Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin, 22 August 1902.
Studied Russian Ballet at the Mary Wigmann School for Dance, Dresden, and
Jutta Klamt School for Dance, Berlin.
Married Peter Jacob, 1944 (divorced 1946).
Dancer, from 1920; appeared in "mountain films" directed by
Arnold Franck, from 1936; established own production company, Riefenstahl
Films, 1931; first film,
Das blaue Licht
, released, 1932; appointed "film expert to the National Socialist
Party" by Hitler, 1933; detained in various prison camps by Allied
Forces on charges of pro-Nazi activity, 1945–48; charges dismissed
by Berlin court, allowed to work in film industry again, 1952; suffered
serious auto accident while working in Africa, 1956; commissioned by
(London) to photograph the Munich Olympics, 1972; honored at Telluride
Film Festival, Colorado (festival picketed by anti-Nazi groups), 1974; was
the subject of the documentary
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl
, directed by Ray Muller, 1993.
Silver Medal, Venice Festival, for
Das Blaue Licht
, 1932; Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques, Paris,
Diplome de Grand Prix, for
Triumph des Willens
, 1937; Polar Prize, Sweden, for
20 Tengstrasse, 8000 Munich 40, Germany.
Das blaue Licht ( The Blue Light ) (+ co-sc, role as Junta)
Sieg des Glaubens ( Victory of the Faith )
Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will ) (+ pr, ed); Tag der Freiheit: unsere Wermacht (+ ed)
Olympia ( Olympische Spiele 1936 ) (+ sc, co-ph, ed)
Tiefland ( Lowland ) (+ sc, ed, role as Marta) (released 1954)
Der heilige Berg (Fanck)
Der grosse Sprung (Fanck)
Das Schiscksal derer von Hapsburg (Raffé); Die weisses Hölle vom Piz Palü (Fanck)
Stürme über dem Montblanc (Fanck)
Der weiss Rausch (Fanck)
S.O.S. Eisberg (Fanck)
Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl ( The Power of the Image: Leni Riefenstahl ) (Müller) (role as herself)
Die Nacht der Regisseure ( Night of the Filmmakers ) (Reitz) (role as herself)
Kampf in Schnee und Eis , Leipzig, 1933.
Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitagsfilms , Munich, 1935 (uncredited ghost writer Ernst Jaeger).
Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf , Berlin, 1937.
The Last of the Nuba , New York, 1974.
Jardins du corail , Paris, 1978.
Memoiren , Munich, 1987 (also published as The Sieve of Time: The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl , London, 1992, and Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir , New York, 1994).
Wonders under Water , London, 1991.
Leni Riefenstahl: Life , Tokyo, 1992.
Olympia , London, 1994.
Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir , London, 1995.
The People of Kau , translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
"An Interview with a Legend," with Gordon Hitchens, in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1965.
Interview with Michel Delahaye, in Interviews with Film Directors , edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.
"A Reply to Paul Rotha," with Kevin Brownlow, in Film (London), Spring 1967.
"Statement on Sarris-Gessner Quarrel about Olympia ," in Film Comment (New York), Fall 1967.
Interview with Herman Weigel, in Filmkritik (Munich), August 1972.
"Why I Am Filming Penthesilea ," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1973.
"Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir," in New York , 13 September 1993.
"After a Half-Century, Leni Riefenstahl Confronts the U.S.," in Film Culture (New York), Winter 1996.
Cadars, Pierre, and Francis Courtade, Histoire du cinema Nazi , Paris, 1972.
Fanck, Arnold, Er furte Regie mit Gletschern, Sturmen, Lawinen , Munich, 1973.
Hull, David Stewart, Film in the Third Reich , New York, 1973.
Leiser, Erwin, Nazi Cinema , London, 1974.
Barsam, Richard, Filmguide to "Triumph of the Will, " Bloomington, Indiana, 1975.
Infield, Glenn, Leni Riefenstahl, the Fallen Film Goddess , New York, 1976.
Ford, Charles, Leni Riefenstahl , Paris, 1978.
Hinton, David, The Films of Leni Riefenstahl , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1978.
Infield, G. B., Leni Riefenstahl et le troisieme Reich , Paris, 1978.
Berg-Pan, Renata, Leni Riefenstahl , Boston, 1980.
Heck-Rabi, Louise, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.
Graham, Cooper C., Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1986.
Hinton, David B., The Films of Leni Riefenstahl , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1991.
Deutschmann, Linda, Triumph of the Will: The Image of the Third Reich , Wakefield, New Hampshire, 1991.
"The Case of Leni Riefenstahl," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1960.
Gunston, David, "Leni Riefenstahl," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1960.
Berson, Arnold, "The Truth about Leni," in Films and Filming (London), April 1965.
Gregor, Ulrich, "A Comeback for Leni Riefenstahl," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1965.
Brownlow, Kevin, "Leni Riefenstahl," in Film (London), Winter 1966.
Rotha, Paul, "I Deplore. . . ," in Film (London), Spring 1967.
Corliss, Richard, "Leni Riefenstahl—A Bibliography," in Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Fall 1969.
