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Happy birthday, Leni Riefenstahl

By Ashley Fantz

Oct. 1, 2002   Leni Riefenstahl celebrated her 100th birthday on Aug. 22. The milestone earned a few headlines as Hitler's favorite filmmaker and the last living member of the Führer's inner circle welcomed journalists from the world press to her Munich home and Riefenstahl Produktion film studio. Riefenstahl was spirited and sharp, her white hair curling crazily, her eyebrows delicately penciled, her lips painted as red as the flag of the Third Reich.
If reporters, however, were expecting a candid interview with the woman most famous for making propaganda films such as "Triumph of the Will," they were disappointed. Although Riefenstahl marveled playfully about becoming a centenarian, she kept the discussion focused on her latest film, "Impressionen Unter Wasser" ("Impressions Under Water"), released in April in Germany. The silent film is a series of shorts of tranquil oceanic scenes. Riefenstahl became fascinated with sea life in her 70s, when she said she was 20 years younger in order to get certified as a scuba diver.

The film met with lukewarm reviews. Some critics called it meaningless, images without impact. Some found it just plain weird, no doubt a reaction inspired by the camera's quick pans to Riefenstahl wearing scuba gear and smiling wide at the camera. Others, recognizing Riefenstahl's allegiance to beauty -- exemplified best in "Olympia," her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics -- thought that "Impressionen" might reflect her ultimate pursuit of purity.

On her birthday, the filmmaker hosted an elaborate party at which some of Germany's most famous celebrities attended, including the flashy magicians Siegfried and Roy. Attendees were reminded that Jodie Foster was working on a project about Riefenstahl's life.
The day after her party, Riefenstahl suddenly fell ill, according to her assistant and confidante of 38 years, Horst Kettner. "Ms. Riefenstahl is in great pain," he told Salon. "She has become very weak and is taking painkillers."
Also that day, Aug. 23, Frankfurt prosecutors announced that they were investigating Riefenstahl for "racial incitement" and "disparaging the diseased." According to a German law, denying the Holocaust is a crime punishable by a fine or jail time.
The probe was launched after Rom, a 76-year-old Cologne-based Gypsy group, alleged that Riefenstahl lied when she told a German magazine that she did not know the doomed fate of 120 Gypsies who appeared as extras in her 1942 film "Tiefland" ("Lowlands"). Riefenstahl was quoted as saying that she had no knowledge that the extras were concentration camp prisoners from camps in Salzberg and Berlin, or that they were subsequently shipped to Auschwitz and other camps after shooting wrapped.
The denial deeply offended members of Rom, who matched the names of extras in the film with Berlin and Salzberg camp victims.
"We have documented these people who went to the ovens after she was done with them," Rom director Kurt Holl says. "For her to say that no one was harmed during her film is true. They were sent to their deaths afterward. These statements are just Leni Riefenstahl being Leni Riefenstahl, rewriting her own history."
Twice acquitted by Allied courts of any legal wrongdoing during World War II, Riefenstahl issued a statement through Kettner that her remarks were a "misunderstanding" and that she "regretted" the persecution of Gypsies.
Kettner, who has worked closely with Riefenstahl on her lesser-known documentaries after 1945, is outraged about Rom's claims. "This is like someone disturbing your defenseless grandmother," he says. "Hasn't she suffered enough?"
After denying repeated requests to talk with Salon, Riefenstahl finally agreed. But the interview was more revealing for what the filmmaker would not say. She refused to talk about Hitler or other high-ranking Nazis she worked with, including Josef Goebbels, the murderous propaganda minister who, photographs show, was a frequent guest at her home and with whom she met -- a week after the infamous May 1933 Opernplatz book burning -- to discuss "film projects," as she called them in her 1987 memoirs.
"I met the Führer in 1932 and I cannot blame or be angry at people for wanting to know more," she said. "It is not unfair to be interested. That is all."
Riefenstahl, who has for decades maintained that she was a passive artist simply doing what was commissioned of her, also refuses to talk about the most expensive, aesthetically breathtaking documentaries of their time. "Triumph," especially, is a difficult topic, a film solely used by people, she says, to attack her character. "I will always be asked to defend 'Triumph of the Will' forever," she says. "The circumstances of its production will linger forever."
"Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius," a book by Rainer Rother, the German Historical Museum's cinema program director, was released in English in September. It traces Riefenstahl's career from her successful beginnings as a ballet dancer (a pursuit her father forbade and her instructors were not optimistic about) to a dramatic moment when, standing on a train platform on the way to see a doctor about a career-threatening knee injury, she saw a film poster for Germany's hottest director, Arnold Fanck.
Riefenstahl wrote an adoring letter to Fanck, and nine months later she starred in his next film, which required the still-injured young woman to climb snowcapped mountains, endure sexist remarks from her male costars, be pelted with snow, and look beautiful through it all.
Audiences loved her. But she was unsatisfied with acting and worked her new contacts to find funding for "The Blue Light," her first feature film -- a commercially successful work still lauded as one of the best movies of all time.
That was May 1932, the same year she wrote a letter to Hitler professing her devotion to the candidate running for the German presidency with campaign slogan of Freedom and Bread. By January 1933, he was appointed Reich chancellor. Four months later, Riefenstahl went on a picnic with Hitler and Goebbels. They were trying to woo her into making a film about a new kind of Germany.

