Leni Riefenstahl photo by Alexander Binder
|Born||Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl
22 August 1902
Berlin, German Empire
|Died||8 September 2003
|Cause of death||Cancer|
|Resting place||Munich Waldfriedhof|
|Occupation||Dancer, actress, film director, producer, screenwriter, author|
|Known for||Triumph des Willens
|Peter Jacob (1944-1946)|
|Relatives||Heinz (brother), Bertha (mother), Alfred (father)|
Born in 1902, Leni Riefenstahl grew up in Germany with her brother Heinz (1905-1944), who was killed on the Eastern Front in World War II. A talented swimmer and artist, she also became interested in dancing during her childhood, taking dancing lessons and performing across Europe.
After seeing a promotional poster for the 1924 film Der Berg des Schicksals ("The Mountain of Destiny"), Riefenstahl was inspired to move into acting. Between 1925 and 1929, she starred in five successful motion pictures. In 1932, Riefenstahl decided to try directing with her own film called Das Blaue Licht ("The Blue Light").
In the 1930s, she directed Triumph des Willens ("Triumph of the Will") and Olympia, resulting in worldwide attention and acclaim. Both movies are widely considered two of the most effective, and technically innovative, propaganda films ever made. Her involvement in Triumph des Willens, however, significantly damaged her career and reputation after the war. The exact nature of her relationship with Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler remains a matter of debate. However, Hitler was in close collaboration with Riefenstahl during the production of at least three important Nazi films, and a closer friendship is claimed to have existed. When in 2000 Jodie Foster was planning a biographical drama on Riefenstahl, war-crime documenters warned against a revisionist view that glorified the director. They stated that publicly Riefenstahl seemed "quite infatuated" with Hitler and was in fact the last surviving member of his "inner circle". Others go further, arguing that Riefenstahl's visions were essential to the success of the Holocaust. After the war, Riefenstahl was arrested, but classified as being a "fellow traveler" or "Nazi sympathiser" only and was not associated with war crimes. Throughout her life, she denied having known about the Holocaust. Besides directing, Riefenstahl released an autobiography and wrote several books on the Nuba people.
Riefenstahl died of cancer on 8 September 2003 at the age of 101 and was buried at Munich Waldfriedhof.
Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl was born in Germany on 22 August 1902. Her father, Alfred Theodor Paul Riefenstahl, owned a successful heating and ventilation company and wanted his daughter to follow him into the business world. Since Riefenstahl was the only child for several years, Alfred wanted her to carry on the family name and secure the family fortune. However, her mother, Bertha Ida (Scherlach), who had been a part-time seamstress before her marriage, had faith in Riefenstahl and believed that her daughter's future was in show business. Riefenstahl had a younger brother, Heinz, who was killed at the age of 39 on the Eastern Front in Nazi Germany's war against the Soviet Union.
Riefenstahl fell in love with the arts in her childhood. She began to paint and write poetry at the age of four. She was also athletic, and at the age of twelve joined a gymnastics and swimming club. Her mother was confident her daughter would grow up to be successful in the field of art and therefore gave her full support, unlike Riefenstahl's father, who was not interested in his daughter's artistic inclinations. In 1918, when she was 16, Riefenstahl attended a presentation of Snow White which interested her deeply; it led her to want to be a dancer. Her father instead wanted to provide his daughter with an education that could lead to a more dignified occupation. His wife, however, continued to support her daughter's passion. Without her father's knowledge, she enrolled Riefenstahl in dance and ballet classes at the Grimm-Reiter Dance School in Berlin, where she quickly became a star pupil.
Riefenstahl attended dancing academies and became well known for her self-styled interpretive dancing skills, traveling across Europe with Max Reinhardt in a show funded by Jewish producer Harry Sokal. Riefenstahl often made almost 700 Reichmarks for each performance and was so dedicated to dancing that she gave filmmaking no thought. She began to suffer a series of foot injuries that led to knee surgery that threatened her dancing career. It was while going to a doctor's appointment that she first saw a poster for the 1924 film Der Berg des Schicksals ("The Mountain of Destiny"). She became inspired to go into movie making, and began visiting the cinema to see films and also attended film shows.