Richards, J., "Leni Riefenstahl: Style and Structure," in Silent Pictures (London), Autumn 1970.
Alpert, Hollis, "The Lively Ghost of Leni," in the Saturday Review (New York), 25 March 1972.
"Riefenstahl Issue" of Film Culture (New York), Spring 1973.
Barsam, R. M., "Leni Riefenstahl: Artifice and Truth in a World Apart," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1973.
Sontag, Susan, "Fascinating Fascism," in the New York Review of Books , 6 February 1975.
Sokal, Harry R., "Über Nacht Antisemitin geworden?," in Der Spiegel (Germany), no. 46, 1976.
"Zur Riefenstahl-Renaissance," special issue of Frauen und Film (Berlin), December 1977.
Fraser, J., "An Ambassador for Nazi Germany," in Films (London), April 1982.
Horton, W. J., "Capturing the Olympics," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), July 1984.
Lopperdinger, M., and D. Culbert, "Leni Riefenstahl, the SA, and the Nazi Party Rally Films, Nuremberg 1933–1934: Sieg des Glaubens and Triumph des Willens ," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and TV (Abingdon, Oxon), vol. 8, no. 1, 1988.
Lopperdinger, M. and D. Culbert, "Leni Riefenstahl's Tag der Freiheit: The 1935 Nazi Party Rally Film," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and TV (Abingdon, Oxon), vol. 12, no. 3, 1992.
Schiff, Stephen, "Leni's Olympia ," in Vanity Fair (New York), September 1992.
Elsaesser, Thomas, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman," in Sight and Sound (London), February, 1993.
Harshaw, Tobin, "Why Am I Guilty?" in New York Times Book Review , 26 September 1993.
Corliss, Richard, "Riefenstahl's Last Triumph," in Time (New York), 18 October 1993.
Hoberman, J., "Triumph of the Swill," in Premiere (New York), December 1993.
Sklar, Robert, "The Devil's Director: Her Talent Was Her Tragedy," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 20, no. 3, 1994.
Dassanowsky, R. von, "'Wherever You May Run You Cannot Escape Him': Leni Riefenstahl's Self-Reflection and Romantic Transcendence of Nazism in 'Tiefland'," in Camera Obscura (Bloomington), May 1995.
Naughton, L., "Leni Riefenstahl: A Wonderful Life in a Horrible World," in Metro Magazine , no. 106, November 1997.
Hitchens, Gordon, "Recent Riefenstahl Activities and a Commentary on Nazi Propaganda Filmmaking," in Film Culture (New York), Winter 1996.
Cohn, H., "From the Mailbag: Offended by Honor to Riefenstahl," in Classic Images (Muscatine), November 1997.
Starkman, Ruth, "Mother of All Spectacles: Ray Müller's The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl ," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1997–1998.
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl , 1993.
The Night of the Film-makers , 1995.
* * *
The years 1932 to 1945 define the major filmmaking efforts of Leni Riefenstahl. Because she remained a German citizen making films in Hitler's Third Reich, two at the Fuhrer's request, she and her films were viewed as pro-Nazi. Riefenstahl claims she took no political position and committed no crimes. In 1948, a German court ruled that she was a follower of, not active in, the Nazi Party. Another court in 1952 reconfirmed her innocence of war crimes. But she is destined to remain a politically controversial filmmaker who made two films rated as masterpieces.
She began to learn filmmaking while acting in the mountain films of Arnold Fanck, her mentor. She made a mountain film of her own, The Blue Light , using smoke bombs to create "fog". She used a red and green filter on the camera lens, over her cameraman's objections, to obtain a novel magical effect. This film is Riefenstahl's own favorite. She says it is the story of her own life. Hitler admired The Blue Light and asked her to photograph the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg. She agreed to make Victory of the Faith , which was not publicly viewed. Hitler then asked her to film the 1934 Nazi Party rally.
Triumph of the Will , an extraordinary work, shows Hitler arriving by plane to attend the rally. He proceeds through the crowded streets of Nuremburg, addresses speeches to civilians and uniformed troops, and reviews a five-hour parade. The question is: Did Riefenstahl make Triumph as pro-Nazi propaganda or not? "Cinematically dazzling and ideologically vicious," is R. M. Barsam's judgment. According to Barsam, three basic critical views of Triumph exist: 1) those who cannot appreciate the film at all, 2) those who can appreciate and understand the film, and 3) those who appreciate it in spite of the politics in the film.
Triumph premiered 29 March 1935, was declared a masterpiece, and subsequently earned three awards. Triumph poses questions of staging. Was the rally staged so that it could be filmed? Did the filming process shape the rally, give it meaning? Riefenstahl's next film, Olympia , posed the question of financing. Did Nazi officialdom pay for the film to be made? Riefenstahl claims the film was made independently of any government support. Other opinions differ.
