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Hitler’s Filmmaker: Leni Riefenstahl

September 9, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: In 1934, a year after becoming chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler flew to Nuremberg for a mass political rally. A young filmmaker named Leni Riefenstahl accompanied him, and shot what would become one of the most famous and controversial films in history.

“The Triumph of the Will,” with its innovative and influential techniques, became known as political propaganda at its best, and worst. A dancer and actress who turned to directing in the early ’30s, Riefenstahl became a favorite of Hitler. In addition to “The Triumph of the Will,” she would also make a film of the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin.

Leni Riefenstahl died yesterday at her home near Munich, at age 101. In her long life after World War II, she was a photographer, a scuba diver, and wrote an autobiography. But the controversy over how she used or misused her art in the service of fascism stayed with her to the end.

For more, we’re joined now by Claudia Koonz, a professor of German history at Duke University. Welcome to you. Let’s try to understand what was going on here. Leni Riefenstahl didn’t just show up in Nuremburg, she was trying to do something that was crafted image making.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: Absolutely. She was… she showed up at Nuremburg with an extraordinarily talented crew of cameramen. She had orders to make a film that would cover over the dissent, the bloody purge that Hitler had ordered just a few months before and show a Germany revived, unified, and utterly loyal to Hitler. And she delivered.

JEFFREY BROWN: So that was the intention. This was part of the Nazi rise to power, to consolidate power.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: And she had her orders.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: She had her orders. She had her commission– not a direct order. She could have said no.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have a short clip that we could look at. This is from Hitler’s speech during the nighttime rally at Nuremburg. Why don’t we play that?



JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we looked at a lot of that film today, and there were many scenes to depict. I like the forest of flags that seemed to be cheering for Hitler.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: Cheering and in perfect order. What Riefenstahl did so well with camera angles, with soundtracks, with her editing was to move very quickly between scenes of utter order and then spontaneity, frolicking, close-ups, distances. Nobody had done that before Riefenstahl.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now she herself said later in life that she had supported Hitler, but that she approached her work as an artist, not as a propagandist.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: It is true she was not political. She had a career behind her. She saw herself as a documentary maker, not as a propagandist. But what she understood so much before anyone else is that the best propaganda is invisible. It looks like a documentary. Then you realize all you’re seeing is glory, beauty and triumph, and you don’t see the darker side.

JEFFREY BROWN: But she could never escape the controversy, could she?

CLAUDIA KOONZ: It dogged her, depressed her for 20 years after the end of the Second World War. She was accused of being a propagandist, and she always admitted she admired Hitler. The last time she saw him was 1944. And she insisted that because she was so good, and because she was a woman, she got closed out of her profession.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one of the interesting things is how her work influenced political image making afterwards.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: You can see it, actually, even in these few clips. You see the focus on the leader, the close-up, making leaders who you usually see from a great distance, human beings who you see up close.

JEFFREY BROWN: And from a technical aspect, the angles, the shadows, the close-ups, the moving camera, those things are very much with us now as we watch candidates, as we watch politicians.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: Absolutely. This is Leni Riefenstahl’s great contribution.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was even thinking… it was interesting. I was watching “Monday Night Football” last night, and the camera that moves down the sideline, we saw the same thing, the same shot of Hitler on the podium.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: Right. She put her cameramen on train tracks and had them moving back and forth. She had them climbing up flag poles to get a special angle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, she was never put on trial as a Nazi or as a sympathizer.


JEFFREY BROWN: How did she live out the rest of her days? She spent a lot of time trying to explain herself.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: She spent about 40 years. She lived long enough, so she had plenty of chance to do it. She wrote an autobiography, and then she dominated a film made about her life called “the wonderful horrible life of Leni Riefenstahl,” in which she explained over and over again that she was apolitical. She was just ambitious, and Nazism was the frame for her ambition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Claudia Koonz, thank you for telling us about this.

CLAUDIA KOONZ: Thank you, Jeff.