On one of her adventures, Riefenstahl met Luis Trenker, who was an actor from Der Berg des Schicksals. At a meeting arranged by her friend Gunther Rahn, she met Arnold Fanck, the director of Der Berg des Schicksals and a pioneer of the mountain film genre. Fanck was working on a film in Berlin. After Riefenstahl told him how much she admired his work, she also convinced him of her acting skill. She persuaded him to feature her in one of his movies. Riefenstahl later received a package from Fanck containing the script of the 1926 film Der Heilige Berg ("The Holy Mountain"). She made a series of films for Fanck, where she learned from him acting and film editing techniques. One of Fanck's films that brought Riefenstahl into the limelight was Die Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü ("The White Hell of Piz Palü") of 1929, co-directed by G. W. Pabst. Her fame spread to countries outside Germany.
Riefenstahl produced and directed her own work called Das Blaue Licht ("The Blue Light") in 1932, co-written by Carl Mayer and Béla Balázs. This film won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival, but was not universally well-received, for which Riefenstahl blamed the critics, many of whom were Jewish. Upon its 1938 re-release, the names of Balázs and Sokal, both Jewish, were removed from the credits; some reports claim this was at Riefenstahl's behest. In the film, Riefenstahl played an innocent peasant girl who is hated by the villagers because they think she is diabolic and cast out. She is protected by a glowing mountain grotto. According to herself, Riefenstahl received invitations to travel to Hollywood to create films, but she refused them in favour of remaining in Germany with a boyfriend. The film attracted the attention of Hitler, who believed she epitomized the perfect German female. He saw talent in Riefenstahl and arranged a meeting.
In 1933, Riefenstahl appeared in the U.S.-German co-productions of the Arnold Fanck-directed, German-language SOS Eisberg and the Tay Garnett-directed, English-language SOS Iceberg. The movies were filmed simultaneously in English and German and produced and distributed by Universal Studios. Her role as an actress in SOS Iceberg was her only English language role in film.
Riefenstahl heard Nazi Party (NSDAP) leader Adolf Hitler speak at a rally in 1932 and was mesmerized by his talent as a public speaker. Describing the experience in her memoir, Riefenstahl wrote, "I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed 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".
Riefenstahl eventually came to the notice of Hitler who was immediately captivated by her work. She is described as fitting in with Hitler's ideal of Aryan womanhood, a feature he had noted when he saw her starring performance in Das Blaue Licht. After meeting Hitler, Riefenstahl was offered the opportunity to direct Der Sieg des Glaubens ("The Victory of Faith"), an hour-long propaganda film about the fifth Nuremberg Rally in 1933. The opportunity that was offered was a huge surprise to Riefenstahl. Hitler had ordered Goebbels Propaganda Ministry to give the film commission to Riefenstahl, but the Ministry had never informed her. Riefenstahl agreed to direct the movie even though she was only given a few days before the rally to prepare. She and Hitler got on well, forming a friendly relationship. The propaganda film was funded entirely by the NSDAP.
During the filming of Victory of Faith, Hitler had stood side by side with the leader of the Sturmabteilung (SA) Ernst Röhm, a man with whom he clearly had a close working relationship. Rohm was ruthlessly murdered on Hitler's orders a short time later during the purge of the SA referred to as the Night of the Long Knives. It has gone on record that, immediately following the killings, Hitler subsequently ordered all copies of the film to be destroyed, although Riefenstahl disputes that this ever happened.
Still Impressed with Riefenstahl's work, Hitler asked her to film Triumph des Willens ("Triumph of the Will"), a new propaganda film about the 1934 party rally in Nuremberg. More than one million Germans participated in the rally. Initially, according to Riefenstahl, she resisted and did not want to create further Nazi Party films, instead wanting to direct a feature film based on Hitler's favourite opera, Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland ("Lowlands"). Riefenstahl received private funding for the production of Tiefland, but the filming in Spain was derailed and the project was cancelled. Hitler was able to convince her to film Triumph des Willens on the condition that she would not be required to make further films for the party, according to Riefenstahl. The motion picture was generally recognized as an epic, innovative work of propaganda filmmaking. The film took Riefenstahl's career to a new level and gave her further international recognition.
