German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl is regarded by many scholars as one of the greatest female filmmakers in the history of cinema. She was a pioneering artist who displayed a commanding mastery over the cinematic medium, facilitating the innovation of cinematic techniques. Riefenstahl’s legacy is thoroughly complicated by the subjects of her films as well as her troubling political associations.
On the anniversary of her birthday, we revisit the life and times of Leni Riefenstahl in order to examine the controversial figure’s contributions to the world of cinema.
Born in Berlin in 1902, Riefenstahl was almost destined to take over her father’s profitable ventilation company when she came of age but her mother intervened. She had always hoped that her daughter would become a noteworthy artist in the entertainment industry and encouraged her to pursue the same. Since her early years, Riefenstahl felt an inclination towards artistic activities like poetry as well as sports. After watching a production of Snow White at the age of 16, Riefenstahl was deeply inspired to take up dancing as her profession despite her father’s warnings.
As a student of ballet and painting, Riefenstahl landed parts in dancing programs throughout the continent. She entered the world of cinema as an actress in German mountain films before forming her own production company and directing the 1932 film The Blue Light which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. That very year, Riefenstahl was introduced to the ideas of Adolf Hitler at one of his rallies. While recalling the experience, she wrote: “I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the Earth’s surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.”
According to Hitler, Riefenstahl was the perfect example of his image of an Aryan woman. As he was completely blown away by her directorial talents, Hitler hired her to make propaganda films like The Victory of Faith and Triumph of the Will. The latter is still considered by many to be the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda ever made, even though Riefenstahl vehemently denied in subsequent interviews that she intended her work to be used as propaganda for the Nazis. Triumph of the Will remains one of her biggest achievements, inspiring the likes of Charlie Chaplin for his classic satire The Great Dictator as well as other contemporary filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott.
Hitler would give Riefenstahl her most ambitious project in 1936 when the Summer Olympics was scheduled for Berlin. Although Hitler wanted Olympia to be a cinematic chronicle of the superiority of the Aryan race, that narrative was quickly punctured by the blistering pace of none other than Jesse Owens. Olympia is now remembered as one of the most innovative sports documentaries ever made, featuring live tracking shots, underwater shots, slow motion and unconventional camera angles among other unpopular techniques which are used almost everywhere now.
After the end of the war and the defeat of the Nazi party, Riefenstahl was detained and labelled as a “Nazi sympathiser”. However, she was never convicted for any war crimes and she kept denying that she was associated with the Nazi party even though her biographers later uncovered that the filmmaker was quite close to Hitler as well as Goebbels. She lamented at the time: “It was the biggest catastrophe of my life. Until the day I die people will keep saying, ‘Leni is a Nazi’, and I’ll keep saying, ‘But what did she do?'”
Due to Riefenstahl’s fascist allegiances, many of her future projects fell apart and she lived in relative obscurity. In an interview with Dick Cavett, the indomitable Orson Welles admitted that Riefenstahl’s work was extremely well-made and that she was “hustling around” in England for documentary projects which was a sign of her enormous fall from grace. She denied having any knowledge of the Holocaust and insisted that she “was one of millions who thought Hitler had all the answers” but the world refused to see her as anything more than a Nazi.
In her final years, Riefenstahl published works on photography and wrote about her life. She reflected: “I feel as though I have lived many lives, experienced the heights and depths of each and like the waves of the ocean, never known rest. Throughout the years, I have looked always for the unusual, for the wonderful, for the mysteries at the heart of life.”
Riefenstahl passed away in 2003 due to complications arising from her battle with cancer, leaving behind a rich but problematic legacy that is forgotten by almost everyone except scholars and historians.