propaganda Minister Goebbels and whose films were “more in tune with the political interests of the Nazi government”13 than most, was able to revive his career in the 1950s. Fritz Hippler, creator of the most vicious Nazi propaganda film, Der ewige Jude, was apparently “denazified” in 1951 and employed by the US Army as a translator.14

The absence of women in this list is glaringly obvious. It 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: the director Riefenstahl, but also such popular German-language icons as Zarah Leander, Lilian Harvey, Marika Rökk, Lil Dagover, and Veit Harlan's wife, Kristina Söderbaum.15 David Gunston's 1960 article,16 Michel Delahaye's 1965 Cahiers du Cinema interview,17 and Kevin Brownlow's 1966 discussion18 were the first to acknowledge the value of Riefenstahl's work, her opportunism in the service of her artistic vision, and most importantly, her unusual success in a male dominated field made all the more hostile to women in a fascist order. Corliss is even more blunt: “There are several reasons for [Riefenstahl's] punishment: One is that Triumph is too good a movie. … Another is that her visual style—heroic, sensuous, attuned to the mists and myths of nature—was never in critical fashion. Finally, she was a woman, a beautiful woman.”19

Despite the photographs of Riefenstahl with Hitler and Goebbels which intentionally impart the most odious patriarchal image of woman as man's possession, as man's servant, the filmmaker has maintained her rejection of the Nazi regime once it curtailed her personal and artistic freedoms. Her refusal to give the media what it would like from her, a repentant figure who damns her art and blames a femme fatale hubris, has helped solidify the image of her as Budd Schulberg's “Nazi pinup-girl”20 and Hitler's symbolic mistress, but repentance would hardly have reestablished her cinematic career. Given the ease with which male artists associated with fascism or Stalinism have reinvented themselves, such apologia would play into the patriarchal understanding that Riefenstahl is nothing but a dangerous aberration, that women have no place in artistic creation, and worse, that evil fosters female ambition to beget more evil.

Considering the ongoing interest in Riefenstahl and the most recent attempts by academics to find something in her work that would satisfy her critics or release her from cinematic exile, it is inexplicable that Riefenstahl's final dramatic film, Tiefland21 (completed in 1953) has only received direct attention in Berg-Pan's early plot analysis, Schulte-Sasse's semiotic matrix, and in the eloquent essay by feminist filmmaker Sanders-Brahms who asks: “wie kommt es, daβ fünfzig Jahre später—die Berührungsangst vor diesem Film immer noch so groβ ist, daβ die Weigerung, ihn überhaupt nur anzusehen, bei deutschen Intellektuellen zum guten Ton gehört?” (“How is it possible that after fifty years the fear of dealing with this film is still so great that just the refusal to view it is considered a correct attitude for German intellectuals?”)22 Certainly here is a film feminists ought to examine in discussing Riefenstahl's eventual consideration of the female and the female artist in patriarchal society. It is the only dramatic film of Riefenstahl's career other than Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light),23 and the only one made during the Third Reich. As a project which Riefenstahl has defended as an attempt to escape making a propaganda or war film,24 it should be considered as much a work of “inner emigration” as that of the writers who remained in Nazi Germany and who came to reject the Reich.

I will attempt to elaborate here on Sanders-Brahms's brief essay, which hints that Tiefland is Riefenstahl's cinematic rejection of Hitler: “ein Film über eine Rebellion. Ein Film über den Tyrannenmord” (“A film about a rebellion. A film about the murder of a tyrant”). I will examine what directly influenced Riefenstahl to make Tiefland, exactly how the self-reflexive and anti-authoritarian elements of the film are presented, and why this film opposes previous notions of Riefenstahl's alleged fascist aesthetic. No new approach toward, or rehabilitation of, Riefenstahl's well-discussed pre-Tiefland films is intended. Rather, I am interested in Riefenstahl's ability to change as other male fascist-era artists have, to reflect, to confront, and to distance herself from the ideology that rooted her earlier work. From the self-conscious role of Riefenstahl as gypsy-dancer seduced by a powerfully evil nobleman, to the pre-feminist re-vision of the heroic man, Riefenstahl's Tiefland reenacts her association with Hitler and also her rejection of him. Like Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will),25 which captured National Socialism placing itself into German history as instant dogma, so Riefenstahl, aware of her inescapable role as Nazi insider, scripts in Tiefland a desired resolution far from the dictates of reality.

Riefenstahl originally considered Tiefland a likely follow-up to her first directorial effort, Das blaue Licht (1932), but Sieg des Glaubens (1933),26Triumph des Willens (1935), and Olympia (1938)27 delayed this possible project. The film adaptation of the Eugen d'Albert (1864-1932) opera, Tiefland,28 with libretto by Rudolph Lothar (based on the 1896 Spanish play Terra Baixa by Angel Guimera) was reconsidered in 1939 when her highly stylized adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's drama, Penthesilea (1808) was deemed too costly a project.29 Due to the escalating war, Goebbels insisted on nationalistic material or pure entertainment film. Since Penthesilea would fall into neither category and Riefenstahl predicted that Tiefland, “a romantic and harmless opera of the highlands”30 would only take a few months to film, it became her new project. Nevertheless, since Tiefland was not considered valuable for propaganda purposes it was given none of the financial support Riefenstahl requested. The antagonism between Goebbels and Riefenstahl, apparently begun during the filming of Triumph des Willens, had only increased. Resenting Riefenstahl's easy access to Hitler and her independent film company, which was not completely under the Propaganda Ministry control, he had continually interfered with her 1936 Berlin Olympics project, Olympia.31

The most compelling reason for Riefenstahl to make Tiefland was as a form of escape. Following the success of Triumph des Willens, Riefenstahl found that she had become useful to Hitler's personal propaganda notions and would have to remain available with her cinematic services. Since Triumph ignored the Wehrmacht, Hitler insisted that additional footage be shot. Riefenstahl compromised with a separate fifteen-minute short, Tag der Freiheit.32 The subsequent difficulty of maintaining her vision in the Olympia film made Riefenstahl realize that she would have little control over her own projects despite Hitler's promises. Her open break with Goebbels and the National Socialist ideology came in the form of her obsession with Jesse Owens, her highlighting of the individual efforts (decathlon, marathon race, equestrians, etc.) over celebration of the masses or mass athletic events, and her showcasing of “successful male and female athletes of all races, nations, and colors … in a Germany which was then singularly undemocratic.”33 Additionally, she delayed the editing of the film to keep Goebbels from using it as propaganda and destroying her multicultural vision.34 Thomas Elsaesser maintains that the director's work never fit into the concepts of Nazi cinema,35 a claim supported by the contradictory messages of Riefenstahl's post-Triumph work. Even the planned Penthesilea film, which initially seems to present heroic themes appropriate to the style of Nazi “Blood and Soil” literature and art, ultimately does not celebrate the warrior image but condemns it. The strong female figure, the importance of human emotion and love, and the disaster brought about by warrior codes in this Kleist drama could never be used to extol phallocratic militarism. Yet although Riefenstahl may have soured on Nazism, she still could not include its very embodiment in her rejection as late as 1940: “I admire Hitler, but he is surrounded by a bunch of criminals and we are going to lose the war.”36

Sent to the Polish front to film newsreels, Riefenstahl witnessed Nazi brutality against Polish civilians firsthand in the village of Konsky. Riefenstahl claims that her protests were answered with pointed guns by the German soldiers responsible for the massacre of thirty Polish prisoners.37 Protesting this action first to General Walther von Reichenau and then to Hitler, Riefenstahl filmed no war footage and quietly resigned her position as war correspondent. Amazingly, she admits in her biography that although she rejected the war, it was not until 1944 that she “cooled” on Hitler as a person.38 That year brought the Stauffenberg attempt on Hitler's life and the death of Riefenstahl's brother, who had been sent to the Russian Front after having criticized the war effort and having bought meat on the black market. The film she had been making shows that Riefenstahl had mistrusted Hitler and the fascist regime for more complex reasons and for a much longer time.

Tiefland became Riefenstahl's “inner emigration” from the hostility of the Nazi inner circle, the shock of the war, and her slow disillusionment with Hitler. She first welcomed the project as a brief respite from current events and as an alternative to the assignment of a propaganda film or war coverage. Only as the project became increasingly protracted, with endless filming in Spain, the Austrian Alps, the Dolomites, and at the Barrandov Studios in Prague, did she use the film as a permanent refuge from Nazi Germany, until production was finally ended in 1944. Tiefland was subsequently confiscated by the French government and returned, with footage missing, to Riefenstahl after her several years in detention camps and her final clearance by French courts.

The 1954 German premiere of Tiefland received little attention from the public but some critics applauded its artistic and technical quality.39 Jean Cocteau, president of the Cannes Film Festival jury at the time, was so impressed by the film he requested the West German government enter it in the Festival, a request immediately declined by Bonn. Cocteau nevertheless screened the film at Cannes to much interest and appreciation. Riefenstahl was unhappy with the final cutting of the film, and blaming the missing footage for the film's abrupt ending, she quickly withdrew the work from circulation.40Tiefland has since either been ignored completely in discussion of Riefenstahl's oeuvre, or else it has been attacked as an example of Riefenstahl's anachronistic41 or egocentric42 filmmaking at its worst. Much of this criticism is aimed at Riefenstahl's starring role, the result of her apparent inability to find a suitable actress to portray Martha.43 Riefenstahl has also criticized what she sees as her own stilted acting in the film as being without guidance and the result of her personal hardships and depression during the filming.44 The sole interest in Tiefland today appears to be the lingering controversy generated by a German magazine, Revue, in 1949, which claimed that Riefenstahl used Gypsy inmates from concentration camps as extras and mistreated them during the filming. A Munich court found Riefenstahl innocent of the charges that same year, but she has had to repeatedly defend herself against renewed charges based on the original libelous assertion.

With the discussions arising from Riefenstahl's recent autobiography, it is amazing that Tiefland is still considered a “melodramatic trifle.”45 Even more surprising is the fact that those feminists who now embrace Riefenstahl as a significant female artist, one that had the misfortune of founding her creative birth in the service of a genocidal phallocracy, have also continued to ignore Riefenstahl's most personal film.46Tiefland offers not only the filmmaker's examination of her own culpability vis-à-vis Nazism but expresses a pre-feminist consciousness that places her acceptance of fascist militarism and male dominance in Triumph des Willens in a new and revealing perspective.

Even as Riefenstahl's promotion of Hitler in Triumph generates a palette of fascist imagery, her Romanticism, like her appreciation of the body cult cannot be used to reduce her entire output to an example of a specific fascist aesthetic. Essentially a Bergfilm (mountain film) maker and a nature-mystic, Riefenstahl gave Hitler's set pieces the needed emotional association with German tradition and culture. As B. Ruby Rich, who finds German Romantic painting influential in Triumph, understands: “the principles of Romanticism [were] subjugated to the Nazi ideology by means of specifically Romantic pictorial devices.”47 The concept of the nature-bound outsider as prophet, so prevalent in Riefenstahl's work, is also to be found throughout the German Romantic literary canon, in the works of Novalis, Tieck, Goethe, von Eichendorff, and Hölderlin, where it is anything but reactionary or authoritarian. Furthermore, Eric Rentschler has shown that the celebration of mountain purity in Arnold Fanck's Alpine epics of the 1920s and 1930s, and in Das blaue Licht, does not after all, aim to provide “proto-Nazi sentiments” of “Führer-worship.”48 The Romantic Bergfilm genre has been reworked and adapted in popular German cinema from its birth in the early Weimar Republic through the West-German Heimatfilm (homeland film).49 Renschler also believes that Das blaue Licht “crosses borders and defies fixities”50 in its ideological and technical adaptation of the Bergfilm. I feel that Tiefland, in turn, should be seen to cross and defy the filmmaker's previous concepts and conventions, most importantly in the use of her established Romantic vocabulary to subvert and counter a paradigmatic authoritarian order.

Despite their similar function as erotic stimulus to the male characters, the social outsiders portrayed by Riefenstahl in Das blaue Licht and Tiefland are distinctly different from each other. The mountain girl Junta in Licht is destroyed by the materialism of the villagers and is a male fantasy image, a martyr, a “mythical essence.”51 Her mimosa-like nature, her aesthetic-spiritual understanding of the blue crystals, and her final transformation into an icon, denotes a vague messianic image. The character of Martha in Tiefland is first a very human opportunist with no lofty qualities or notions. Her eventual desire to help those oppressed by her “Führer” speaks of sympathy and humanism not martyrdom or utopianism. Similarly, Tiefland's concept of transcendence is a simplistic and personal one, not the occult manifesto of Das blaue Licht. Indeed, Renata Berg-Pan finds Tiefland to be weak because “Riefenstahl no longer had the same relationship to the topic which had compelled her to take it up in 1934. She had outgrown the emotional bonds attaching her to the theme.”52 In his 1972 BBC interview with Riefenstahl, Keith Dewhurst dispels Riefenstahl's early mysticism with Tiefland, marking it as “the first time in one of her films [that] she tells a story with a social message—poor peasants against a rich landlord.”53 What Riefenstahl presents of herself and her art in Hitler's Germany via Tiefland ultimately makes it as important as any film of her career.

Tiefland opens with a visual/musical poem of the beauty of nature and the tranquility of the mountains. The long shots emphasize space and freedom, a nature-worship more reminiscent of Fanck's early Bergfilm, than of the mountain images in Das blaue Licht, where filtered daylight suggests a haunted twilight setting. Here, the view is clear and bright, offered without sophisticated technical manipulation. The isolated human inhabitant of Tiefland's mountains is Pedro the shepherd (Franz Eichberger), whose hut we enter. The camera lingers on his sleeping face and body. Riefenstahl's appreciation of the male form has repeatedly been integrated by critics into an overall fascist aesthetic in Triumph and Olympia because of the Nazi body cult.54 But given the gentle nature of Pedro who fights only to protect the weak and is shy of both men and women, this idolization of the male body can hardly be considered an element of fascist warrior aesthetics;55 it is exactly the opposite. Riefenstahl here eroticizes the gentle and innocent man as antidote to the Nazi's fierce, elitist, and patriarchal ideal.56 Indeed, Tiefland is Riefenstahl's summary of her particular dualist cinematic scopophilia since she incorporates not only female desire for the male form but also her ability to offer the “woman as image, man as bearer of the look.”57

Pedro is awakened by his dog warning him of a wolf threatening the sheep. Berg-Pan has commented on this symbolism of innocence versus violence in the confrontation between wolf and sheep: “One wonders how the director and the Nazi authorities reconciled such action with Germany's own attacks on largely defenseless neighbors.”58 Riefenstahl's understanding of what transpired in Konsky must have had an effect in the planning of this scene; its emphasis is unambiguous and it foreshadows the climax of the film. The director also considered the war and the Reich lost, and perhaps believed that there would be no need to show a completed version to the Nazi authorities. It would indeed be impossible to interpret the sheep as “good Germans” attacked by evil, since National Socialist propaganda would have no use for an image of a weak and docile Volk. Pedro fights the wolf with his bare hands as they roll down the hill in mortal struggle. Having strangled the wolf, Pedro washes his wounds in the river and gently bathes the injured paw of his dog.

Like Junta in Das blaue Licht and the torch-bearer from Mount Olympus in the prologue to Olympia, Pedro descends the mountain as the pure, nature-bound, and mystically empowered force. He passes through arid fields where tired peasants beg the Marquez's representative to let the river, undammed by the Marquez, flow back to their drought-stricken land. The overseer rejects their plea and informs them that the Marquez needs the water for his bulls. In the village, Pedro passes a covered gypsy wagon in which Martha (Riefenstahl) ties her shoes in preparation for her dance. She is, as Berg-Pan understands her, a symbol for the “mediation between the corruption of the plains and the innocence of the mountains.”59 Following Romantic tenets, the village or “valley” of Tiefland, like the town in Das blaue Licht, represents the corruption of civilization set in contrast to the purity of nature and the mountains. The film replays the basic “narrative” pattern of Riefenstahl's other previous work as well: urban Nuremberg is made orderly and joyous by a Hitler descending from the clouds in Triumph; the Babel of nations unites in peaceful order as the flame is passed from the gods to Hitler's stadium in Olympia. But in Tiefland, the director shifts the symbolism of her character types and the “plot” resolution. Here the established authoritarian leader and his order are negated by a nature-bound outsider, one who wants no part in the society, to bring about freedom and possible prosperity.

Although Sanders-Brahms believes that Riefenstahl understood the opera to echo her own situation, she does not mention that Riefenstahl increased the self-reflexive quality of the film by altering the original opera plot to present Martha as succumbing willingly to seduction by the evil Marquez.60 Nor does she detail Martha's opportunism in order to become an admired and respected lady. Berg-Pan originally sets up the basis for such autobiographical analysis but does not pursue this line of inquiry. She is convinced that the scene in which the Marquez (Bernhard Minetti) enters the inn to witness Martha's dancing has fascist overtones: “the master Don Sebastian peremptorily stomps into the inn, is immediately greeted by the peasants with bowed heads and other forms of self-humiliation, and as the master, is welcomed by a woman who can entertain him. He has the power to take her, and she submits without question.”61 In presenting Martha and her dance to the observant Marquez, director Riefenstahl assumes the male gaze to objectify and eroticize her own image, prompting one male critic to comment on the film's “undulating bosoms.”62 But the gaze is from the point of view of the boorish male peasants who paw her and of the Marquez Don Sebastian, the powerful, abusive leader. Despite Riefenstahl's awareness of her own photogenic beauty, she would be, by the filming of Tiefland, more conscious of the subservient female role in Nazi society and her own problems as female artist in Nazi political circles than earlier in her career. Oppressive male dominance is one of the guiding themes of the film, therefore Riefenstahl must connect the traditional male figures with an objectifying male gaze. She later subverts this gaze by the actions of Martha and with the non-traditional male figure of Pedro.

The erotic tension between the Marquez and Martha is undeniable, but Martha is attracted to him not because of his “viciousness,”63 but rather because she misunderstands him to be both powerful and kind; when he discovers she has been beaten by her gypsy companion, he promises no one will hurt her again. The Marquez throws the gypsy out onto the street along with a bag of coins and returns to dress Martha as a noblewoman. Martha accepts this as Riefenstahl accepted Hitler, naively avoiding the obvious or wishing only to see the self-serving aspect she desires to see—a powerful man who will give her an important and protected existence. Indeed, Riefenstahl's opportunism on behalf of her art and fame governed her early life. She has stated that she would have replaced Hitler with Stalin but for her preference of working in German and in Germany. This is camouflaged reasoning given her outspoken admiration for the German leader. Yet without any sense of irony, the director claims she considered Goebbels a “Mephisto” figure and “[ein] gefärlicher Mann” (a dangerous man) because he would have served Stalin if the situation had allowed it.64 As Martha dances for the Marquez (and his guitar accompaniment) to become his pampered mistress, so Riefenstahl filmed for Hitler (and his ideology) to become a renowned artist. Berg-Pan separates the “innocent” Martha from Riefenstahl as her dream alter-ego, but Martha is hardly innocent, and the director/actress's identification with Martha, the talented opportunist dancer is sad and self-critical rather than ideal or dreamlike.

The capitalist support of authoritarian rule is introduced in the figure of Donna Amelia (Maria Koppenhöffer), a vain, calculating woman, the daughter of the Mayor of Roccabruna (Karl Skraup), who is goaded on by her father to become the wife of the Marquez for a sizeable amount of money.65 The Marquez requires her finances to resolve his debts and Donna Amelia is therefore treated as a possession to be bartered by her father and as an object of financial desire by the Marquez. She readily accepts subservience to a man she hates for the sake of a title and to please her father. Riefenstahl, who celebrated the patriarchy in Triumph, creates powerful allegories of male domination and abuse of women in Tiefland. The class differences between Martha, Donna Amelia, and the servant women are revealed as irrelevant under the equal abuse and oppression by men. Women are excluded from active involvement in the sociopolitical hierarchy in Tiefland and suffer in what Monique Wittig would come to understand as the oppressed “class” of women.66

The image of Pedro on the mountain, the thinking, protecting man surrounded by gentle beasts is mirrored by his welcome in the cellar of the Marquez's castle, where he is surrounded by the giggling cast of servant girls who feed him, flirt with him, and gain as little attention from him as he gives his sheep. In dark opposition to Pedro, the Marquez dotes on his bulls and denies his male peasants, as he would unruly animals. The sheep/woman symbolism is restated in the triangle of Pedro-Martha-Marquez. Pedro's battle with the wolf over the fate of his sheep at the start of the film sets up the final conflict in which Pedro duels with the Marquez over Martha. He even calls the Marquez the “wolf.” The authoritarian figure who ought to represent order is instead equated with a wild animal that kills and steals.

The comparison of the Marquez's desire to conquer Martha sexually with the shy virginity of Pedro and his love for Martha, creates a fascinating pre-feminist indictment against the male warrior persona as a root of sexual dysfunction between man and woman. Although women are equated with weak, producing animals, the final shot does throw the woman/sheep equation into a critical light. Martha, saved from the Marquez by Pedro, walks with him back to nature, into the rainbow-graced mountains. They are the idealized couple, escaping urban decadence and male dominance. Martha carries her own belongings; she is neither being served as object of desire, nor is she a servant to Pedro. Berg-Pan finds this pairing of a “now sophisticated lady, accustomed to being served, well dressed and handsome at all times, and Pedro, the naive shepherd”67 to be unlikely, but the pairing exists as an allegory, albeit a Romantically framed one, of female liberation and male enlightenment. Far from any fascist imagery, the shot of the couple walking into the mountains is, more than anything else, reminiscent of Socialist Realist sculpture, which places the two sexes side-by-side, equally important and powerful. It is an image quite different from the singular male figure, the male-centered family grouping (with the female figure physically dominated by the male), or the woman-as-mother image in National Socialist visual iconography.68 More importantly, this equalizing, peaceful image of the couple walking up into the mountains offers a kind of reversal of the prologue to Olympia, in which ancient statuary come to life on a mountain (Olympus) and proceed downward. The male and female figures are not only separate, but the male (warrior) nudes visually supplant the female dancers and lead the progression to the male torchbearer who takes the viewer down and into the authoritarian lowlands of Nazi Germany—which Riefenstahl hopes to transcend both symbolically and emotionally in Tiefland.

