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Leni Riefenstahl

From Women in European History

                                     Leni Riefenstahl in the 1930s


Early Life

Leni Riefenstahl was born on August 22, 1902, to Alfred Theodor Paul Riefenstahl, a plumber, [1] and his wife, Bertha Ida (née Scherlach). [2] From a young age, Leni distinguished herself as being “active and outgoing,” in distinction to her “quiet and withdrawn” brother, Heinz. [3] A contrast in determination between her brother and herself was also apparent, for while Heinz surrendered his dreams of being an architect to his father’s insistence that he study engineering and work at the family business, Leni persistently defied her father’s plans for her life. [4]) The poor fit of her personality into the gender roles of her time weighed on her mind even in childhood--“How I wish I were a man,” she once wrote to a friend, explaining, “it would be so much easier to carry out all my plans.” [5] Her home-life was a textbook example of patriarchal power, as well, for her father was a repressive presence in the household; paradoxically, however, this only fed Leni’s desire for independence:

Leni cultivated an intense interest in dance, an endeavor outside the bounds of her strict father’s vision for her, but also her first opportunity for artistic expression. In her teenage years, her mother secretly allowed and funded dance lessons for her, a possibility afforded by her father’s extensive time spent hunting. [7] After a successful first recital, a family-friend unwittingly informed her father of these activities while congratulating him; her father’s reaction was to initiate (but not carry through) divorce proceedings against her mother, and to send Leni to boarding school in Thale, a town in the Harz mountains, in the spring of 1919. [8] Her father’s reaction was not entirely out of order, however, for at this recital, she had stood in for Anita Berber, notorious for her nude performances of dances with such titles as “Morphium,” “Suicide,” and “Cocaine.” [9] Boarding school, which she derisively dubbed “Siberia,” would afford her an even greater opportunity to indulge her interest in dance, since theatre was a regular part of the curriculum; this was in spite of her father’s express instructions to the headmistress: “Be very strict with my daughter. Above all, never encourage her in her ambitions to be either a dancer or an actress.” [10] Thus, as she had with her mother, she had an accomplice to her rebellion against patriarchal repression. By her own account, Leni’s heroine during this time was Madame Curie, whom she “admired for her willpower and her almost obsessive devotion to her work,” qualities that Leni herself exemplified later in life. [11] Leni was not in boarding school for long, however, for she devised a successful plan to exploit her father’s longstanding desire for her to work in his office as his secretary—she proposed to work for her father in exchange for permission to continue dance lessons. [12]


As Leni transitioned into adulthood, her dance studies continued, and on October 23, 1923, she had her first official performance, staged in at the Tonhalle in Munich; the event was arranged, financed, and promoted by her suitor and benefactor at the time, Harry Sokal, a wealthy banker and currency speculator—as a result of the hyperinflation in Germany during that period, Harry had only needed to spend one American dollar. [13] A moderate success, it led, between October 1923 and May 1924, to performances in Zurich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Dresden, Kiel, Chemnitz, Stettin, Paris and London—she was, however, to learn that her suitor, Harry, who had fallen in love with her after first discovering her performing calisthenics on the beach, had organized and probably financed the latter two tour stops, a discovery that caused her to abruptly return to Berlin by train. [14] [15] At her next recital, which took place four months later in Prague, she strained a ligament in her knee, causing her to cancel all her subsequent appearances; X-rays would reveal that she had a growth in the offending ligament the size of a walnut, a diagnosis that led to her consent to immediate surgery which, although successful, did not save her stage career, for she had by this time become fixated upon the mountain films (Bergfilmen) of Dr. Arnold Fanck. [16]; [17] In all, her career in staged dance spanned eight months, from October 1923 to June 1924. [18]

