Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl (German: [ˈʁiːfənʃtaːl]; 22 August 1902 – 8 September 2003) was a German film director, photographer, actress and dancer widely known for directing the Nazi Party propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl’s prominence in the Third Reich, along with her personal association with Adolf Hitler, destroyed her film career following Germany’s defeat in World War II, after which she was arrested but released without any charges.
Triumph of the Will gave Riefenstahl instant and lasting international fame, as well as infamy. She directed eight films, two of which received significant coverage outside Germany. The propaganda value of her films made during the 1930s repels most modern commentators, but many film histories cite the aesthetics as outstanding. The Economist wrote that Triumph of the Will “sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century”.
In the 1970s, Riefenstahl published her still photography of the Nuba tribes in Sudan in several books such as The Last of the Nuba. Active until her death at age 101, she published marine life stills and released the marine-based film Impressionen unter Wasser in 2002.
After her death, the Associated Press described Riefenstahl as an “acclaimed pioneer of film and photographic techniques”. Der Tagesspiegel newspaper in Berlin noted, “Leni Riefenstahl conquered new ground in the cinema”. The BBC said her documentaries “were hailed as groundbreaking film-making, pioneering techniques involving cranes, tracking rails, and many cameras working at the same time”.
Christened Helene Bertha Amalie, she was born into a prosperous German Protestant family on 22 August 1902. Her father owned a successful heating and ventilation company and he wanted her to follow him into the world of business. However, her mother believed that Leni’s future was in show business. In 1918, when she was 16, she started dance and ballet classes at the Grimm-Reiter Dance School in Berlin, where she quickly became a star pupil.
Riefenstahl gained a reputation on Berlin’s dance circuit and she quickly moved into films. She made a series of films for Arnold Fanck, and one of them, The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), co-directed by G. W. Pabst, saw her fame spread to countries outside of Germany. Riefenstahl produced and directed her own work called Das Blaue Licht (1932), co-written by Carl Mayer and Béla Balázs. This film won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. In the film, Riefenstahl played a peasant girl who protected a glowing mountain grotto. The film attracted the attention of Hitler, who believed she epitomized the perfect German female.
Riefenstahl took dancing lessons and attended dance academies from an early age and began her career as a self-styled and well-known interpretive dancer, traveling around Europe and working with directorMax Reinhardt in a show funded by Jewish producer Harry Sokal. After injuring her knee while performing in Prague, she saw a film about mountains Mountain of Destiny (der Berg des Schicksals, 1924) and became fascinated with the possibilities of this sort of film. She went to the Alps to meet the film’s director, Arnold Fanck, hoping to secure the lead in his next project. Instead, Riefenstahl met Luis Trenker who had starred in Fanck’s films, who wrote to the director about her.
Riefenstahl went on to star in many of Fanck’s mountain films as an athletic and adventurous young woman with a suggestive appeal; she became an accomplished mountaineer during the winters of filming on mountains and learned filmmaking techniques. Riefenstahl went on to have a prolific career as an actress in silent films. She was popular with the German public and highly regarded by directors. In 1930, she lost the lead role in the Josef von Sternberg-directed The Blue Angel to her neighbour, Marlene Dietrich. Her last acting role before becoming a director was the 1933 U.S.-German co-productions of the Arnold Fanck-directed, German-language SOS Eisberg and the Tay Garnett-directed, English-language SOS Iceberg. The movies were filmed simultaneously and produced and distributed by Universal Studios. SOS Iceberg was Riefenstahl’s only English-language film role as an actress. One of her fans at this time was Adolf Hitler. Riefenstahl accompanied Fanck to the 1928 Olympic Games in St. Moritz, where she became interested in athletic photography and filming.