The improvisatory techniques Riefenstahl used to make Triumph were improved and elaborated to make Olympia. She and her crew worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week. Olympia opens as Triumph does, with aerial scenes. Filmed in two parts, the peak of Olympia I is Jesse Owens's running feat. The peak of Olympia II is the diving scenes. In an interview with Gordon Hitchens in 1964, Riefenstahl revealed her guidelines for making Olympia. She decided to make two films instead of one because "the form must excite the content and give it shape. . . . The law of film is architecture, balance. If the image is weak, strengthen the sound, and vice-versa; the total impact on the viewer should be 100 percent." The secret of Olympia 's success, she affirmed, was its sound—all laboratory-made. Riefenstahl edited the film for a year and a half. It premiered 20 April 1938 and was declared a masterpiece, being awarded four prizes.
Riefenstahl's career after the beginning of World War II is comprised of a dozen unfinished film projects. She began Penthesilea in 1939, Van Gogh in 1943, and Tiefland in 1944, releasing it in 1954. Riefenstahl acted the role of a Spanish girl in it while co-directing with G. W. Pabst this drama of peasant-landowner conflicts. Visiting Africa in 1956, she filmed Black Cargo , documenting the slave trade, but her film was ruined by incorrect laboratory procedures. In the 1960s, she lived with and photographed the Mesakin Nuba tribe in Africa.
Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Olympia are two of the greatest documentaries ever made. That is indisputable. And it also is indisputable that they are among the most notorious and controversial. Each has been lauded for its sheer artistry, yet damned for its content and vision of Adolph Hitler and a German nation poised on the edge of totalitarian barbarism. After years as a name in the cinema history books, Riefenstahl was back in the news in 1992. Memoirnen , her autobiography, was first published in English as The Sieve of Time: The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl , and she was the subject of a documentary, Ray Müller's The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Clearly, Riefenstahl had written the book and participated in the documentary in an attempt to have the final word regarding the debate over her involvement with Hitler and the Third Reich.
The documentary, which is three hours in length, traces Riefenstahl's undeniably remarkable life, from her success as a dancer and movie actress during the 1920s to her career as a director, her post-World War II censure, and her latter-day exploits as a still photographer. Still very much alive at age ninety-one, Riefenstahl is shown scuba diving, an activity she first took up in her seventies.
Riefenstahl is described at the outset as a "legend with many faces" and "the most influential filmmaker of the Third Reich." The film goes on to serve as an investigation of her life. Was she an opportunist, as she so vehemently denies, or a victim? Was she a "feminist pioneer, or a woman of evil?" Riefenstahl wishes history to view her as she views herself: not as a collaborator but as an artist first and foremost, whose sole fault was to have been alive in the wrong place at the wrong moment in history, and who was exploited by political forces of which she was unaware.
Upon meeting Hitler, she says, "He seemed a modest, private individual." She was "ignorant" of his ideas and politics, and "didn't see the danger of anti-Semitism." She claims to have acquiesced to making Triumph of the Will only after Hitler agreed that she would never have to make another film for him. To her, shooting Triumph was just a job. She wanted to make a film that was "interesting, one that was not with posed shots. . . . It had to be filmed the way an artist, not a politician, sees it." The same holds true for Olympia , which features images of perfectly proportioned, God-like German athletes. When queried regarding the issue of whether these visuals reflect a fascist aesthetic, Riefenstahl refuses to answer directly, replaying again that art and politics are separate entities.
"If an artist dedicates himself totally to his work, he cannot think politically," Riefenstahl says. Even in the late 1930s, she chose not to leave Germany because, as she observes, "I loved my homeland." She claims that she hoped that reports of anti-Semitism were "isolated events." And her image of Hitler was "shattered much too late. . . . My life fell apart because I believed in Hitler. People say of me, 'She doesn't want to know. She'll always be a Nazi.' [But] I was never a Nazi."
"What am I guilty of?" Riefenstahl asks. "I regret [that I was alive during that period]. But I was never anti-Semitic. I never dropped any bombs." Explained director Müller, after a New York Film Festival screening of the film, "She was an emancipated woman before there was even such a term. She has a super ego, which has been trod upon for half a century. . . . [She is] an artist and a perfectionist. I believe that she was purposefully blind not to look in the direction that would get her into trouble."
In this regard, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl ultimately works as a portrait of denial. As Müller so aptly observes, "Any artist has a great responsibility. Anyone who influences the public has this. She is possessed with her art. She says, 'I'm only doing my thing.' I think this is irresponsible. She may be obsessed and possessed, and a genius. But that does not exempt her from responsibility."
In 1995, Riefenstahl briefly resurfaced in Edgar Reitz's The Night of the Film-Makers , consisting of interviews with German filmmakers from Frank Beyer to Wim Wenders. Eric Hansen, writing in Variety , summed up the essence of her appearance by noting, "Names like the ninety-two-year-old Leni Riefenstahl and young director Detlev Buck are allowed only a few self-glorifying or sarcastic comments."
Perhaps the final word on Riefenstahl is found in Istvan Szabo's Hanussen , a 1988 German-Hungarian film. Much of Hanussen is set in Germany between the world wars. One of the minor characters is a celebrated, egocentric woman artist, a member of the political inner circle, who surrounds herself with physical beauty while remaining callously unconcerned with all but her own vanity. Clearly, this character is based on Riefenstahl.
—Louise Heck-Rabi, updated by Rob Edelman