"It was a critical point because for all the ambition and creative ability she had, as a female director, there were obstacles in a male-dominated industry," says Rother. "She had been told her whole life that she could not do anything, but here were two men who believed in her talent and were offering an endless supply of funding and manpower. I think, in a great way, Leni saw this as a way to advance her career."

The controversy over "Tiefland," an apolitical love story, is not new. Since early 1948, using the archive of the Reich Chamber of Commerce, reputable German press outlets have been publishing Riefenstahl's old pro-Nazi letters, which she always denies writing.
For 20 years, the trade publication Revue fought Riefenstahl in court. In 1949 she sued it for printing accounts from witnesses who claimed to have personally seen her select interned Gypsies at camps in Salzberg and Berlin to be "Tiefland" extras.
Riefenstahl won her legal battle but lost the public one. Journalists wrote that she had a "sharp and cold birdlike" presence during court proceedings, much of which recounted instances of slaughter. Though it was not exactly her fault, she became a symbol of a country that, at the time, was failing to decently acknowledge complicity.
In the early 1950s, when Riefenstahl wasn't producing any films and her artistic life was almost entirely eclipsed by her political past, Revue accused her of the worst: witnessing the killing of 20 Polish civilians by German soldiers in 1939.
Indeed, in her memoirs, Riefenstahl says she "heard gunfire," but did not witness any murders. She says she complained to the German government about "the mishandling of Polish citizens." Did she do less than a war correspondent would have done? What kind of influence did she truly have?
Enough, answers Rom's Holl. "She had a say when no one did and if it did not work during Hitler's time, all right ... But today is different. She has a chance to at least recognize what she was involved in and to show a conscience," he says. "Today, it is hard in Germany to convince people that Gypsies suffered during World War II. They are stereotyped as criminals. She did not credit those extras, some with speaking parts in her film, so perhaps considering their fate, she might honor their memory rather than think of herself first."

They kept asking me over and over again whether I was having a romance with Hitler. ‘Are you Hitler's girlfriend?’ I laughed and answered the same way each time: ‘No, those are false rumours. I only made documentaries for him...’”

  Leni Riefenstahl, about her US tour in 1938, in her book A Memoir
This film was pivotal in my life, not so much because it was my first successful effort as a producer and director, but because Hitler was so fascinated by this film that heinsisted I make a documentary about the Party rally in Nuremberg. The result was Triumph of the Will.”