When presented with the opportunity to direct Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) (1932), she took it. Breaking from Fanck’s style of setting realistic stories in fairytale mountain settings, Riefenstahl—working with leftist screen writers Béla Balázs and Carl Mayer—filmed Das Blaue Licht as a romantic, wholly mystical tale which she thought of as more fitting to the terrain. She co-wrote, directed and starred in the film and produced it under the banner of her own company, Leni Riefenstahl Productions. Das Blaue Licht won the Silver Medal at the Venice Biennale and played to full audiences all over Europe. However, it was not universally well-received, for which Riefenstahl blamed the critics, many of them Jewish. Upon its 1938 re-release, the names of co-writer Béla Balázs and producer Harry Sokal, both Jewish, were removed from the credits; some reports claim this was at Riefenstahl’s behest. The director later turned over the name of her Jewish co-screenwriter to Nazi Propagandist Julius Streicher. Riefenstahl received invitations to travel to Hollywood to create films, but she refused the offers in order to stay in Germany with a boyfriend.
Riefenstahl heard candidate Adolf Hitler speak at a rally in 1932 and was mesmerized by his talent as a public speaker. Describing the experience in her memoir, Riefenstahl 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 the Daily Express of 24 April 1934, Leni Riefenstahl had read Mein Kampf during the making of her film The Blue Light. This newspaper article quotes her as having commented, “The book made a tremendous impression on me. I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page. I felt a man who could write such a book would undoubtedly lead Germany. I felt very happy that such a man had come”. She wrote to Hitler requesting a meeting. After meeting Hitler she was offered the opportunity to direct Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), an hour-long propaganda film about the fifth Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg in 1933. Riefenstahl agreed to direct the movie after returning from filming a movie in Greenland, and it was funded entirely by the Nazi Party as the credits to the film show quite clearly.
Impressed with Riefenstahl’s work, Hitler asked her to film the upcoming 1934 Party rally in Nuremberg, the sixth such rally. At first, according to Riefenstahl’s memoir, she resisted and did not want to create further Nazi films; instead, she wanted to direct a feature film based on Hitler’s favourite opera, Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland. Riefenstahl received private funding for the production of Tiefland, but the filming in Spain was derailed. Hitler was able to convince her to film Triumph instead, on the condition that she not be required to make further films for the party. She also told Hitler she wanted the freedom to act again: “I would not be able to go on living if I had to give up acting”.
The resulting chronicle of the Nuremberg Rally, Triumph des Willens (named by Hitler), was generally recognized as an epic, innovative work of propaganda filmmaking. Triumph of the Will became a rousing success in Germany. It made Riefenstahl the first female film director to achieve international recognition. In interviews for the 1993 film The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl adamantly denied any deliberate attempt to create pro-Nazi propaganda and said she was disgusted that Triumph of the Will was used in such a way.
Despite vowing not to make any more films about the Nazi Party, in 1935, Riefenstahl made the 18-minute Day of Freedom: Armed Forces about the German army. Like Victory of Faith and Triumph of the Will this was filmed at the annual Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. Riefenstahl never denied making this short 18 minute film. However she always claimed this film was a sub-set of Triumph of the Will added to mollify the German army which felt it was not represented well in the 1934 filming of Triumph of the Will. Over a million Germans had participated in the 1934 rally in Nuremberg. Later, yearly rallies held in Nuremberg got even bigger. The 1935 rally is noted for pronouncements about the status of Jews in Germany. These became known as the Nuremberg Laws which for Jews in Europe would soon become matters of life and death.
In 1936, Hitler invited Riefenstahl to film the Olympic Games in Berlin, a film which Riefenstahl claimed had been commissioned by the International Olympic Committee. She also went to Greece to take footage of the games’ original site at Olympia, where she was aided by Greek photographer Nelly, along with route of theinaugural torch relay. This material became Olympia, a successful film which has since been widely noted for its technical and aesthetic achievements. She was one of the first filmmakers to use tracking shots in a documentary, placing a camera on rails to follow the athletes’ movement, and she is noted for the slow motion shots included in the film. Riefenstahl’s work on Olympia has been cited as a major influence in modern sports photography. Riefenstahl filmed competitors of all races, including African-American Jesse Owens in what would later become famous footage.