A number of elements in the film enforce Riefenstahl's use of the relationship between Martha and the Marquez to represent her Nazi experience. As she accepts her position in the castle and gives herself to the Marquez, Martha's gypsy dresses, the costume of (other) ethnicity and her art are replaced by the those of a noblewoman. These elitist outfits are uniforms which connect her to the ruling order and label her a possession of the Marquez. In her most masculine dress of the film, which in military-like regimentation mimics the Marquez's suit, Martha implores the Marquez to communicate with the draught-stricken peasants. His preceding ride through the town with Martha, who witnesses his reception as Riefenstahl witnessed Hitler's for the camera, and his arrogant consideration of the peasant's requests (complete with Hitler-like poses and gestures) quote Hitler's tour of Nuremberg in the early segments of Triumph des Willens. Unlike those moments, however, the poor crowds of Tiefland do not welcome or cheer their “Führer” but curse him in anger and misery. Martha, like Riefenstahl who has admitted as much, is possessed by the leader she has agreed to serve and perform for, and is shocked by a sudden cruelty which contradicts his generous behavior to her.69 One must also consider that Bernhard Minetti's Marquez bears a strong physical resemblance to Goebbels. Like the Propaganda Minister, the Marquez is known for his sexual dalliances,70 and his abuse of Martha mimics Goebbels's alleged verbal assaults on Riefenstahl.71 The director may have at least partially patterned her villain on Goebbels because of her open anger against him and because she could not or would not attack Hitler directly. Given these traits, the Marquez-Martha relationship might also suggest an early personal involvement with Goebbels that the director does not acknowledge.

Martha attempts to aid the peasants by giving them a necklace presented to her by the Marquez. The possibility of breaking abusive control is, however, hindered by unquestioned values of class and honor: after punishing his wife for accepting the gift, a miller returns the necklace to the castle. The Marquez's physical and psychological abuse of Martha causes her to run away from him into the mountains, where she collapses and is nursed by Pedro, who falls in love with her. Having been brought back to the castle, Martha receives an ominous warning from the old servant woman, Josefa (Frieda Richard): “Wohin du auch läufst, du kannst ihm nicht entkommen. Er holt dich wieder zurück” (“Wherever you may run, you cannot escape him. He will take you back”). Considering Riefenstahl's post-Konsky attempt to escape the war, official film projects, and Hitler's increasingly hostile inner circle, this quote is the most concrete cinematic statement by the filmmaker on the Faustian relationship she accepted in supporting Hitler through her work, of her fear and of her desire to distance herself from the regime after 1940. It has also proven to be a premonition of Riefenstahl's inability to free herself from Hitler's shadow since 1945.

Berg-Pan finds Martha to be continually attracted by the Marquez's sadistic possessiveness,72 although she makes no attempt at explaining Martha's masochism. If one recalls that Martha had been beaten by her former companion, her acceptance of such an abusive dynamic may come from her ignorance. Considering Martha's flight into the mountains, her endurance of the Marquez's violence is not due to sexual attraction—Susan Sontag's sadomasochistic rape metaphor of Hitler and the ecstatic crowds in Triumph73 notwithstanding—but is due to fear, especially since she is told there is no escape. Does then Martha's wide-eyed silence at the Marquez's ranting convey Riefenstahl's growing fear of, or enlightenment about, the Nazi regime? Or does she suggest that her artistic opportunism replicates the attitude of the Germans under Nazism: a numb tolerance of disaster following the fading victories?

An important force in the intrigues involving Martha and the Mayor's daughter is the Marquez's administrator, Camillo (Aribert Wäscher). As Linda Schulte-Sasse suggests in her charting of Tiefland's German Enlightenment drama types, he is a stock figure from eighteenth-century bourgeois tragedy. As conspiring aide-de-camp to the leader, Camillo's traits recall Hitler's seconds-in-command, those Riefenstahl considered to be a “bunch of criminals”74: he has the girth and voluptuary nature of Hermann Goering as well as the manipulative, spiteful behavior of Joseph Goebbels. Camillo persuades Donna Amelia to pay off the Marquez's debts, openly disregards Martha's presence, undermines her credibility with the Marquez, and ultimately convinces him to marry Martha off to an unknowing shepherd, Pedro, so that she may remain an accessible mistress after the Marquez weds Donna Amelia.

The final third of the film delivers Riefenstahl's Romantic regression into nature and her projected transcendence of evil and corruption. Riefenstahl laments her political taint through Martha's guilt for having allowed herself to be sexually exploited by the evil leader. Martha confesses her impure status to Pedro, who expects his new bride to be an innocent like himself. The equation of Martha's sexual involvement with the Marquez and Riefenstahl's artistic support of Hitler is qualified by the fact that Martha, a gypsy dancer who specializes in erotic movements, collects money at taverns, and travels with a man who beats her, would hardly be a sexually inexperienced woman. Yet it is her relationship with the Marquez that is pointedly presented as the loss of her virginity.

Berg-Pan calls attention to what she sees as a less-than-credible dichotomy in Martha, who is erotic and powerful as well as innocent and victimized, and considers this to be Riefenstahl's fantasy self.75 But Martha is not Junta of Das blaue Licht, the mythic creature who represents spiritual values destroyed by greed. Martha is the Riefenstahl who finds herself desiring escape from her own pact with evil. Thus the emphasis on the sophisticated gypsy's relationship with the Marquez as her actual “defilement” is necessarily unrealistic because it is a political metaphor. It is also unrealistic because Riefenstahl's Martha is patterned on her own dualistic self-image of a sexually experienced and independent woman who nevertheless managed to present herself in the patriarchal image of a graceful and subservient lady in Nazi propaganda photos. The simplistic plot of the original libretto cannot sustain these added character dimensions. Riefenstahl also removed the opera's climactic moment in which Martha begs Pedro to kill her because she has been another man's lover first.76 Instead, she emphasizes Martha's (and her own) continued goodness despite her association with evil.

The night storm which interrupts the Marquez and Donna Amelia's wedding feast in a typical Romantic reflection of an agitated emotional state, suggests the Marquez's sexual desire for Martha—whom he intends to bed on his wedding night—and foreshadows the havoc to come. The Marquez's attempt to (re)possess Martha is met with physical defence from Pedro. Having lost the duel with knives, the Marquez is blocked from escape by the peasants and Pedro strangles him as he did the wolf. Leaving the dead leader and the now free peasants behind, Martha and Pedro walk into the mountains and a new life together.

The film is alternately banal and enthralling because Riefenstahl has taken a simplistic tale of black and white, of good and evil, and created disturbing shades of grey at its center, in the character of Martha. This certainly creates a more realistic female character, but one that is at odds with the style of the tale. Martha is a three-dimensional figure carrying Riefenstahl's autobiographical knowledge in a film populated by types. Yet the tale of the types, the simplistic romance, dominates the ending of the film. Riefenstahl's Martha rises blissfully into the happy end because the director/writer/actress who previously assembled visions of Hitler's Germany to serve as a script for the regime's self-image, has with Tiefland, scripted her own escape from a pact with evil and a prominence gone sour. Through Martha, she does not relinquish her equality with men but leaves behind a leader and a society she previously celebrated. Riefenstahl/Martha transcends into a natural world without politics, war, or even human beings, aside from the man of her fantasy: attractive, gentle, and good, he is a non-warrior who does not seek to control her and appears to defer to her knowledge and experience.

Susan Sontag has denied Riefenstahl the ability to change either her mind or her cinematic style. Similarly, when discussing Riefenstahl's Nuba books, Sontag would have us believe that because Riefenstahl comments on the role of Nuba women as “breeders and helpers”77 she accepts this role for all women and has therefore not altered her fascist beliefs since Triumph.78 Equally absurd is Wilhelm Bittorf's suggestion that a lingering desire for black SS uniforms can be found in Riefenstahl's photo-studies of Nuba males.79 Even without footnotes on Goebbels, Jesse Owens, the individual versus the collective, and the Konsky incident, the use of her cinema codes in Olympia and Tiefland demonstrates that Riefenstahl had changed both her mind and much of her ideology.

Examining Tiefland against Sontag's definition of fascist aesthetics in film offers the most direct illustration of Riefenstahl's development. While Riefenstahl's earlier films, from Das blaue Licht to certain aspects of Olympia, manage to “endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude,”80 glorifying surrender and glamorizing death, Tiefland explodes these fascist ideals. Gone is the self-sacrificing, fascist-friendly mysticism of Das blaue Licht and the grandiose celebration of the documentary films. What surfaces is parody and criticism of such previous notions. Servitude imprisons Martha and the peasantry, who come to hate their “Führer.” Egomania and grandiosity offer these people nothing and ultimately destroy the elite. The very center of the story, the heroine, is a non-Aryan, a gypsy. What remains, even in the naive Romantic finale, reaches beyond most postwar dominant film: a strong, independent female at odds with patriarchal roles and images; a male devoid of machismo beyond his desire to defend and, perhaps because Riefenstahl's Martha seems somewhat older than Pedro,81 one who appears to be very conscious of the dominant quality of the woman he walks with into the new dawn. Tiefland is the subversion of what has been understood to be Riefenstahl's fascist aesthetics, or more precisely, her mystical idealism that fed into Nazi ideology. The operatic structure and fairy-tale transcendence of the film continue to give us Riefenstahl the idealist, but this is a healthier Romanticism, one encouraging hope and enlightenment in desperation and remorse, rather than mystical longings for utopia.

“Nobody making films today alludes to Riefenstahl”82 wrote Sontag in 1974. Naturally, the stigma surrounding the filmmaker has made reference as difficult as dispassionate analysis. Yet significant recognition has been given by important French and Italian filmmakers who praised and encouraged Riefenstahl in the 1950s,83 by American cineastes who noted her contribution to the art and technology of film at the Telluride Film Festival in 1974, and by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, mainstream directors who often pay critical homage to her work in their popular art.84 Beyond cinema, Thomas Elsaesser finds Riefenstahl's documentary style to be central to television.85 Nevertheless, the general perpetuation of Riefenstahl's unique isolation is something feminist critics cannot ignore. Sontag labels Riefenstahl as the beautiful outsider in her films and in her life; Rich sees her as the token amazon; Schulte-Sasse as a self-fetishist. In fascism she could be nothing else and in the seemingly liberal-democratic world, such status has less to do with her role as former fascist creative artist—there were many, largely rehabilitated without qualm—but with the continued patriarchal nature of our world. The fascist “longings” that Sontag and others see in appreciating Riefenstahl are to be found in a socioculture that would prefer to label Riefenstahl as anything but an artist, and not in the cinematic documents of a talented woman who made an artistic pact with Hitler and then attempted to escape it. Sanders-Brahms refreshingly dares to speculate that Riefenstahl “das Ende der Nazis wünschte, es mit ihrer Arbeit möglicherweise herbeiführen helfen wollte” (“wished the end of the Nazis and possibly wanted to help bring this about with her work”).86

Although Riefenstahl has always stipulated exactly what she knew or did not know of Nazi genocide, Tiefland suggests she knew enough, and that she also suspected the ultimate fate of her own opportunism. Her break with Hitler and National Socialism occurred because as a woman, she came to comprehend the oppression and destruction of fascism from a pre-feminist viewpoint. Yet in her memoirs Riefenstahl still wonders why she insisted on completing the film amid personal tragedy, illness, and the collapse of Germany.87 Sensitive to analyses of her work undertaken for the sake of accusation, she trivializes her own visions and impulses, whether it is the enthusiastic lens capturing a messianic Hitler floating above the crowds or the need to resolve her disillusionment with fascism. Tiefland is Riefenstahl's most personal cinematic statement, the result of a film oeuvre tied to the rise and fall of the Third Reich. It implies a perception that Riefenstahl's critics have failed to elicit from the filmmaker herself: namely that the warrior order she celebrated at Nuremberg would ultimately condemn her and those who would consider Riefenstahl and her post-Triumph films as a model.


  1. A 1993 international co-production of Omega/Nomad/ZDF/Channel 4.

  2. Stephen Schiff, “Leni's Olympia,Vanity Fair September 1992: 251-296.

  3. David Hinton, The Films of Leni Riefenstahl (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1978); Renata Berg-Pan, Leni Riefenstahl (Boston: Twayne, 1980).

  4. B. Ruby Rich, “Leni Riefenstahl: The Deceptive Myth,” Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film, ed. Patricia Erens (New York: Horizon, 1979): 202-209.

  5. Cooper C. Graham, Leni Riefenstahl and “Olympia” (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1986).

  6. Martin Loiperdinger, Der Parteitagsfilm “Triumph des Willens” von Leni Riefenstahl: Rituale der Mobilmachung (Opladen: Leske and Budrich, 1987).

  7. Gisela von Wysocki, “Die Berge und die Patriarchen: Leni Riefenstahl,” Die Fröste der Freiheit: Aufbruchsphantasien (Frankfurt: Syndikat, 1980): 70-85; Eric Rentschler, “Fatal Attractions: Leni Riefenstahl's The Blue Light,October 48 (Spring 1989): 46-68; Eric Rentschler, “Mountains and Modernity: Relocating the Bergfilm,New German Critique 51 (1990): 137-161.

  8. Linda Schulte-Sasse, “Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic,” Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television, ed. Bruce A. Murray and Christopher J. Wickham (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992): 140-166.

  9. Thomas Elsaesser, “Leni Riefenstahl: The Body Beautiful, Art Cinema and Fascist Aesthetics,” Women in Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, eds. Pam Cook and Phillip Dodd (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993): 186-197.

  10. Helma Sanders-Brahms, “Tyrannenmord: Tiefland von Leni Riefenstahl,” Das Dunkle zwischen den Bildern: Essays, Porträts, Kritiken, ed. Norbert Grob (Frankfurt: Verlag der Autoren, 1992): 245-251.

  11. The first attempts of feminist acceptance of Riefenstahl were documented by Susan Sontag who details the 1973 New York Film Festival poster created by a feminist artist promoting Leni Riefenstahl along with Agnès Varda and Shirley Clarke. “Fascinating Fascism,” Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980): 84. Not all feminists have moved towards an acceptance of Riefenstahl. Germans tend to remain unconvinced of her role in women's art. Sigrid Vagt considers Das blaue Licht to be the propaganda for totalitarian social polarization and idealization of the female. “Das blaue Licht: Logik des Entweder-oder,” Frauen und Film 14 (1977): 28. Helge Heberle finds Riefenstahl's art to be hopelessly inseparable from its Nazi ideology. See, “Notizen zur Riefenstahl-Rezeption,” Frauen und Film 14 (1977): 29-34. Nevertheless, Louise Heck-Rabi in Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception (Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1984), Ally Acker in “Leni Riefenstahl,” Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1991): 298-303, and B. Ruby Rich all reject the “myths and emotionalism” (Rich 202) surrounding Riefenstahl and her work which has previously inhibited any real cinematic analysis or feminist discussion of her art.

  12. Richard Corliss, “Riefenstahl's Last Triumph,” Time 18 October 1993: 91-92.

  13. Berg-Pan 164.

  14. David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973) 174.

  15. The recent publication of the autobiographies of Marika Rökk and Kristina Söderbaum, which deal with their exile from cinema in the postwar era, has not escaped German criticism. See, “Unendliche Geschichte,” Der Spiegel 43 (1993): 259-260.

  16. David Gunston, “Leni Riefenstahl,” Film Quarterly 14.1 (Fall 1960): 4-19.

  17. Michel Delahaye, “Leni Riefenstahl,” Interviews with Film Directors, ed. Andrew Sarris (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1968): 387-402.

  18. Kevin Brownlow, “Leni Riefenstahl” Film Winter 1966: 14-19.

  19. Corliss 92.

  20. Budd B. Schulberg, “Nazi Pin-up Girl: Hitler's No. 1 Movie Actress,” Saturday Evening Post 30 March 1946: 11-41.

  21. Tiefland, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, perf. Leni Riefenstahl, Franz Eichberger, Bernhard Minetti, Aribert Wäscher, Maria Koppenhöfer, and Karl Skraup, Leni Riefenstahl Produktion/Tobis, 1954.

  22. Sanders-Brahms 245.

  23. Das blaue Licht, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, perf. Leni Riefenstahl, Mathias Wieman, Max Holzboer, Benni Führer, and Martha Maire, Leni Riefenstahl Studio Films, 1932.

  24. Leni Riefenstahl, Memoiren (München: Knaus, 1987): 354. This work has also been translated as: A Memoir (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993). Henry Jaworsky (Heinz von Jaworsky), Riefenstahl's cinematographer on Das blaue Licht and Olympia, who continued his career in Europe and the US after 1945, believes Riefenstahl deliberately stretched Tiefland for seven years to avoid working on Party propaganda and dealing with the war. See, “Henry Jaworsky Interviewed by Gordon Hitchens, Kirk Bond, and John Hanhardt,” Film Culture 56 (Spring 1973): 150.

  25. Triumph des Willens, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, camera, Sepp Allgeier, et al, Leni Riefenstahl Studio Films, 1935.

  26. Sieg des Glaubens, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, camera, Sepp Allgeier, et al, German Ministry of Propaganda, 1933.

  27. Olympia (Part 1: Fest der Völker; Part 2: Fest der Schönheit), dir. Leni Riefenstahl, camera, Hans Ertl, et al, Olympia Film, 1938.

  28. Sanders-Brahms underscores the anti-elitist and anti-exploitation theme of the opera by noting that it has been a staple in Eastern Bloc opera houses (246).

  29. Riefenstahl, Memoiren 354. Max Reinhardt once considered Riefenstahl for the part of the Amazon queen in his own production of Kleist's Penthesilea (Schiff 291). Riefenstahl's very complete 1939 outline for the planned project and her production notes have been translated into English and published as “Why I Am Filming Penthesilea,” trans. John Hanhardt, Film Culture 56 (Spring 1973): 192-215.

  30. Delahaye 399.

  31. Leni Riefenstahl, “One of Hitler's Favorites,” interview with Dan Rather, 60 Minutes, CBS, 31 August 1980.

  32. Tag der Freiheit, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, camera, Willy Zielke, et al, Leni Riefenstahl Studio Film, 1935.

  33. Berg-Pan 145.

  34. Riefenstahl claims that Goebbels demanded she dismiss some of her staff, edit out the Black athletes from the footage, and ultimately intended to take possession of her film on the pretense that she had incurred a deficit of 80 Marks at the Filmkreditbank. Hitler ultimately acted on her complaints and removed Riefenstahl from Propaganda Ministry control, placing her under the administration of Rudolf Hess. Memoiren 278-280.

  35. Elsaesser 194.

  36. Riefenstahl, 60 Minutes.

  37. Riefenstahl, Memoiren 349-352. Riefenstahl does not claim they were Jews, as was previously reported by David Gunston in Film Quarterly (18). Her note of congratulation to Hitler upon his invasion of France and entry into Paris in 1940 has often been used as proof of Riefenstahl's undying loyalty to Hitler. It should instead be understood as an act of opportunism. Such a congratulatory message would maintain friendly relations with an all-powerful mentor who might have distanced himself from her since the Konsky incident, leaving her to the increasingly hostile inner circle lead by her nemesis, Joseph Goebbels.

  38. Riefenstahl, Memoiren 395.

  39. See Frankfurter Allgemeine 28 April 1954, and Filmwoche 6 February 1954.

  40. Berg-Pan 166.

  41. See Geoffrey Donaldson qtd. in Gunston (18). Sanders-Brahms believes that Riefenstahl's expressionistic intensity may not suit popular taste (251).

  42. Joe Hembus and Christa Bandmann, Klassiker des deutschen Tonfilms 1930-1960 (München: Goldmann, 1980): 241.

  43. Riefenstahl, Memoiren 525.

  44. See Berg-Pan 166 and Riefenstahl, Memoiren 525. Although G. W. Pabst and Veit Harlan had directed some secondary scenes for the film, neither directed Riefenstahl nor did they receive any credit. Berg-Pan believes neither wanted to be mentioned because Riefenstahl's status had become increasingly problematic after her criticism of the Polish campaign and with Goebbels's increase in power during the war (165).

  45. Schiff 295.

  46. Mary C. Gentile in Film Feminisms: Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985) lists Riefenstahl in the roster of women filmmakers (Dulac, Arzner, Lupino, Deren) who represent an “alternate film tradition” and the “oppositional cultural practice” to the male dominated film art (4).

  47. Rich 207.

  48. Sontag 76. Sontag bases her discussion of Riefenstahl on Siegfried Kracauer's condemnation of the Bergfilm and the filmmaker in From Caligari to Hitler (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947). Tiefland had not yet been released at the publication of Kracauer's study.

  49. Rentschler believes Das blaue Licht to be Riefenstahl's attempt to strengthen the female role in the Bergfilm genre. He also considers that Riefenstahl learned well the sexual objectification of women in film and offers, in the character of Junta, a consummate crafting of male fantasy. The film is perhaps also a premonition of Riefenstahl's life in Hitler's Germany: “A woman stars in and directs her own fantasy of self destruction, creating a film about the fateful sacrifice of a woman for the sake of a community, a martyr role” (160).

  50. Rentschler 158.

  51. Rentschler 160.

  52. Berg-Pan 165.

  53. Leni Riefenstahl, interview with Keith Dewhurst, Review, 23 June 1972, BBC transcript, 26.

  54. See Klaus Theweleit, Männerphantasien: Frauen, Fluten, Körper, Geschichte, Band 1 (Frankfurt: Roter Stern, 1977) and Männerphantasien: Männerkörper—zur Psychoanalyse des Weiβen Terrors, Band 2 (Frankfurt: Roter Stern, 1977) for a study of the homoerotic nature of German militarism and its artistic representation. Udo Pini's excellent photo-journalistic look at the body cult in Nazi Germany, Leibeskult und Liebeskitsch: Erotik im Dritten Reich (München: Klinkhardt und Biermann, 1992) arrives at a similar conclusion.

  55. Sanders-Brahms sees Pedro as a near-caricature of Rousseau's natural man. She also compares his pose with a lamb over his shoulder to “kitsch” pictures of Jesus Christ (247).

  56. Riefenstahl attempts the female opposition to André Bazin's theory of erotic film, “one that is capable of provoking the audience to desire the heroine sexually and of keeping that desire alive” (Gentile 55). Gentile understands Bazin's theory as aimed toward a male or male-identifying female audience. Riefenstahl's appreciation of the male form is central to her film aesthetic, thus she may serve the female audience even as she imitates the male gaze. Both Eric Rentschler and Gisela von Wysocki consider Riefenstahl expert at creating images stimulating male desire.

  57. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley (New York: Routledge, 1988): 62.

  58. Berg-Pan 169.

  59. Berg-Pan 170.

  60. In the original libretto, the Marquez finds the gypsy “Marta” starving by the roadside and later forces her to yield to him. See Ricardo Mezzanote, et al, eds., The Simon and Schuster Book of the Opera: 1597 to the Present (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985): 335.

  61. Berg-Pan 171.

  62. Berg-Pan 175.

  63. Berg-Pan 171.

  64. Both Stalin and Mussolini presented Riefenstahl with film offers. (Riefenstahl, Memoiren 187).

  65. Hitler relied on German industrialists and wealthy Junkers to finance his rise to power and later allowed capital to remain in private hands using the threat of intervention to produce cooperation. See David Schoenbaum, Hitler's Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany, 1933-1939 (New York: Norton, 1980): 51.

  66. See Ann Rosalind Jones's discussion of Wittig (80ff) in “Inscribing Femininity: French Theories of the Feminine,” Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. Gayle Green and Coppélia Kahn (London: Routledge, 1988).