Leni Riefenstahl, about her film The Blue Light, in her book A Memoir

Riefenstahl, Leni (1902)

German film director, photographer, and actress

I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, by what is living.
-Interview, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1965
Leni Riefenstahl is notorious for having made the Nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will (1935). An athletic blonde, she personified the Nazi ideal of German womanhood but denied having ever been a member of the party.
Helene (Leni) Riefenstahl was born in Berlin. Her childhood love of fantasy led to an interest in art and dance, which she studied, later becoming a dancer. In the mid 1920s Arnold Franck invited her to star in a series of films about mountaineering, which became extremely popular. Riefenstahl's own first film, The Blue Light (1932), was in a similar vein.
By now famous, Riefenstahl caught the attention of Hitler. At his invitation she filmed the 1934 Nuremberg rally, producing a skilfully shot and emotive propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. Also in tune with Nazi thinking was Olympia (1938), Riefenstahl's artistic film of the 1936 Olympic Games. Despite some pressure from Goebbels, Hitler's head of propaganda, she included prominent footage of black athletes. Both films won awards, but Reifenstahl had made enemies, as she found out on a visit to Hollywood in 1938-39.
Riefenstahl resisted further propaganda commissions during World War II, but this did not save her from being imprisoned afterwards by the Allies. Although she was later allowed to resume her work, her reputation never recovered. In the 1950s and 1960s she visited Africa and photographed and filmed the Nuba tribe; she published the photographs, but the film Nuba (1977) was never released. In her old age Riefenstahl worked as a magazine photographer and published several books of photographs, including My Africa (1982).

Riefenstahl, Leni [Helene], (Bertha Amalie) (1902)

German actress, film maker and photographer.

After studying fine art at the Berlin Academy, she received a ballet training and danced in Max Reinhardt's theatre company. The first film in which she appeared was Der heilige Berg/Peaks of Destiny ( (1926)), made by her mentor, Arnold Fanck. She formed her own production company in 1931 and directed Das blaue Licht/The Blue Light ( (1932)), which led Hitler to invite her to film the Nazi Party rallies at Nuremberg in 1934, although she was not a party member. She agreed but insisted on complete artistic and production control, and that she would undertake no further projects for the party. She now describes Triumph des Willens/ Triumph of the Will as a documentary and not a propaganda film; it is technically remarkable for its angling, moving shots and editing patterns. She agreed to film the 1938 Olympic Games in Berlin with the same control: supervising the editing, sound-mixing, and printing of the two-part film - Olympiad: Fest der Völker/Festival of the Nations and Olympiad: Fest der Schönheit/Festival of Beauty ( (1938)). She defied an order from Goebbels to remove footage of the American black athlete, Jesse Owens, who dominates the first part. The film won the Grand Prize at the Venice International Film Festival in 1938.

Preparations for filming Van Kleist's Penthesilea were halted by the outbreak of World War II. Against constant difficulties she filmed Tiefland in Spain, but the footage was impounded by the French and she was interned for almost four years until cleared of Nazi involvement. The incomplete film was released in 1954 to critical acclaim. A skiing comedy, The Red Devils, to star De Sica and the unknown Brigitte Bardot, and to have an additional 3D version, lost backing after the Austrian opposition press accused the government of backing 'one of Hitler's favourites'. Further projects also fell through and she began to work as a stills photographer for European magazines. A book of her photographs published after a visit to Africa, The Last of the Nuba ( (1973)), gave her a new reputation. Her other recent books include People of the Kau ( (1976)), Coral Gardens ( (1978)) and Mein Afrika ( (1982)). She remains unique for her pioneering work as Germany's only woman director during the 1930s, for resisting manipulation, and for her colossal reputation gained from two films, in spite of suppression and ill fortune over the last 40 years.

Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia":

Brilliant Cinematography or Nazi Propaganda?

"Olympia," arguably one of the greatest sports films ever produced, may have also been an effective propaganda tool that promoted National Socialism as a model form of government. A sports documentary of the 1936 Summer Olympics, "Olympia" was directed and produced by the renowned German motion picture producer Leni Riefenstahl.

On the surface, the film appears to be a very well made sports picture, depicting outstanding athletic accomplishments by many individuals and teams throughout the world. However, as World War II neared, critics became more and more suspicious of underlying suspected intentions in producing "Olympia": Nazi propaganda. Kracauer (1947) stated, "To be sure, all Nazi films were more or less propaganda films – even the mere entertainment pictures which seem to be remote from politics" (p. 275). To date, no one has been able to uncover substantive evidence proving that the sole intention of producing "Olympia" was for propaganda purposes. There are, however, many hints that at least part of the German Government's purpose in supporting "Olympia" was to promote the positive principles (as perceived by the Nazis) of National Socialism to the world.

