A Brief History
On August 22nd, 1902, Helene “Leni” Riefenstahl was born in Berlin, Germany. Thirty years later she would meet Adolf Hitler, the man who helped her become the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century, but that association would nearly destroy her as well.
A talented teenager, Leni (pronounced “Lay-Nee”) was enrolled in dance and ballet classes. She gained a reputation on the Berlin dance circuit and became a popular entertainer. Injuries to her feet and knees, however, threatened the future of her dancing career, so she transitioned into acting. She went on to have a prolific run as an actress in silent films and was so highly regarded by the German public and directors that she just barely lost the role of Lola in the Blue Angel to Marlene Dietrich in 1930. It is interesting to ponder what might have been had Leni won the part of Lola, as this movie made Marlene an international star and launched her Hollywood career. During World War II, Marlene abandoned her country of birth and became one of the most outspoken supporters of America and its troops. Leni would do the exact opposite. In fact, she helped create the image of Germany and Naziism that Hilter wanted the world to see.
Shortly thereafter, Leni was given an opportunity to direct. She ended up co-writing, directing and starring in the 1932 production of Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), under the banner of her own, newly formed company, Leni Riefenstahl Productions. Though it was not universally well-received, the movie brought her attention, showcased her talents and looked very good on her resume, which came just in time for her “fortuitous” meeting.
During the making of Das Blaue Licht, Leni had read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The book left such an impression on her that she became a follower of the National Socialist Party and came to believe strongly that Hitler could lead Germany. She then went to a rally to see Adolf Hitler in person as he was campaigning for the presidency and was also mesmerized by his talent as a public speaker. She ended up writing him, requesting a meeting. This meeting must have gone well because Hitler commissioned her to direct an hour-long propaganda film of the fifth Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg in 1933. This film became known as Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). For the two of them, it became a “win-win” situation. Leni’s film would give Hitler and the Nazis the exposure they wanted, and in return, they would fund Leni’s movies and support and promote her otherwise. Not only that, but Hitler had so much faith and confidence in Leni, that she had to answer to no one but him. This arrangement would eventually anger Josef Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, who could not control her – the only person in the entertainment industry where this was the case.
Impressed with the filming of the fifth Nazi Party Rally, Hitler commissioned her to film the sixth rally in 1934, also at Nuremberg. This chronicle named Triumph des Willen (Triumpf of the Will) by Hitler was enormously successful in Germany, left a tremendous impression in the world of filmmaking and became the quintessential epic and innovative propaganda film against which all others would be measured. Furthermore, it made Leni the first female director to achieve international recognition, and she was only 32. This accomplishment makes her what the Germans call a “Fräulein Wunder” which basically translates into “amazingly talented and successful young woman.” Nowadays it is often used to describe Heidi Klum. History and Headlines Note: The Triumpf of the Will may not be shown in Germany.
The filming of a third Nazi Rally at Nuremberg followed, completing the Nuremberg-trilogy.
Hitler then commissioned her to film the Olympic Games in Berlin 1936. This film became known as Olympia and was highly successful and influenced the art of filming sports. Leni was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in which she placed a camera on rails to follow the athletes. She also included slow motion shots for dramatic effect. Her footage of African-American Jesse Owens would later become famous. As with her propaganda films, her art of filming sports events would become the standard.
During the Second World War, she made fewer movies in support of the Nazi Party. While in Poland as a war correspondent, she had witnessed 30 civilians being executed in retaliation for an alleged attack on German soldiers. She did go back to Poland, however, to film Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw, but from then on chose not to make any more Nazi-related propaganda movies.
Instead Leni concentrated her efforts on filming Tiefland, an adaptation of Hitler’s favorite opera by Eugen d’Albert. It would be this film and less her propaganda movies that would come to haunt her following the war. The extras who played the Spanish women and farmers were Sinti and Roma who had been procured from concentration camps. After filming, they were returned to the concentration camps where they were promptly executed. Leni would always maintain that she did not know about the fate of the extras in her film and that she was in no way to blame for their treatment. Filming of the movie wrapped, but before it could be released, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, and Germany surrendered to the Allies. Leni was taken into custody by American troops.
From 1945 to 1948, Leni was held in various American- and French-run detention camps, prisons and under house arrest and was tried four times for collaborating with the Nazis. She did the usual song and dance about how she was just an innocent and ignorant bystander, totally oblivious to the behind-the-scenes activities of the Nazi war machine and that all she had wanted to do as an artist was capture the moment. Still, many suspected that she had indeed known about the concentration camps. Despite the negative sentiment, she was never convicted, and she won more than 50 libel cases brought against her. She was guilty by association, however, and her punishment was to be that all of her efforts in the 1950s and 60s to continue filmmaking would be met with resistance, protests, sharp criticism and no funding.
In 1954, French filmmaker Jean Cocteau insisted that Tiefland be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. It would be the first public viewing of the film ten years after it had been completed. He supported Leni, but he died before their mutual projects could be realized.
Then in old age, Leni began pursuing photography and reinvented herself as a nature and aquatic photographer. She traveled extensively to Africa to take pictures of the wildlife and tribes. Active until very old age, at 100 she was still photographing marine life and had the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest scuba divers.
She died shortly after celebrating her 101st birthday.
Leni would later say that meeting Hitler was the biggest catastrophe of her life. Although she never argued that she had been in awe of his personality, she also said that that same admiration blinded her from recognizing his demonic side.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you seen any of her films? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on August 22, please see the History and Headlines article: “Lopsided Victories.”
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For more information on Leni Riefenstahl or women of the Third Reich, the following books might be interesting:
RIEFENSTAHL, LENI. LENI RIEFENSTAHL. Picador, 1995.
Sigmund, Anna Maria. Women of the Third Reich. Nde Pub, 2000.