Leni Riefenstahl

Moviemaker for the Third Reich

Leni Riefenstahl 1936
Leni Riefenstahl 1936. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dates: August 22, 1902 - September 8, 2003

Occupation: film director, actress, dancer, photographer

Also known as: Berta (Bertha) Helene Amalie Riefenstahl

About Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl's career included work as a dancer, actress, film producer, director, and also a photographer, but the rest of Leni Riefenstahl's career was shadowed by her history as a documentary maker for Germany's Third Reich in the 1930s.

Often called Hitler's propagandist, she disclaimed knowledge of or any responsibility for the Holocaust, saying in 1997 to the New York Times, "I did not know what was going on. I did not know anything about those things."

Early Life and Career

Leni Riefenstahl was born in Berlin in 1902. Her father, in the plumbing business, opposed her goal to train as a dancer, but she pursued this education anyway at Berlin's Kunstakademie where she studied Russian ballet and, under Mary Wigman, modern dance.

Leni Riefenstahl appeared on stage in many European cities as a dancer in the years 1923 through 1926. She was impressed with the work of film-maker Arnold Fanck, whose "mountain" films presented images of almost mythical struggle of humans against the strength of nature. She talked Fanck into giving her a role in one of his mountain films, playing the part of a dancer. Then she went on to star in five more of Fanck's films.


By 1931, she'd formed her own production company, Leni Riefenstahl-Produktion. In 1932 she produced, directed and starred in Das blaue Licht ("The Blue Light"). This film was her attempt to work within the mountain film genre, but with a woman as the central characer and a more romantic presentation.

Already, she showed her skill in editing and in the technical experimentation that was a hallmark of her work later in the decade.

Nazi Connections

Leni Riefenstahl later told the story of happening upon a Nazi party rally where Adolf Hitler was speaking. His effect on her, as she reported it, was electrifying. She contacted him, and soon he had asked her to make a film of a major Nazi rally. This film, produced in 1933 and titled Sieg des Glaubens ("Victory of the Faith"), was later destroyed, and in her later years Riefenstahl denied that it had much artistic value.

Leni Riefenstahl's next film was the one that made her reputation internationally: Triumph des Willens ("Triumph of the Will"). This documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party convention in Nuremburg (Nürnberg) has been termed the best propaganda film ever made. Leni Riefenstahl always denied that it was propaganda -- preferring the term documentary -- and she has also been called the "mother of the documentary."

But despite her denials that the film was anything but a work of art, evidence is strong that she was more than a passive observer with a camera. In 1935, Leni Riefenstahl wrote a book (with a ghostwriter) about the making of this film: Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitag-Films, available in German.

There, she asserts that she helped plan the the rally -- so that in fact the rally was staged in part with the purpose in mind of making a more effective film.

Critic Richard Meran Barsam says of the film that it "is cinematically dazzling and ideologically vicious." Hitler becomes, in the film, a larger-than-life figure, almost a divinity, and all other humans are portrayed such that their individuality is lost -- a glorification of the collective.

David B. Hinton points out Leni Riefenstahl's use of the telephoto lens to pick up the genuine emotions on the faces she depicts. "The fanaticism evident on the faces was already there, it was not created for the film." Thus, he urges, we should not find Leni Riefenstahl the main culprit in the making of the film.

The film is technically brilliant, especially in the editing, and the result is a documentary more aesthetic than literal.

The film glorifies the German people -- especially those who "look Aryan" -- and practically deifies the leader, Hitler. It plays on patriotic and nationalistic emotions in its images, music, and structure.

Having practically left out the German armed forces from "Triumph," she tried to compensate in 1935 with another film: Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmach (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces).

1936 Olympics

For the 1936 Olympics, Hitler and the Nazis once again called on Leni Riefenstahl's skills. Giving her much latitude to try special techniques -- including digging pits next to the pole vaulting event, for instance, to get a better camera angle -- they expected a film that would once again show the glory of Germany. Leni Riefenstahl insisted on and got an agreement to give her much freedom in making the film; as an example of how she exercised the freedom, she was able to resist Goebbel's advice to diminish the emphasis on the African American athlete, Jesse Owens. She managed to give Owens a considerable amount of screen time though his strong presence was not exactly in line with the orthodox pro-Aryan Nazi position.