Mountain Films

According to Riefenstahl’s account, it was during a screening of Mountain of Destiny, a film directed by Arnold Fanck, that she became convinced that she must meet this filmmaker. [19] The account of Harry Sokal tells a different story; according to him, she phoned for the first time in four months after seeing the film; he responded to her apparent enthusiasm for the mountains by inviting her and her brother for a July stay at Lake Caro in the Dolomites, the mountains where Mountain of Destiny and most of Fanck’s other Bergfilmen would be made. [20] Sokal, who had grown bored of banking, suggested being in films to her multiple times, something that he, now a film producer, could arrange; at the Dolomites, he took her to a movie, which happened to once again be Mountain of Destiny, after which she proclaimed, “That’s the kind of picture I would like to make.” [21] The man who had screened the film was the star himself, Luis Trenker, to whom she declared, “I’m going to be in your next picture.” The next day, she left for Berlin. [22] Having tracked him down on Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Leni introduced herself, and during the ensuing conversation, she informed him of her interest in involvement in his next film, if only as a spectator; Fanck responded by requesting pictures and reviews of her dance recitals, and by asking for her address. [23] Three days after her operation, Fanck tracked down Riefenstahl in her hospital bed, and presented her with the manuscript for the film The Holy Mountain, subtitled Written for the dancer Leni Riefenstahl—he informed her that he had written it over the last three nights. [24] Leni accepted the part. The production of The Holy Mountain included an apprenticeship for Leni in the art of film technique, both of shooting and of editing; it was during this introduction that, as Leni writes in her memoirs, “it occurred to me that film-making might be a possibility, a new thing of substance in my life.” [25] By the end of the production, Leni even took over the directing for a short time while Fanck was forced to wrangle with the production company. [26] A successful venture, The Holy Mountain (1926) was followed The Great Leap (1927), The White Hell of Piz Palü (1929), Storm Over Mont Blanc (1930), and The White Intoxication (1931) each directed again by Dr. Fanck, as well as financed by Harry Sokal, her benefactor from her days as a stage dancer. [27] [28] Each film was also a successful financial venture. Fanck features were famous for their elaborate stunts, all performed on location. Riefenstahl herself climbed barefoot up the sharp faces of the Dolomites, was buried under small avalanches, and spent innumerable frozen nights sleeping on location. [29] Riefenstahl acted in one other film during this time period, entitled The Fate of the House of Hapsburg—The Tragedy of an Empire (Das Schicksal derer von Habsburg—die Tragodie eines Kaiserreiche—1928) and directed by Rudolf Raffé, in which she had a minor part. Only 11 minutes of footage from this film are known to exist, and none of this footage includes Leni Riefenstahl. Leni’s next film, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht, 1932) was her breakthrough as a headliner, a co-writer and as a co-director, along with Béla Balázs (in the latter two positions); this film was also her first real speaking role, a new paradigm that required her to pursue speech lessons. [30] (The White Intoxication had included a speaking part for her, but her dialog was limited to repetitions of, “oh, marvelous!”) [31] Leni showed a knack for the organizational craft of directing, enlisting as co-writers Béla Balázs and Carl Mayer, whom Billy Wilder proclaimed “the shining lights of motion picture writing”; drawing on her time as a Fanck player, she also selected the talented cameraman Schneeberger, who, in addition to his numerous contributions to various Bergfilmen, had filmed Marlene Dietrich in her launching-pad to fame, The Blue Angel (1930). [32] Financing was again contributed by Harry Sokal, though this was not a tall order, given the film’s extremely tight budget—the director and crew were only six people total, and often slept in the hay stalls of local peasants. [33] Who performed the final editing of the film is another controversy—Arnold Fanck, her old director, or Leni, who claims Fanck had taken her original cut and “made it kaput.” [34] What is certain is the mediocrity of the original cut, edited by Leni, for she wrote of it in a letter to Balázs, confessing it to be “boring and unintelligible,” incredibly stiff, exaggerated and unnatural”; at the very least, Leni learned the art of editing from Fanck’s cut, admitting to Balázs that Fanck was making a coherent film from her “picture book.” [35] The critical reaction to the film was divided along the lines of politics, a polarization characteristic in the art of the day—left-leaning, communist art favored realism, while conservative, and especially fascist, art favored idealism. [36]; [37] Harry Sokal’s account describes the fate of The Blue Light, which was essentially a fairy tale on film, in that political landscape:

The Berliner Tageblatt, the newspaper her parents read, went so far as to call the film “inwardly sick,” and the picture was a box office failure. [38] This film would be re-released in 1938, both Harry Sokal and Béla Balázs were removed from the credits, while Carl Mayer appears to not have been credited even in the 1932 release. [39] American reviews were considerably more favorable, with the New York Times, Sun, and Herald Tribune all praising its visuals, despite it debuting in the US in May of 1934. [40]

Leni’s final Bergfilme, S.O.S Iceberg (S.O.S. Eisberg, 1933), was also her last role as an actress in a Fanck production; it was, like all of Fanck’s film’s, far less concerned with narrative than with nature footage, and indeed so much so that Universal dispatched director Tay Garnett and screenwriter Edwin Knopf to make the American version of the US-German joint venture using some of Fanck’s footage. [41] This English-language version replaced Gustav Diessl with Rod La Rocque, who acted their scenes out on sets on the slopes dividing Italy and Switzerland, with Leni giving a redundant performance that was later dubbed into better English. [42]

