TIEFLAND - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

Germany/Austria, 1945/1954

Director: Leni Riefenstahl

Production: Leni Riefenstahl Produktion; black and white; running time: 98 minutes. Filmed in Spain, the Austrian Alps, the Dolomites, and Barrandov Studios in Prague between 1942 and 1945. Footage confiscated by French occupation forces and returned incomplete to Riefenstahl, who then edited it for a February 1954 Austrian and West German release by Tobis.

Producer: Leni Riefenstahl; screenplay: Leni Riefenstahl; based on the opera Tiefland by Eugene d'Albert; photography: Albert Benitz; Trude Lechle; assistant director: G. W. Pabst; editor: Leni Riefenstahl; sound: Rudolf Kaiser and Herbert Janeczka; production designers: Erich Grave and Isabella Ploberger; music: Eugene d'Albert, with new compositions by Herbert Windt; performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra; production managers: Walter Traut and Max Hüske; consultant: Harald Reinl.

Cast: Leni Riefenstahl ( Martha ); Franz Eichberger ( Pedro ); Bernhard Minetti ( Marquez Don Sebastian ); Aribert Wäscher ( Camillo ); Maria Koppenhöfer ( Donna Amelia ); Luis Rainer ( Old Shepherd ); Frieda Richard ( Josefa ); Karl Skraup ( Mayor ); Max Holzboer ( The Miller ); Mena Main ( Miller's Wife ).




Hinton, David, The Films of Leni Riefenstahl , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1978.

Berg-Pan, Renata, Leni Riefenstahl , Boston, 1980.

Riefenstahl, Leni, Memoiren , Munich, 1987.

Riefenstahl, Leni, A Memoir , New York, 1993.


Gunston, David, "Leni Riefenstahl," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 14, no. 1, Fall 1960.

Brownlow, Kevin, "Leni Riefenstahl," in Film (London), Winter 1966.

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Rich, B. Ruby, "Leni Riefenstahl: The Deceptive Myth," in Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film , New York, 1979.

Rentschler, Eric, "Fatal Attractions: Leni Riefenstahl's The Blue Light ," in October , no. 48, Spring 1989.

Schulte-Sasse, Linda, "Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic," in Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television , Carbondale, 1992.

Sanders-Brahms, Helma, "Tyrannenmord: Tiefland von Leni Riefenstahl," in Das Dunkle zwischen den Bildern: Essays, Porträts, Kritiken , Frankfurt 1992.

Von Dassanowsky, Robert, "'Wherever You May Run, You Cannot Escape Him': Leni Riefenstahl's Self-Reflection and Romantic Transcendence of Nazism in Tiefland ," in Camera Obscura (Bloomington, Indiana), no. 35, May 1995.

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Considering the ongoing interest in Leni Riefenstahl and the most recent attempts by academics to find something in her work that would satisfy her critics or release her from cinematic exile, it is inexplicable that Riefenstahl's final dramatic film, Tiefland , has received so little attention. German filmmaker Helma Sanders-Brahms asks: "How is it possible that after fifty years the fear of dealing with this film is still so great that just the refusal to view it is considered a correct attitude for German intellectuals?" The answer might be that the film would threaten much of the static image scholarship has dealt Riefenstahl and her work.

Riefenstahl originally considered Tiefland a likely follow-up to her first directorial effort, Das blaue Licht (1932), but Sieg des Glaubens (1933), Triumph des Willens (1935), and Olympia (1938) delayed this possible project. The film adaptation of the Eugene d'Albert (1864–1932) opera, Tiefland , with libretto by Rudolph Lothar (based on the 1896 Spanish play Terra Baixa by Angel Guimera) was reconsidered in 1939. Since Tiefland was not considered valuable for propaganda purposes it was given none of the financial support Riefenstahl requested from the government. Tiefland became Riefenstahl's "inner emigration" from the hostility of the Nazi inner circle, the shock of the war, and her slow disillusionment with Hitler. The footage was subsequently confiscated by the French government and returned incomplete to Riefenstahl after her several years in detention camps and her final clearance by French courts. Due to the lost material (shot early in the production in Spain), she has never been satisfied with the final edit. In 1949, a West German magazine claimed that Riefenstahl used Gypsy inmates from concentration camps as extras and mistreated them during the filming. A Munich court found Riefenstahl innocent of the charges that same year, but she has had to repeatedly defend herself against renewed charges based on the original libelous assertion.

Tiefland opens with a visual/musical poem on the beauty of nature and the tranquility of the mountains. The long shots emphasize space and freedom, a nature-worship more reminiscent of Arnold Fanck's early Bergfilme than of the mountain images in Das blaue Licht , where filtered daylight suggests a haunted twilight setting. Here, the view is clear and bright, offered without sophisticated technical manipulation. The isolated human inhabitant of Tiefland 's mountains is Pedro the shepherd (Franz Eichberger), whose hut we enter. Pedro is awakened by his dog, which warns him of a wolf threatening the sheep. Berg-Pan has commented on this symbolism of innocence in the confrontation between sheep and wolf: "One wonders how the director and the Nazi authorities reconciled such action with Germany's own attacks on largely defenseless neighbors." The emphasis is unambiguous and it foreshadows the climax of the film. Pedro fights the wolf with his bare hands as they roll down the hill in mortal struggle. Having strangled the wolf, Pedro washes his wounds in the river and gently bathes the injured paw of his dog.