Olympia was very successful in Germany after it premiered for Hitler’s 49th birthday in 1938, and its international debut led Riefenstahl to embark on an American publicity tour in an attempt to secure commercial release. In 1937, Riefenstahl told a reporter for the Detroit News: “To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength”. She arrived in New York City in November 1938, five days beforeKristallnacht, or ‘night of broken glass’; when news of the event reached the U.S., Riefenstahl maintained that Hitler was innocent. On 18 November, she was received by Henry Ford in Detroit and Olympia was shown at “The Chicago Engineers Club” two days later. Avery Brundage stated that it was “The greatest Olympic film ever made” and Riefenstahl left for Hollywood, where she was received by the German Consul Georg Gyssling, on 24 November. She negotiated with Louis B. Mayer and on 8 December, Walt Disney brought her on a three-hour tour showing her the on-going production of Fantasia.
After the Goebbels Diaries surfaced, researchers learned that Riefenstahl had been friendly with Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, attending the opera with them and coming to the Goebbels’ parties. However, Riefenstahl maintained that Goebbels was upset that she had rejected his advances and was jealous of her influence on Hitler, seeing her as an internal threat; therefore, his diaries could not be trusted. By later accounts, Goebbels thought highly of Riefenstahl’s filmmaking but was angered with what he saw as her overspending on the Nazi-provided filmmaking budgets.
During the Invasion of Poland, Riefenstahl was photographed in Poland wearing a military uniform and a pistol on her belt in the company of German soldiers; she had gone to the site of the battle as a war correspondent. On 12 September 1939 she was in the town of Końskie when 30 civilians were executed there, in retaliation for an alleged attack on German soldiers. According to her memoir, Riefenstahl tried to intervene but a furious German soldier held her at gunpoint and threatened to shoot her on the spot. She claimed she did not realize the victims were Jews. Closeup photographs of a distraught Riefenstahl survive from that day. Nevertheless, by 5 October 1939, Riefenstahl was back in occupied Poland filming Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw. She left Poland and apparently chose not to make any Nazi-related movies after this, however.
On 14 June 1940, the day Paris was declared an open city by the French and occupied by German troops, Riefenstahl wrote to Hitler in a telegram, “With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany’s greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?” She later explained: “Everyone thought the war was over, and in that spirit I sent the cable to Hitler”. Riefenstahl was friends with Hitler for 12 years, and reports vary as to whether she ever had an intimate relationship with him. According to Ernst Hanfstaengl, who was a close friend of Hitler throughout the later 1920s and early 1930s, Riefenstahl tried to begin a relationship with Hitler early on but was turned down by him. For whatever reason, her relationship with Hitler had declined by 1944, when her brother Heinz died on the Russian Front of the war.
After the Nuremberg rallies trilogy and Olympia, Riefenstahl began work on the movie she had tried and failed to direct once before, Tiefland. On Hitler’s direct order the German government paid her 7 million reichsmarks in compensation. From 23 September until 13 November 1940 she filmed in Krün near Mittenwald. The extras playing Spanish women and farmers were drawn from gypsies (Sinti) detained in a camp at Salzburg-Maxglan who were forced to work with her. Filming at the Babelsberg Studios near Berlin began 18 months later in April 1942 and lasted into summer. This time Sinti and Roma from the Marzahn detention camp near Berlin were compelled to work as extras. A surviving document from camp Marzahn shows a list of 65 inmates who were ordered to serve in the production. 50 stills from the filming in Krün near Mittenwald were later found and from these, surviving prisoners were able to identify 29 camp inmates who worked for Riefenstahl and were then deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the first weeks of March 1943 following Himmler’s December 1942 decree. Almost to the end of her life, despite overwhelming evidence that concentration camp occupants had been forced to work on the movie unpaid, Riefenstahl continued to maintain all the film extras survived and that she had met them after the war. Riefenstahl sued a filmmaker, Nina Gladitz, who said Riefenstahl personally chose the extras at their holding camp; Gladitz had found one of the Gypsy survivors and matched his memory with stills of the movie for a documentary Gladitz was filming. The German court found largely in favour of Gladitz, agreeing that Riefenstahl had known the extras were from a concentration camp, and they agreed with Riefenstahl on only one count (rejecting the claim that Riefenstahl had informed the Gypsies that they would be sent to the Auschwitz camp after filming was completed).