For more on Mountain Films, click here: Mountain Films

Encounters with Hitler

During the editing of The Blue Light, Harry Sokal recalled Leni giving him a copy of Mein Kampf and saying, “Harry, you must read this book. This is the coming man.” [43] Riefenstahl’s account differs from Sokal’s, saying that she had not heard of Adolf Hitler until after the film’s premier. [44]

Leni Riefenstahl’s first exposure to Adolf Hitler took place in Berlin, approximately in the timeframe of late February 1932, at the Berlin Sports Palace—if that date is correct, it would put her first exposure to him one month before the release of The Blue Light, which was released on March 24 of that year, which would put Sokal’s recollection within the right time-frame. [45] Hitler’s speech began with the opening, “Fellow Germans!” According to Riefenstahl, at this very moment,

On May 18, 1932, Leni Riefenstahl wrote a postcard to Hitler expressing her desire to meet him. [47] Leni had not expected any response before her planned disembarking to Greenland, for the shooting of S.O.S. Iceberg; however, one day prior to her scheduled date of departure, Hitler’s adjutant, Wilhelm Brückner, telephoned with an invitation Wilhelmshaven to meet the Fuhrer. [48] At 4:00pm, Leni Riefenstahl was picked up by Brückner and driven a half-hour’s distance to her meeting with Hitler; during this visit, according to Riefenstahl’s own account of the events, she and the Fuhrer walked together on a beach, shadowed by Brückner and co-adjutant Julius Schaub, engaging in a discussion in which Hitler claimed to have seen all of her films, and allegedly said, “The film that made the strongest impact on me was The Blue Light—above all, because it is unusual for a young woman to win out against the hostility and prejudices of the motion-picture industry.” [49] He then declared, “Once we come to power, you must make my films.” [50] Leni had dinner with Hitler and his entourage before retiring to the inn at which they were staying, leaving the next morning, ultimately to Greenland. [51]

Subsequent to filming the Greenland sections of S.O.S Iceberg, Leni became further involved with Hitler and his entourage, meeting Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring at the Hotel Kaiserhof on an evening some time between her return from Greenland and Hitler’s ascent to power. [52] Leni once more accepted an invitation to dine with Hitler and his entourage on November 6, 1932, the date of the Reichstag election in which the Nazi party lost seats while the Communist party gained them; she observed Hitler to be in high spirits, remarking at one point, “Only the weak have deserted us, and that is good!” [53]

By Riefenstahl’s own account, her relationship with Goebbels quickly deteriorated. The future Minister of Propaganda, began calling every day at the end of 1932, and one afternoon showed up at her door, whereupon he professed his desire for her, even saying that he had stood outside the premier of The Holy Mountain in an attempt to get a glimpse of her. [54] That Christmas Eve, he again confronted her, giving her a copy of Mein Kampf containing a personal dedication, and bronze medallion with a relief of his head. [55] His earliest mention in his diary of her comes in December of 1929, despite these diaries spanning all the way back to October of 1923. [56] The first half of 1933 was spent in Switzerland, both vacationing and filming scenes for S.O.S. Iceberg; her return was to new Nazi Germany, where she found that many of her Jewish acquaintances, including Harry Sokal, had fled the country. [57] During this time, on April 1, her father Alfred formally joined the Nazi party, membership card number 1,670,383—this contradicts Leni’s account of the time. [58] Her date of return, though given as June or July in Riefenstahl’s various accounts, Joseph Goebbels’ diary gives has her at a daytime meeting with him on May 16, a frame of time which would have had her back in Germany in time to know about the book burnings, the most significant of which occurred on May 10, with others happening as late as June 21. [59]) Not long afterwards, Leni was summoned to the Reich Chancellery, where Hitler, according to Leni, unsuccessfully tried to convince her to work with Goebbels at the Ministry of Propaganda. [60] This lack of enthusiasm does not correspond with the recollection of Heinz von Jaworsky, Schneeburger’s assistant during the filming of The Blue Light: “I’ll work for them,” she had declared. [61]

Victory of the Faith

During the last week of August, 1933, Riefenstahl says she was again summoned to the Reich Chancellery. Upon meeting the Fuhrer, he inquired as to her preparations for her Party rally film, which she did not know she was involved with. [62] Upon discovering that she had not been informed of her offer, he summoned Brückner, whom he began berating: “Didn’t you pass my request on to the doctor? Why wasn’t Fraulein Riefenstahl informed? I can imagine how the gentlemen at the Propaganda Ministry must envy this gifted young artist. They can’t stand the fact that such an honor has been awarded to a woman—and, indeed, an artist who isn’t even a member of the Party.” [63] Leni claims to have not been able to muster the courage to turn down this assignment. [64] Whether or not this meeting ever happened, it could not have happened that week, for Adolf Hitler was not in Berlin at all. [65]