About the Film

There are two parts to the film: the first begins with a history of the Olympic games, depicting the traditions of the ancient games in the city of Olympia and continues with many of the field events of the 1936 Berlin games; the second features the track and field events of the Berlin Games. "Olympia" was considered a documentary, but was much more advanced in that it incorporated components that generally were non-existent in the typical documentary of that time: editing and sound. Riefenstahl's skillful editing allowed for the most exciting moments to be featured and produced a smooth transition between the sporting events. She also, in a most sophisticated manner, incorporated sound in the form of background music and narration. Riefenstahl worked tirelessly to synchronize the music of the distinguished film composer Herbert Windt with the moving images in the film (Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, 1993, p. 165). In those days, to attach any sort of sound to a moving picture was difficult if not impossible; Riefenstahl accomplished it with a flawless precision that impressed both audiences and critics in Germany and abroad. All of this, in combination with innovative filming techniques made for a film that received the highest acclaim from some of the most respected persons in the industry (Berg-Pan, 1980; Graham, 1986; Infield, 1976; Salkeld, 1996). Even today when viewing "Olympia" one gets the impression that they are a living part of the 1936 games – a far cry from the boorish nature of pre-"Olympia" documentaries.

As World War II was approaching, "Olympia" was scrutinized much more closely. It seemed that since "Olympia" was produced by the same Germany that was beginning to wreak frightful havoc on the world, it had become an assumption that "Olympia" contained a message in support of National Socialism. Was Riefenstahl so absorbed in her work that she had no concept of the Nazi politics surrounding her, or was she much more politically astute than she claimed to be?

There are some facts that make it difficult to believe Riefenstahl was naïve to the way of life around her: (a) professionally, her instincts and insights were extraordinary, (b) she, demonstrated that she possessed the political skills to successfully arrange personal meetings with Hitler and, (c) she effectively orchestrated politics within the German Film Industry as well as within the Nazi Party to attain her production goals (Graham, 1986; Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, 1993). From a common sense perspective, it is quite unconvincing that Riefenstahl could possess the above skills, allowing her absolute effectiveness in film production, yet be completely unknowledgeable and unknowing of the larger motive of Hitler and the National Socialist Party.

It would be presumptuous and not supported by empirical evidence to accuse Riefenstahl of being aware of the inner workings and agenda of the Nazi Party. There is much room for debate and criticism when comparing Riefenstahl's effective use of her intelligence and savvy in her many professional endeavors, yet the seemingly disappearance of these same qualities when it came to being "in tune" to the larger situation unfolding in Nazi Germany at the time. One would be remiss not to state that Riefenstahl had various ties with international figures. In one case she met, in person, with Benito Mussolini on Hitler's behalf (Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, 1993, p. 181). And in another case (after "Olympia") received an invitation, extended by Joseph Stalin, to visit Moscow (Hinton, 1978, p. 78).

Without sufficient facts to prove that Riefenstahl was aware of the planned evils of the Nazi Party, then it becomes difficult to prove that Riefenstahl's intent in producing "Olympia" was for political propaganda purposes. The question of whether the film served as propaganda for the Nazi's is quite different. It is more likely that it succeeded as the type of soft propaganda or sociological propaganda that Graham (1986, p. 251) describes. Sociological propaganda in the case of "Olympia" has more to do with "Olympia" portraying a kind and positive image of Germany instead of a more blatant indoctrination of National Socialism principles to the audience.

The audience is provided with an exhilarating sports documentary that features successes of many countries and actually down plays, in some cases, the victories of the German Nation. One end result was that nations throughout the world were pleased to see their athletes featured in such a positive light. These positive feeling concerning the film were ultimately associated with the Nation of Germany and the National Socialist Party. The German government certainly would not have released this film if it had not portrayed Germany in a way that the Nazi party wished to be portrayed.

The film was "officially" stated as being a film produced under Leni Riefenstahl Productions but records show that the finances of "Olympia" were controlled by National Socialist Party Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels (Berg-Pan, 1980, p. 142). It cannot be ignored that previous to "Olympia," Riefenstahl produced the film of the National Socialist Party: "Triumph of the Will." "Triumph of the Will" clearly exhibited the powers and everything that the German government believed to be good about National Socialism.