  67. Berg-Pan 173.

  68. An excellent example of the male-dominated Nazi art and egalitarian Socialist Realism can be seen in the German and Soviet pavilions at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. Both structures are equally pompous and neo-Classical. The German pavilion designed by Albert Speer features Josef Thorak's 23-foot tableau of “Family” (with the female figure dominated by the male) and the all-male “Comradeship.” The Soviet pavilion of B. M. Iofan features a male/female couple equally tall and triumphant in their display of the hammer and sickle. See Peter Adam, Art of the Third Reich (New York: Abrams, 1992): 242-247.

  69. Riefenstahl writes of her upset and shame upon her 1942 return to Germany from the Dolomites to find Jews wearing yellow stars (Memoiren 395). Despite this and her experience at Konsky, Riefenstahl claims she knew nothing of the death camps until her Allied imprisonment. All her Jewish acquaintances (Béla Balàzs, Manfred George, Stefan Lorant) had left Germany. She records that Hitler was in a trance-like state during her visit in 1944, and that she was repelled by his tirade against the Russians and his lack of interest in the destruction of German cities (Memoiren 395-397).

  70. The extramarital affairs of Joseph Goebbels were known in Nazi Germany and have been widely recorded.

  71. Riefenstahl, Memoiren 265-267; 269-270. Berg-Pan 44.

  72. Berg-Pan 173.

  73. Sontag 102.

  74. Riefenstahl, 60 Minutes.

  75. Berg-Pan 171-172.

  76. Berg-Pan 173.

  77. Sontag 70.

  78. Sontag has also accused Riefenstahl of lying about making Sieg des Glaubens and Tag der Freiheit, when in fact Riefenstahl has mentioned these films in interviews dating back to 1960 (77-78; 81).

  79. Wilhelm Bittorf, “Blut und Hoden,” Der Spiegel 44 (1976): 228-230.

  80. Sontag 91.

  81. Hembus and Bandmann, who are no fans of the film or the director, consider Riefenstahl at age 40 to have been too old to play the part! (241). None of the personal and technical difficulties Riefenstahl experienced during the filming of Tiefland appear to have adversely affected what is a convincing, if somewhat restrained performance and a luminous presence. The older female lead adds to the iconoclastic message of the film and the unusual relationship between the characters of Martha and Pedro. Sanders-Brahms praises Riefenstahl's look in the film as Garboesque (251).

  82. Sontag 95.

  83. Jean Cocteau, Brigitte Bardot, Jean Marais, Vittorio de Sica, Caesare Zavatini, and Anna Magnani all intended to work with Riefenstahl in unrealized film projects during the 1950s. See Riefenstahl, Memoiren 512-515 and Berg-Pan 183-185.

  84. The spectacle of Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens is quoted in Lucas's Star Wars (1977), Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). The black and white pseudodocumentary style of Spielberg's treatment of the Holocaust, Schindler's List (1993) appears to be both homage to Riefenstahl's style and condemnation of Triumph's substance. It is an anti-Triumph des Willens, offering sweeping Riefenstahlian shots of the masses and impressive individual visages of those hated by Hitler's Reich. Spielberg's close-up shots of the Ghetto Jews calling out their names to be added to Schindler's factory detail is a clear quote from Scene 5 of Triumph: close-ups of the workers of the Reich Labor Service calling out the various regions of Germany assembled for inspection by Hitler and Reich Labor Service Leader, Konstantin Hierl. Whereas the men of Triumph identify themselves by region, ritualistically supporting Nazi concepts of race, geopolitics, and the anonymous mass, Spielberg's version enforces the importance of, and battle for, the individual in a genocidal order.

  85. Elsaesser 187; 194.

  86. Sanders-Brahms 250.

  87. Riefenstahl, Memoiren 400.

My thanks to Sasha Torres and Teresa Jillson for their insightful suggestions, and to Peter Bondanella for including the genesis of this article in the “European Cinemas/European Societies 1895-1995: Conference to Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Cinema” at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Laurence Goldstein (review date fall 1995)

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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 publication of Riefenstahl's autobiography and with the release in the U.S. of a German documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Now in her nineties, Riefenstahl is not only, as Susan Sontag calls her, “the most interesting, talented, and effective artist of the Nazi era,” but a director whose film on the Olympics has made her an outstanding figure in the history of cinema, the auteur of what Kevin Brownlow, in the Introduction to this reissued volume, calls “the last visual masterpiece of the silent era” and “a film almost impossible to surpass.” Olympia, released in Europe under the title Gods of the Stadium, is also a film glorifying the male body, a fact that has led to much theorizing on whether it is therefore a fascist film, especially when placed beside Riefenstahl's scandalous earlier feature, Triumph of the Will, a documentary acknowledged by everyone but the director as being a straightforward work of propaganda devoted to the exaltation of the Führer and the imperial Fatherland. In Olympia did Riefenstahl shed her Nazi associations and create a dehistoricized artifice, a work of “pure” and “spiritual” beauty celebrating human strength and human grace, as she continues to claim, or is the film a covert tribute to Nazi glorification of the will rather than the intellect, the muscle and fist rather than the insidious “Jewish” life of the mind?

Her book of stills may help us to answer this question at the same time it orients us to ask questions of postwar film about the male body posed by authors of the other volumes under review. The first thing to say in Riefenstahl's favor, and she has said this herself into every available microphone, is that film and book alike eschew the sort of racism we identify with the philosophy of Aryan superiority. It is not just the triumphant presence of black track and field star Jesse Owens that signals Riefenstahl's indiscriminate pleasure in the white and nonwhite body, but images of Japanese and Indian athletes and the teams of every non-European country. In her famous essay on Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag claims that the German artist's book of photographs of an African tribe, The Last of the Nuba (1974), displays a fascist sensibility operating at a deeper level than mere racism. But to say that the maker of Olympia necessarily remains a fascist because she shows an interest in physical ordeal, in strenuous conflict and glamorous body-painting and posing, opens several cans of worms at once. Who would ‘scape whipping, especially in Hollywood, if admiration of the idealized muscular male form constituted a totalitarian menace to society? Credit Riefenstahl with her escape from the most vulgar form of prejudice, at least. The stills in Olympia feature numerous images of nonwhites competing for, and often winning, trophies and fame reserved for the übermenschen in every sport.

But one also has to say that a book of photographs is a different experience than a film. Here we do not see completed narratives: the discus and javelin never hit the ground, the diver never hits the water, the runner never touches the ribbon. The body is arrested at a single moment for the viewer's alert appreciation. The body's form is offered up for examination irrespective of its athletic function, like the ancient statues of Apollo, Achilles, and Paris that open the volume. In one still the athlete strains with effort, his facial muscles contorted, his body twisted. In the next there is a harmony of musculature and a beatific facial expression. And then an image of exultation and joyful abandon. As in dance, these bodies traverse an enormous range of postures and attitudes, and they are presented in glossy, full-page format in the manner of coffee-table art books, oversize and expensively appointed. Our engagement with them is likely to be erotic to some degree—we recognize their poses as congruent with pinups, and with the nudes of classic painters and photographers. The women featured in Olympia are usually captured in the midst of graceful eurhythmics, but the men more often have the willful stares and hard bodies of a severely defined masculinity. The occasional Nazi salute provides a link to fascism, but the more interesting question is whether the contoured bodies have or evoke an ideological content that is not derived from the résumé of the director.

The truth may be that our pleasure in gazing at these bodies, in the film or in the book, derives from motives more complex than the fantasy of extraordinary power that nourishes fascism as a political ideology. Sport constitutes a primal activity from which all ideologies, including democracy, derive useful imagery and precepts, so that any generalization about the connection between the display of bodies and a body of principles is presumptively valid. Some images in Olympia are clearly chosen for their similarity with classical Greek and Roman sculpture, of athletes and warriors alike; some are just as clearly chosen for their latter-day Romanticism, much like the body language of silent films about mountain-climbing that featured Riefenstahl herself in highly-wrought postures of agony and ecstasy. Indeed, film may be said to have achieved its central place in our culture by gathering into its own mimetic format the capacious range of postures belonging to athletics and the visual and performance art traditions. Essentially, these male bodies speak the same message to us as the torso of Apollo in Rilke's famous poem: “You must change your life.” You must exert yourself to emulate perfection.

What Sontag says of the photographs of the Nuba is true of these stills as well: if one did not know the artist's past history, one would not be tempted to inflect the judgment of them toward the charge of fascism. But it must also be said that Riefenstahl is not the innocent aesthete she paints herself. That Riefenstahl composed shots for Olympia in the manner of her glorifying camerawork in Triumph of the Will is undeniable; in both films, for example, she shoots her leading men from below, set against the heavens; in both films the adoration of the crowd plays a key role in her exaltation of the powerful male figures; and in both films the use of searchlights and stadiums composes a monumental architecture in the imperial style. These aesthetic choices will always give her Olympics film the aura of fascism; she is caught forever in her historical moment, and in the conventions of portraiture and stationing she exploited as viable methods of fetishizing the “perfect” models of masculine power. But common sense calls for a separation of the convention and the author. If one compares to Olympia two documentary films about the Olympics of 1972, Visions of Eight and Masahiro Shinoda's Sapporo Winter Olympics, one will see many of the same conventions in photographing well-developed bodies in graceful motion, conventions which are inescapable in an art film on championship competition.

The final section of Olympia comprises thirty pages of photographs of the artist at work. We see Riefenstahl and her crew in the tedious process of positioning the cameras and editing the film. The technology of vision is thus integrated with the labor of the performers to make the obvious point not only about the similar agony of effort, but the parallel exultations of artist and athlete. One might say that the book is ultimately about the ideology of art itself, of representation and its strenuous demands. That a film which documented so many triumphs by American athletes could not be shown in the United States until the 1950s indicates how contaminated by ideology its material seemed to be. With all due respect for the incommensurability of the two proscriptions, one cannot help but think of the Nazis' own banning of artistic work on the basis of the authors' racial, religious, and political affiliations.

The irony of so much outrage about the glorification of powerful male bodies is that Hollywood had matched Germany in its cultivation of the undraped male physique. If anything, Germany had imitated Hollywood's expert use of male pinups in those years, and of action films, especially westerns, biblical, and pirate movies, that existed for the sake of transforming masculine bodies into the stuff of dreams. Far from stigmatizing the studios for their presentation of beefcake, the American public rewarded them with the most genuine form of approval—cash on the line, eighty million times every week. Yes, there is something chilling about a German film, and picture book, full of brute physiques, but we should be careful about the content of our protests. From the perspective of the 1990s, Riefenstahl's art may be most disturbing as a prophetic version of the erotic images that dominate our own culture, not least in sports and movies, as a ubiquitous sign of our liberation from the ancestral demons of puritanism. Olympia definitely helped to stigmatize subsequent displays of male muscle as fascist. But the mixture of prurience and idealization typical of Riefenstahl's images fits all too well the sadomasochistic model of our own native tradition, stretching back to the wrestling matches photographed by Muybridge and the popular boxing movies released by Edison early in the century.

Victoria Alexander (essay date July-August 1996)

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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 film which became the masterpiece Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl is modest in her book, A Memoir, about the impact this film had on Germany, Hitler, and her life at the time it was shown. For Riefenstahl must have wielded a sizable influence over Hitler after envisioning him so rapturously, and so successfully, as Germany's saviour. The film's visual evangelical power ellipsed that of Hitler's sycophant inner circle which, headed by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, quickly came to despise (and possibly fear) Riefenstahl. (Ironically, Goebbels was a diminutive, sickly man with a cruel face and a crippled left leg four inches shorter than his right. Feared and unpopular, he was privately ridiculed by his Nazi colleagues and called “the malicious dwarf” and “the latest reincarnation of the devil” by the German public. However, he was slavishly devoted to Adolph Hitler.)

As a way of assessing Riefenstahl's true political power, she relates a meeting she had with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini: after seeing Triumph of the Will, Mussolini asked her to make a documentary about him.

Riefenstahl states she was only interested in acting and very reluctantly agreed to make another documentary of the 1936 Winter Olympics, being held in Germany for the first time. Hitler again persuaded her, although the worldwide acclaim Riefenstahl had received for conceiving and directing Triumph of the Will must have influenced her decision.

Haunted by the rumor she was Hitler's lover, Riefenstahl has spent a long lifetime denying any sexual liaison. Most would tend to believe her; after all, no one ever described Hitler as sexy. Yet, one is also reminded of the famous comment by Henry Kissinger about sexual allure: “Power is an aphrodisiac.”

The Chancellor assured Riefenstahl that Goebbels would not interfere and the documentary's funding would be generous. Riefenstahl began mounting an elaborate production, and also set about building herself a house in the country.

Riefenstahl's documentary, Olympia, is fascinating, especially since we are all by now very familiar with the Olympics, thanks to more than a week of intense television coverage. Yet Olympia transcends the slick overproduced extravaganza we are accustomed to. It shows the games before the onslaught of million dollar endorsements, agents, managers, advertisers, public relations and TV behemoths came aboard. By Riefenstahl's account, Hitler was not at all surprised by the gold medal outcomes, and expected it. He told her: “We have no chance of winning medals. The Americans will win most of the victories, and the Negroes will be their stars. I won't enjoy watching that. And then many foreigners will come who reject National Socialism. There could be trouble.” (Hitler had just violated the Versailles Treaty.) But then again, the entire world would be watching, so the Games began.

Olympia opens with aerial views of ancient Greek monuments, classical nude statues, and then male and female nudes. (Film historians suggest that the director herself appears in the prologue in silhouette.) So this is not merely about “The 1936 Games,” but a ritualistic tradition that honors beauty, grace, form, and physical skill.

Riefenstahl's name will always be linked with Hitler's and the American star of the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens. With Triumph of the Will, Hitler's dynamic power was perfectly served by Riefenstahl, who evidently admired him. And before Olympia, the Olympics were short newsreel items for the world. Riefenstahl elevated it to an event for the filmgoing public. Accordingly, she was internationally lionized.

Owens was a 22-year-old sharecropper's son from Alabama when he went to Germany. His winning four gold medals and breaking the current record for the 200 meters in Nazi Germany made him a worldwide hero. Yet, Jesse Owens is never singled out by Riefenstahl's camera. His victories are documented like all the others. He is merely one of the many beautiful athletic forms that her lens caresses. The entire film brings an intimacy to the games that has yet to be rivaled. The crowd of onlookers are part of the drama and their cries of joy and sadness are the film's soundtrack.

Riefenstahl was given a great deal of freedom in constructing her camera angles. She concedes that her specially-designed camera setups distracted the athletes at times. Regardless of her hindsight protests, Riefenstahl places Hitler favorably throughout, enjoying the games immensely. Hitler's refusal to shake Owens' hand after Owens had won his first event and walked out in disgust, has remained an enduring myth. The American press, commenting on the Nazi/Aryan-supremacy frenzy, declared: “HITLER SNUBS JESSE.” Actually, another black American, Cornelius Johnson, won a gold medal in the high jump the day before Owens won his first gold medal. Hitler, intentionally or simply through bad timing, left the Olympic Stadium before the medal ceremony. He didn't congratulate the American black athletes or any other non-German gold medalists. Whatever contact Riefenstahl had with Hitler during the filming of Olympia, a hasty, disgraced exit by the Fuhrer was never recorded.

Riefenstahl's patriotic love of Germany is clearly present. Her camera dwells passionately on faces in the crowd. However, with Triumph of the Will and Olympia, Riefenstahl's fate as a pariah was cast in the medium she most loved, film.

Ruth Starkman (essay date winter 1997-1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7193

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! … I've never done that in my life … absolutely not … I'm not a ghost!” Riefenstahl is right; she has no need to prove her continued existence. This one-time favorite daughter of the Third Reich knows she's very much alive, well, and with us. She's no ghost. Indeed, the film proclaims her the still living “mother of documentary,” and shows her waiting implacably for a historical restitution she hopes is yet to come. This strange state makes Riefenstahl the ultimate “undead” figure of postwar culture. Her lingering presence testifies not to our great progress from a much darker era, but rather to the fact that we remain, most terrifyingly, under her aegis.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1991), which consists of interviews with Riefenstahl, flashbacks, and film sequences, tells the story of Riefenstahl's remarkable life and her relationship to National Socialism. The documentary presents a subject who fascinates because, morbid as it may sound, she is still alive and remains “the last great surviving image-maker of the Nazis.” However, Riefenstahl does more than simply survive. She presides as the “mother” of modern media, whose controversy remains her role in Nazi cultural politics and its legacy after the Second World War. In 1946 Riefenstahl testified in front of postwar denazification tribunals, and was exonerated but judged a “sympathizer.” There have been many other legal battles since, and she has won every time. But if the courts have found her innocent of crimes committed during World War II, her public has nevertheless been divided. For some, her works present the clearest example of Nazi aesthetics. For others, she has unfairly shouldered the blame for “the real culprits of the regime, most of whom, as far as film making goes, were quite happily reintegrated into the industry.”1 For still others, she is an artist who requires recuperation from her past association with the National Socialism.2 Whether exonerated or excoriated by her postwar audience, Riefenstahl enjoyed a role in the Third Reich that was both unique and of her own making. Goebbels' diaries proclaim her womanly charms; Hitler admired her dancing in Arnold Fanck's Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain [1926]), and praised her own feature film, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light [1932]). Riefenstahl once gave and still gives the impression of an individualist creative personality, and this ethos proves her greatest defense in front of Müller's camera.

Promoting herself as a dancer in the 1920s and thereby winning the attention of Max Reinhardt; sending pictures of herself to Fanck and capturing the role of female lead in his mountain films; inventing herself as Junta, the ill-fated mountain girl in The Blue Light and using this film as a testimony to her apolitical auteurism; and then attempting to mount a comeback as an African adventuress and photographer, Riefenstahl has made her 90 tenacious years into a series of spectacular media vehicles for herself. She entertained no different hopes for Müller's film, which began as her own idea. Over the last few decades, Riefenstahl had many offers to make a documentary about her life and work but consistently rejected them all. But when she learned that her old friend and former mountain-film costar, Luis Trenker, had died, she called a producer with whom Trenker had worked, and asked if he would be interested in making a film about her. He was interested. Ray Müller, however, a maker of National Geographic-style travel films and culture documentaries for German television, was not especially sanguine about associating himself with Riefenstahl. But when the producer told him that 18 filmmakers, including many of the big-name European directors such as Ophüls, had already declined the project, he accepted the offer. The documentary turned out to be three times its originally contracted length of 90 minutes; it was aired on French and British television before making the rounds at film festivals in Toronto and New York in 1992. In Germany it was shown on a small cable channel. That The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl circulated so widely but premiered with such a low profile in her native land attests to her continued controversy.3 Her connection to Nazism renders her at once a pariah and a source of fascination, and Müller's comments on the experience of making the documentary suggest this much:

Just being associated with the name of Riefenstahl is bad for your reputation. When rumors spread around that I was going to make the film, I was personally insulted by some people. … They called me “Nazi Mueller,” things like that. Even within the TV station that was co-producing the film there was tremendous tension. Many people didn't want the project.4

Yet despite the opposition Müller encountered, he found he couldn't say enough about Riefenstahl. Asked why he made the film three hours long, Müller responds with a statement that reveals much about his own position on Riefenstahl as well as her recent source of fascination:

We didn't want to [make a three-hour film]—the contracts were for ninety minutes—then we found such a wealth of material. Another thing is that people, mostly for commercial reasons, wanted to concentrate on the political stuff. But if you want to be fair to her … I mean, she had a creative life of seventy years, and to show only the eight years she worked under Hitler is not fair to the personality. Even if the other stuff may be less thrilling or less controversial, it's still what she did. Perhaps the film could be shortened twenty minutes, but not much more. I wouldn't cut it down to ninety minutes, that's not possible.5

While Müller understands his controversial subject's potential for creating a salable spectacle and hopes to counteract this with a more in-depth look at Riefenstahl's life and work, his comments suggest he sees no continuity in her career. That is, Müller implies that he views Riefenstahl's films made under the Third Reich in isolation from the rest of her oeuvre. This film is thus of two minds. Müller proves a most persistent interviewer who attempts to solicit a statement about the social responsibility of film-making—Riefenstahl apparently complained his questioning was worse than her denazification trial—and he devotes much reverent attention to her as an auteur whose art should be judged for its technical contributions to film-making. When Müller is asked how the experience of making this film changed him as a filmmaker, he responds:

You can learn a lot from this enormous power she has. … It was tough for her to do this film because we asked a lot of her, like going up in a helicopter at her age. She never complained once. Even now, if you would say, “Come on, Leni, you have to get up at four in the morning, it's pouring rain, you have to stand on top of a mountain for three hours because the camera is going,” she would do it if she could be convinced it was a good shot. Even at her age, she would do anything for a good shot. In that respect, she's a model for every filmmaker.6

This sense of awe about Riefenstahl as both a filmmaker and a charismatic personality at the age of 91 translates into the image on the screen. Consistently dazzling the audience with images of this old woman on top of mountains, under the sea, and in the studio, Müller presents Riefenstahl both “as a model for every filmmaker” and as an icon of vitality who inspires an image-conscious 1990s audience to identify with her.

The opening sequence establishes Riefenstahl as a fascinating “personality.” It begins with a montage of shots of Riefenstahl scuba diving at the age of 90, clips of her Africa trips from the 1960s, and scenes from her films made under the Third Reich. It then cuts to a shot of Riefenstahl's house at night. The camera moves like a stalker thorough the bushes outside and pauses on a shadowy figure seen only through the blinds. The voice-over begins:

We are in the presence of a legend with many faces: Loathed by many, admired deeply by others, her name is still taboo in Germany today. … Leni Riefenstahl, the last great surviving image-maker for the Nazis: A feminist pioneer, or a woman of evil?

These two options give us little choice. The suggestion that she might be a feminist pioneer sounds like the 1990s revisionism that attempts to recuperate Riefenstahl on the basis of her gender. There is nothing feminist about Riefenstahl or her work, and simply being a woman director does not qualify her for this designation. The suggestion that she's a woman of evil, meanwhile, is an ad hominem attack that allows Riefenstahl to stand in for the larger evils of the Third Reich. This latter position reduces the complexity of the relation of culture and cultural producers to politics with the rather crude assumption that culture has the powers to implement official policy and enact evil deeds. Müller states that his film will avoid such received positions and approach Riefenstahl “without preconceptions.”

Having articulated his reservations about associating his name with a one-time Nazi director only to find himself fascinated by his subject, Müller also attempts to gain some critical distance. His filmic solution to the problem of representing Riefenstahl is to offer no solution in particular, but instead to vacillate in postures and approaches—sometimes critical, sometimes lurid, sometimes fawning, sometimes parodic. Part I begins as a flashback, with the aged filmmaker looking at glamorous promotion photos of herself. Riefenstahl comments that she experiences the photos as she would looking at another person. The film proceeds to tell the story of her early years in German cinema. Parody frames Part II, which opens with a sequence of Riefenstahl's god-like Olympic humans, Greek statues, and mystically photographed landscapes. The film then cuts to a shot of the creator of this heroic vision on her way to the Olympic stadium. The camera swings behind Riefenstahl and shows her back-lit, larger than life, striding through the Grecian columns in a pink raincoat and demure matching handbag. The music swells and Riefenstahl finds herself alone in the stadium. Here, her aesthetics are made to seem corny and self-inflated. Elsewhere, in the darkened hallway at UFA, Riefenstahl appears in the same pink raincoat and handbag as she approaches another old haunt, but the tone is melancholy, showing her to be old, frail, and quite literally outside the mainstream of German film history. While this scene at Babelsberg is deflationary, inviting Riefenstahl back as history's loser to a place where her one-time rival Marlene Dietrich has been honored, Riefenstahl herself remains impervious to insult and holds herself triumphantly before Müller's camera.7 Moreover, she appropriates the conceit of her outsiderness as her own. Riefenstahl would like to claim a certain modesty in having occupied only the smaller of UFA's studios for the production of Fanck's mountain films, and she would also have it that her art and person were estranged from the centralized Nazi film machine under Goebbels. Here, Müller reinforces these positions.

