Leni Riefenstahl. Never heard of her. A crash course was necessary indeed. Fortunately, I work at MoviesonChatham, a research and writing group for film groups, critics and fans. This eclectic group provides ample opportunities for learning curves. The eye-opening quest to learn about this obscure woman left me feeling concerned about the fact that I, a college educated woman who is never without a book, had never, not once, heard of Leni Riefenstahl.
Then again, where would I have crossed paths with Riefenstahl, or her legacy? I was not a film studies major, nor am I a scholar of World War II. Between my book-loving mother and a long running book club, books in great numbers including World War II novels have passed through my hands. But never a one about Riefenstahl. The repertoire of film I have viewed span the spectrum of genres, but none exposed me to Leni Riefenstahl.
Hollywood Passes on Leni Riefenstahl
That was not for a lack of trying. Renowned director Steven Soderbergh considered telling Leni Riefenstahl’s story on film only to concede later that the project made no business sense (Jagernauth, 2013).
I can’t do this anymore. I can’t spend two years making no money on something that I know no one is going to see.
So Soderbergh shelved the Leni Riefenstahl project in exchange for the financially successful, and star-studded Contagion (2011). Actress and director Jodie Foster also saw potential for portraying Leni Riefenstahl on film, but her efforts were cut short (Bartyzel, 2007). One of multiple reasons seemed to be that Leni Riefenstahl herself commented, “Jodie is not pretty enough to play me.” Actress Sharon Stone was Riefenstahl’s “ultimate idea for herself” (Corliss, 2002).
In any case, Hollywood has been unforgiving of Riefenstahl’s significant role in the Third Reich and her unrepentant response to it. Leni Riefenstahl’s story has yet to be told to a mainstream audience. Contrary to Soderbergh’s opinion, after watching this month’s movie, I believe a well-done feature film on Leni Riefenstahl could certainly entice curiosity and attract movie goers.
Riefenstahl’s Films May Lose Connection to Sinister Roots
Nevertheless, Riefenstahl’s accomplishments have endured the test of time. In its July 2013 issue, Entertainment Weekly (EW) listed her film, Olympia, as #84 of their “All Time Greatest Movie List” (EW Staff, 2013). In its blurb, the magazine left out mention of Olympia’s origins. There was nothing in EW about Hitler, the Nazi party, or the Third Reich. How disconcerting it is that current and future generations, relying upon EW’s list, could watch Olympia, admire its ingenuity, and credit Leni Riefenstahl with no knowledge of its sinister roots. The documentary of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin is essentially a Nazi Propaganda film as it illustrates Führer Adolf Hitler in a positive light. Granted, the film Olympia highlights American four-time Gold Medalist Jesse Owens, and another American athlete named Glen Morris, however this was Riefenstahl vying for Hollywood recognition.
Riefenstahl, too, hoped Olympia would take her to Hollywood. On November 4, 1938, she arrived in New York to promote Olympia. Her timing could scarcely have been worse. Five days later came the horrific news of Kristallnacht. Reports from Germany told of 1,000 synagogues burned in one night, and 30,000 Jews dragged off to concentration camps. A defiant Riefenstahl told reporters that she did not believe such things could have happened. Even when the German consul in New York told her the stories were true, she vowed to brazen it out in the US until “this damn Jewish thing is no longer in the headlines”(von Tunzelmann, 2012).
It stayed in the headlines, and the invitations vanished that she had received from Hollywood players before Kristallnacht, including Louis B Mayer. Only one studio boss still agreed to meet her: Walt Disney.
Will Leni Riefenstahl eventually creep through history with no accounting for her heavy associations with Hitler’s Third Reich? Not if guardians of history have anything to do with it. Holocaust survivors as well as World War II veterans are aging. Within two to three more decades, they will be gone from this Earth. Concentrated efforts are present everywhere to preserve and spread their stories to generations that follow them. My daughter’s school, Marist School in Atlanta, GA, offers a course on the Holocaust to 10th graders to teach them the atrocities that transpired a mere 70-80 years ago, a blink of an eye in the grand scale of mankind’s history. So thorough is the course that my 16-year-old daughter surprised me by knowing exactly who Leni Riefenstahl was.
Evil Hijacked an Extraordinary Talent
The future of humanity depends on arming mankind with knowledge, awareness and morals. The Holocaust happened once. It can very well happen again. And, it already has, for genocide and ethnic cleansing exist in our time in Darfur, Myanmar, Sudan, and Syria, most carried out by Muslim groups. Evil is real and it looks for ways to infiltrate. In Leni Riefenstahl, evil hijacked an extraordinary talent, and used it for its purposes. Imagine, just imagine, what Riefenstahl could have accomplished had her creativity not been tainted by heinous objectives. For all her artistic genius, it did not enlighten Leni to the hell she was upon, nor did it alert her to do something about it.
Unfortunately, ignorance is integral to human nature. Quote Plato, the philosopher who lived over 1000 years ago, “Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil.” Hence, the vital importance of education, and moral guidance. In that regard, MoviesonChatham and Marist School are performing a valuable service to society.
Bartyzel, M. (2007, Apr 30). Jodie Foster will play Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s director. Moviefone. Retrieved from https://www.moviefone.com/2007/04/30/jodie-foster-will-play-leni-riefenstahl-hitlers-director/
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
EW Staff. (2013, Jul 11). Movies: Top 100. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from https://ew.com/gallery/movies-top-100
Jagernauth, K. (2013, Sep 23). Soderbergh says abandoned Leni Riefenstahl biopic would focus on director battling the studio system. IndieWire. Retrieved from https://www.indiewire.com/2013/09/soderbergh-says-abandoned-leni-riefenstahl-biopic-would-focus-on-director-battling-the-studio-system-93359/
Muller, R. (Director) (1993). The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Motion Picture). Germany: Kino.
Soderbergh, S. (Director) (2011). Contagion (Motion Picture). USA: Warner Bros.
von Tunzelmann, A. (2012, Jun 14). The Shameful legacy of the Olympic Games. the Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/jun/14/shameful-legacy-olympics-1936-berlin