In interviews for the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl adamantly denied any deliberate attempt to create Nazi propaganda and said she was disgusted that Triumph des Willens was used in such a way.
Despite allegedly vowing not to make any more films about the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl made the 28-minute Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht ("Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces") about the German Army in 1935. Like Der Sieg des Glaubens and Triumph des Willens, this was filmed at the annual Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. Riefenstahl said this film was a sub-set of Der Sieg des Glaubens, added to mollify the German Army which felt it was not represented well in Triumph des Willens.
Hitler invited Riefenstahl to film the 1936 Summer Olympics scheduled to be held in Berlin, a film which Riefenstahl claimed had been commissioned by the International Olympic Committee. She visited Greece to take footage of the route of the inaugural torch relay and the games' original site at Olympia, where she was aided by Greek photographer Nelly's. This material became Olympia, a hugely successful film which has since been widely noted for its technical and aesthetic achievements. She was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes' movement. The film is also noted for its slow motion shots. Riefenstahl played with the idea of slow motion, underwater diving shots, extremely high and low shooting angles, panoramic aerial shots, and tracking system shots for allowing fast action. Many of these shots were relatively unheard of at the time, but Leni's use and augmentation of them set a standard, and is the reason why they are still used to this day. Riefenstahl's work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography. Riefenstahl filmed competitors of all races, including African-American Jesse Owens in what later became famous footage.
Olympia premiered for Hitler's 49th birthday in 1938. Its international debut led Riefenstahl to embark on an American publicity tour in an attempt to secure commercial release. In February 1937, Riefenstahl enthusiastically told a reporter for the Detroit News, "To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength". She arrived in New York City on 4 November 1938, five days before Kristallnacht (the "Night of the Broken Glass"). When news of the event reached the United States, Riefenstahl publicly defended Hitler. On 18 November, she was received by Henry Ford in Detroit. Olympia was shown at the Chicago Engineers Club two days later.Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee, praised the film and held Riefenstahl in the highest regard. She negotiated with Louis B. Mayer, and on 8 December, Walt Disney brought her on a three-hour tour showing her the ongoing production of Fantasia.
From the Goebbels Diaries, researchers learned that Riefenstahl had been friendly with Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda, attending the opera with them and going to his parties. Riefenstahl maintained that Goebbels was upset when she rejected his advances and was jealous of her influence on Hitler, seeing her as an internal threat. She therefore insisted his diary entries could not be trusted. By later accounts, Goebbels thought highly of Riefenstahl's filmmaking but was angered with what he saw as her overspending on the Nazi-provided filmmaking budgets.
When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Riefenstahl was photographed in Poland wearing a military uniform and a pistol on her belt in the company of German soldiers; she had gone to Poland as a war correspondent. On 12 September, she was in the town of Ko?skie when 30 civilians were executed in retaliation for an alleged attack on German soldiers. According to her memoir, Riefenstahl tried to intervene but a furious German soldier held her at gunpoint and threatened to shoot her on the spot. She claimed she did not realize the victims were Jews. Closeup photographs of a distraught Riefenstahl survive from that day. Nevertheless, by 5 October 1939, Riefenstahl was back in occupied Poland filming Hitler's victory parade in Warsaw. Afterwards, she left Poland and chose not to make any more Nazi-related movies.
On 14 June 1940, the day Paris was declared an open city by the French and occupied by German troops, Riefenstahl wrote to Hitler in a telegram, "With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany's greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?" She later explained, "Everyone thought the war was over, and in that spirit I sent the cable to Hitler". Riefenstahl was friends with Hitler for 12 years and reports vary as to whether she ever had an intimate relationship with him. Her relationship with Hitler severely declined in 1944 after her brother died on the Russian Front.
