Leni Riefenstahl might have been remembered in essence as the gifted dancer, director, actress, photographer, and cinematographer she was were it not for her link to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement in Germany during the first half of the 20th century. Her movies have had an influence worldwide, both in terms of content and filmmaking techniques, yet as “Hitler's favorite propagandist,” neither her films nor other talents worked to her credit. Riefenstahl filmed Hitler, the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the pomp of Nazi Germany, bringing to life those tumultuous times, but her Third Reich associations prevented her from attaining the respect her talents otherwise might have commanded. The curse followed her throughout a long life; she died in 2003 at the age of 101.
Riefenstahl was born in Berlin's Wedding district on August 22, 1902, the first child of Alfred and Bertha Riefenstahl. Her brother Heinz followed three-and-a-half years later. The family was well off, with Alfred running a prosperous heating and ventilation business and her mother staying home to care for her family.
Leaving home at age 21, Riefenstahl became a dancer despite her father's disapproval. She was quite talented, performing in several of Germany’s major cities, including Berlin, Munich and Prague. A knee injury that threatened to end her dancing career ended up leading to a new career in film. At the train station on her way to see a doctor about her knee, she saw a poster promoting the movie Berg des Schicksals (“Mountain of Destiny”)and instantly felt drawn to it. Instead of going to the doctor, Riefenstahl went to see the movie. She saw it again every night after that for a week.
The movie featured majestic mountains and sweeping panoramas that were the stock-in-trade of its director, Arnold Fanck. The experience convinced Riefenstahl to leave dancing and pursue a career in film. She actually met Arnold Fanck soon afterward and he directed her film debut in Der heilige Berg (“The Holy Mountain”) just 18 months later. She starred in several more movies that Fanck directed, alongside co-star Luis Trenker. She eventually did have knee surgery.
Riefenstahl was not content to remain an actress for long and was soon directing films. This was quite a feat given that female directors were almost unheard of in that day. Her work attracted Adolf Hitler, who invited her to film the 1934 rally of the Nazi party in Nuremberg and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. During her filming of the Olympic Games, funded by the Nazi's, Riefenstahl shot about 1.3 million feet of film and managed a film crew of 60 cinematographers. She also developed or perfected many of the photographic and cinematographic techniques familiar even to today's sports fans; slow motion cinematography, aerial panoramas, high shoots, and more.
Riefenstahl’s film of the Olympic games, Olympia, was released on April 20, 1938, Hitler's birthday. Toward the end of that year, Riefenstahl went to the United States to promote it. Her travels took her to Hollywood where she had a chance to meet with Walt Disney, though he did not agree to a private showing of her film. She did arrange a private screening for about 50 members of the press and other Hollywood insiders. Her effort paid off as Olympia won acclaim, achieving a glowing review in The Los Angeles Times.
Despite successes, Riefenstahl’s visit to America proved to be a difficult time professionally and personally and she ultimately failed to find a US distributor for Olympia. On November 9, 1938, just days after her arrived in the United states, Kristallnacht (literally “Crystal Night” but commonly referred to in English as “Night of Broken Glass”) , the horrendous burning of synagogues and persecution of Jewish merchants in Germany occurred. This, plus her ties to Hitler and an already vocal anti-Nazi movement in the US provoked a backlash against her in the press, despite positive reviews of Olympia. In addition, Ernst Jäger, a journalist friend who came with Riefenstahl to America, was secretly working against the Nazis and helped to thwart her attempts to have Olympia distributed in America. Adding to all these problems was news that her brother Heinz had died on the Russian front as he fought for Germany.
When the war ended in 1945, the Allied Forces accused Riefenstahl of being a Nazi and imprisoned her several times. Even though her films, like Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”) about the 1936 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg had been used as Nazi propaganda, the charges were eventually dropped by the Americans who captured her??. Riefenstahl was released on June 3, 1945. and went to French-occupied Austria, where she had family, to resume her film work. Trouble soon followed her there and hindered her attempts to return to work as a director.
The French paid no heed to the fact that the Americans had dropped their charges against Riefenstahl and re-arrested her, moving her to the part of Germany that France was then occupying. She was held under house arrest until August of 1947 and was even committed to an insane asylum not long before her release. Despite a French tribunal partially acquitted her in 1949, Riefenstahl still had legal problems from the French, who had taken her entire film library from Austria and refused to release it back to her. A fraudulent diary that was supposedly from Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, also hurt Riefenstahl's cause immensely as it added fuel to speculations that she was more closely associated with Hitler than she claimed.
Eventually, Riefenstahl tried filmmaking again, this time in Africa where she had scouted out locations for new movies. Public outcry continued, however, so these attempts proved futile. Unable to shoot movies, she began to work in still photography. Part of this work included living for months with an African tribe and chronicling the lives of its people. In her 70s, Riefenstahl learned to scuba dive and subsequently began underwater photography work that lasted 20 years. But wherever she went, Riefenstahl and her work generated controversy. Protests occurred whenever her photography was displayed. Many people even claimed to find fascist sympathies and tendencies in what she might have considered to be in essence, innocuous photographs. She died in Germany on September 8, 2003, of cancer.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON LENI RIEFENSTAHL, PLEASE SEE:
• Culture Shock: Leni Riefenstahl — online activity featuring the work of Leni Riefenstahl and whether it is art or something more sinister
• IMDB: Leni Riefenstahl — information on Riefenstahl and her movies
• Leni Riefenstahl Pictures and Bio — short biography with a variety of photos from a site devoted to Leni Riefenstahl