The resulting two-part film, Olympische Spiele ("Olympia"), has also won both acclaim for its technical and artistic merit, and criticism for its "Nazi aesthetic." Some claim that the film was financed by the Nazis, but Leni Riefenstahl denied this connection.

Other Wartime Work

Leni Riefenstahl started and stopped more films during the war, but didn't complete any nor did she accept any more assignments for documentaries.

She filming Tiefland ("Lowlands"), a return to the romantic mountain film style, before World War II ended, but she was unable to complete the editing and other post-production work. She did some planning of a film on Penthisilea, Amazon queen, but never carried the plans through.

In 1944, she married Peter Jakob. They were divorced in 1946.

Post War Career

After the war, she was imprisoned for a time for her pro-Nazi contributions. In 1948, a German court found that she had not been actively a Nazi. That same year, the International Olympic Committee awarded Leni Riefenstahl a gold medal and diploma for "Olympia."

In 1952, another German court officially cleared her of any collaboration that could be considered war crimes. In 1954, Tiefland was completed and released to modest success.

In 1968, she began living with Horst Kettner, who was more than 40 years younger than her. He was still her companion at her death in 2003.

Leni Riefenstahl turned from film to photography. In 1972, the London Times had Leni Riefenstahl photograph the Munich Olympics. But it was in her work in Africa that she achieved new fame.

In the Nuba people of southern Sudan, Leni Riefenstahl found opportunities to explore visually the beauty of the human body. Her book, Die Nuba, of these photographs was published in 1973. Ethnographers and others criticized these photos of naked men and women, many with faces painted in abstract patterns and some depicted fighting. In these photos as in her films, people are depicted more as abstractions than as unique persons.

The book has remained somewhat popular as a paean to the human form, though some would call it quintessential fascistic imagery. In 1976 she followed this book with another, The People of Kan.

In 1973, interviews with Leni Riefenstahl were included in a CBS television documentary about her life and work. In 1993, the English translation of her autobiography and a filmed documentary which included extensive interviews with Leni Riefenstahl both included her continuing claim that her films were never political. Criticized by some as too easy on her and by others including Riefenstahl as too critical, the documentary by Ray Muller asks the simplistic question, "A feminist pioneer, or a woman of evil?"

Into the 21st Century

Perhaps tired of the criticism of her human images as representing, still, a "fascist aesthetic," Leni Riefenstahl in her 70s learned to scuba dive, and turned to photographing underwater nature scenes. These, too, were published, as was a documentary film with footage drawn from 25 years of underwater work which was shown on a French-German art channel in 2002.

Leni Riefenstahl was back in the news in 2002 -- not only for her 100th birthday. She was sued by Roma and Sinti ("gypsy") advocates on behalf of extras who had worked on Tiefland. They alleged that she had hired these extras knowing that they were taken from work camps to work on the film, locked up at night during filming to prevent their escape, and returned to concentration camps and likely death at the end of filming in 1941. Leni Riefenstahl first claimed that she had seen "all" of the extras alive after the war ("Nothing happened to any of them."), but then withdrew that claim and issued another statement deploring the treatment of the "gypsies" by the Nazis, but disclaiming personal knowledge of or responsibility for what happened to the extras. The lawsuit charged her with Holocaust denial, a crime in Germany.

Since at least 2000, Jodie Foster has been working towards producing a film about Leni Riefenstahl.

Leni Riefenstahl continued to insist -- to her last interview -- that art and politics are separate and that what she did was in the world of art.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Leni Riefenstahl." ThoughtCo, Jun. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/leni-riefenstahl-biography-3530243. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, June 3). Leni Riefenstahl. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/leni-riefenstahl-biography-3530243 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Leni Riefenstahl." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/leni-riefenstahl-biography-3530243 (accessed March 19, 2018).