The trouble with this tale, like so many others from Riefenstahl, is that it’s almost certainly rubbish.
—Farran Smith Nehme, The Guardian
Leni Riefenstahl has been the subject of, or associated with, a great amount of literary effort over the 101 years of her life—remembered today as an accomplished but controversial contributor to the history and advancement of film as a cultural form. The above quote likely reflects the author’s frustration in sifting through the literature.
Disparagingly called the “Nazi pin-up girl,”1 Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl, “Leni,” is best known for her role as director of documentary films portraying the power of the Nazi movement (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 1973; “Leni Riefenstahl”, 2017). Some of the prevailing facts about Leni’s life are indisputable, while others are difficult to find multiple confirming sources. With this disclaimer, I provide this general overview as background to this month’s movie that chronicles her life.
Riefenstahl’s Film Attracted Hitler’s Attention
Leni made her first film, The Blue Light (Riefenstahl, 1932), at age 30. Then, when the movie was nominated for an award at the first-ever Venice Film Festival, it attracted the attention of the rising star of the Nazi party, Adolph Hitler. Hitler subsequently commissioned her to make the now-famous propaganda films for him—Victory of Faith (1934), a record of the 1933 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg (ordered destroyed by Hitler2), and Triumph of the Will, released in 1935.3 The latter is arguably her finest propaganda film, and it catapulted her career skyward (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 2017). After these two, she claimed to have no plans to make more Nazi films, but then reluctantly directed a short documentary showcasing the strength of the German army on German Armed Forces Day in 1935, Day of Freedom, Our Armed Forces (Tag der Freiheit – Unsere Wehrmacht, Riefenstahl, 1935b). According to an IMDb reviewer of the film (Kekseksa, 2017),
It is an extraordinary premonitory vision of modern warfare (no country had yet engaged in such strategic bombing when it was made) where the perpetrators, the Nazi leadership isolated and bemused on their platform and swathed in encircling smoke, seem to have lost all control of the terror that they have unleashed. As a film intended to be a simple account of a military exercise, it is breath-taking in its scope.
There’s more. Leni became Hitler’s official photographer for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She then made the film Olympia (Riefenstahl, 1938), documenting the Olympic Games in a two-part documentary (as Olympia I and II), with an enormous budget that allowed for the latest innovative technology (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 2017). Both Triumph and Olympia focus on bodies in motion, whether Nazi soldiers or extraordinary athletes, and toward which Riefenstahl elevated viewers’ experience by using innovative slow-motion photography. Olympia—in which the famous American athlete, Jesse Owens, played a starring role—became a major influence in contemporary sports photography. Olympia I and II won the Mussolini Cup as the Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1938.4
The fascination with Leni Riefenstahl continues today, especially with the question, Was Hitler her lover? According to Corliss writing in Time Magazine (2002),
Over the years, Riefenstahl has been charged with everything from being Hitler’s or Goebbels’ mistress (maybe both at once; it’s a better story) to being a Nazi party member (author Steven Bach claims he has the proof; she denies it, and says she received as much hindrance as help from the Third Reich).
The theories seem ambiguous—no one knows, and she denied it. When she first met Hitler in 1932, she was admittedly “mesmerized.” She admired him very much and defended him as “the greatest man who ever lived” (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 2017).
However, this much we do know—Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, met him before Leni did (c. 1929). Eva was 17 and fell immediately in love with him, although he was 23 years older. She and Adolph were married for less than 40 hours, just as the Reich fell, and just before their suicides.
Riefenstahl: Gifted Human Being or Devil?
Now, either Leni Riefenstahl was simply a remarkably-gifted human being or . . . was she a devil? Her defenders do exist (Corliss, 2002). They admire her versatility—producer, director, editor, actress, dancer, and successful woman-in-a-man’s-world. In fact, “Riefenstahl” in German means “scored steel,” which seems an apt name. Beautiful and blond, she indeed seem honed from steel. Leni’s films were praised for their musical scores, scenic beauty and brilliant editing (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 1973). But, she had aided the Nazi cause and was shunned and blacklisted after World War II.
Leni was born in Berlin in 1902, where she studied art and ballet, then toured Europe as a dancer in the 1920’s. When an injury prevented her from dancing, she began acting in syrupy German mountain films about nature, eventually becoming a director in this same genre. Her father owned a major heating/ventilation firm in Berlin, and had hoped that she, too, would pursue a business career. She did just that—Hitler paid her seven million marks to begin Tiefland (Riefenstahl, 1954), the film that used gypsy concentration camp inmates as extras. An IMDb reviewer (Robert, 2010) had this comment,
It seems that the extras in the film are gypsies recruited from concentration camps, so the bitterness they exude may be more than just acting. That peasant woman who snarls ‘you rat’ probably really means it.
Leni almost always maintained that the gypsies had all survived and that she had met several of them after the war. But when she was 100, a Roma group sued her for denying that the Nazis had exterminated gypsies (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 2017). She then apologized and admitted that many of them had indeed perished in the camps.
She was briefly a war correspondent in Poland, where she had witnessed the execution of some 30 civilians. Leni claimed that she tried to intervene but was held back by a German soldier who threatened to shoot her (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 2017). Photographs survive that show Leni distraught by this event; still, she stayed in Poland and filmed Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw. When she left Poland, she chose not to make any more Nazi movies.