This issue came up again in 2002, when Riefenstahl was one hundred years old and she was taken to court by a Roma group for denying the Nazis had exterminated gypsies. Riefenstahl apologized, saying, “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism. It is known today that many of them were murdered in concentration camps”.
The last time Riefenstahl saw Hitler was when she married Peter Jacob on 21 March 1944, shortly after she had introduced Jacob to Hitler in Kitzbühel, Austria. Riefenstahl and Jacob divorced in 1946.
In October 1944 the production of Tiefland moved to Barrandov Studios in Prague for interior filming. Lavish sets made these shots some of the most costly in the film but they were finished within days. The film was not edited and released until almost 10 years later.
As Germany’s military collapsed in the spring of 1945 Riefenstahl left Berlin and was hitchhiking with a group of men, trying to reach her mother, when she was taken into custody by American troops. She walked out of a holding camp, beginning a series of escapes and arrests across the chaotic landscape. At last making it back home on a bicycle, she found that American troops had seized her house, then was surprised by how kindly they treated her.
Writer Budd Schulberg, assigned by the US Navy to the OSS for intelligence work while attached to John Ford’s documentary unit, was ordered to arrest Riefenstahl at her chalet in Kitzbühel, Austria, ostensibly to have her identify the faces of Nazi war criminals in German film footage captured by the Allied troops. Riefenstahl claimed she was not aware of the nature of the internment camps. According to Schulberg, “She gave me the usual song and dance. She said, ‘Of course, you know, I’m really so misunderstood. I’m not political.’” However, when Riefenstahl later claimed she had been forced to follow Goebbels’ orders under threat of being sent to a concentration camp, Schulberg asked her why she should have been afraid if she did not know concentration camps existed. When shown photographs of the camps, Riefenstahl reportedly reacted with horror and tears.
Riefenstahl continued to maintain she was fascinated by the National Socialists but politically naïve and ignorant about any war crimes. From 1945 through 1948 she was held in sundry American and French-run detention camps and prisons along with house arrest but although Riefenstahl was tried four times by various postwar authorities, she was never convicted through denazification trials either for her alleged role as a propagandist or for the use of concentration camp inmates in her films. However, she was found to be a fellow traveler who was sympathetic to the Nazis.
Riefenstahl later said that her biggest regret was meeting Hitler: “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?’” Although she won more than 50 libel cases against people accusing her of collaborating with the Nazis, there are many unanswered questions about her relation to National Socialism in particular and fascism more generally.
Most of the negatives for Riefenstahl’s finished films and other production materials relating to her unfinished projects were lost towards the end of the war. The French government confiscated all of her editing equipment, along with the production reels of Tiefland. After years of legal wrangling these were returned to her, but the French government had reportedly damaged some of the film stock whilst trying to develop and edit it and a few key scenes were missing (although Riefenstahl was surprised to find the original negatives for Olympia in the same shipment). She edited and dubbed what elements were left andTiefland premiered on 11 February 1954 in Stuttgart, however, it was denied entry into the Cannes Film Festival. Although Riefenstahl lived for almost another half century, Tiefland was her last feature film.