If parody offers little beyond the suggestion that Grecian fantasies have gone out of style with the Third Reich and if melancholy runs aground on Riefenstahl's own spurious account, Müller refrains from employing these modes in excess. For the most part, the documentary plays it straight and follows a linear chronology of Riefenstahl's life intercut with film clips and interviews which endeavor to expose the truth about its subject.8 This effort at presenting Riefenstahl in a style of “objectivity,” or as the voiceover claims, “without preconceptions,” proves immediately problematic with a personality like Riefenstahl, whose entire life and sense of self are about drama and fictive diversions. Müller copes with this difference in documentary approaches by including marginal commentary and cut-outs. This footage, which appears between actual film sequences, thematizes the struggles between the two directors, and shows Riefenstahl wanting very much to direct this picture while her director appears often at a loss. Above all, these sequences depict a subject who knows exactly what the German title of the film, Die Macht der Bilder, suggests: the power of pictures.

The scene at UFA where Müller asks Riefenstahl to walk and talk in front of the camera is one such moment in his film. Another occurs during a discussion of Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith [1933]), her nearly forgotten first documentary effort for the Nazis. Riefenstahl's attempt at filming the 1933 Nazi party congress in Nuremberg depicts the Nazis wandering somewhat aimlessly about. The voice-over comments, “The Nazis had not yet learned to march like Nazis. … Hitler and Riefenstahl were still trying to get it right.” Both aesthetically and historically, the film is an embarrassment to her.

Riefenstahl objects when Müller refers to Sieg des Glaubens as her “film.” “It's not even a proper film, it's just a few shots I put together … it has nothing to do with my technique,” she insists. Standing in the empty stadium on the site of the 1934 rally, Müller pushes the point that she made not only one infamous documentary of the Nuremberg rallies, but two. She does not respond to his suggestion that she had more interest in official Nazi promotions than she's now willing to admit, but continues instead in her effort to deny the 1933 documentary's status as a film. When Müller persists, she objects angrily to the poor lighting, telling him she's glad to speak about this other film at length, “Aber bei diesem Scheiβlicht doch nicht.” (“But not in this bloody lighting”—the British translation of Scheiβ as “bloody” sounding a bit tame to American ears.) As she grabs him by the arm and shakes him, telling Müller it's important that he understand the difference between the two films—one being a proper artistic effort in which she was able to employ her “technique” and the other not—Riefenstahl displays strength at once remarkable for a woman of her age and yet unsurprising given her determination to have history depicted to her liking. After swearing about the lighting, Riefenstahl gets to replay the scene. Shot this time in low, theatrical light at her home, she explains the reason for two documentaries in melodramatic terms. It was a struggle between Hitler and Goebbels, whose enmity she'd aroused after refusing his advances.

Riefenstahl's diversions to melodramatic narrative in no way contradict her interest in the material events that have shaped her life and work. Indeed, despite all her protestations to Müller about her lack of interest in politics, she also shows herself quite willing to engage in amateur political historiography. In a sequence shot at the Olympic stadium, the voice-over tells the audience that Riefenstahl and her old “campaigners” are about to take a coffee break; the picture shows one of Müller's cameramen pausing to readjust his lens. Then the camera rolls again, this time framed in brackets so the audience knows the footage is not part of the official filming process. Seen sitting with Guzzi Lantschner and Walter Frentz, two of her old cameramen who helped film Olympia, Riefenstahl relates an anecdote in which Churchill was supposedly impressed by Hitler and initially wanted to emulate him. She tells them, “In 1935 Churchill said, ‘I envy the Germans for their Führer,’ … and then two years later he said, ‘The German swine must be slaughtered.’” The story is vague, but its intent is clear: Riefenstahl depicts herself among the great political powers of the Second World War, purports to have known their personal political aspirations, reduces all political positions to questions of charismatic leadership, and then revises this bit of history to suggest Allied and Axis interests were initially the same. Riefenstahl's old friends nod dutifully. She goes on to marvel with Walter Frentz at his own proximity to the Nazi elite. Müller, meanwhile, has captured this discussion while on-the-prowl and off-the-record, and frames it as evidence of Riefenstahl's interest in politics which he's caught unbeknownst to her. As if to reinforce the sensation of having caught Riefenstahl talking politics, Müller includes a voice-over that says: “Riefenstahl refuses to discuss politics in public.” This is a telling moment both for Riefenstahl and her director. While it shows that Riefenstahl never relinquished her admiration of the Nazis, the sequence also reminds the audience Riefenstahl really has nothing new to say and that this film itself can only provide a spectacle in which she attempts once more to restore her reputation. Müller thus finds himself in the reactive position of contesting her case.

The segment on Triumph of the Will, meanwhile, reveals the film's central ambivalence. On the one hand, like the “off-the-record” sequences, this part of the film hopes to expose the problems with Riefenstahl's self-understanding as an artist. It shows Riefenstahl disparaging Triumph of the Will for all the misfortune it has brought her while she also attempts to recover it as part of her artistic oeuvre. She even goes so far as to claim this documentary of the 1934 rallies, which has been called “one of the few aesthetic monuments of German fascism that has attracted serious critical scrutiny,”9 is unimportant in its contents. Whether she was filming fruit or vegetables or Nazis, it was all the same to her, she tells Müller. Sitting at her cutting table, glowing with unconcealed artistic pride as she views a copy of Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl calls attention to her spectacular editing. She shows Müller a sequence with Nazi troops descending the stadium in step with the music—this is the same clip he uses in the opening sequence—and presents it as an example of her precise formalism and filmic technique. While this segment displays the absurdity of Riefenstahl's disclaimers about the contents of Triumph of the Will, it also adopts Riefenstahl's vocabulary and thereby undermines its own critique. Asking the rhetorical question of whether Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will was a “triumph of her own will or a pact with the devil,” the documentary offers only two choices: Is Triumph of the Will, which the voice-over dubiously names “the best propaganda film of all time,” an unfortunate commission which nevertheless inspires film-making awe, or is it the result of a naively mistaken alliance with a demonic force. In either case, Riefenstahl comes off as an artist whose “tragic” flaw lies in her “talent”—Müller even says “her talent is her tragedy”—and in the bad company she kept.10

The film's attempt to recover Riefenstahl as an artist is most clear in Müller's extended and sympathetic sequence on The Blue Light. With clips, interviews, and lavish attention to her directorial techniques, the sequence on The Blue Light presents an image of Riefenstahl as a director who seems to have produced genuinely innovative films apart from her explicit efforts for the Third Reich. But The Blue Light's production history complicates such an account. Riefenstahl, who collaborated on her 1932 feature with a Jewish leftist intellectual scriptwriter, Béla Balázs, excised his name from the credits upon its 1938 rerelease after the success of Olympia.11 For a 1990s audience, she appears to have reinstated Balázs and even recruits him as a political alibi. Shown leafing through the original film script, which she proffers as both an authenticating document of her early artistic efforts and proof of her political openness, Riefenstahl refers to her work with Balázs as a “wonderful collaboration.”

But it is not merely her treatment of Balázs that has raised questions about Riefenstahl's film. If her first feature has appeared to some—including Müller—as an early masterpiece worthy of praise for its pioneering techniques,12 it has also been denounced as an aesthetic precursor to Nazism. In his From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Siegfried Kracauer categorized Riefenstahl's The Blue Light as part of a “surge of pro-Nazi tendencies during the pre-Hitler period” that was characterized “by the evolution of the mountain film.”13 Identifying similarities between the images of cloud-enveloped mountains of the mountain film genre and the clouds surrounding the machine-borne Führer in Triumph of the Will, Kracauer also saw a continuity between Riefenstahl's Junta character and “a political regime which relies on intuition, worships nature and cultivates myth.”14

Kracauer's efforts to establish a continuity between Riefenstahl's pre-Nazi work and Nazism informs Susan Sontag's examination of the continuity between Riefenstahl's Nazi-era and postwar work. Sontag, like Kracauer, offers an anatomy of Nazi aesthetics:

Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Last of the Nuba. [Riefenstahl's book of photos of the Nuba tribe] More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain: they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.15

Reserving special status for Riefenstahl among artists like Céline, Benn, Marinetti, Pound, Hamsun, and others who became Fascist sympathizers, Sontag depicts Riefenstahl as “the only major artist who was completely identified with the Nazi era and whose work, not only during the Third Reich but thirty years after its fall, has consistently illustrated the many themes of fascist aesthetics.”16 But where Kracauer's analysis is too schematic, suggesting perhaps a “linear route from glaciers to Gleichschaltung,17 Sontag's analysis suffers similar problems. In fact, her portrayal of Fascism also maintains a now largely disputed view of Nazi culture as purely retrograde: “Nazi art is reactionary, defiantly outside the century's mainstream of achievement in the arts.”18 Elaborating and modifying Kracauer's and Sontag's respective arguments, Eric Rentschler contends that Riefenstahl's seeming “romantic sentimentality” and “antimodern persuasion” constitute in fact a “reactionary modernism,” that is, a nonsynchronous blend of pre-modern fantasies and technological instrumentalism.19 Riefenstahl's debut feature, a film which employs high modernist techniques and technology to form its vision of a mythical pre-urban Germanic existence, is a “master text” in the history of Nazi cinema. Rentschler concludes: “As a work of art and an artifact, The Blue Light anticipates and embodies the operations of the cinematic machine under National Socialism.”20

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl attempts to address these debates about Riefenstahl's aesthetics, raising similar questions about Riefenstahl's representation of the human body, of nature, of heroic sacrifice, of an idealized Germanic existence. At one point, Müller even asks Riefenstahl to reply to Sontag's analyses. Riefenstahl maintains she has no idea what a Fascist aesthetic might be and responds: How could an intelligent woman like Sontag write such things? This evasive personalized refutation is strangely apposite in the context of a film so heavily focused on Riefenstahl's own person. Neither Müller's film nor its subject succeeds (hers is a more willful failure, to be sure) in penetrating the question of filmic aesthetics and their larger social significance. But, where Müller's absorption in Riefenstahl's person and personal achievements as a filmmaker disables his critique of her aesthetics, it nevertheless provides insight into Riefenstahl's views on culture and cultural production. These views, while cloaked in a discourse of artistic creation and individualism, in no way contradict the conformist culture of National Socialism. For Riefenstahl represents a kind of anti-establishment aesthetic that in fact became instrumental to Germany's film establishment. This aesthetic enabled Nazism to present itself as the rebellious reformer of a “corrupt” Weimar culture.

Assailing both mass culture and the fetishization of high culture (Riefenstahl's categorical refuge), Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer theorize the relation of culture and collective understanding in their darkly hyperbolic essay “The Culture Industry.” Adorno and Horkheimer claim that the seeds of Nazi mass manipulation and the destruction of public life appear in Weimar film and persist after the war:

In Germany the graveyard stillness of the dictatorship already hung over the gayest films of the democratic era. … The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The old experience of the moviegoer, who sees the world as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent on reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer's guideline. The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the world outside is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen.21

Mobilizing a medium already widely popular in Weimar Germany, National Socialism attempted to libidinally bind and persuade the German public. Hollywood, the Frankfurt theorists exhort, displays no different intent. Film is thus a fraudulent mimesis that displaces reality and beguiles its viewers with a fantasy world that uniformly reproduces and masks a situation of social domination. Although Adorno himself retains a much more complex view of film and mass culture, the “Culture Industry” essay, in its all too simple continuity from Weimar to German Fascism and postwar culture, overlooks the creative and political potential manifested in Weimar's fantasy, horror, and workers' films as well as in Riefenstahl's modernist features and documentaries. Riefenstahl, who rejects a notion of film that endeavors to represent reality at all, thus seems to evade Adorno and Horkheimer's categorization. Her claim to fame, which Müller discusses at length in the segments on Triumph of the Will and Olympia, lies in her introduction of visually exciting narrative/fictive techniques into the traditionally “objective” form of documentary.

But she is far from being one to buck tradition. Firmly locating herself within the dialectic of enlightenment outlined by Adorno and Horkheimer, Riefenstahl employs categories of a now defunct bourgeois liberalism to ideological ends. In appealing to the category of art-for-art's-sake in effort to disavow the political content of her work, Riefenstahl shows herself to be a cultural fetishist whose strategies of self-exculpation rely on a fetishized reception of high culture. Although she refuses the mimesis of Nazi and Hollywood cinemas, she nevertheless embraces an equally fraudulent formalism, which reveals itself to be simply a technical prowess she attempts to marshal to her defense. The ideological nature of this pseudo-formalism becomes clear in her assertion of indifference to the contents of a film like Triumph of the Will. Technique alone is transcendent for her, and she hopes postwar students of film will exonerate her on this basis. Presenting her films as art in opposition to what she derides as Nazi “kitsch,” Riefenstahl endeavors to gain distance from popular culture while she sustains the operative lie of Nazi cultural politics—that its cultural products were disinterested and unpolitical.

The Nazi spectacle of massive public events, monumental architectural projects, and standardized mass media bequeaths to postwar culture a more diffused type of media spectacle, which has been theorized in another critical context by Guy Debord, whose focus is the postindustrial situation of capitalist domination in Western nations.22 “Spectacle” with regard to Riefenstahl refers not so much to Debord's deeply pessimistic notion of a spectacle that “dupes” its passive consumers as to her claims to a hermetically sealed world of art. Her view recalls the second paragraph of The Society of the Spectacle:23

Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself.24

Riefenstahl's own world of the autonomous image was not only especially compatible with Nazi cultural politics, it could also be subtly recycled in discourses of cultural fetishism about art and auteurist film after 1945. Müller's camera, meanwhile, surely beholds a liar: She had no erotic contact with Goebbels? What about the entries in his diaries? Or, Hitler? Or Nazi millenarianism? How about this triumphalist telegram to Hitler when he marched into Paris? Did Riefenstahl use gypsies from a concentration camp in her film Tiefland, made during the war? How much did she know about the concentration camps? As she denies all knowledge and emphatically answers all questions in the negative, Müller consistently supplies evidence to the contrary. His efforts to expose these “lies” in the positivist sense do much to indict her as a public figure. Yet Riefenstahl's spectacle—her will to mendacity, as Debord would have it—transcends the particular facts of her own existential choices. This nonagenarian director appears in Müller's documentary as one particularly fascinating originator of the specular “pseudo-world apart” and certainly the most historically tainted defender of cultural disinterest and indifference. In this sense, she is the “undead” of Nazism, its ever vigorous spirit in postwar culture.

Popular response to Müller's documentary intuitively understands Riefenstahl's legacy in postwar culture, where beguiling image-making is now so ubiquitous that “lying” may well be too strong a word. A review in the Canadian popular weekly, Maclean's, offers an example:

As an interrogator, Müller is no match for his subject, who often talks back to him like a temperamental diva. … Almost nothing is revealed of Riefenstahl's personal life (she has lived with technician Horst Kettner, 42 years her junior, since 1968), not to mention how she has managed to preserve herself so miraculously well—where is Barbara Walters when you need her?25

Like a true celebrity, Riefenstahl stages tantrums and elicits tabloid-style interest in her love life and perhaps also her plastic surgeon. Riefenstahl, however, is no Hollywood denizen. She may fascinate as much as any, but her powers of voyeuristic seduction arise from her connection to Nazism and the role she played as one of National Socialism's most visible and personally intriguing imagemakers. Postwar viewers look back upon her still dazzling images and are even more captivated by the works and personality that made them because of their radical specular innovation and the social force they represent. Susan Sontag offers the most provocative analysis of Riefenstahl's increased powers of fascination—only she assumes Riefenstahl's sudden rediscovery in the 1970s was due to public indifference to National Socialism:

It is not that Riefenstahl's Nazi past has suddenly become acceptable. It is simply that, with the turn of the cultural wheel, it no longer matters. Instead of dispensing a freeze-dried version of history from above, a liberal society settles such questions by waiting for cycles of taste to distill out the controversy.26

Sontag is both right and wrong in her estimation of Riefenstahl's renewed powers of fascination in the last few decades. She is right in so far as efforts to rehabilitate Riefenstahl tend to operate in the world of laissez-faire aestheticism where art is autonomous from politics and films are seen as free from their contexts of national cinemas. However, Sontag is wrong if she thinks Riefenstahl's connection to Nazism no longer matters. Rather, such a past simply figures differently. It becomes a source of interest and perhaps also reaction. Where Sontag refers to auteurists and their claims for the recovery of Riefenstahl's work apart from her past, Müller's film elicits a less highfalutin, increasingly titillated, and emphatic response, as typified by the reviewer in Maclean's.

But, if Riefenstahl is the star and diva of Müller's film, for all her mesmerizing and willful individualism she maintains an aesthetic to the contrary. Ultimately, she insists on the inevitable powerlessness of the individual before history, social institutions, and culture, and in so doing, perpetuates the idea of inescapable collective submission under National Socialism. As Müller questions her about the past, her every answer suggests that both she and her fellow Germans had little choice but to be duped and drawn in by Hitler and his Nazi institutions. But it does not follow that because Hitler and Goebbels attempted to administer culture to the German people, the Germans had no ability to form their own opinions about it. Nor does it follow that a such a high-profile individual as Riefenstahl remained so utterly incapable of shaping her own life choices. Yet this is exactly how Riefenstahl views her personal history as well as that of the German public, whom she diagnoses as suffering from an unlucky combination of obedient character and authoritarian social conditioning. When Müller plays Riefenstahl a tape of Marlene Dietrich's comments on Germany's desire for conformity in the 1930s, Riefenstahl appears more than willing to concur. Müller and Riefenstahl sit listening to the voice of the absent Dietrich as she slurs her words in that famous whisky tenor:

We Germans wanted a Führer, right? We got one, right? We Germans are like that, we want a Führer. … And what happens? Along comes this ghostly Hitler and we say, great, finally someone who will tell us what do.

Although Riefenstahl merely affirms Dietrich's none too sophisticated lounge-speak theory of the Germanic will to conformity, these words spoken by an irreverent Weimar “outsider” resonate differently when sustained by Riefenstahl, the Nazi insider. Riefenstahl elaborates on Dietrich's statements by asserting that all Germans learn discipline at school and at home (Müller cuts to a photograph of Riefenstahl as a small child with her family) and come to desire an authoritarian model. These universalizing claims about the German disposition are, however, particular to her own aesthetics, which she expounds upon during The Blue Light and Olympia sequences. Whether she essentializes Germanic culture or plays the victim exposed to inauspicious historical events, Riefenstahl attempts to remove the burden of responsibility both from herself as a public figure and from the German public who once admired her and consumed her images.

Towards the end of the film, there is a montage of the eyes of Riefenstahl's Junta character and a black-and-white close-up of Hitler's demonic-looking gaze, suggesting perhaps that Riefenstahl played Hitler's muse, or that she might have been a female Faust figure to Hitler's Mephistopheles.27 This image intends to answer Müller's earlier question: whether Riefenstahl's dealings with Hitler were a “triumph of her own will, or a pact with the devil.” But Riefenstahl is not simply the vain artist who got in over her head with the Nazis, because she, like Faust, was hungry for knowledge and power. She was and remains a key player. If Nazi cinema was, according to Eric Rentschler, an “other-directed cinema,”28 which “enabled the Germans to withstand awful truths and ignore hideous presentiments,”29 Riefenstahl figures as one of its contributors whose own persona and aesthetics of rugged individualism ultimately served the conformist ends of the regime.

Riefenstahl is an auteur, unlike many of the Nazi directors, and it is her unique film talents which compromise rather than, as she would hope, absolve her. The brand of image-making which once served the centralized cultural politics of the Third Reich now persists in other more diffused media spectacles that aim to excite the emotions and elide the material circumstances of their given context. Though not the lone source of postwar media spectacles, her work forms a caesura, after which it is impossible to think of film without its instrumental social function and its ideologically defensive claims to substantive aesthetic merit. This combination of politically volatile image-making and political disavowal is Riefenstahl's special contribution to twentieth-century culture.

Every disavowal is a spectacular performance, and the documentary is full of these. Asked to reflect on the aesthetics of National Socialism and the mobilization of culture under the Third Reich, Riefenstahl retorts with impatient theatrical innocence, “What is a fascist aesthetic? A Heil Hitler greeting?” Early in the film she also makes an off-handed remark about the Sieg Heil, pitting herself and her own personal aesthetics against history and Nazism. After arguing with Müller on a mountain top about the best way to frame her against the peaks, telling him he has to find a “filmic solution” to the problem of framing her properly, she finally acquiesces, readies herself for the cameras and then says, looking somewhat persecuted, “Don't tell me you want a Hitler salute?” The crew laughs in good humor, because she's agreed to follow Müller's direction and seems to be showing a little self-reflexive irony. Nothing could be farther from the case. Appearing in a shot that conflicts with her aesthetics and technical expertise, she acts as though the one-time Nazi gesture of faith is being foisted upon her against her will by a postwar generation that understands nothing of her personal contributions to film form.

But although Riefenstahl doesn't know it, Müller has indeed found a filmic solution to representing her. Either unable or unwilling to emulate Riefenstahl's technique, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl offers a resolutely unartistic spectacle. To be sure, this is not the only filmic solution to representing Riefenstahl. It is possible to imagine other kinds of efforts that engage rather than avoid her style, but The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl devotes its energies to content and to eliciting a statement from its subject. Riefenstahl's pronouncements in the film prevent her from being seen solely as an auteur whose techniques alone merit study—even if merely to study them as a blueprint for persuasive image-making. On the contrary, studying Riefenstahl means taking her ideas and status as a public figure into account alongside her oeuvre. For it is not simply enough to recognize the technical contributions of Olympia in contemporary sports photography, or to acknowledge her influence in the artfulness of officially sponsored media events, or to understand how seemingly apolitical feature films do in fact reinforce cultural values. The mother of modern image-making is also the guardian of postwar cultural cynicism. Riefenstahl's insistence that art inhabits a sphere separate from politics and that individuals remain without agency or responsibility before institutions might sound strikingly unoriginal and somewhat trite were it not for the fact that she was on the Nazi scene when such ideas were being tested in practice.


  1. Thomas Elsaesser, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman,” Sight and Sound v3, n2 (February, 1993): 19.