When German troops occupied Paris, Leni sent a gushingly complimentary telegram to Hitler, thanking him for being himself. Their friendship had lasted twelve years but waned when Leni’s younger brother, Heinz, was killed on the Russian front (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 2017). She last saw the Fuhrer in 1944 when she married Peter Jacob, a German army major. They separated three years later and had no children (Benson & Benson, 2003).
Riefenstahl had never been a Nazi party member and was cleared of involvement after World War II. Released in 1948, she had spent the three previous years under house arrest. When she was in her early 60’s, Leni discovered Africa and still photography. While living with the Nuba tribe in southern Sudan, she produced two books plus significant film footage of these beautiful people. She later remarked that she had found love and acceptance among them, but was distressed by their later forced conversion to Islam (Thomas, 2004).
No doubt that Leni had a strong ego. According to Corliss (2002), when Jodie Foster and Madonna vied for the rights to her memoirs, she remarked, “Jodie’s not beautiful enough to play me.” She had envisioned Sharon Stone in the role. She had several lovers, was probably anti-Semitic, and in 1993 denied that she tried to create Nazi propaganda and was disgusted that her films were used in such a way (“Leni Riefenstahl”, 2017).
Leni Enjoyed Renewed Popularity in Her 90s
At 90, Leni enjoyed a personal renaissance of popularity. She learned to dive under water with her companion, Horst Kettner, 40 years younger than she. Vanity Fair photographed her, and her 1987 memoirs were translated into English. This month’s movie, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, a documentary, features a long interview with her—she remains feisty, unapologetic, and defiant.
Survived by Horst, Leni died of cancer at 101, having been criticized and reviled for most of her life. She was big-time litigious and won over fifty anti-defamation lawsuits (Lawrence, 2016). She wrote in her autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl, a memoir (1995), “My life became a tissue of rumors and accusations . They were all revealed to be false.”
And so we ask—
Leni Riefenstahl, a life well-lived . . .
1 US screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who had been involved in organizing pre-war Hollywood protests against Riefenstahl, dubbed her as “the Nazi pin-up girl” (Handy, 2015).
2 SA leader Ernst Röhm was murdered by the SS during the purge of the SA on the “Night of Long Knives,” in June 1934. Since Röhm was shown with Hitler in the film, Victory of Faith became a political embarrassment and was removed from theaters (Trimborn, 2007).
3 The rallies of the Nazi Party in Germany were held annually from 1923 to 1938.
4 The Kristallnacht massacre in November 1938 “derailed what was planned to be a triumphal cross-country publicity tour in America for Riefenstahl with Olympia” (Thurman, 2007).
Benson, K., & Benson, M. (2003). Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003). Findagrave.com. Retrieved from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/7852743/leni-riefenstahl
Corliss, R. (2002, Aug 22). That Old Feeling: Leni’s Triumph. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from https://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,340279,00.html
Handy, B. (2015). Budd & Leni. Longreads. Retrieved from https://longreads.com/2015/01/15/budd-leni/
Kekseksa. (2017, Jan 15). Last film of a great director. IMDb. Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046431/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
Leni Riefenstahl. (1973). In The Encyclopedia Britannica. (14th ed., Vol. VIII, p. 579). Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica.
Leni Riefenstahl | German director and actor. (2017, May 22). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leni-Riefenstahl
Leni Riefenstahl. (2017, Dec 11). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Leni_Riefenstahl&oldid=814936751
Lawrence, W. (2016, Jun 3). Leni Riefenstahl: was Hitler’s favourite film-maker really this nice? The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/06/03/leni-riefenstahl-was-hitlers-favourite-film-maker-really-this-ni/
Nehme, F. (2015, Oct 24). Dietrich and Riefenstahl by Karin Wieland review – a story of parallel lives. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/24/merlene-dietrich-leni-riefenstahl-karin-wieland-review
Riefenstahl, L. (Director). (1932). The Blue Light (Motion Picture).
Riefenstahl, L. (Director). (1933). The Victory of Faith (Motion Picture). Germany: Universum Film AG.
Riefenstahl, L. (Director). (1935a). Triumph of the Will (Motion Picture).
Riefenstahl, L. (Director). (1935b). Tag der Freiheit – Unsere Wehrmacht (Motion Picture). Germany: Reichsparteitagfilm.
Riefenstahl, L. (Director). (1938). Olympia (Motion Picture).
Riefenstahl, L. (Director). (1954). Tiefland (Motion Picture). Germany: Janus Films.
Riefenstahl, L. (1995). Leni Riefenstahl, a memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Robert. (2010). Riefenstahl’s unknown parable about fascism and freedom. IMDb. Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046431/reviews?ref_=tt_urv
Thomas, K. (2004, Nov 18). Riefenstahl: A return to Africa. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://articles.latimes.com/2004/nov/18/news/wk-screen18
Thurman, J. (2007). Where there’s a will: The rise of Leni Riefenstahl. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/03/19/where-theres-a-will
Trimborn, J. (2007). Leni Riefenstahl: A Life. New York: Faber and Faber.