After the Nuremberg rallies trilogy and Olympia, Riefenstahl began work on the movie she had tried and failed to direct once before, namely Tiefland. On Hitler's direct order, the German government paid her seven million Reichsmarks in compensation. From 23 September until 13 November 1940, she filmed in Krün near Mittenwald. The extras playing Spanish women and farmers were drawn from gypsies detained in a camp at Salzburg-Maxglan who were forced to work with her. Filming at the Babelsberg Studios near Berlin began 18 months later in April 1942. This time Sinti and Roma people from the Marzahn detention camp near Berlin were compelled to work as extras. Almost to the end of her life, despite overwhelming evidence that the concentration camp occupants had been forced to work on the movie unpaid, Riefenstahl continued to maintain all the film extras survived and that she had met several of them after the war. Riefenstahl sued filmmaker Nina Gladitz, who said Riefenstahl personally chose the extras at their holding camp; Gladitz had found one of the Gypsy survivors and matched his memory with stills of the movie for a documentary Gladitz was filming. The German court ruled largely in favour of Gladitz, declaring that Riefenstahl had known the extras were from a concentration camp, but they also agreed that Riefenstahl had not been informed the Gypsies would be sent to Auschwitz after filming was completed.
This issue came up again in 2002, when Riefenstahl was one hundred years old and she was taken to court by a Roma group for denying the Nazis had exterminated gypsies. Riefenstahl apologized and said, "I regret that Sinti and Roma [people] had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps".
In October 1944 the production of Tiefland moved to Barrandov Studios in Prague for interior filming. Lavish sets made these shots some of the most costly of the film. The film was not edited and released until almost ten years later.
The last time Riefenstahl saw Hitler was when she married Peter Jacob on 21 March 1944. Riefenstahl and Jacob divorced in 1946. As Germany's military situation became impossible by early 1945, Riefenstahl left Berlin and was hitchhiking with a group of men, trying to reach her mother, when she was taken into custody by American troops. She walked out of a holding camp, beginning a series of escapes and arrests across the chaotic landscape. At last making it back home on a bicycle, she found that American troops had seized her house. She was surprised by how kindly they treated her.
Most of Riefenstahl's unfinished projects were lost towards the end of the war. The French government confiscated all of her editing equipment, along with the production reels of Tiefland. After years of legal wrangling, these were returned to her, but the French government had reportedly damaged some of the film stock whilst trying to develop and edit it, with a few key scenes being missing (although Riefenstahl was surprised to find the original negatives for Olympia in the same shipment). She edited and dubbed the remaining material and Tiefland premiered on 11 February 1954 in Stuttgart. However, it was denied entry into the Cannes Film Festival. Although Riefenstahl lived for almost another half century, Tiefland was her last feature film.
Riefenstahl tried many times to make more films during the 1950s and 1960s, but was met with resistance, public protests and sharp criticism. Many of her filmmaking peers in Hollywood had fled Nazi Germany and were unsympathetic to her. Although both film professionals and investors were willing to support her work, most of the projects she attempted were stopped owing to ever-renewed and highly negative publicity about her past work for the Third Reich.
In 1954, Jean Cocteau, who greatly admired the film, insisted on Tiefland being shown at the Cannes Film Festival, which he was running that year. In 1960, Riefenstahl attempted to prevent filmmaker Erwin Leiser from juxtaposing scenes from Triumph des Willens with footage from concentration camps in his film Mein Kampf. Riefenstahl had high hopes for a collaboration with Cocteau called Friedrich und Voltaire ("Friedrich and Voltaire"), wherein Cocteau was to play two roles. They thought the film might symbolize the love-hate relationship between Germany and France. Cocteau's illness and 1963 death put an end to the project. A musical remake of Das Blaue Licht ("The Blue Light") with an English production company also fell apart.
