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Leni Riefenstahl was acclaimed as a cinematic genius -- and ostracized after World War II as a propagandist for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, which financed her films. The monumental vision of beauty in her film Olympia dovetailed perfectly with Nazi race ideology, and her Triumph of the Will was designed to glorify the power of the Third Reich.
In Front of the Camera and Behind It
Before becoming a director, Riefenstahl had been a popular dancer and actress. In 1924 while recovering from an injury, Riefenstahl saw Arnold Fanck's movie Mountain of Destiny and sought out the director, who cast her in his next seven mountain films, romantic epics about man's struggle against nature. In 1932 Riefenstahl directed her first feature, The Blue Light, in which she played a peasant girl. That same year she heard Hitler speak at a rally and asked to meet him personally. At their first meeting, Hitler told her, "Once we come to power, you must make my films." In her autobiography, Riefenstahl says she replied that she could not make films on commission. But in 1933 she made Victory of Faith, a documentary about a Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. Unhappy with the film, she tried again in 1934 and produced Triumph of the Will, which is widely regarded as one of the most effective pieces of film propaganda ever produced. The film uses a number of innovative techniques: moving cameras; telephoto lenses used to create foreshortening effects; frequent close-ups of the wide-eyed party faithful; heroic poses of Hitler shot from below eye-level; and the use of real sound, a rarity at the time.
Although Riefenstahl pledged to make no more Nazi films, she accepted a commission from the German Olympic Committee to record the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Riefenstahl insisted that Olympia (1938) was not an official documentary, but evidence suggests that Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda financed it. She assembled 170 cameramen and technicians to cover 136 events because, she said, "we never knew when a world record would be broken." To evoke the early Greek Olympics, Riefenstahl filmed near-naked athletes in assorted heroic poses and shot close-ups of oarsmen, marathon runners and swimmers in training that she edited into the final version. With their conscious allusions to ancient Greece, the films aided Hitler's efforts to ascribe to Nazism a long historical tradition.
Nazi Prisoners as Film Extras
Despite her association with Hitler and Goebbels, Riefenstahl would later say she was unaware of the Nazis' war on the arts or of their murderous actions against minorities. In 1933 the Nazis had restricted the work of Jews in the film industry, an action that was followed by the 1933 book burnings, a ban on artistic criticism, and a campaign against progressive art. In 1944 Riefenstahl completed her second feature film, Lowlands, in which she used Gypsies interned at a nearby concentration camp as extras. The film was not released until 1954. After the war, Riefenstahl insisted she had not known the Gypsies would be deported to a Nazi extermination camp.
After the Nazis' defeat in 1945, Riefenstahl spent four years in a French detention camp for Nazi sympathizers. Never a member of the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl was not charged with any war crimes. She lived the next 20 years in relative isolation in her mother's apartment in Munich. In the late 1960s she took up photography, made several trips to a remote area of southern Sudan, and published two books of photographs of Nuba tribesmen. She later made a final documentary, an idealized look at life in the oceans called Underwater Impressions. In 1987 she published a hefty and self-justifying autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir. Five years later she became subject of German filmmaker Ray Mueller's three-hour documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1992) in which she spoke at length about her filmmaking techniques but continued to insist that her association with the Nazis had not compromised her artistic independence. Unlike many prominent Germans of the 1930s and 1940s, Riefenstahl lived to a ripe old age, passing her century mark and witnessing the start of the 21st century before her death in 2003 of natural causes.