Riefenstahl tried many times (15 by her count) to make films during the 1950s and 1960s but was met with resistance, public protests and sharp criticism. Many of her filmmaking peers in Hollywood had fled Nazi Germany and were unsympathetic to her. Although both film professionals and investors were willing to support her work, most of the projects she attempted were stopped owing to ever-renewed and highly negative publicity about her past work for the Third Reich. In 1956, inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s 1935 novel Green Hills of Africa, she began an ambitious film project in Africa drawn from another novel called Schwarze Fracht (Black Freight). While scouting shooting locations, she almost died from injuries received in a truck accident. After waking up from a coma in a Nairobi hospital, she finished writing the script there, but was soon thoroughly thwarted by uncooperative locals, the Suez Canal crisis, and bad weather (only test shots were ever made).
In 1954, Jean Cocteau insisted on Tiefland being shown at the Cannes Film Festival, which he was running that year. Cocteau greatly admired the film. In 1960, Riefenstahl unsuccessfully attempted to prevent filmmaker Erwin Leiser from juxtaposing scenes from Triumph of the Will with footage from concentration camps in his film Mein Kampf. Riefenstahl had high hopes for a collaboration with Cocteau called Friedrich und Voltaire, wherein Cocteau was to play two roles. They thought the film might symbolize the “love-hate relationship” between Germany and France. Cocteau’s illness and 1963 death put an end to this project. A musical remake of The Blue Light with L. Ron Hubbard, founder of The Church of Scientology, also fell through.
In the 1960s, Riefenstahl became interested in Africa from Hemingway’s book and from the photographs of George Rodger. Rodger, who had taken the first photographs of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, refused to help Riefenstahl meet Africans, citing their respective backgrounds. Riefenstahl took up photography, documenting a diverse array of subjects. She traveled many times to Africa to photograph the Nuba tribes in Sudan, with whom she sporadically lived, learning about their culture so she could photograph them more easily. She began a lifelong companionship with her cameraman Horst Kettner, who was 40 years her junior and assisted her with the photographs; they were together from the time she was 60 and he was 20. She was granted Sudanese citizenship for her services to the country, becoming the first foreigner to receive a Sudanese passport.
Her books with photographs of the tribes were published in 1974 and 1976 as The Last of the Nuba and The People of Kau and were both international bestsellers. While heralded by many as outstanding colour photographs, they were harshly criticized by Susan Sontag, who claimed in a review that they were further evidence of Riefenstahl’s “fascist aesthetics”. The Art Director’s Club of Germany awarded Leni a gold medal for the best photographic achievement of 1975. She also sold the pictures to German magazines. She photographed the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and rock star Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca for the Sunday Times. Years later she photographed Las Vegas entertainers Siegfried and Roy. She befriended Andy Warhol and was a Guest of Honour at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.
In her later years, Riefenstahl became known for her longevity and physical stamina, although she often suffered considerable pain from old injuries. At age 72, Riefenstahl began pursuing underwater photography after lying about her age to gain certification for scuba diving (she cut 20 years off her age). In 1978, she published a book of her below-water photographs, Korallengärten (Coral Gardens) followed by the 1990 book; Wunder unter Wasser (Wonder under Water). On 22 August 2002, her 100th birthday, Riefenstahl released a film called Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an idealized documentary of life in the oceans and her first film in over 25 years. At age 100, she was still photographing marine life and gained the distinction of being the world’s oldest scuba diver. Riefenstahl was a member of Greenpeace for 8 years.
She survived a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000 while trying to learn the fates of her Nuba friends during the Sudanese civil war and was airlifted to a Munich hospital. Riefenstahl celebrated her 101st birthday on 22 August 2003 and, according to one tabloid in 2007, married Horst Kettner.
Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep on the late evening of 8 September 2003 at her home in Pöcking, Germany. She had been suffering from cancer. She was buried in Munich’s Waldfriedhof cemetery.
- Official Leni Riefenstahl website
- Leni Riefenstahl’s IMDB page
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum section on Leni Riefenstahl
- Leni Riefenstahl: Hitler’s Friend
- Strength, Joy & Seduction: Leni Riefenstahl
- Film guide to “Triumph of the Will”