  2. Eric Rentschler documents efforts by auteurists in 1960s and 1970s to rehabilitate Riefenstahl on the basis of her art. In his article “Fatal Attractions: Leni Riefenstahl's The Blue Light,October, no. 48 (Spring, 1989), he quotes Kevin Brownlow's passionate defense of Riefenstahl: “Art transcends the artist. … Art and politics must never be confused … the old adages are forgotten instantly as the name Riefenstahl is raised. And it is our fault” (67). Critic John Simon asks if the past could “wipe out the fact of her greatness as an artist,” and concludes that Leni Riefenstahl “may have compromised her humanity. But her artistic integrity, never.” See his front-page review, “Leni Riefenstahl,” New York Times Book Review (September 26, 1993): 1.

  3. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg complained, however, that in Germany his work has received “less acclaim from the public, at large than is given to Riefenstahl when she is shown in art film theaters.” See Marilyn Berlin Snell, “Germany's Heart: The Modern Taboo: An Interview with German Filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg,” New Perspectives Quarterly v10, n1 (Winter, 1993): 23.

  4. Robert Sklar, “Her Talent Was Her Tragedy: An Interview with Ray Müller,” Cineaste v20, n3 (Summer, 1993): 22.

  5. Ibid., 22.

  6. Ibid., 24.

  7. The respective fates of Riefenstahl and Dietrich are also telling. After Dietrich's death, it becomes clear that at least from a German perspective, she has not fared as well as Riefenstahl. The urbane foil to Riefenstahl's mountain-girl fantasy, who fled into exile and became an American citizen in 1939, was refused a public burial in Berlin in 1992 because many Germans still perceived her as a traitor. Gertrud Koch reflects on the controversy over Dietrich's internment in Berlin, which suggests many Germans still think of Dietrich as a traitor for having entertained American soldiers during the war. Gertrud Koch. “Dietrich's Destiny,” Sight and Sound v2, n5 (September, 1992): 22. See also Marjorie Garber, who has recently described Dietrich's cult status as a icon for gay culture and contemporary Madonna watchers: Marjorie Garber, “Strike a Pose,” Sight and Sound v2, n5 (September, 1992): 25.

  8. Unlike many recent documentaries, which explore their subjects with formally innovative techniques that reflect on the film-making process itself, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl adopts a traditional mode of documentary representation. Müller most employs what Bill Nichols calls the “expository” mode; see Bill Nichols. Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991). For a recent article which discusses new documentary modes, see Linda Williams' discussions of Shoah,Roger and Me, and The Thin Blue Line in “Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary,” Film Quarterly v46, n3 (Spring, 1993).

  9. Russell A. Berman, Modern Culture and Critical Theory: Art, Politics, and the Legacy of the Frankfurt School (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989): 99.

  10. Sklar, “Her Talent Was Her Tragedy,” 24.

  11. On her treatment of Balázs, see Rentschler, “Fatal Attractions: Leni Riefenstahl's The Blue Light.

  12. Eric Rentschler has commented that this film “functions as crucial evidence in any apologia for Riefenstahl.” Ibid., 48.

  13. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 257.

  14. Ibid., 259.

  15. Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), 91.

  16. Ibid., 90.

  17. Ibid., 140.

  18. Ibid., 94.

  19. Ernst Bloch's concept of nonsynchronism (Ungleichzeitigkeit) refers to the mixture of modern and traditional modes of existence in the same present moment that enabled Fascism to appeal to a displaced German middle class. See Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times, translated by Neville and Stephen Plaice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). The term “reactionary modernism” derives from Jeffrey Herf's study, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  20. Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 51.

  21. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming [1972], (New York: Continuum, 1993), 126.

  22. Cf. Jonathan Crary, “Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory,” October 50 (Fall, 1989). Crary discusses the origin of Debord's “society of the spectacle” in the 1920s and 30s with the rise of Fascism, the origins of television, synchronized sound in the movies, and the use of mass media techniques in Nazi Germany, 104-5.

  23. Debord's much criticized notion of spectacle has most recently been discussed by Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1994). See also Martin Jay's discussion of Debord and spectacle in his Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press 1993), 423-34.

  24. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red Books, 1983), paragraph 2.

  25. Brian D. Johnson, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,” Maclean's v107, n16 (April 18, 1994): 74.

  26. Sontag, ibid., 84.

  27. One reviewer also takes up this Faust image, saying, “No, she was not to be Eliza Doolittle to Sternberg's Professor Higgins, as Dietrich is said to have described herself. Her destiny was to become a female Faust to Adolf Hitler's Mephistopheles.” Robert Sklar, “The Devil's Director,” Cineaste v20, n3 (Summer, 1993): 20.

  28. Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion, 216.

  29. Ibid., 222.

William Cook (essay date 11 February 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1257

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 for two films she made during the Third Reich—Olympia, about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. If these films had been as dire as most Nazi-sanctioned cinema, her contribution to Hitler's Reich might have been forgotten. However, unfortunately for Riefenstahl, she created two cinematic masterpieces, and they have haunted her ever since.

Calling Riefenstahl's films documentaries really does not do them any justice. She was a dancer before injury forced her into acting, and then directing, and Olympia feels far closer to ballet than reportage. It is an intense evocation of athleticism, shot in an innovative, intimate style that still feels fresh today. Riefenstahl filmed her athletes close up, in shadow, in silhouette, from the air and underwater. She dovetailed live and staged footage to create a sporting epic with all the narrative thrust of an action thriller. Her theatrical techniques have since become standard practice, but they were revolutionary at that time—and compared to most modern films, her work still looks avant-garde.

Edited by Riefenstahl herself, over two years, from 250 miles of film, Olympia was showered with prizes at home and abroad. Her Meisterwerk was invaluable PR for the Nazis, but its Graeco-Roman pagan grandeur coincided rather than conspired with Nazism's crude neoclassicism, and Jesse Owens, not Hitler, is its true star. It is irrevocably tainted by the evil tyranny under which it was produced, but even so, even now, Olympia is still regarded as one of the greatest documentary films ever made. However, Riefenstahl's films were fiction of a kind, and her bold poetic abstraction in the film she made before Olympia,Triumph of the Will, proved even more helpful for Hitler. “I am not looking for a newsreel,” Hitler told her, “but an artistic document.” This “artistic document” has plagued her throughout her long life.

Triumph of the Will asks an avalanche of questions about art and ethics. Does creating a record of such a sinister spectacle automatically legitimise it? Is a virtuoso account worse than a more mediocre version? Does every artist have to have a point of view? Riefenstahl's point of view is that of an actor in a costume drama. She films the rally like a cup final, a mystery play or a religious pageant. If Olympia is ballet, then Triumph of the Will is opera—but an opera that makes murderous thugs look like mythic heroes. Yet this film won foreign as well as domestic awards.

Out of shot, off camera, the ethical perspective becomes even more blurred. How far did Riefenstahl choose this film? How far could she have refused it? How much had she seen of what the Nazis had already done? How much could she have foreseen of what they would do in the future? None of us, least of all Riefenstahl, can know the whole truth.

What is truly frightening about Triumph of the Will, and, to a lesser extent, Olympia, is that it proves that art is amoral. Its morality depends purely on its context. In a moral context, it is moral. In an immoral context, it is immoral. As Gitta Sereny says in The German Trauma, her profound book about Nazi guilt, for Riefenstahl beauty was an aesthetic inspiration—for the Nazis, it was a moral imperative. In Triumph of the Will, her aesthetic inspiration and Hitler's moral imperative collided, to cataclysmic effect.

After the war, Riefenstahl fought tirelessly to defend her tarnished reputation. She contested more than 50 libel suits and won all bar one. Some false accusations were not so much ideological as downright misogynistic. No, she had never been Hitler's mistress. No, she had never danced naked before him at the Berghof. More importantly, she never joined the Nazi party, and remained loyal to her Jewish friends and colleagues, who were happy to testify in her favour. “I have no doubt,” writes Sereny in The German Trauma, “that she knew nothing of what was planned and of what finally happened to the Jews.” Nevertheless, her property was seized, her assets frozen, and she spent several years under house arrest. She was cleared by two denazification tribunals, but after French appeals she was classified as a “fellow traveller”. Whether you think her treatment cruel or kind depends upon your yardstick. Like many others of her generation, she suffered. Unlike many others of her generation, she survived.

In 1954, she finally released Tiefland, the escapist feature film she had shot, off and on, throughout the war. Tiefland was a romantic fantasy—Riefenstahl starred as a Spanish dancer—but despite the support of Jean Cocteau, who called her “the genius of film”, she found it impossible to pursue a conventional cinematic career. Instead, she turned to photography, and created her third Meisterwerk—as free as she ever could be from the spectre of the Third Reich.

During the Sixties and Seventies, Riefenstahl photographed the remote Nuba tribes of Sudan, creating a striking celebration of an ancient and vanishing civilisation. Susan Sontag found this work “consistent with some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology”. Yet fascism plundered its mongreliconography from a wide array of cultures, from the Greeks to the Vikings, from Romanticism to futurism. The cult of the noble savage stretches far further back than the Third Reich. Hitler would have hated these photos, and, within her own finite compass, these heroic portraits are perhaps the best way Riefenstahl can find of refuting his wicked crusade against “subhuman” and “degenerate” art.

Yet a lifetime after Hitler's rise and fall, the film she made for him still follows her. “I put myself into the minds of the victims,” she told Ray Müller in his fine biographical film, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. “How awful for them to see those swastikas, the SS men and the SA—people we'd never thought of as criminals.” Understandably, for many, she has been insufficiently repentant. But there are limits to how much remorse one human being can bear. “I condemn all that happened, but it doesn't help—they don't believe me,” she told Müller. “It casts such a shadow over my life that death will be a blessed release.”

Good or bad, right or wrong, Riefenstahl remains an exceptional artist and an extraordinary woman. When I met her, in 1992, she was already 90, but could easily have passed for 20 years younger, as indeed she did when she trained as a diver, passing herself off as 50 when she was actually 70. “Underwater, I am in another world,” she told Sereny. “It has allowed me, for the first time, to understand religious faith, and that is the film … yes, perhaps the last one … I want to make.” Face to face, and in her absorbing yet unanalytical autobiography, Riefenstahl struck me as fiercely intelligent but fundamentally unintellectual, and it is this contradiction that makes her legacy so difficult, yet so dynamic. After all these years, Riefenstahl's genius remains a beautiful but disturbing problem.

Susan Tegel (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4339

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)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13776

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 of the Nazi party rejected the Olympic movement for its internationalism and pacifism, and, at first, it was uncertain that the Berlin games would actually take place.1 Yet when the 1936 games did take place as scheduled, the National Socialist bureaucracy hosted the Olympics on “a lavish scale never before experienced”2 and turned the games into a spectacle meant to show the world that the new Germany was—despite the remilitarization of the Rhineland—a decent, friendly, peace-loving nation.3 The public presentation of the Olympics in 1936 sought to accommodate the image of the athlete, and modern athletics in general, to a conservative Weltanschauung for which these things were anathema. Leni Riefenstahl, the unofficial film auteur of the Nazi Party, was engaged to make what would be a powerful documentary of the games, a film in two parts that won international prizes before the outbreak of the Second World War. These films were probably commissioned by Carl Diem (1882-1962), the General Secretary of the German National Olympics Committee, a sports educator and an official in the government athletic bureaucracies of the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and the Federal Republic. Diem's choice of Riefenstahl may have been backed up by Hitler himself; the films were funded indirectly by the regime.4

Leni Riefenstahl's films are controversial today because, while they are enormously powerful and groundbreaking accomplishments in the art of film, some of them were made more or less directly in the service of Nazi party propaganda. This is clearly true of her most notorious film, Triumph of the Will, a documentary of the 1934 National Socialist Party rally in Nuremberg, and only the most blinkered of Riefenstahl's apologists are not skeptical of her insistence that this film should be understood strictly as art and not as propaganda. Her documentary film of the Olympics is another matter; it is less clearly propagandistic and was made to document games in which Germany's athletes could not and did not always win. Indeed, although by the usual unofficial reckoning the Germans “won” the games, Riefenstahl's film does not exult in or even directly communicate this victory. (The International Olympic Committee, and the “Olympic Ideal” of which it is the custodian, disallows the reckoning of overall winners and losers among the various competing national teams.)5 But the aesthetic of Olympia is closely related to that of Triumph of the Will, a fact that seems to demand our attention.6

Strictly speaking, Olympia is sports coverage, but it is as different from the kinds of sports coverage we are used to seeing as is imaginable. It suppresses the details of the various competitions, in some instances even the final scores, in favor of highlighting the grace, poise, and strength of the athletes. Important, telling moments of the various competitions are shown, but just as often the interest seems to be more visual than documentary; striking compositions and camera angles, dramatic framing devices and backdrops of cloud formations behind the heads of athletes filmed from below predominate. Riefenstahl, over long months of editing some 1,300,000 feet of exposed film, structured the whole movie in its two parts not so much as the narrative chronology of the competitions but much more as a montage of short segments that gathers momentum, building tension and excitement over the course of three and a half hours, propelled by the Wagnerian score of Herbert Windt to which rhythms the images are closely matched. The documentary did not even premiere until two years after the games were over, halfway to the next Olympics, which in any event were cancelled because of the war. But sixty-three years later, it is still far more gripping than any contemporary sports coverage, despite the fact that it concentrates almost exclusively on the athletic events themselves to the exclusion of any personal interest in or narrative of the athletes as individuals. It is riveting and engrossing because it is beautiful; or it is art; or it mobilizes some very effective visual rhetorics and poetics; or what have you. It is sports coverage intended even, or maybe especially, for people who do not really care all that much about sports, and this fact will not be incidental to my argument.

The 1936 Olympic games have come to be commonly referred to as the Nazi Olympics, beginning with Richard Mandell's groundbreaking book of that title.7 This insinuates that not only the German athletes but also the American, British, and French, as well as, say, the Colombian, Indian, and even the Greek athletes had been duped into making propaganda for a National Socialist racial and political ideology of the strong Aryan body. We cannot dismiss this notion out of hand; activists in America at the time vehemently protested the exclusion of Jewish athletes from the German team, and the American Athletic Union threatened at one point to boycott the games (see NO [The Nazi Olympics], pp. 75-77). The paternalistic president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage (who emerged from this internal struggle as president of the American Athletic Union also), at first dismissed these concerns and then extracted a promise from the German Olympic Committee that all qualified athletes would be allowed to compete; in some instances this promise was kept, and in some it was broken (see NO, pp. 69-82).8 In any event, Riefenstahl's documentary, with its formal similarity to Triumph of the Will, has permanently shaped our impression of the 1936 Games, the so-called Nazi Olympics. Perhaps it is now impossible to determine to what extent our sense of her film as more or less ideologically tainted comes from the fact that it is a document of Games held under questionable circumstances and to what extent it derives at least in part from the shape Riefenstahl gave them on film.

Olympia is, if nothing else, a document of the false grandeur of Nazi pageantry. Indeed, it partakes of that false grandeur. Mandell has written that the Berlin games in 1936 “were an important episode in the establishment of an evil political regime” and that “much of the success of the 1936 Olympics was due to the pursuit by the National Socialists of supremacy in mass pageantry” (NO, p. xxiii). Those sports historians and film theorists who have criticized the film have done so from the point of view that it “is an intensely political film. It was set up for political motives, it described an immensely political event.”9 Revisiting the question on the occasion of the republication of The Nazi Olympics, Mandell said that “to portray the Berlin Olympics to the world in 1936 as a nonpolitical festival was not only deceptive but a political act as well as a lie” (NO, p. xvii). Indeed, Mandell, like others before him, claims to see a “fascist aesthetic” in Olympia: “The beautification of mindless, masculine physical power is, in fact, highly supportive and perhaps a part of totalitarian ideology” (NO, p. xvi f.).10 Other attempts at defining this putative fascist aesthetic have focused variously on the claims that Riefenstahl describes and glorifies symbolic acts of self-sacrifice11 or that her camera “clings to the aesthetic lines of athletic figures and the pulsating muscular forms of individual limbs, … deploys movement and dynamism in the film's visual aesthetic … [and] downplays the real effort and strain in the tense but smoothly photogenic bodies” of the athletes, and, like fascism, it uses people as “mere models and extras for political, athletic and cultural display.”12 “The ‘unbeautiful’ side of competitive sports,” one critic has agreed, “agony, suffering, and physical pain, are simply edited out or are themselves aestheticized.”13

The case for a fascist aesthetic in Olympia—and all of Riefenstahl's work—was made most forcefully by Susan Sontag in an influential 1974 essay entitled “Fascinating Fascism.” For Sontag, Fascist aesthetics

flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain. … The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. … Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.14

Riefenstahl has always claimed that Beauty was her sole guide in making the Olympics documentary, but for Sontag this claim is just a smokescreen or worse, a form of aesthetic duplicity and moral seduction. Behind the beauty lurks self-abasement and death. Following Sontag, Hilmar Hoffmann has isolated beauty as one of the film's most objectionable characteristics.15 More recently, Linda Schulte-Sasse has revisited the question of a fascist aesthetic, which she defines, drawing on Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, as the “attempt to break down the boundaries between the aesthetic and real life and the mobilization of technology for this purpose.”16 This method of analysis can too easily become ahistorical, so that the concept of a “fascist aesthetic” and, by implication, a fascistic ideology behind it can be stretched to include nearly any cultural production. Indeed, Sontag's essay criticized Olympia only in passing; her immediate target was Riefenstahl's book of still photographs of Nubian tribespeople, first published in 1973, and she warns us that fascist “art is hardly confined to works labeled as fascist or produced under fascist governments,” naming Disney's Fantasia and Stanley Kubrick's 2001 as examples. Likewise, Schulte-Sasse comes to the conclusion that “fascism, if understood in its structural sense, may be alive and well in American political discourse … and in many other phenomena in contemporary societies currently discussed as features of postmodern societies.”

Sontag's condemnation of Riefenstahl's work is essentially ad hominem and assumes that if the filmmaker, who undeniably moved among the highest levels of the Nazi regime, was herself a convinced Nazi (which is far from clear), then the product of her art—all of it—must have a fascistic content. Sontag discusses not only her postwar work, her photographs of the Nuba, as of a piece with her propaganda, but also labels her earlier work, including her 1932 film The Blue Light, following Kracauer, as proto-fascist.17 Riefenstahl has not helped her own case with her stubborn refusal to admit that even her film of the Nuremberg party rally might be reasonably seen as propaganda, insisting that as an artist she is detached from all political interests.18 But she does seem to sense that the guilt or innocence of Olympia will be decided by her guilt or innocence as an individual, which is undoubtedly why she has argued, not least in her self-serving memoir, that she was not only free of direct political entanglements with the Nazi party and the propaganda ministry specifically, but that she was in fact actively harassed and impeded, especially in the filming of the Olympics, by Goebbels's henchmen and because she had rebuffed his routine sexual advances, no less.19

There have always been those who insinuate that Riefenstahl had been Goebbels's or Hitler's lover and owed to such liaisons her remarkable success as a filmmaker under the Nazis, who were officially committed to denying any professional career to women. And so the ad hominem arguments about Riefenstahl come to circle with seeming inevitability around her gender: her status as a woman, and a beautiful, physically vital woman. This is true in part because she featured herself as the object of cinematic desire in two of her feature films, The Blue Light and Tiefland. Schulte-Sasse has cautioned that it is “tempting to overstress the notion of a conscious decision behind Riefenstahl's self-fetishization,” but nonetheless she maintains that “an internalized acceptance of woman's role as object permitted her narcissistically to enjoy fetishizing her own body” (“FA” [“Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic”], pp. 123, 148). With regard to her career behind the camera and her reception, bell hooks has written that, on the one hand, “by seducing men throughout her career, Riefenstahl used her body to mediate patriarchal authority,” and on the other that “the power of feminine masquerade is reinscribed in contemporary attempts to rehabilitate Riefenstahl, to represent her solely as a genius obsessed with her work.”20

Meanwhile those who are more sympathetic to Riefenstahl and Olympia rehearse the tale Riefenstahl herself tells of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry's resistance and the impediments that Goebbels himself placed before her21 and have asked if it is not unfair to judge a film without overt political content as though it were propaganda simply because its author had previously made a propaganda film.22 In the U.S., Riefenstahl's claim for the political innocence of her aesthetic is increasingly warmly received. The suspicion that the vague American admiration for her is linked somehow to her femininity is strengthened by the curious tendency of generally sympathetic authors writing in English to infantilize Riefenstahl by referring to her almost exclusively by her first name. At the same time, it increasingly seems as though her supernumerary age (100 at the time of this writing) lends her side of the story its own legitimacy, at least for the American popular press.23

I want to make it clear at the outset that I think the category of a fascist aesthetic is a red herring, an unfixed set of stylistic signifiers the most consistent of which, beauty, strength, an exclusive focus on the physical and on above-average physiques, and the camera's fascination with the athletic body, cannot be differentiated in any meaningful way—on stylistic grounds—from subsequent sports photography. Even more troubling is the fact that little appears on our own television and movie screens, in sports coverage or elsewhere, that a critic could not say conceals or falsifies through omission the class and race relations of present-day America and Europe.24

The supposed morphological structure of cinematic expressions of fascistic desire and the notion that it lived its own formalist existence on screen originated in Kracauer's study of Weimar-era German film. Kracauer identified that desire as one for unity through self-subjugation with an all-powerful father-figure, and he believed that he could see this fascistic desire to a greater or lesser degree in most films of the pre-Nazi period—indeed, that these films were proto-fascist.25 Hoffmann, one of the most bitter critics of Olympia, has even mobilized Paul Virilio's critique of the cinematic apparatus itself to suggest that Riefenstahl's film exploits its very nature as film to enact a fascistic discipline of the masses.26 Kracauer was also the author of another formal category that is frequently mobilized in critical analysis of Olympia, the “mass ornament”—the organized deployment of groupings of bodies. Again, Kracauer felt that this stylistic signifier was freighted with a desire for symbolic self-subjugation to a technocratic discipline.27 In analyses of Olympia and of the pageantry of the Berlin Olympics, “mass ornament” is used to describe variously the crowds in the stands, or the columns of marching athletes, displays of mass gymnastics, and theatrical festivals that formed the opening ceremonies.28 Again, with the exception of the mass gymnastics demonstrations (about which I will say more below) little differentiates such images in Olympia from contemporary televised Olympics coverage except the context and the sophistication of the filming and editing. Although Kracauer's study of a proto-fascist film aesthetic in Weimar-era film, with its pre-Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, has little currency in contemporary film criticism, the term “mass ornament” enjoys a comfortable authority in the critical literature on Riefenstahl. Both formal categories, as deployed in Olympia criticism, are vested with meaning by the extra-stylistic framework of the context, the sponsoring evil regime that sought to legitimate itself in the eyes of the world through a normalizing international event and its aesthetically sophisticated presentation by Riefenstahl. Neither category can derive the film's—or its author's—supposed propagandistic intentions from the film's intrinsic form.29 Although Schulte-Sasse has argued the impossibility of “understanding fascism without addressing its structural tendencies, without examining modes of address in its artistic and ‘political’ texts” (“FA,” p. 124), I would argue that for most postwar critics the aesthetic of Olympia derives its meaning entirely from a context that includes (as it must) the Second World War and the Holocaust; the aesthetic does not generate its meaning out of itself. Can one speak, therefore, of an aesthetic in Olympia that is “fascist” on its face? But if the film does not display a fascist aesthetic, is it then merely or only aesthetic? What would this mean?

