Who Was Leni Riefenstahl Really?

In which I step out onto a limb

So I’m trying something a little different this International Women’s Day. I thought I’d explore the life of a woman who came from the country I am living in and learning about. And, since women are such marvelously nuanced creatures, I chose a woman who wielded unusual creative control in her time—and whose influence was of highly controversial origins. Besides, I only heard of her in grad school, and I’ve wondered about her ever since.

Helena “Leni” Riefenstahl was the great propaganda filmmaker of the Third Reich. Not even the great female filmmaker; the filmmaker, period. Although she had obvious Nazi ties and was friendly with Hitler, the extent of her knowledge of the party’s activities and goals has always been contested, both by herself during her lifetime and by subsequent historians.

She didn’t start out with the objective of working in film. As a young girl she studied dance at the Grimm-Reiter School in Berlin—which her mother had enrolled her in without her father’s knowledge or permission—and, by her early twenties, was performing around the continent with a company led by Max Reinhardt (and funded by a Jewish producer). She threw herself so wholly into the show that she injured her knee and jeopardized her career…which was apparently okay, because she had seen movie posters and was already thinking of making a transition.

After that she went to the cinema nonstop and also attended every film festival she could get to. In the mid-1920s she met director Arnold Fanck and persuaded him to cast her in his next project. They went on to make several movies together, the one that put her on the map internationally being The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929); and little by little she absorbed the lessons he offered in directing and editing.

Her directorial debut came in 1932 with Das blaue Licht (“The Blue Light”), now considered a landmark film of the Weimar Republic. Although the Venice Film Festival awarded it the Silver Medal, it was not a huge critical or commercial success at the time, inspiring her grudge against the largely Jewish body of film critics. Still, the film made enough of an impression to earn her an invitation to Hollywood, which she rejected thanks to a boyfriend who had no intention of leaving Germany.

Part of me breathes a sigh of relief, however uneasy, that she turned Hollywood down. Even given that most of the industry giants were Jews, antisemitism ran rampant—looking at you, Walt Disney—and I wonder how Riefenstahl’s presence could have impacted the situation. (Years later, when she toured the States, Disney showed her his latest work-in-progress, Fantasia. Now forget what I just said.)

Anyway, she wasn’t losing out, because the film had also caught Hitler’s attention. Riefenstahl had heard his early speeches and was floored by his oratory gifts, so she jumped at the chance to meet with him. Evidently he thought her character in Das blaue Licht embodied the ideal German Aryan woman and sought to collaborate with her on more such films. The first was Der Sieg des Glaubens (“Victory of Faith”), which chronicled a 1933 rally at Nuremberg; most copies of the film appear to have been destroyed on Hitler’s orders after the murders of many of the depicted officials, also on Hitler’s orders, on the Night of the Long Knives.

But the following year Riefenstahl essentially repeated the project, even in the same city. The result, Triumph des Willens (“Trimph of the Will”), is often called the greatest propaganda film ever made. The sight of over a million Germans rallying around Hitler among an aesthetically appealing arrangement of flags is chillingly impressive. Riefenstahl had also begun work on a private project, Tiefland (“Lowland”), and was growing uncomfortable associating her art with the Nazi Party. She made Triumph on the condition that her professional relationship with Hitler would end thereafter.

Still, even on her independent film, she used concentration-camp inmates, most of whom were Romani, as extras, after which they were sent to Auschwitz. And then she did make another Nazi film, a 28-minute short entitled Tag der Freiheit (“Day of Freedom”). She was demonstrating where her interests, and loyalties, lay.

Her film about the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Olympia, was ostensibly commissioned by the International Olympic Committee but received covert funding from the Nazi Party. The panoramic, aerial, and other as-yet-unconventional shots she featured quickly gained traction and popularity. That the famous footage of Jesse Owens belongs to this film, and to her creative eye, is a good example of what makes her such a bizarre, troubling, fascinating figure.

As her voice and opinions were sought, she had more and more opportunity to comment on Hitler—and praised and defended him consistently. She embarked on her aforementioned American tour and was received warmly by luminaries including the man I seem to encounter at every turn these days, Henry Ford. She allegedly rebuffed the advances of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s right-hand lowlife. She was Influential.

During the war she went to Poland as a correspondent and was unable to pursue many feature-length projects. In the early part of the 1940s she finished Tiefland, allowing the aforementioned atrocities to be committed against her extras. The film did not premiere until 1954, by which time—having been labeled a Nazi sympathizer as opposed to a party member—she was effectively blacklisted by the film industry. But it was really the public who blacklisted her; various production companies would have been willing to take on her proposed projects if the market had not cast its judgment on her. And could you possibly blame the market?

She later referred to her meeting with Hitler as “the biggest catastrophe of my life,” even if it was too little too late to save her film career. Still, she enjoyed a second career as a photographer, first in Africa among the Nuba tribes and then at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics for the International Olympic Committee. She even survived a helicopter crash in 2000. She died near her home in Bavaria in 2003, aged one hundred and one.

Many aspects of her work continue to be highly regarded for their ingenuity and innovation. The question we face in hindsight is whether one can be both a feminist and a fascist. If anyone appears to have tried to strike that unbelievable balance, it was Leni Riefenstahl. Though in a position of power, she represented the dark dichotomy of everyday attitudes toward the rise of the Nazis—a philosophy of acceptance without open endorsement. There was work to do, and she was prepared to look the other way most of the time in order to do it.

Here’s to the women with talent in our lives. May they learn how to use it.

Image: from the Archiv Reichelt und Brockmann

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti).

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