Like Junta in Das blaue Licht and the torchbearer from Mount Olympus in the prologue to Olympia , Pedro descends the mountain as the pure, nature-bound, and mystically empowered force. He passes through arid fields where tired peasants beg the Marquez's representative to let the river, undammed by the Marquez, flow back to their drought-stricken land. The overseer rejects their plea and informs them that the Marquez needs the water for his bulls. In the village, Pedro passes a covered gypsy wagon in which Martha (Riefenstahl) ties her shoes in preparation for her dance. The erotic tension between the Marquez and Martha is undeniable, but Martha is attracted to him because she misunderstands him to be both powerful and kind; when he discovers her gypsy companion has beaten her, he promises no one will hurt her again. Martha accepts this as Riefenstahl accepted Hitler, naively avoiding the obvious or wishing only to see self-serving aspects—a powerful man who will give her an important and protected existence. Indeed, Riefenstahl's opportunism on behalf of her art and fame governed her early life. As Martha dances for the Marquez (and his guitar accompaniment) to become his pampered mistress, so Riefenstahl filmed for Hitler (and his ideology) to become a renowned artist.

A number of elements in the film enforce Riefenstahl's use of the relationship between Martha and the Marquez to represent her Nazi experience. As she accepts her position in the castle and gives herself to the Marquez, Martha's gypsy dresses, the costume of (other) ethnicity and her art, are replaced by those of a noblewoman. These elitist outfits are uniforms that connect her to the ruling order and label her a possession of the Marquez. In her most masculine dress of the film, which in military-like regimentation mimics the Marquez's suit, Martha implores the Marquez to communicate with the drought-stricken peasants. His preceding ride through the town with Martha, who witnesses his reception as Riefenstahl witnessed Hitler's for the camera, and his arrogant consideration of the peasant's requests, quote Hitler's tour of Nuremberg in the early segments of Triumph des Willens. Unlike those moments, however, the poor crowds of Tiefland do not welcome or cheer their "Führer" but curse him in anger and misery. Martha, like Riefenstahl, who has admitted as much, is possessed by a leader she agreed to serve and whose sudden cruelty contradicts his generous behavior to her. One must also consider that Bernhard Minetti's Marquez bears a strong physical resemblance to Goebbels. Like the Propaganda Minister, the Marquez is known for his sexual dalliances and his abuse of Martha mimics Goebbels' alleged verbal assaults on Riefenstahl.

The capitalist support of authoritarian rule is introduced in the figure of Donna Amelia (Maria Koppenhöffer), the daughter of the Mayor (Karl Skraup), who is goaded on by her father to become the wife of the Marquez for a sizeable amount of money. The Marquez requires her finances to resolve his debts and Donna Amelia is therefore treated as a possession to be bartered by her father and as an object of financial desire by the Marquez. She readily accepts subservience to a man she hates for the sake of a title and to please her father. Riefenstahl, who celebrated the patriarchy in Triumph , creates powerful allegories of male domination and abuse in Tiefland. The class differences between Martha, Donna Amelia, and the servant women are revealed as irrelevant under male oppression. The Marquez's attempt to (re)possess Martha after the wedding is met with physical defense from Pedro. Having lost the duel with knives, the Marquez is blocked from escape by the peasants and Pedro strangles him as he did the wolf. Leaving the dead leader and the now free peasants behind, Martha and Pedro walk into the mountains and a new life together.

Riefenstahl's Martha rises blissfully into the happy ending because the director/writer/actress who previously assembled visions of Hitler's Germany to serve as a script for the regime's self-image has, with Tiefland , scripted her own escape from a pact with evil and a prominence gone sour. Through Martha, she does not relinquish her equality with men but leaves behind a leader and a society she previously celebrated. Gone is the self-sacrificing, fascist-friendly mysticism of Das blaue Licht and the grandiose celebration of the documentary films. What surfaces is parody and criticism of such previous notions. Servitude imprisons Martha and the peasantry, who come to hate their "Führer." Egomania and grandiosity offer these people nothing and ultimately destroy the elite. The very center of the story, the heroine, is a non-Aryan, a gypsy. What remains, even in the naive romantic finale, reaches beyond most postwar dominant film: a strong, independent female at odds with patriarchal roles and images, and a male devoid of machismo beyond his desire to defend. Perhaps because Riefenstahl's Martha seems somewhat older than Pedro, he is also conscious of her dominant quality. Tiefland is Riefenstahl's most personal cinematic statement, the result of a film oeuvre tied to the rise and fall of the Third Reich. It implies a perception that Riefenstahl's critics have failed to elicit from the filmmaker herself: namely that the warrior order she celebrated at Nuremberg would ultimately condemn her and those who would consider her post- Triumph films as a model.

—Robert von Dassanowsky

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