I also want to pause at this point to make it equally clear that I do not agree with Riefenstahl or her apologists that Olympia is only a work of art, that it is somehow apolitical. I hope to demonstrate that the film expresses, visually and aesthetically, a profoundly conservative, politically dangerous ideology of the body. In order to translate that ideology into words, however, it will be necessary to recover the debates about the body in which Riefenstahl's visual rhetoric intervened. The terms of those debates were by no means identical to Nazi ideologies of the body. Before we can do this work, however, we must examine further the categories within which the film has been received and criticized.


The controversy around Olympia began in 1958 when Riefenstahl attempted to get the film screened again in West Germany. On 9 January, the German office of the Voluntary Self-Censorship of the Film Industry, or FSK [Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft], in Wiesbaden, West Germany, rejected the screening of the films. Olympia bordered too closely in the FSK's opinion on Nazi propaganda for a screening to be safely allowed; self-censorship was called for.30 On 25 January, Riefenstahl wrote a letter to Carl Diem, probably the man who originally commissioned the Olympia films and then director of the German Sports College in Cologne. In the letter, Riefenstahl defends herself and her film, looking for support in her struggle with the censorship board. She relates some aspects of a conversation she had in person and off the record with the head of the working committee of the censorship board, a certain Herr Lipmann, in which Lipmann gave some indication of the board's reasons for denying her permission to revive her film with a public screening:

In a conversation with the Jewish head of the most recent working committee, Herr Lipmann, he went so far as to say to me that it was especially the connection made in my film between Greek culture and the Olympic games that gave the opposition cause to forbid my film, because in the Greek prologue the Olympic Games in Berlin were elevated above the Masses.

That is to say, the films were criticized by the censorship board for celebrating a superhuman beauty, a criticism that would be made regularly in the future. Riefenstahl continued her gloss on the board's decision: “In other words, dear Dr. Diem, the gentlemen [of the censorship board] would have preferred it if I had shown how the athletes (please forgive the realistic expression) picked their noses instead of their radiant joy in victory as heroes.”31 Carl Diem, who had been the General Secretary of the German Olympic Committee for the 1936 Olympics, wrote the desired letter to the board on 27 January, in which he submitted what could be called the circumstantial evidence in her defense and incidentally in the defense of the Berlin Olympics as a whole; he pointed out that the German Olympic Committee had been a legally independent organization in 1936 and that Berlin had been chosen for the games in 1931, two years, that is, before the Nazi rise to power; he named the German-Jewish athletes who had been allowed to compete and even Dr. Lewald, the president of the organizing committee, who was also of “non-Aryan” blood.32 The censorship board denied permission again on 30 January. But eventually the FSK did reverse itself, and the film had its second, postwar premier at the Venice Biennale in 1959.

In Riefenstahl's verbal exchange with Lipmann, as recounted in her letter to Diem, the issue of Nazi racial ideology, and whether it was expressed in the film, was directly raised in connection with the prominence in the film of Jesse Owens, the black American track star: “Herr Lipmann went so far as to take the fact that I photographed Jesse Owens and the other Negroes so often and so beautifully, and to twist it around into the claim that I did it only to create the impression that there was no racism in Germany.”33 Riefenstahl's rhetoric may smack of paternalism and tokenism, but it is undeniable that Owens dominates the film, at least the track and field segment, as he dominated the event in real life; he is filmed beautifully, and his athletic performance, captured for posterity by Riefenstahl's cameraman in a now famous sequence, is magnificent. Owens has often functioned as Riefenstahl's alibi. Mandell, who is otherwise critical of the film and its author, maintains that “the very fact that so much of the love … of the film is devoted to Jesse Owens and to Kitei Son [the Korean runner who competed under the Japanese flag], both non-Aryans, should indicate that Riefenstahl was at least offhand about the racial proscriptions of the Nazi hierarchy” (NO, p. 270). And Frank Deford, arguing for a complete disconnection between the propaganda of Triumph of the Will and what he sees as the pure sports enthusiasm of Olympia, writes that, “in Olympia, Hitler makes little more than a cameo appearance, and if there is a single individual who draws the most attention, it is a black American, Jesse Owens—the symbol, the personification of all that contradicted Hitler and his theories of a master race.”34

What for some has been Riefenstahl's alibi is for others damning evidence, a central argument for reading the film as a work of political and race-theory propaganda. This reading of the film claims that it serves up a beautiful rendition of the strong athletic physique in order to fetishize and promote a supposed Nazi ideal of the Aryan body. The most sustained analysis of the film, and of the Berlin Olympics in general, in terms of its staging of an Aryan male ideal body is by the German scholar Daniel Wildmann.35 This claim is invariably bound up with the notion that the neoclassicism of the Berlin Olympics foregrounded by Riefenstahl was itself inherently fascistic, or at the very least an abuse and perversion of a classical heritage. So Peter Wollen writes that “the Berlin Olympiad of 1936 was designed as a massive festival in celebration of the human body, as idealized by the Nazi ideology: the body of the sportsman in harmony with nature, disciplined in the quest for unsurpassed achievement, hardened by struggle, recapturing the grace, beauty, and strength of the bodies of antiquity.”36 The importance for German culture of an image of ancient Greece is famous and has been since the early art historian J. J. Winckelmann held up ancient Greek art and culture and the Hellenistic ideal of the body as a model for modern-day artists in 1756. Winckelmann inaugurated what has been called the tyranny of Greece over Germany. The Greek ideal is ubiquitous in German culture. Even so, with the importance of the classical Greek tradition for German culture over the last two-and-a-half centuries in mind, Hoffmann, in his critique of the Berlin Olympics in general and Riefenstahl's Olympia in particular, writes that,

The [use of] classical formal vocabulary is … essentially a recoding, an authoritarian appropriation of a ‘world language’ in which the fascistic is defined more generally, more functionally, and more multivalently than simply German-national, cultural and regional-tribal, namely, it is defined as fundamental, racist, and global-Darwinist.37

The influential late scholar of German racial ideology George Mosse cogently argued, in a series of lengthy studies, for a specifically fascistic ideology of the idealized, strong, and well-trained male physique. Mosse was troubled particularly by the use of the Greek ideal in German athletics in general and worried that the Nazi image of the “hardened, lithe male body” was idealized beyond attainability, too armored against any threat or weakness.38

It is my contention that claims to the effect that Riefenstahl's fixation on the beautiful body and the classical are inherently fascistic, like the claim that the film exhibits a fascist aesthetic, are focused on the wrong issues. It is far-fetched to imagine that this filmmaker, who was uninterested in National Socialist ideology and unread and unschooled in its written expressions, intuitively formulated, over the course of three and a half hours of film shot on location under arduous circumstances and without the possibility of directing her actors, with black and Asian as well as white athletes, a visual equivalent for the convoluted, vague, and illogical racial theories of National Socialism. It is much more likely that her imagery was formed by her own ideologies and the cultural debates and theories that had characterized her own background. That background was in the Expressive Dance (or Ausdruckstanz) movement of the 1910s and 1920s, with its own murky ideology of the body. I do not mean to suggest that Riefenstahl's film is innocent of all political ideology or that she does not share in some way the responsibility for promoting a system that led Germany in short order to world war and genocide. Like other analysts of Olympia, I am convinced that beneath the mesmerizing rhythms and strikingly beautiful images of strong, graceful, athletic bodies there are subcutaneous enunciations of radically conservative import, enunciations about the body and the Volk. But I also think that they are not, or are not primarily, congruent with National Socialist racial ideology. Rather, they are a belated, final intervention in earlier debates about the body, debates that raged between conservative antimodernists and promodernists (themselves not necessarily liberal or politically progressive) during the 1920s. Olympia was an attempt to reconcile conservative ideologies of the body to modern sports long after the problem had ceased to be open to debate. When examining this film of the 1936 Olympics, we should be looking back to the debates of the 1920s and the specter of mechanization and Americanism (as it was called) that haunted them. Riefenstahl's films are an attempt to reconcile the distaste, deeply ingrained in conservative German culture, of modern athletics and its obsession with record-breaking achievement with her assignment to celebrate these things in a documentary of the Olympics. At the same time, we should keep vividly in mind the moral responsibility incumbent upon anyone meddling in the public discourse of the body in a fascist state predicated on racist ideology.


As Carl Diem pointed out in his 1958 letter to the German film censors, Berlin was announced as the location of the 1936 Olympic games in 1931, and Diem, who had spent the greater part of his professional life up to that point trying to bring the Games to Germany, knew only too well what that transfer of power could mean for German participation in the Olympics. The Olympic movement represented everything the Nazi ideologues detested about the Weimar Republic; it was intended to promote the ideals of internationalism and pacifism, and the National Socialist ideology and political program openly rejected those ideals.39

Pierre de Coubertin created—he would have said revived—the Olympic movement at the end of the nineteenth century. De Coubertin was a French aristocrat and a man who combined a lifelong and passionate enthusiasm for modern, specifically English sports with a reformist effort to mitigate the chauvinistic and belligerent attitudes that characterized European nationalism. De Coubertin came to espouse pacifist and internationalist ideals only later in life; he was himself quite chauvinistic in his youth.40 The Olympic revival was his scheme to combine these two passions. The ancient Greek associations expressed by the name and the plan of holding international competitions every four years, as the Greeks had done, was an afterthought, as was the idea of holding the first games in Athens in 1896.41

De Coubertin had in mind not an antiquarian re-creation of the actual contests held by Greek youths of the classical age but rather the international standardization of modern games so that the skill and ability of youths from around the world could be measured and compared in fair competition. The sports historian Allen Guttmann has argued that it is just this process of standardization and comparison that in part comprises the modernity of modern sports—a characteristic first contrived by the British and introduced by them onto the continent and America and thence the world.42 The neoclassicism of the Olympic trappings that would play such an important role in the domestication of the Olympic Games for fascist ideology in Berlin in 1936 began in Paris in 1894 as a thin veneer of classical pedantry over a very modern cultural practice.

The Germans had their own athletic tradition, which bore no resemblance to modern sports as we understand them, but was more like a cross between gymnastics and military drills.43 These athletes were called Turners; the Turner clubs had first been formed by Ludwig Jahn at the time of the Napoleonic occupations and were organized at first as militias for what the Germans call their wars of independence from France. Over the decades, the Turners had maintained as important aspects of their identity nationalist chauvinism, hatred of the French, and martial training and preparedness.44 In the context of Riefenstahl's film it is perhaps equally important that their athletic activity was noncompetitive and instead stressed group drills and sometimes mass drills, even extending to regional and all-Germany mass displays of coordinated, rather than competitive, athletics.

When the first Olympic games, which were to be primarily modern, competitive sports, were announced for Athens in 1896, Germans, far from being in the forefront of the movement, boycotted the event. For the next two Olympiads those German athletes who went to the games were expelled from their Turner clubs and from the national umbrella organization. (Germans nonetheless won fourteen medals in Athens in 1896 and thirteen in St. Louis in 1904.) During the 1920s, membership in the Turner clubs plummeted as a craze for modern sports swept the youth culture of Germany, generating even more enthusiasm than it did elsewhere in the world.45 Sports dominated not only the free time of the German youth, with a whole new infrastructure of sports clubs and leagues, it also dominated art and literature. It seemed to be the very embodiment of modernity and, as some cultural historians have argued, the democratic principles of the Weimar Republic.46 Not surprisingly, the remaining Turner clubs became a harbor for deeply conservative, antidemocratic, and antimodern resentment, and there was a great antipathy between the remaining Turners and the athletes. The claim has been made by Sontag and others that there is an emphasis on regimentation and mass drills in Riefenstahl's Olympia; in fact, it is the Turners filmed in a mass drill demonstration outside the stadium on the assembly field, rather than the Olympic athletes, who demonstrate these qualities and who openly valued the militaristic and revanchist aspect of their peculiar form of athleticism. The appearance of these politically conservative bodily values is an irruption of an older, specifically German physical exercise into a film and an event that otherwise efface that tradition.

Thus the Olympics were anathema to the Weltanschauung of the National Socialists and also to their less ideological yet equally conservative constituencies in broader German society, but not to the broader German public. When the National Socialists came to power, they had a specific ideological stake in canceling the Berlin games. Yet the party leadership could often put the pragmatics of mass politics above ideological purity, and by 1933 the huge popularity of modern sports in Germany could not be wished away. Indeed, there was even a pro-Olympics movement within the party, and by 1930 some Nazi theorists, flush with the success of the German team at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, had already begun to publish pro-Olympics articles in the Völkische Beobachter (the Nazi party newspaper), although that paper continued to publish the usual anti-Olympic articles, too (see KKP [Körper, Kult, und Politik: Von der “Muskelreligion” Pierre de Coubertins zur Inszenierung von Macht in den Olympischen Spielen von 1936], p. 237).47 Rather than canceling the 1936 Games, the Nazi party leadership transformed them into a self-representative mass spectacle. This transformation was effected in the public realm of visual discourse primarily through two closely coordinated means: a new emphasis on the previously vague Greek associations of the Olympics, with an all-out use by Carl Diem of neoclassical sets and properties in the stage-production of the Berlin games; and Riefenstahl's Olympia.

The most famous and lasting example of the wholesale reintroduction of neoclassical references or pseudo-references into the mass spectacle of the Olympics is the torch relay, in which runners carried the sacred flame from the archaeological site at Olympia in Greece to the titanic ritual tripod overlooking the stadium, thus linking classical Greece and modern Germany through the mystical symbolism of flame. Still reenacted every four years and widely assumed to be an authentic element from the ancient games, the torch relay was actually invented by Diem in 1936 and staged, with enormous publicity and using modern mass media, as a pastiche of ancient ritual in vaguely neoclassical garb.48 The torch-lighting ceremony was performed by young girls in costume to the strains of (again invented) music performed on replicas of ancient instruments, broadcast live on radio, and filmed by Riefenstahl; the torch bearers were outfitted for their relay with 3,000 stainless steel-and-chrome magnesium torches manufactured by Krupps; and a parabolic mirror made by Zeiss, the optics manufacturer, was used for igniting the Olympic flame with the concentrated rays of the sun.49 The torch-lighting ceremony and relay was, like the 11th Olympic Games themselves, a modern, technological, mass-media event masquerading as an authentic reenactment of ancient Greek ritual. It comes as no surprise to learn that this simulacrum was itself restaged by Riefenstahl for filming because she had determined that Diem's staging was hopelessly unphotogenic.50 Diem himself, upon seeing the film, conceded in his journal that she had been right to do so, as the spot where he staged the event could have been anywhere, while her choice of setting effectively conveyed a sense of the ancient site at Olympia.51

Certain audiences could be targeted by less technologically mediated public events. One such event, organized to stress the putative Hellenic background of the Olympics, was an exhibition of classical art and artifacts entitled “Sport der Hellenen.” This exhibition opened on the eve of the Games, 29 July 1936, in the Deutsches Museum in Berlin. It was within the context of this exhibition that the museum acquired a copy of Myron's Discobolos, which Riefenstahl would feature prominently in the first prologue of Olympia.52 “Sport der Hellenen” reiterated for the museum-going public the supposedly close link between the German enthusiasm for athletic competition and the Greek ideal. For Thomas Alkemeyer the exhibition “Sport der Hellenen,” like the torch relay, “documents … the commitment of the National Socialist state to the Greek ‘racial heritage’ and classical ideal” (KKP, p. 329).

The exhibition catalog lists Carl Bluemel as curator and the author of the catalog text.53 But, in actuality, the man who conceived of this exhibition, who organized and curated it and wrote the catalog text was not Bluemel but Alfred Schiff, an archaeologist who had worked under Ernst Curtius in Greece. He was profoundly interested in sports, both ancient and modern, was a founding member of the German National Olympic Committee in 1904, and, together with Diem, helped found the German Sports College in Berlin in 1920. But Schiff was also of Jewish descent and so was forced out of all administrative duties in 1933.54 Diem was able to keep him marginally employed by paying him small amounts out of discretionary funds, and he was able to continue with his plans for the exhibition Sport der Hellenen. This exhibition, which has served Riefenstahl's critics as an example of the objectionable connections that she worked to establish between modern Germany and ancient Greece in service to Nazi race theory was actually conceived and curated by a Jewish archaeologist who was forced at the last minute to leave his name off of every published document and instead allow a Gentile functionary to take the credit. Certainly this complicates the easy elision between the German dream of ancient Greece and the fascist ideal of the Aryan body.


Olympia is divided into two halves, each of which opens with a set piece, a prologue not immediately related to the actual athletic competitions. The prologue to the first half of the film is a fifteen-minute sequence filmed by Willy Zielke and edited like the rest of the film by Riefenstahl herself, entirely dedicated to emphasizing a link to Greek antiquity. It is this sequence that includes the restaged, filmic version of Diem's torch relay. The sequence opens with a cinematic tour through the ruins of the Acropolis and then presents several well-known classical sculptures (the Medici Venus, the Barberini Faun) wrapped in the misty and penumbric formal vocabulary of photographic pictorialism. In fact the entire opening sequence uses the dramatic chiaroscuro, rich coloristic tonal ranges, and shallow depth of field that characterized art photography at the turn of the century (rather than the “New Vision” photography of the twenties or thirties) and that carried with it connotations of introspection, profound aesthetic delectation, nonrational association, in a word: Kultur. The play of shadows emphasizes the well-muscled physiques of the male figures or the beauty of their features; the rhetorical gestures of pictorialism serve to emphasize ideal male beauty. Presently, Myron's Discobolos appears and is transformed before the viewer's eyes into a modern discus thrower, also nude, the decathalete Erwin Huber, who begins to rock back and forth, turning, spinning, finally launching the disk (figs. 1 and 2). From this point on, the prologue showcases the graceful motion of javelin throwers and shot-putters, and also of nude female expressive dancers and rhythmic gymnasts, whereas up to this point it had only presented motionless architecture and sculpture. The film proceeds to the torch relay, which in turn links this sequence, and its Arcadian dreamscapes, to the actual, modern-day events of the Olympics, its mass-spectacle opening ceremonies and athletic competitions. The transformation of Myron's classical statue into the body of the modern athlete, effected at the editing table, forms the lynchpin between these incommensurate elements. At precisely this point Riefenstahl's use of film editing to give Olympia and the neoclassical trappings of the Games in Berlin the appearance of coherent meaning is foregrounded. She accomplishes this not through the modernist means of collage but through the illusion of a seamless transition, so that irreconcilable, heterogeneous elements seem to become transparently identical.

Riefenstahl's film represents the athletic body as an image of several values of cultural-conservative discourse. I identify these values as organic connection, rhythmic expression or Ausdruck, and eros. Organic connection suggested the connection between body and soul and between individual and racial community. Rhythm signified life and vitality.55 And eros, as distinct from the merely erotic, connoted, like the organic, the German body's mystical, inward connections to the racial community. The term eros was introduced into this discourse by Adolf Halfeld in his 1927 jeremiad against the perceived erosion of German culture by modernity, Amerika und Amerikanismus. Halfeld identified eros with a healthy, organic culture fed by deep, mystical sources (and, with reference to Nietzsche, a Dionysian spirit), while the erotic exemplified a decadent, dead social form, materialist, rational, and mechanical. Conservatives called this mystical inwardness Kultur, a term they opposed to Zivilisation, which, as Norbert Elias has recounted, was originally associated with the French Enlightenment and later with Anglo-American pragmatism.56 In America, Halfeld wrote, “Eros is destroyed to make way for the Maschinenmensch.57 Cultural conservatives like Halfeld considered Kultur by contrast to be healthy, natural, creative, fed by tradition, and incompatible with Western democracy.

Prior to the Olympics film, these conservative values of Kultur were associated not with sports but with Ausdruckstanz, or expressive dance. Specifically, the formal vocabulary of Riefenstahl's prologue—the combination of the female body, sea, and sky; the lateral symmetry of the doubled poses; and the spiral symmetry of single figures—would have been familiar to German audiences from the highly conventionalized genre of expressive dance photography of the 1920s (figs. 3 and 4). Expressive dance was conceived of by its theorists as being, in many ways, the antithesis of modern sports and opposed to everything modern; it was Kultur rather than Zivilisation. It was also primarily practiced by women. Before she began starring in, then directing movies, Leni Riefenstahl was trained and performed as just such an expressive dancer.

The first prologue is one of the key moments of the film, in which Riefenstahl smuggles her own commitment to Ausdruckstanz into a film celebrating modern athletics; it not only signals her background, training, and sympathies, but attempts a kind of resolution between German Kultur and modern, mechanized Zivilisation within the context of a Hellenizing sequence. This contrasts sharply with Schiff's curatorial principle for the “Sport der Hellenen” exhibition, which emphasized classical representations of athletic games to the nearly complete exclusion of dance imagery. “The religious rootedness of Dance and its connection to music places it in a special relationship,” Schiff wrote; he was convinced that “too many representations of dance would only mystify [verdunkeln] the basic conception of the exhibition.”58 Just this mystification of the basic concept of the Olympics is in fact exactly what Riefenstahl accomplishes in this sequence.

The first prologue works to deny an opposition between modern sports and noncompetitive expressive and rhythmic dance, the irreconcilable antagonism at the heart of the discourse of the body during the Weimar era. I resist interpreting the representation of the athletic body in Germany in 1936 along the axis of healthy, overweening Aryan body versus the sickly, abnormal, subjugated, or Jewish body, an opposition that would allow us to regard the exploitation of the Olympic contests and modern sports in general by the Nazi regime as natural or inevitable, or even to suggest as some have that modern sports spectacles tend towards fascism. I am trying to show instead that the representations of athletes commingled with expressive dancers and neoclassical figures are working to overcome and deny the very different discursive split, determinant in the Weimar era.

There is another aspect of the female expressive dancers in the first prologue that cannot be overlooked—the fact that, in contrast to the athletes, these women are filmed in the nude. This is of course a reference to the FKK or nudist movement of the Weimar era. But the deeper significance of this imagery is its evocation of the principle of eros and its repression of the merely erotic. The women shown here in the nude are imbued with spiritual depth through their rhythmic motion and are associated with the unimpeachability of classical sculpture through the visual syntax of the film.

According to Hans W. Fischer, one of countless writers on the subject of nudist photography in Weimar Germany, “the physical beauty [Körperschönheit] of man is determined by his goal-oriented strength, that of woman by the soul's expression.”59 Physical beauty, Körperschönheit, like eros, occupies a position in the discourse distinct from the eroticized; Fischer, for example, rejected nude photographs unless they depicted trained dancers or athletes: “It is not an artistic coup, but merely an insult, to represent disrobed bodies that can neither walk nor stand correctly, because they do not possess the natural freedom and unaffectedness of movement” of the physically fit (SGT [Körperschönheit und Körperkultur: Sport, Gymanstik, Tanz], p. 11). In contrast to this he holds up classical Greek sculpture as the ideal of nude physical beauty.