Not Supporting Propaganda

One of the strongest arguments supporting the notion that "Olympia" was a propaganda film (sociological) is also one of the strongest arguments supporting the notion that it was not a propaganda film: the perceived objectivity of the film and what appears to be an unbiased representation of the athletes, nations and games in general. There were several sources, including notable film experts and critics that praised "Olympia" on its film merits. "Olympia" received the Grand Prize at the International Film Festival in Venice after being voted best film of 1938, defeating Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (Hinton, 1991, p. 80). Later during Riefenstahl's visit to Hollywood, Disney received Riefenstahl openly and congratulated her for what he believed to be a masterful production. By this time the anti-German sentiment in the United States had grown to the point that the film was being boycotted and many that projected intense negative criticism had never even viewed the film. Aware of these U.S. feelings towards Germany, if Disney had had any inclination that "Olympia" included political propaganda, it is highly unlikely that he would have received Riefenstahl openly and with genuine praise for her film.

The objectivity that many perceive in "Olympia" is primarily a result of Leni Riefenstahl's refusal to compromise her film production standards with the wishes of others. Riefenstahl extended control over all aspects of the film's creation (Hinton, 1991, p. 79). Throughout the filming, editing, and production in general, the Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels frequently pressured Riefenstahl to modify the film in ways that supported Nazi ideals. Aware that Hitler resented successful African-American athletes, and against Goebbel's demands, Riefenstahl featured two highly successful African-American athletes: gold medal winning Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf (Hinton, 1978, p. 81; Infield, 1976, p. 137). Riefenstahl's resistance to comply with such a high figures in the Nazi regime leads credence to her claim that the film was not produced for propaganda purposes. Also supportive of Riefenstahl's uncompromising ways as a producer of "Olympia" were arguments by Nazi officials that the film was too artistic (Berg-Pan, 1980, p. 102). Finally, somewhat favorable to Riefenstahl's claims that "Olympia" was not a Nazi propaganda film was that, following the war, de-Nazification courts determined that she was not a Nazi (Salkeld, 1996, p. 229).


Some might argue that it is not fair to criticize Germany and Riefenstahl for succeeding at what film companies attempt to do in this current age: produce a film with the intentions of pleasing as many diverse groups of peoples as possible and receive the highest praises and reviews from experts and professional critics in the film industry. With this in mind, it is the opinion of the authors that Riefenstahl's "Olympia" contributed to the Nazi movement even if it was in the subtlest of ways. In fact, "Olympia's" effect may have been more powerful since it was perceived by many as a magnificent work of cinematography.

Stefan Kahrs

Canterbury, England

Date: 7 August 1998

Summary: The most notorious propaganda film ever made

Triumph des Willens is a unique film, it is very unlikely that you have seen anything like this before or will see anything like it ever since. It is a hybrid between a documentary and a propaganda film and it most certainly is a powerful piece of film-making; unlike other propaganda films made over half a century ago this will not make you laugh.

The film documents the party rally the NSDAP held in Nuremberg in 1934. How boring, you may think. Party political broadcast, you may think. The British Conservatives in Brighton, you may think. Follow this thought and compare Adolf Hitler (perhaps the most hated man in the history of mankind) with John Major (perhaps the least remarkable prime minister Britain ever had) and you get a hint what's wrong with it. This is not any old political party, and this is not any old party rally - and Riefenstahl sure knows how to present it most impressively.

Triumph des Willens is one of the most dangerous propaganda films ever made. It does not tell us what we should believe in (not in words anyway), it seduces us into it. The impact is emotional, not rational. There is no debate, no argument. There are speeches, but these speeches resemble more the religious ramblings of prophets than the reasoning of a modern politician.

Riefenstahl appeals to our herd-animal instincts, our desire to be engulfed in a large group and contributing to it. Riefenstahl tries to impress us with grandiose pictures of masses of people being transfixed by the speakers (especially Hitler, of course), the architecture of the place, torch marches, lots of banners and all that other Nazi mumbo jumbo.

In historical hindsight, these pictures get a second, more sinister meaning Riefenstahl would not have anticipated. If not put in his rightful historical context the film would still have the power to seduce today.

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