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."
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.
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).
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.