Leni Riefenstahl: groundbreaking, yet infamous filmmaker at the heart of the Third Reich

Leni Riefenstahl – a filmmaking great whose legacy has been marred by the links of her films to Nazism and Nazi propaganda (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

As one of the notorious survivors of the Nazi regime, Leni Riefenstahl was a polarising figure mainly in the post-WWII era, as she was a remarkable artist with films like Triumph of the Will and Olympia, but her works were inevitably associated with the infamy of the Nazi regime. Throughout her filmmaking career, her works consistently were lauded by audiences and critics both nationally and internationally, which was reflected through the countless awards she attained. Such recognition of her artistic ability was eventually undermined heavily by the emergence of a strong anti-Nazi sentiment during and especially after World War II, where her reputation was damaged by various accusations and general links to the Nazi regime, especially at the highest levels, such as her relationship with Hitler. As a notably contentious historical figure, the lack of clarity and credibility in many historical sources, especially in her own memoirs, has allowed for varying interpretation of her by critics and historians.

From her earliest days, Riefenstahl could be recognised as a talented artist. She grew up wanting to be a dancer, which initially was an idea rejected by her domineering father, Alfred, but later, the two negotiated successfully, and Riefenstahl’s dancing pursuits were able to be supported by her father. Her dancing career was short lived, although she did she much success, even gaining the attention and support of one of Germany’s leading impresarios, Max Reinhardt. After a serious injury that caused her dancing career to stop, she started a career in acting, mainly starring in the Berg films of Arnold Fanck, where she also saw good success. Notably, both her careers in dancing and acting revealed her talents in the arts in general, well before the emergence and influence of the Nazis. This aspect is emphasised by her initial filmmaking effort,The Blue Light in 1932, which was well received nationally and even won the Silver Medal at the Venice Biennale in 1933.

However, it was during the period in which the Nazis came to and consolidated power that is important to how Riefenstahl would be perceived. Instead of leaving Germany like many of the best in the industry at the time, like Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, she stayed and built a relationship with Hitler to further her career as a filmmaker. By doing so, she quickly became the Third Reich’s main filmmaker, creating Victory of Faith in 1933 and one of her most recognised career successes, Triumph of the Will in 1934, both of which were based on the annual Nuremberg rallies that the Nazis held. However, such works were very propagandistic in nature, which was mainly only noted in the post-WWII era, especially as they actively promoted Nazi values, including the Fuhrer myth, racial purity and the Volksgemeinschaft. Even her later success Olympia was controversial, especially with Riefenstahl’s US tour, where she denied that she knew anything about the Nazis’ policies towards the Jews, which happened shortly after Kristallnacht in November 1938. When considering her opportunistic interactions with the regime, her stance as an artist and filmmaker can be challenged, especially as her work with the Nazis actively worked to promote the regime.

Leni Riefenstahl bei Dreharbeiten
Riefenstahl with two assistants filming a scene in Triumph of the Will (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

At the same time, there was no doubt that she was very talented as a filmmaker, especially with her innovation that was displayed in Triumph of the Will and Olympia. In the 1938 film on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, she revolutionised sports filmmaking by using underwater cameras to capture the diving events, as well as placing cameras on athletes to gain a new and exciting way to view the events. With Triumph of the Will, she also showed great filmmaking creativity, placing cameras on bridges to gain unique camera angles and putting them on roller skates to generate moving shots. There is little doubt to her importance as a filmmaker, given the range of awards she won for both films, as well as Steven Bach’s claims that she formed the foundation of modern cinema with her innovative works [1].

After World War II, Riefenstahl’s career as a filmmaker fell apart, as her resulting infamy following her post-war arrest and countless defaming accusations (many of which were false, including the fake Eva Braun diaries that were published after the end of the war), and she was never able to make a feature film again as few individuals were willing to work with her. As a result, she attempted new ventures in photography, both of the Nuba tribes and underwater environments, which could be perceived as her trying to sway the negative public perception of her. Nonetheless, she still remained a controversial figure, with numerous incidents and issues, including her persistent denial of her role in the Nazi regime, as well as Goebbel’s diaries contradicting her personal accounts, mainly as they showed her as excited to work for Hitler, while her claims indicate that she felt pressured into it.

Ultimately, the lack of clarity leaves Riefenstahl to be a somewhat ambiguous, but highly controversial figure in modern history, especially around her links to the Nazis (her relationship with Hitler for example was very unclear, although a friendship is known to have existed between them) and her true intentions with her films with the Nazis. One way to understand Riefenstahl would be that she was ruthless and opportunistic in wanting to achieve success as a filmmaker, and  in doing so, there were disastrous consequences that she would face later in her life as a result of it, most of which is involved her deep association with the Nazi regime. Maybe her career can be best summed up with Ray Muller’s quote in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl: “her talent was her tragedy”.

1. ^ Bach, S. (2007). Leni: The Life And Work Of Leni Riefenstahl (1st ed.). New York: A. A. Knopf.


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