Working from this distinction between eros and the erotic, I would argue that physical beauty and strength, when represented in Olympia, carried with it connotations of organic life and connection to community, as opposed to the mechanical forms that had been so firmly associated with modern sports.

And eros certainly suffuses these films. The opening prologue works to elide the eros of classical sculpture and expressive dance with modern sports. Throughout the film, the camera consistently presents the figures of the athletes in the most glamorous light and framing—shot from below, against a backdrop of stormy skies (fig. 5). Athletes are shown, quite often, abstracted from the context of the contests themselves: we watch one shot-putter after another launch his heavy sphere; we see how each gathers his concentration; we see their graceful turns and lunges in slow motion, but we never see where the shot lands or how far it's gone. Precisely those elements that constitute the modernity of the game—the distance measured and compared, the goal reached, the contest—have been edited out. Even the brutal dynamism of the shot-putter's gyration—or the hurdler's, or the diver's—has been replaced by the undulating grace and rhythm of slow motion—a pace much closer to expressive dance. The documentary purpose of the film is consistently sacrificed to the principle of eros.

But the film can only represent eros as long as it does not descend into the erotic, and as these are somewhat arbitrarily defined discursive terms, not immanent in the athletic bodies themselves, this is a difficult distinction to maintain.60 It is a central problem in Olympia because the notion of eros carries so much weight. It is precisely this problem that is addressed by the sequence that opens the prologue to the second half of the film, which is titled the “Festival of Beauty.”

The second prologue, which (nearly) exclusively features men, opens with the Finnish team jogging around a pond in the Olympic village in early morning mist.61 Alongside the pond is a sauna built specially for the Finnish team. The scene changes to the interior of the sauna, where the Finns bathe in the nude, seemingly unaware of the camera. They rub each other down, sweat, laugh, and frolic. Their athletic bodies, beautiful and strong, are displayed for the camera (fig. 6). Yet lest anybody get the wrong idea about the nature of this beauty or the camera's intentions, the men take advantage of the pond for a brisk, refreshing swim. In fact, they seem to take several swims; the editing continuously cuts back and forth between interior scenes of the sauna and dives into the pool. Without it becoming obvious, the film seems to want to reassure us that these brisk swims, the frequent dousings with cold water in the sauna, the cold showers, even the chill morning air of the opening scenes, guarantees the chastity of the proceedings. In this manner, and in this key sequence that establishes the mood for the rest of the film, the necessary distinction between eros and the erotic is maintained so that a larger distinction between eros and the mechanized body can be established.


The importance of sports, athletics, expressive dance, and other forms of physical exercise in Weimar culture is impossible to overestimate. I would like to pause at this point to clarify what I mean by modern sports and why they represented such high stakes to cultural conservatives. Modern sports include team sports such as baseball, basketball, field and ice hockey, and the British games of soccer and cricket; they include physical contests that involve the modern fascination with speed and machines, such as bicycling and rowing; and there is boxing, once the quintessentially British sport, but closely identified in the 1920s with the brutality and tempo of American culture. Elemental physical contests—running, jumping, and throwing—were also transformed into modern sports by standardization and by the precise measurement and recording of achievement. It is a defining characteristic of such forms of play that the goals to be achieved, the obstacles to their achievement, and all the rules be the same for both teams or all contestants. In other words modern Anglo-American sports are characterized by the principles of the level playing field and fair play, and it is certainly no coincidence that these terms also identify the self-professed Anglo-American values of liberal economics and democracy. This is part of the reason why conservative German culture critics rejected Anglo-American sports and the Weimar coalition government with the same defiant wave of the hand.62

To German conservatives, Anglo-American sports and its techniques represented everything that they rejected: Western, enlightenment thought, along with economic and political liberalism, rationalism and science, technological progress and urbanization. Against these, the bipolar conception of conservative German cultural criticism privileged irrationalism and vitalist modes of thought and understanding rooted in the soul. Modern sports were also still closely associated with England and, especially after the First World War, America.63 Conservative cultural criticism in Germany found its object, its own bodily practice, in the discipline of Ausdruckstanz.

The discourse of Ausdruckstanz attracted especially loquacious speculative thinkers, romantic antimodernist theorists such as Ludwig Klages and Rudolph Bode, influential in their own day but long since forgotten. The literature they produced is vast, but the terms they used were consistent, as were the broad antitheses with which they structured their discourse.64 Hans W. Fischer, who was relatively ecumenical in his embrace of the full spectrum of early twentieth-century physical activity, from dance to sports, wrote a kind of compendium of physical disciplines, Körperschönheit und Körperkultur: Sport Gymnastik Tanz. This compendium can be taken as a guidebook for the project of recovering the vitalist discourse of the body.

Fischer's omnibus of sports and physical exercise, exhaustively illustrated with photographs, is organized along a spectrum that ranges from those disciplines most centered on expression or Ausdruck, through gymnastics and light athletics, to team sports, all the way to those physical activities that center around machines and mechanized motion: bicycle races and rowing, racecar driving, airplane flying. Although the categories of this spectrum seem to shade one into another, the spectrum is divided symmetrically along an axis that cuts between expressive gymnastics and athletic gymnastics, dividing these two seemingly allied disciplines into two essentially opposed activities. Expressive gymnastics goes to the conservative, antimodern side, where it is allied with Ausdruckstanz, while athletic gymnastics is made to participate in the essence of modernity, along with sports training and light athletics, team and mechanized sports. The difference between expressive and sports gymnastics may seem vanishing, but Fischer bolsters it all the more with a host of polarities: sport versus dance; goal-oriented activity versus expression; directed movement versus expressive movement; rhythm versus rationality. Fischer's entire structure of a semiotics of physical exercise turns on the fine distinction between varieties of gymnastics. “Sports gymnastics increases overall strength and health, dance gymnastics increases these specifically in regard to the capacity for expression. The former intends to bring the body into accord [Einklang] with itself, the latter creates the possibility of bringing the soul into harmony [Harmonie] with the body” (SGT, p. 12). Einklang and Harmonie are made to seem distinct in this formulation, although it is impossible to think their difference rationally, physiologically, without reference to the soul—and this is entirely to the point.

The series of polarities culminates, perhaps not surprisingly, in female versus male, the one aligned with dance, the other with sports (see SGT, p. 11). Although Riefenstahl's Olympia film does not repeat this gendered polarity—she was quite concerned to show the “physical expressiveness” of the male athletic body and its “physical beauty”—it is ordered by another set of dichotomies that pervades Fischer's work and the German discourse of physical culture, a polar distinction between expressive motion (Ausdrucksbewegung) and goal-oriented motion (Zweckbewegung), and, symmetrically, between rhythm (Rhythmus) and cadence (Takt). “Goal-oriented motion,” Fischer theorizes, “comes from the brain, it neither needs nor knows rhythm, but is ruled by measured time according to practical needs. When it is repeated, it promotes a uniformity as complete as possible; one counts it out and holds a specific cadence. Cadence and not rhythm … rules the motions of work” (SGT, p. 169). Cadence is associated with intellect and practical needs and above all with work; Fischer here has in mind specifically the work of machines, modern industrial work. “Rhythmic movement,” by contrast, “always arises from the play of living forces, because rhythm is fully bound to organic life and its processes” (SGT, p. 168). Rhythm, for Fischer, following the thinking of the conservative vitalist philosopher Ludwig Klages, is a natural force and a natural law.

Everywhere living fluids flow, they regulate themselves rhythmically. We know from watching the growth process of plants … that it does not proceed evenly and uninterrupted, but in fits and starts, with a specific growth rhythm. … We sense, no, we feel clearly, that a law is at work here which we admittedly do not and possibly never will fully describe numerically.

[SGT, p. 168; my emphasis]

The philosophically and even politically significant terms that are here brought into connection with rhythm are fluidity, organic growth, and the irrational, specifically that which evades and will always evade empirical, numerical measurement.

The opposition of rhythm and cadence in precisely these terms did not originate with Fischer but with Rudolf Bode, a student of the expressive dance instructor Jacques Dalcroze and later the director of his own school of Ausdruckstanz near Munich. Bode was particularly influenced by Klages's vitalist thinking, which privileged the irrational, and his central difference with Dalcroze was to fault what Bode saw as Dalcroze's confusion of rhythm with cadence. For Bode, rhythm is a vitalist principle while cadence is intellectual; rhythm is qualitative, cadence is quantitative.65 The language becomes increasingly romantic:

Rhythm is irrational, that is, it does not avail itself of the judging, comparing, measuring function of reason. As rhythm it can only be experienced. … All forms that owe their creation to the totality of life are rhythmic. Yet again, however, totality cannot be grasped by reason. The totality of life is irrational and all forms, insofar as they are determined by this totality, are irrational. All rhythm is bound up in the stream of life.

[R [Der Rhythmus und seine Bedeutung für die Erziehung], p. 7]

Bode expresses his central anxiety—that the Germans are sacrificing their rhythmic connections to the community for the sake of modern technology—in the vocabulary of racial ideology:

an age that seeks its salvation only in the successes of technology and science must be alienated from rhythm. That the process of derhythmification [Entrhythmisierungsprozess] is already quite advanced is indicated by the degree to which the natural ties of life, race, folk, ethnicity, family, are disappearing, while the ethical feelings that are tied to them, racial pride, national pride, family pride, lose their [formerly] enormous strength, and Internationalism spreads.

[R, p. 15]

The Will, he points out, cannot overcome this process of destruction; one cannot will rhythm. And lest the modern German be fooled by the common expression “the rhythm of the machine,” Bode makes it clear that, in his conception, rhythm is actually that which is destroyed by quantitative rationality and its evil fruit, increased production as an end in itself. “The intelligence that is oriented towards the quantitative not only created the machine out of economic interest, it turned man into a machine by—again in the interest of quantitative use-function—robbing him of his rhythm” (R, p. 14). Bode combines a vague racial ideology with an equally vague anticapitalist romanticism.

Bode was an influential theorist among other expressive dance instructors and in particular those of Riefenstahl's own instructors, Jutta Klamt and Mary Wigmann, both of whom exhibited their own sympathies for radical conservatism in various ways. Other writers in the milieu of physical culture espoused similar racial doctrines. J. M. Seitz, for example, promoted the moral edification of nudism and physical beauty [Körperschönheit] not least because it led to the healthy, “informed” selection of mating partners, in a perverse ideal of racial hygiene. “Degenerate persons have such a repelling effect when they are naked that normal persons never pay attention to them when choosing a spouse.” Despite his emphasis on purity and morality, Seitz's dream of nudist communities takes on a sinister racial aspect when he informs the reader that “through nudist culture man will be purified in ethical and aesthetic relations; in other words, through nudist culture the foundations of a coming race of purified man [Edelmenschen] will be created.”66

As we have seen, there was also in Germany a community of supporters of modern, Anglo-American sports. These athletic modernists privileged objectively measurable physical achievement over vague notions of rhythm and race. Central to the practices and techniques of athletic training and increased physical performance (Leistungssteigerung) was the scientific analysis of motion and the production of the body as a kind of machine that could be disarticulated and reassembled according to rational plan, an idea borrowed from the physiologists of work. This disarticulation was often accomplished with the help of technology: photography, film, and other electromechanical recording and measuring devices. Bodily motion was measured, calculated, numerically described—the very processes that Rudolf Bode had theorized would kill rhythm, replacing it with cadence. An array of imaging technologies represented the body as a machine, a Maschinenmensch, and analyzed its motion as mechanical processes, pulling it apart to be plotted as separate arcs measuring motion through time and through space as separate quanta. Bode had been alarmed by just this strategy of representation, warning that “all rhythm is both spatial and chronological together, because our experience is a continuum in space and time together. If I separate space and time, then I am immediately outside of life, outside of rhythm. Because every separation is the activation of the rational function. The undestroyed unity of space and time is thus a basic condition of rhythmic experience” (R, p. 7).

To the conservative cultural critics, Anglo-American sports and their bodily techniques were also characterized by an emphasis, seen as American, on objectively quantifiable measurement and an obsession with record-breaking achievement.67 The loathing with which cultural conservatives viewed the fixation with records and record breaking cannot be overemphasized.68 At the same time, those who welcomed modernity in the Weimar era also welcomed the Maschinenmensch as its harbinger.69 Artists represented the man-as-machine as a new physical ideal to which they aspired, partly as a response to an anxiety about the fate of the organic body in the dangerous, mechanized landscapes of the war and the postwar city. George Grosz and Willi Baumeister also emphasized the connection between the athletic body and the mechanized body (figs. 7 and 8).

For cultural conservatives such as Bode, the Maschinenmensch posed a threat and evoked its own anxieties about the body. They feared that the organic German body with its mystical connections to racial community would be Americanized. The image of the Maschinenmensch stood for everything conservative cultural critics rejected: industrialization and technology in the service of capitalism; materialism; and the destruction of a supposed organic link between individuals and their community and traditions, their work, their bodies, and each other, and its replacement with dead, mechanical forms. The mechanical was in conservative theory hypostatized into an irreducible category, a single plastic image of cultural decay. During the 1920s Anglo-American sports, and especially the mania for record breaking, was understood as a concrete expression of this mechanization of the body. When Diem, a lifelong promoter of modern forms of sports and training, sought to domesticate the Olympics, he did so by playing on the philhellenism that was such an integral and ingrained element of educated German society.70 For Diem, who never joined the Nazi Party, the associations of modern sports with Leistungssteigerung, technology, industrialization, and even the Enlightenment were positive ones, but he nonetheless grasped that its associations with British, French, and American Zivilisation were a liability if the Olympics were to serve as a self-representation of the Third Reich.71 Diem worked hard in his many essays on the value of modern sports to overcome this association with Zivilisation by making use of the dominant cultural-critical metaphors of depth and interiority.72


The two prologues of Riefenstahl's film can be read as a bulwark against the Americanism of modern sports, even as the film links modern athletes with classical Greece through the image in the first prologue of Myron's Discobolos morphing into the discus thrower Huber. The aesthetic of the entire film, however, is determined by the qualities of rhythm and Eros or Körperschönheit, which resonate so significantly with the cultural-conservative discourse from which Riefenstahl herself emerged in the 1920s. The film's score, a lushly romantic, neo-Wagnerian opus to which Riefenstahl's editing is closely wed, structures the rhythm and pacing of the images; Bode's theories of dance as the physical expression of musical rhythms is translated to athletics, transforming in effect athletic competition into expressive dance. Riefenstahl essentially worked to recuperate modern, Anglo-American athletics, the very image of modern, capitalist, liberal, Western civilization for an anticapitalist, antimodern, romantic cultural discourse. She was working hard to accomplish this recuperation not because it was her assignment for the Propaganda Ministry or because the National Socialist regime needed this cultural work done in order to promote modern sports to the German public; Germans were at least as wild as the rest of the world for modern sports anyway. Rather, she was working hard to accomplish this recuperation because she wanted, as she has always maintained, to transform the Olympic Games into art, and her conception of art, which was formed in her youth in the 1920s in the small, elitist Ausdruckstanz milieu, was culturally conservative, antimodern, and centered around a romantic bodily discourse of Körperschönheit. When Riefenstahl even today insists that in making the Olympia film she was only interested in beauty—a claim rejected by Sontag, Hoffmann, and others as prevarication—the contemporary viewer should keep in mind that she means something very specific by this term: eros, Körperschönheit, as opposed to mechanization and modernity.

It seems important at this point to examine the ways, if any, in which the bodily discourse informing Olympia differs from the racial discourse of the body espoused by the National Socialists in whose interest it was made. To the extent that critics of Olympia have connected it to the conservative German physical culture of the 1920s at all, the result has been to label that earlier discourse proto-fascist. This does not seem historically sound or entirely accurate. Conservative theorists of physical culture in the 1920s were anxious that the innate qualities of rhythm and organic connection to the racial community were being eroded by and lost to an encroaching technological, industrial modernism with its mechanical, “cadenced” modes of bodily experience. The racial ideologues of National Socialism swept such older conservative anxieties away by making essential, innate qualities of Germanness and non-Germanness inalienable and unalterable. A German was a German and by the same racial logic a Jew was a Jew, and these facts—now located in biology rather than irrational, mystical identity—could not be altered. This is no minor point, of course, and we know the consequences. This alteration in conservative racial theory accomplished something important for the National Socialist program; it preserved racial thinking while at the same time clearing the way for an embrace of the technological, industrial state that would be needed to secure Germany's place as overlord of the Western world.73 The National Socialists simply legislated away the conflict between a cherished notion of a German bodily experience and the modern, industrialized capitalist state. Such cynically instrumental manipulation of received conservative ideologems was a standard operation as National Socialist ideology passed over into corporatist governmental policy.

The discourse of the body that structured the cultural-conservative physical culture of Bode, et al., was paternalistic in its attitude towards “non-Aryan” races, clearly and self-evidently placing them below western Europeans in a hierarchy of race, but nonetheless making a place for them to operate within their own cultural forms. The National Socialist discourse of the body, by contrast, could not tolerate even the image of its nonwhite Other. Thus, whereas Nazi discourse is structured by an antithesis between Aryans and non-Aryans, the sight of whom Nazi policy was already working to suppress in 1936, Olympia works to validate the rhythmic, beautiful body by suppressing the image of the mechanical, transforming the goal-oriented motions of the athletes into expressive ones by eliminating, wherever possible, the sight of the goal being reached, the measurement being taken, or the winner being identified. Riefenstahl was operating with a distinction that no longer concerned her patrons, and this helps explain her glorifying images of Jesse Owens, so often introduced as evidence that she, and the film, are free of any racial discourse of the body.

To expect that Riefenstahl would have suppressed the image of Owens, or of the other nonwhite athletes, would be to misunderstand the nature of her conservatism and her cultural-conservative background. To return briefly to Fischer's compendium of physical culture from 1928, the dances of African tribesmen and the Javanese find a place alongside German folk-dances under the rubric of dance and are placed alongside German Ausdruckstanz on his spectrum of physical culture. In this discourse, “primitive” dance did not achieve the level of cultural expression (Kultur), but perhaps more importantly, it was also free of the deadening effects of modernity (Zivilisation) (see SGT, especially the unpaginated photosection). According to this theory, Africans, Javanese, and other “primitive peoples” (Naturvölker) have, at their own subordinate level, their own rhythmic expression of physical life and their own organic community and organic connection to nature. Indeed, while they are understood as less developed spiritually than the German soul, they are also in less immediate danger of losing their organicism and connectedness. Africans and Javanese may be labeled primitive in the racist, colonialist discourse of cultural conservatism, but their bodies signify their own specific virtues in that discursive system. This is significantly different from the racism of National Socialism. And these virtues could be transferred from the dancers of Africa and Java to the athletic figure of Owens; even before the Berlin games took place, a German supporter of modern athletics could argue that “it doesn't matter whether a competitor has German or American citizenship, but rather whether or not he has German or other blood. … The Negro is given by nature a much better physical build to be a boxer than a German. We know this and willingly acknowledge it.”74 In this discourse, then, Owens would have represented the natural rhythm of a primitive, as opposed to the cadenced, mechanized American athletic body. This is distinct from the position of the National Socialist racist, who held that “there is nothing for Negroes at the Olympics. … The ancient Greeks would turn in their graves if they knew what modern man had made of their holy national games. … The next games take place in Berlin in 1936. … The Blacks must be excluded.”75

The representation of Owens as a “primitive” is itself racist and colonialist; it is also the same image that Riefenstahl would later make of the Nuba tribespeople, which is informed, I think, by the same structuring notions of rhythm, expression, and eros. And, of course, such racist ideologies must surely have helped pave the way for the more virulent and violent racist ideology of the National Socialists. Nonetheless, it is clearly different from that latter ideology, and it is certainly significant from an ethical point of view that while it may have been paternalistic and colonialist, it was not self-consciously genocidal. To suggest that the earlier, cultural-conservative racial ideology was proto-fascist is surely to diminish the reality of actual fascism, its political programs and public policy.


  1. See Allen Guttmann, The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games (Urbana, Ill., 1992), pp. 53-55.

  2. William Shirer, entry for 16 Aug. 1936, Berlin Diary. The full passage is as follows: “I'm afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen.” In 1941, Shirer wrote that, “Hitler and his Nazi thugs had succeeded in making the XIth Olympiad the most colorful in history and, what was more important, had used the Olympics to fool the world into believing that Nazi Germany was a peaceful, civilized and contented nation” (quoted in Alfred Senn, Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games [Champaign, Ill., 1999], p. 65.)

  3. It is the consensus among historians that this was the intended result and that it was for the most part successful. See especially Richard D. Mandell's book on the XIth Olympiad, The Nazi Olympics (1971; Urbana, Ill., 1987), the first and most important critical history of the 1936 games; hereafter abbreviated NO.

  4. The facts concerning the appointment of Riefenstahl to make the film, and the film's funding, have been the focus of a great deal of debate. Riefenstahl and Diem have both maintained that the film was commissioned by Diem. Cooper Graham has argued that Riefenstahl also had Hitler to thank, unofficially as well as officially; see Cooper C. Graham, Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia (Metuchen, N.J., 1986), p. 18. Graham has also demonstrated with documentary evidence that Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda funded the project indirectly through a shell corporation, an assertion that contradicted those made by Riefenstahl to that date. Although she gave an account in her memoirs, published the following year, which essentially agrees with Graham's documentary history, it has since been a truism in the literature that Riefenstahl denies Goebbels's indirect financial control of her film. Riefenstahl's claim that she maintained artistic control of the project has never been substantively challenged. See Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir (New York, 1995), p. 176.

  5. See NO, pp. 257-73, and Senn, Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games.

  6. The most recent commentator on the film, Rainer Rother, has reduced this aesthetic to a formula: flags, hymns, camera movement. See Rainer Rother, Leni Riefenstahl (Berlin, 2000), p. 101.

  7. Most recently, an exhibition at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, organized and sponsored in part by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, bore the title, The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936, 13 February-15 August 2000; see Susan D. Bachrach, The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 (Boston, 2000).

  8. The two athletes of mixed Jewish-gentile parentage who competed on the German team were Rudi Ball, ice hockey, and Helene Mayer, the champion fencer who had competed at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and had stayed there to attend college. Margarete Bergmann on the other hand, whose parents were both Jewish, was not allowed to compete, even though she had broken the German record in the high jump in June of 1936; see especially Arnd Krüger, “‘Once the Olympics are through, we'll beat up the Jew’: German Jewish Sport 1898-1938 and the Anti-Semitic Discourse,” Journal of Sport History 26 (Summer 1999): pp. 353-75.

  9. Taylor Downing, Olympia (London, 1992), p. 91.

  10. More recently Rother has suggested that what troubles critics is not the possibility that the film is dissembling about its own political agenda but rather the sense that a film which was so clearly useful to the Nazi regime must in some way exhibit a “fascist aesthetic.” Rother, however, remains unconvinced by this logic; see Rother, Leni Riefenstahl, p. 94.