In the 1960s, Riefenstahl became interested in Africa from Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa and from the photographs of George Rodger. She visited Kenya for the first time in 1956 and later Sudan, where she photographed Nuba tribes with whom she sporadically lived, learning about their culture so she could photograph them more easily. Even though her film project about modern slavery entitled Die Schwarze Fracht ("The Black Cargo") was never completed, Riefenstahl was able to sell the stills from the expedition to magazines in various parts of the world. While scouting shooting locations, she almost died from injuries received in a truck accident. After waking up from a coma in a Nairobi hospital, she finished writing the script, but was soon thoroughly thwarted by uncooperative locals, the Suez Canal crisis and bad weather. In the end, the film project was called off. Even so, Riefenstahl was granted Sudanese citizenship for her services to the country, becoming the first foreigner to receive a Sudanese passport.
Novelist and sports writer Budd Schulberg, assigned by the U.S. Navy to the OSS for intelligence work while attached to John Ford's documentary unit, was ordered to arrest Riefenstahl at her chalet in Kitzbühel, ostensibly to have her identify Nazi war criminals in German film footage captured by the Allied troops shortly after the war. Riefenstahl claimed she was not aware of the nature of the internment camps. According to Schulberg, "She gave me the usual song and dance. She said, 'Of course, you know, I'm really so misunderstood. I'm not political'".
Riefenstahl claimed she was fascinated by the Nazis, but also politically naive, remaining ignorant about war crimes. Throughout 1945 to 1948, she was held by various Allied-controlled prison camps across Germany. She was also under house arrest for a period of time. She was tried four times by postwar authorities for denazification and eventually found to be a "fellow traveler" (Mitläufer) who sympathised with the Nazis.
Riefenstahl said that her biggest regret in life was meeting Hitler, declaring, "It was the biggest catastrophe of my life. Until the day I die people will keep saying, 'Leni is a Nazi', and I'll keep saying, 'But what did she do?'" Even though she went on to win up to 50 libel cases, details about her relation to the Nazi party generally remain unclear.
Shortly before she died, Riefenstahl voiced her final words on the subject of her connection to Adolf Hitler in a BBC interview: "I was one of millions who thought Hitler had all the answers. We saw only the good things; we didn't know bad things were to come."
Riefenstahl began a lifelong companionship with her cameraman Horst Kettner, who was 40 years her junior and assisted her with the photographs; they were together from the time she was 60 and he was 20.
Riefenstahl's books with photographs of the Nuba tribes were published in 1974 and republished in 1976 as Die Nuba (translated as "The Last of the Nuba") and Die Nuba von Kau ("The Nuba People of Kau"). While heralded by many as outstanding colour photographs, they were harshly criticized by Susan Sontag, who claimed in a review that they were further evidence of Riefenstahl's "fascist aesthetics". The Art Director's Club of Germany awarded Riefenstahl a gold medal for the best photographic achievement of 1975. She also sold some of the pictures to German magazines. She photographed the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and rock star Mick Jagger along with his wife Bianca for The Sunday Times. Years later, Riefenstahl photographed Las Vegas entertainers Siegfried & Roy. She was guest of honour at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada.
In 1978, Riefenstahl published a book of her sub-aquatic photographs called Korallengärten ("Coral Gardens"), followed by the 1990 book Wunder unter Wasser ("Wonder under Water"). In her 90s, Riefenstahl was still photographing marine life and gained the distinction of being one of the world's oldest scuba divers. On 22 August 2002, her 100th birthday, she released the film Impressionen unter Wasser ("Underwater Impressions"), an idealized documentary of life in the oceans and her first film in over 25 years. Riefenstahl was a member of Greenpeace for eight years.
Riefenstahl survived a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000 while trying to learn the fates of her Nuba friends during the Second Sudanese Civil War and was airlifted to a Munich hospital where she received treatment for two broken ribs.
Riefenstahl had been suffering from cancer for some time, and her health rapidly deteriorated during the last weeks of her life. Kettner said in an interview in 2002, "Ms. Riefenstahl is in great pain and she has become very weak and is taking painkillers". Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep at around 10:00 pm on 8 September 2003 at her home in Pöcking, Germany. After her death, there was a varied response in the obituary pages of leading publications, although most recognized her technical breakthroughs in film making.
