Obituary: Leni Riefenstahl
September 9, 2003
Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda films for the Nazi Party in the 1930s brought her praise for their beauty and power, but she spent her life defending her artistic association with Adolf Hitler.
Born in Berlin in 1902, Leni Riefenstahl was a dancer with Max Reinhard's Deutsches Theater until a knee injury forced her to change career. Dr Arnold Fanck, a leading German director, took her on, and she was soon established as one of Germany's leading ladies. She also ran her own production company and, when Hitler and the Nazis came to power the following year, Riefenstahl attracted the admiration of both the Fuehrer and his propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels.
Cinematic Nazi celebration
Hitler had approached Riefenstahl before and asked her to make films for him. Her executive contacts ensured her unlimited resources and made her one of the Nazi Party's foremost propagandists. Her film, Triumph of the Will, its title coined by Hitler, is a visually stunning document of the Nazi Party's rally at Nuremberg in 1934. A gigantic arena and 770,000 participants were included to maximise the visual impact of the film, a cinematic celebration of the Nazi takeover. Legions of jackbooted stormtroopers and swastika banners conveyed the impression of both the German strength and Aryan dominance central to the Nazi ideology.
Yet Leni Riefenstahl always maintained she was simply an artist, insisting that she and the Fuehrer never spoke of politics. "He never spoke about things which I didn't understand, only what happened with my work," she said. "Naturally in this time he was for me a very important person and I was very proud that he had such confidence in me." He was so confident that he commissioned her to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In Olympia, she pioneered new ways of filming sport, using slow motion and variations of perspective to great effect. Goebbels ordered Riefenstahl to play down the achievements of non-Aryan athletes but she faithfully chronicled victories by all races, including those of the film's "star", black US sprinter Jesse Owens.
Snubbed by Hollywood
Owens' four gold medals and two world records shattered the myth of Hitler's master-race. Though Olympia was later judged one of the finest movies of the century, Riefenstahl was snubbed when she visited Walt Disney in Hollywood in 1938. During World War II, she continued to direct feature films, but not the propaganda which Josef Goebbels had asked of her.
Leni Riefenstahl was tried after the war. Though she was cleared of being a Nazi , her film career was nevertheless over. She turned to Africa and still photography. She spent years photographing the Nubas of the Sudan, a tribe as physically imposing as Hitler's finest. She produced a critically acclaimed book of colour photographs, entitled Die Nuba.
Later, in her seventies, she took up scuba diving and underwater photography as well as photographing subjects as diverse as the 1972 Munich Olympics and Mick Jagger for London's Sunday Times. Luis Bunuel said of Leni Riefenstahl's earlier films that, "they were ideologically repugnant but fantastically made. Impressive". Though banned in Germany for years, her films were championed by Jean Cocteau and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and a number of recent retrospectives gave new audiences the opportunity to view her works.
She herself blamed a gaggle of "opinion formers" and "left-wing intellectuals" for her continued artistic isolation and craved the opportunity to be reassessed in a wider context, not purely as a Nazi propagandist. Even as late as 2002, German prosecutors dismissed, through lack of evidence, charges that she lied about the fate of more than 100 gypsies who were taken from Salzburg and Berlin concentration camps between 1940 and 1942 to be used as extras in her film Tiefland.
But, despite her insistence to the contrary, it was her films for Hitler for which Leni Riefenstahl will be remembered: a remarkable, if flawed, achievement, and one for which she never apologised.