  11. See Daniel Wildmann, Begehrte Körper: Konstruktion und Inszenierung des “arischen” Männerkörpers im “Dritten Reich” (Würzburg, 1998), p. 110.

  12. Hilmar Hoffmann, Mythos Olympia, Autonomie und Unterwerfung von Sport und Kultur (Berlin, 1993), pp. 115, 130.

  13. Thomas Alkemeyer, Körper, Kult, und Politik: Von der “Muskelreligion” Pierre de Coubertins zur Inszenierung von Macht in den Olympischen Spielen von 1936 (Frankfurt, 1996), p. 483; hereafter abbreviated KKP.

  14. Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” Under the Sign of Saturn (New York, 1981), p. 91. This essay first appeared as a review of Riefenstahl's book of photographs, The Last of the Nuba (and made that book infamous), in New York Review of Books, 6 Feb. 1975.

  15. See Hoffmann, Mythos Olympia, Autonomie, und Unterwerfung von Sport und Kultur, p. 109.

  16. Linda Schulte-Sasse, “Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic,” Cultural Critique, no. 18 (Spring 1991): 125; hereafter abbreviated “FA.”

  17. Not only has Sontag made this claim, but also Schulte-Sasse, who investigates this film and Tiefland at length in “FA,” and Eric Rentschler, “Fatal Attractions: Leni Riefenstahl's The Blue Light,October, no. 48 (Spring 1989): 47-68.

  18. Riefenstahl rehearsed this argument in self-dramatizing fashion on screen in Ray Müller's documentary film, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, dir. Ray Müller (New York, Kino International, 1993).

  19. See Riefenstahl, A Memoir.

  20. bell hooks [Gloria Watkins], “The Feminazi Mystique,” Transition, no. 73 (1997): 158, 160; hooks, like Sontag, is concerned to link Riefenstahl's photographs of the Nubians to Olympia as an “engagement with a colonizing patriarchal white supremacy” and a celebration of “the tyranny of the phallic masculine” (pp. 160, 162).

  21. This is a central theme in Riefenstahl's own account of the making of the Olympia film. See Riefenstahl, A Memoir, pp. 184-223.

  22. The most recent sustained sympathetic—although not uncritical—examinations of Olympia, and of Riefenstahl in general, are Audrey Salkeld, A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl (London, 1996), and Rother, Leni Riefenstahl.

  23. This trend in the American reception of Riefenstahl and her films began perhaps with an essay by Frank Deford, “The Ghost of Berlin,” Sports Illustrated, 4 Aug. 1986, pp. 50-64. The trend continues today; see for example the photographs of her in Vanity Fair, Jan. 2001, and Leni Riefenstahl: Five Lives, ed. Angelika Taschen (Cologne, 2000).

  24. That the spokesmen of Nazi Germany themselves cynically countered protestations against the Nuremberg laws and bans against participation of Jewish athletes in German sports by pointing to American racial segregation does not invalidate the criticism.

  25. See Sigfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film (Princeton, N.J., 1947). Kracauer's film history culminates in Triumph of the Will but neglects to even mention Olympia. Audrey Salkeld has argued convincingly that Sontag depended heavily on Kracauer's book for her own analysis of a fascist aesthetic in Riefenstahl's work; see Salkeld, A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl, p. 260.

  26. See Hoffmann, Mythos Olympia, Autonomie und Unterwerfung von Sport und Kultur, p. 110.

  27. See Kracauer, “Ornament der Masse,” Ornament der Masse (Frankfurt am Main, 1963).

  28. See especially KKP and Hoffmann, Mythos Olympia, Autonomie, und Unterwerfung von Sport und Kultur.

  29. Hoffmann suggests, with reference to Levi-Strauss's structuralism, that for him Riefenstahl's form is content; see ibid., p. 134.

  30. See Graham, Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia, p. 23.

  31. Riefenstahl, letter to Carl Diem, 25 Jan. 1958, collected correspondence of Carl Diem, Carl Diem Archiv, Deutsche Sporthochschule, Cologne; my emphasis in first quoted passage.

  32. Diem, letter to the Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Flimwirtschaft, Wiesbaden, 27 Jan. 1958, Carl Diem Archiv.

  33. Riefenstahl, letter to Diem, 25 Jan. 1958, Carl Diem Archiv.

  34. Deford, “The Ghost of Berlin,” p. 62.

  35. See Wildmann, Begehrte Körper.

  36. Peter Wollen, “Tales of Total Art and Dreams of the Total Museum,” in Visual Display: Culture beyond Appearances, ed. Lynne Cooke and Wollen (Seattle, 1995), p. 165.

  37. Hoffmann, Mythos Olympia, Autonomie und Unterwerfung von Sport und Kultur, p. 32.

  38. George Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich (New York, 1975), p. 128. See also Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York, 1964) and The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (New York, 1996), and John Hoberman, Sport and Political Ideology (Austin, 1984).

  39. See Winfried Joch, “Sport und Leibesübung im Dritten Reich,” in Geschichte der Leibesübungen, ed. Horst Überhorst, vol. 3 of Leibesübungen und Sport in Deutschland vom Ersten Weltkrieg bis zur Gegenwart (Berlin, 1981), pp. 727-28.

  40. See Guttmann, The Olympics, pp. 7-20; Mandell, The First Modern Olympics (Berkeley, 1976); and John MacAloon. This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (Chicago, 1981).

  41. See Guttmann, The Olympics, p. 14, and Senn, Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games, p. 21.

  42. See Guttmann, From Ritual to Record (New York, 1978).

  43. See Überhorst, “Leibesübungen bei den Germanen,” Geschichte der Leibesübungen, pp. 26-46, and Michael Krüger, Leibeserziehung im 19. Jahrhundert: Turnen fürs Vaterland (Schorndorf, 1993).

  44. The Turners and their organizations are well researched; recent scholarship has concentrated on their conservative political orientation before World War I, and their anti-Semitism; see especially Krüger, “‘Das Turnen als reaktionäres Mittel’: Wilhelm Angerstein und die Disziplinierung des Turnens.” Sportwissenschaft 23, no. 1 (1991): 9-34, and Hartmut Becker, Antisemitismus in der Deutschen Turnerschaft (Sankt Augustin, 1980).

  45. See vols. 2 and 3 of Geschichte der Körperkultur in Deutschland, ed. Wolfgang Eichel (Berlin, 1964), and, more recently, Christiane Eisenberg, “English Sports” und Deutsche Bürger: Eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte 1800-1939 (Paderborn, 1999).

  46. See Frank Becker, “Amerikanismus in Weimar: Sportsymbole und politische Kultur 1918-1933” (Ph.D. diss., University of Münster, 1992).

  47. The Germans brought home thirty-one medals in 1928, second overall in points.

  48. On Diem's invention of the torch relay, see NO, p. 130; Walter Borgers, “Vackelläufe bei Olympischen Spielen: Vorgeschichte und Bedeutung,” Olympischen Lauffeuer (Cologne, 1994); and Hajo Bernett, “Symbolik und Zeremoniell der XI. Olympischen Spiele 1936.” Sportwissenschaft 4:357-97. The ritual and relay were also described by Erich Mindt, “Zwölf Tage olympischer Fakcelstaffellauf vom Tale in Elis nach Berlin,” in Olympia 1936 und die Leibesübungen im Nationalsozialistischen Staat, ed. Friedrich Mildner, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1934-36), 2:19-24. Credit for inventing the torch relay was also claimed by Minister Haegert of the Propaganda Ministry; see KKP, p. 386.

  49. On the details of the theatrical production and properties, including the torches, see NO, p. 130.

  50. See the eyewitness account of Heinz von Jaworsky in Film Culture 56-57 (Spring 1973): 122-61.

  51. Diem, entry for 10 Mar. 1936, diary, vol. 10, Carl Diem Archiv.

  52. See Bernett, “Der Diskuswerfer des Myron: Geschichte eines Idols in Wechsefällen der Politik,” Stadion 17, no. 1 (1991): 27-51.

  53. Sport der Hellenen: Ausstellung Griechischer Bildwerke im Deutschen Museum zu Berlin (exhibition catalog, Deutschen Museum, Berlin, 1936).

  54. I am grateful to Walter Borgers of the Carl Diem Archiv for making me aware of this fact and of the relevant documentation in the Alfred Schiff estate, held in the Diem archive.

  55. See the writings of the vitalist philosopher Ludwig Klages, who was closely associated with the Ausdruckstanz movement, and his follower Rudolf Bode, who, after studying with Jacques Dalcroze, formed his own dance school in Munich.

  56. See Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Oxford, 1978).

  57. Adolf Halfeld, Amerika und Amerikanismus: Kritische Betrachtungen eines Deutscher und Europäers (Jena, 1928), p. 227.

  58. Alfred Schiff, “Die für die XI. Olympischen Spiele Berlin 1936 geplante Ausstellung ‘Leibesübungen im Altertum,’” 12 Jan. 1934, unpublished typescript, Alfred Schiff papers, Diem Archiv. “Leibesübungen im Altertum” was an earlier, working title for the exhibition.

  59. Hans W. Fischer, Körperschönheit und Körperkultur: Sport, Gymanstik, Tanz (Berlin, 1928), p. 7; hereafter abbreviated SGT.

  60. See Guttmann, The Erotic in Sports (New York, 1996).

  61. It is worth noting that this was the second time such an Olympic Village was built, the first being in Los Angeles in 1932, and the village and its architecture had in itself a representative value for the Third Reich. The architecture of the houses, with their pitched roofs, comfortable but modest proportions, and familiar spatial relationships was an example of Heimatsarchitektur, a high-profile rejection of modernist housing projects like the famous Weissenhofsiedlung. It was a model community and an architectural revival, as well as a demonstration that the new Germany was capable of both outclassing America in the organization of the Olympics and mastering such social problems as housing shortages.

  62. As just one example of a conservative writer who explicitly makes this connection, see the essay by Bruno Malitz, the athletic director of the S.A., “Die Leibesübungen in den herrschenden Weltanschauung der Neuzeit,” in Olympia 1936 und die Leibesübungen im Nationalsozialistischen Staat, 1: 239-44.

  63. See for example Karl Planck, Fusslümmelei: Über Stauchballspiel und englische Krankheit (1898; Münster, 1982), and Herbert Schöffler, England, das Land des Sportes (Münster, 1935).

  64. Herbert Schnädelbach has observed that it is a defining characteristic of cultural-conservative Weltanschauung that it operates with simple and sweeping antithesis; see Herbert Schnädelbach, Philosophy in Germany, 1831-1933, trans. Eric Matthews (Cambridge, 1984).

  65. See Rudolf Bode, Der Rhythmus und seine Bedeutung für die Erziehung (Jena, 1920), p. 9; hereafter abbreviated R.

  66. J. M. Seitz, Die Nacktkulturbewegung: Ein Buch für Wissende und Unwissende (Dresden: Berlag der Schönheit, 1923), p. 118 f. Seitz was but one of many such racial theorists of nudism; Richard Ungewitter and Hans Surén are today more well known.

  67. An important example is that of Alfred Baeumler, “Sinn und Aufbau der deutschen Leibesübungen,” Männerbund und Wissenschaft (Berlin, 1934) and “Die weltanschaulichen Grundlagen der deutschen Leibesübungen,” Sport und Staat (1937). Baeumler is discussed at length in Körper, Kult, und Politik as well as in Nationalsozialistische Leibeserziehung, ed. Hajo Bernett (Schorndorf, 1966), and Winfried Joch, Politische Leibeserziehung und ihre Theorie im Nationalsozialistischen Deutschland (Frankfurt am Main, 1976).

  68. This position continued to be propounded in the writings of some cultural conservatives who identified themselves with the Nazi party. See for example Bruno Malitz, “Die Leibesübungen in den herrschenden Weltanschauung der Neuzeit” and Leibesübungen in der nationalistischen Idee (1933), Nationalsozialistische Bibliothek (Berlin, 1934), 46:14; cited in KKP, p. 234 n. 21. For Alkemeyer this book is characterized by “einen fanatischen Antisemitismus” (KKP, p. 234 n. 19).

  69. I discuss the image of the Maschinenmensch in German art and in the science of the body in Germany in my dissertation, “Maschinenmenschen: Mechanical Bodies and Athletic Bodies and Images of Man as Machine in Weimar Germany” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1999).

  70. It should be borne in mind that among the Volkstümliche segment of the party—that is, the same segment that opposed modernity in every form—the Hellenistic or “southern European” associations of the Olympics continued to offend. Alkemeyer refers to Spengler, Rosenberg, Schultze-Naumburg, and Hubert Schrade in this regard; see KKP, p. 238.

  71. See Diem, “Wesen und Wert des Sports,” Olympia 1936 und die Liebesübungen in Nationalsozialistischen Staat, ed. Friedrich Mildner (Berlin, 1936), pp. 111-18.

  72. Diem, “Die Geschichte der Olympischen Spiele.” Olympia 1936, pp. 56-70.

  73. See Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich (Cambridge, 1984).

  74. Hans Geisow, “Der Sport in völkischen Staate,” in Olympia 1936 und die Leibesübungen im Nationalsozialistischen Staat, 2:232.

  75. Völkischer Beobachter, 19 Aug. 1932, cited in Arnd Krüger, Die Olympischen Spiele 1936 und die Weltmeinung (Berlin, 1973), p. 33. I am using Graham's translation from Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia, p. 5.

An initial version of this paper was presented at the 1999 College Art Association meeting in Los Angeles.

I would like to thank Joel Snyder, Yuri Tsivian, Anne Harris, and Tom Gunning for their reading of earlier versions of this paper, and Reinhold Heller and Joel Snyder in particular for their encouragement. I would also like to thank Wabash College for its support of the research for this paper, in the form of a Byron K. Trippet research stipend, and DePauw University for faculty support. In Cologne I am indebted to the staff of the Carl Diem Archive at the Deutsche Sporthochschule and of the German Dance Archive, and to Michael and Claudia Wiese. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

Ed Meza (essay date 15 September 2003)

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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, whether it was the awe-inspiring rallies in Nuremberg seen in Triumph of the Will, her mythic portrayal of 1936 Berlin athletes in Olympia or the underwater life that became the subject of her last work, docu Impressions under Water.

“I always see more of the good and the beautiful than the ugly and sick,” she said. “Through my optimism I naturally prefer and capture the beauty in life.”

Her films are characterized by strong editing as well as groundbreaking work in aerial and underwater photography and the filming of athletes.

Although she denied being a Nazi, she has been criticized for having never formally apologized for her involvement with the regime. In her memoirs, she denied persistent rumors of a romance with Hitler, but her close friendship with the Fuhrer undeniably benefited her work.

After the Nazi surrender, she was detained by authorities and eventually released without being charged.

The controversial helmer made a little-known feature during the war, Tiefland (Lowlands). Filmed in Spain, the “folk tale” denounces oppression and tyranny and was not finished until 1954, by which time it had only a token release due to her tarnished reputation.

After World War II, she never again worked as a film director, except for her final docu project.

A former dancer, Riefenstahl turned to acting and directing after a knee injury put an end to her terping career.

A tireless innovator of film and photographic techniques, the independent-minded helmer remained unrepentant about her Nazi-era work.

“I don't know what I should apologize for,” she said in an interview just before her 100th birthday last year. “I cannot apologize, for example, for having made the film Triumph of the Will—it won the top prize. All my films won prizes.”

Riefenstahl protested consistently over the years that she was only concerned with art and not politics, insisting the aesthetic achievement of her work could be separated from the politics inherent in her Nazi-era docus.

“I was only interested in how I could make a film that was not stupid like a crude propagandist newsreel, but more interesting. It reflects the truth as it was then, in 1934. It is a documentary, not propaganda.”

A devoted skier, mountain climber and scuba diver (a hobby she started at 71), Riefenstahl never diverted from her quest for adventure. In the postwar years, she embarked on a career as a photographer, extensively documenting the life of Sudan's Nuba people. In 2000, the then-97-year-old helmer suffered two broken ribs when the helicopter she was traveling in crashed in the Nuba Mountains. Riefenstahl had been revisiting the war-torn region of Sudan for the first time in two decades.

Still scuba diving to photograph sharks and other sea life at 100, the helmer nonetheless began to complain of constant pain from her injuries.

Riefenstahl remains a controversial but enthralling subject for Hollywood: A biopic has long been in development at Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures as a possible vehicle for Foster.

Last year, Riefenstahl was sued by former internment-camp prisoners used as slave labor on Lowlands after she said in an interview that they had all survived the war unharmed.

In fact, some of the extras died at Auschwitz. The lawsuit, filed by a German-based group representing Roma and Sinti (ethnic groups also known as gypsies) who worked on the film and charging her with denial of the Holocaust, was dismissed by prosecutors who said her comments were not criminally offensive.

Although her association with the Nazis may forever haunt her legacy, Riefenstahl maintained close contacts with many high-profile industryites in Germany, including bankrupt media baron Leo Kirch and Teutonic tiger tamers and illusionists Siegfried & Roy, all of whom attended her 100th birthday celebration last year.

Both government officials and representatives of Germany's culture and education circles paid tribute to Riefenstahl.

Bavarian culture minister Hans Zehetmair described Riefenstahl's work as groundbreaking.

Hilmar Hoffmann, former prexy of the Goethe Institute, praised Riefenstahl as an artist who has inspired film directors worldwide. “Now that she is dead, we can differentiate between the aesthetic genius Leni Riefenstahl and her political entanglements.”

Riefenstahl is survived by her longtime companion and cameraman, Horst Kettner.

Mark Steyn (essay date 20 September 2003)

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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 plane crash in the Sudan. There was a documentary made about her a few years back in which she's seen getting off the boat at the end of a day's diving. The captain and her friend Horst walk up the pier ahead of her, lost in conversation. She follows behind, carrying her scuba gear and oxygen tank. She's 92, and it never occurs to either man to give her a hand. They don't think of her as a woman or as a nonagenarian.

If only it weren't for that awkward patch …

In the 1930s, Fraulein Riefenstahl put her formidable film-making talents to the cause of the Third Reich, and produced one of the most remarkable films ever made: Triumph of the Will.

Go back to that scuba-diving disembarkation scene in Ray Müller's The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. In theory, it could all be a setup, and the participants chewed over how best to do it beforehand and did 15 takes: anyone who's worked in documentaries knows how phoney the whole business is. But the point is it seems careless—as if it happened, and the camera happened to be there to record it.

There's no sense of that in any frame of Triumph of the Will. Granted that audiences were a lot less media savvy in 1934, and granted that a people dumb enough to fall for National Socialism will fall for anything, it's still hard to believe that even in its day anyone accepted what remained Fraulein Riefenstahl's official explanation to the end—that this was just a ‘documentary record’ of the 1934 annual party convention. Early on, we see the Führer's motorcade driving through Nuremberg, with what seems like the entire citizenry jammed on to the streets to greet him. Riefenstahl's camera shoots Hitler (if you'll forgive the expression) from directly behind him, a sequence which for some reason always reminds me of Gore Vidal's boast that only very famous people such as himself know what the back of their heads look like. There's a fabulous moment when the great man—Adolf, not Gore—is responding to the Hitler salutes offered up by the crowds with his campy little elbow-bend and wrist-flip and, as his Mercedes moves forward, the sun catches his fingers and fills the palm, first bathing it in glory and then making it appear as if the Führer's hand is the very source of the sunlight itself. Did the director just get lucky? Did the sun just happen to hit? Seconds later, we cut to a long shot of Hitler in the Mercedes continuing down the street. There's no camera in the car, though the scene we've just witnessed could only have been filmed by someone in the back seat. Another minute, and we're back to the close-up of the Führer's neck.

Did she stop the car, get out and film the long shot, and then get back in? Did Leni get Adolf to do re-takes? Or maybe she made the entire population of Nuremberg re-take the scene; maybe they staged the procession twice. If Hitler was unusually agreeable about taking direction, it was because this was never a filmed record of an event so much as an event created for the film. Whatever Triumph of the Will is, it's not a documentary. Its language is that of feature films—not Warner Brothers gangster movies or John Ford westerns, but rather the supersized genres, the epics and musicals where huge columns of the great unwieldy messy mass of humanity get tidied and organised—and, if that isn't the essence of fascism, what is? Riefenstahl has the same superb command of the crowd as Busby Berkeley, the same flair for human geometry (though Berkeley would have drawn the line at giving the gentlemen of the chorus as swishy a parade step as Hitler's personal SS bodyguard do).

The sets (that's what they are) that were built for Hitler's speeches blend Cecil B. de Mille with expressionist sci-fi: no party convention in Blackpool or even Los Angeles ever offered its leader a stage like this. It exists in the same relationship to reality as, say, Berkeley's ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ sequence in Gold Diggers of 1935: the conceit is that the number's taking place in a nightclub, but, as the song continues and the dancers multiply and the perspective extends ever further into the distance, you realise that no nightclub anywhere on earth has a stage that vast. Riefenstahl stretches reality in the same way, beginning in the streets of old Nuremberg and the band serenading below Hitler's balcony in his ivy-clad hotel, and steadily abandoning human scale until the Führer is standing alone atop a giant stone block as thousands of standard-bearing party members march in formation below: extras on a set. Today, you can see Riefenstahl's influence in the work of George Lucas (collectStar Wars) and Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers), both film-makers for whom the principal thrill of directing seems to be the opportunity it affords to subordinate the individual.

Filmed a mere 18 months into Hitler's rule and only a few weeks after President Hindenburg's death removed the final remnant of the pre-Nazi state, Triumph played a critical role in establishing the sheer scale of the party's iconography. Riefenstahl was a genius; watch the opening, with Hitler's aircraft (he was the first politician with a campaign plane) descending through the clouds to Nuremberg as if bringing a god to earth. She was one of the first to understand how to convey the unseen: thus, the shadow of the Führer's plane falls on the columns of Nazis marching up the street in Nuremberg.

She was let down by the Nazis' weak spot: people. Not the blond boy drummers of the Hitler Youth. Nor the adoring women, gazing at their Führer as enraptured as Hedy Lamarr in the heights of orgasm in Ecstasy. But in the Nazi bigshots, whom not even Riefenstahl can make look anything other than seedy and shifty. And the trouble with that Hitler salute is that on at least a couple of occasions it exposes an incredibly sweaty armpit. There are some things even a control-freak can't control.

Her directing career ended with the Third Reich. Had she been worse at making the Nazis look good, her insistence that she was no more than a hired hand might have been accepted. Instead, she found herself too toxic to get any project off the ground, until finally, at the age of 100, she got to release one last film, a simple undersea documentary. ‘Art is my life and I was deprived of it,’ said Leni Riefenstahl, Tough. Working in the German film industry, she saw that happen early on to innumerable Jewish film-makers. She was neither one of that select group of Nazi fanatics committed to mass murder, nor merely of that vast contemptible majority of Germans too indifferent to evil to object to it. Whatever her disclaimers, she made evil look better than it had any right to: a cautionary tale in the art of film.


Riefenstahl, Leni (Vol. 16)