Film critic Hal Erickson of the New York Times states that the "Jewish Question" is mainly unmentioned in Triumph des Willens; "filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl prefers to concentrate on cheering crowds, precision marching, military bands, and Hitler's climactic speech, all orchestrated, choreographed and illuminated on a scale that makes Griffith and DeMille look like poverty-row directors".
Charles Moore of The Daily Telegraph wrote, "She was perhaps the most talented female cinema director of the 20th century; her celebration of Nazi Germany in film ensured that she was certainly the most infamous".
Film journalist Sandra Smith from The Independent remarked, "Opinions will be divided between those who see her as a young, talented and ambitious woman caught up in the tide of events which she did not fully understand, and those who believe her to be a cold and opportunist propagandist and a Nazi by association."
Critic Judith Thurman said in The New Yorker that, "Riefenstahl's genius has rarely been questioned, even by critics who despise the service to which she lent it. Riefenstahl was a consummate stylist obsessed with bodies in motion, particularly those of dancers and athletes. Riefenstahl relies heavily for her transitions on portentous cutaways to clouds, mist, statuary, foliage, and rooftops. Her reaction shots have a tedious sameness: shining, ecstatic faces--nearly all young and Aryan, except for Hitler's".
Writer Richard Corliss wrote in Time that he was "impressed by Riefenstahl's standing as a total auteur: producer, writer, director, editor and, in the fiction films, actress. The issues her films and her career raise are as complex and they are important, and her vilifiers tend to reduce the argument to one of a director's complicity in atrocity or her criminal ignorance".
In 1993, Riefenstahl was the subject of the award-winning German documentary film The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, directed by Ray Müller. Riefenstahl appeared in the film and answered several questions and detailed the production of her films. The biofilm was nominated for seven Emmy Awards, winning in one category. Riefenstahl, who for some time had been working on her memoirs, decided to cooperate in the production of this documentary to tell her life story about the struggles she had gone through in her personal life, her film-making career and what people thought of her. She was also the subject of Müller's 2000 documentary film Leni Riefenstahl: Her Dream of Africa, about her return to Sudan to visit the Nuba people.
In April 2007, The Guardian reported that British screenwriter Rupert Walters was writing a movie based on Riefenstahl's life which would star actress Jodie Foster. The project did not receive Riefenstahl's approval prior to her death, as Riefenstahl asked for a veto on any scenes to which she did not agree. Riefenstahl also wanted Sharon Stone to play her rather than Foster, which ultimately resulted in the cancellation of the project.
In 2011, director Steven Soderbergh revealed that he had also been working on a biopic of Riefenstahl for about six months. He eventually abandoned the project over concerns of its commercial prospects.
Riefenstahl was portrayed by Dutch actress Carice van Houten in Race, a sports drama film directed by Stephen Hopkins about Jesse Owens. It was released in North America on February 19, 2016. To make her sympathetic portrayal acceptable to an American audience, the film dramatizes her quarrels with Goebbels over her direction of the film, Olympia, especially about filming the African American star who is proving to be a politically embarrassing refutation of Nazi Germany's claims of Aryan athletic supremacy.
Riefenstahl was referred to in the series finale of the television show Weeds when Nancy questions Andy for naming his daughter after a Nazi to which he replied "she was a pioneer in film-making, I don't believe in holding grudges."
In the 2016 short film Leni. Leni., based on the play by Tom McNab and directed by Adrian Vitoria, Hildegard Neil portrays Riefenstahl preparing to give an interview in 1993. In her dressing room she is "visited" by herself as a young woman portrayed by Valeria Kozhevnikova at three stages/turning points in her life: as a dancer (1924), an actress (1929) and a director (1940).
"Without the Riefenstahls of the world in the 1930s, the Shoah might not have happened. I would consider her an unindicted co-conspirator." (Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center)