Even if she was notified before the last week of August, it was short notice, because she arrived in Nuremberg on Sunday the 27th of that month. Filming began only three days later. [66] Given the short amount of time put into the staging of the film, the orchestration thus pales in comparison to that of Triumph of the Will—indeed, Victory of the Faith could rightly be called a “dress rehearsal on film,” as at least one biographer has dubbed it. [67]

At some later point, Riefenstahl went on to claim, the Gestapo chief at the time, Rudolf Diels, summoned her to his office, and according to Leni, informed her that because of Hitler’s admiration of her, she had earned the jealousy and resentment of many party figures; he then related that a report made its way to Hitler stating that her mother was Jewish, but that Hitler swept it off his desk. [68] He then changed the subject to the investigation of the Reichstag arson, of which he was head, and mused at the strangeness of no one accepted the possibility of Marinus van der Lubbe having burned down the building on his own initiative. [69]

Triumph of the Will

Unlike in the case of Victory of the Faith, Leni Riefenstahl had plenty of time to prepare her next film, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willen, 1935), and the difference is clear. According to UFA files, her assignment to the project came on April 19, 1934; as the opening lines of the film note, Hitler flew into Nuremberg for the rally on September 5. [70] The book Behind the Scenes of the Nuremberg Rally Film (Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitag-Films) said that preparation for the film had begun in May. [71] Riefenstahl also had a far larger budget for Triumph than with Victory—the preproduction budget alone was 300,000 reichsmarks, with additional funding available through the Reich Film Credit Bank. [72]

By her account, Triumph of the Will’s character comes from a desire to somehow make a feature-length film without a plot, and to “raise the film above a newsreel level.” It accomplished this by shooting events “in as versatile a manner as possible, with the emphasis on dynamic rather than static tasks,” which partly meant moving cameras. [73] It was not, however, a “documentary” in the sense of not having been staged and rehearsed.

For cinematographer, she employed another cameraman of Fanck productions, Sepp Algeier. [74]

Leni’s control of the film even extended to the conducting of the soundtrack. Since cameras of the era were hand-cranked, their frame-rate was as inconsistent as the speed at which the cameraman cranked. This meant that in the film, the people were invariably marching out of sync with the music. After the conductor and Herr Windt both fail at getting the orchestra to record in correct sync with the visuals, Leni resolved the issue by conducting the orchestra herself. [75]

Triumph of the Will premiered on March 28, 1935. At the debut screening, Hitler thanked her and presented her with a lilac bouquet, at which point she became faint and then passed out. [76] At the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Triumph of the Will was screened, and earned Leni the gold medal, which Prime Minister Edouard Daladier personally presented to her. [77]

File:Triumph1.jpg One of the many striking shots from Triumph of the Will.

At an opera not long thereafter, Goebbels attempted to grope up her skirt. “Indignant, I grabbed his hand but couldn’t scratch it because it was covered by the cloth of my gown. What an appalling man he was!” [78]

Day of Freedom

To compensate for the absence of the Wehrmacht from Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl consented to make a short film focusing exclusively on the army. Visuals were shot by cameramen previously proven on various Fanck and Riefenstahl productions: Guzzi Lantschner, Walter Frentz, Hans Ertl, Kurt Neubert, Willy Zielke, and Albert Kling. [79] Though Riefenstahl would repudiate it in later years, as she also did with Victory of Faith, this 28-minute short displays the same technical prowess as Triumph of the Will, reflecting her greater degree of experience and sufficient preparation.


While she was exercising at the Grunewald athletic stadium, Carl Diem, secretary general of the organization committee of the Eleventh Olympic Games, “ambushed” her (his term), and despite initially expressing disinterest, she warmed up to the idea and agreed. [80]

Riefenstahl’s budget for Olympia was probably even more lavish than for Triumph of the Will—1.5 million reichmarks. [81] The Reich, apparently desiring to know that its money was being spent judiciously, audited her books, leading Goebbels, who initially wrote on an auditor’s report, “let’s not be petty,” to freeze her funding in response to a 14-page document listing her financial incompetence and “shocking amount of white-collar crime.” [82] By her own account, Leni tearfully convinced Hitler to shift oversight of her project to Rudolf Hess. [83] In the aftermath of this, Riefenstahl received the additional 500,000 reichsmarks she had requested, bringing the total budget of the Olympia films to 2 million reichsmarks. [84] Olympia is a massive work, divided into two films: Olympia: Festival of Nations, and Olympia: Festival of Beauty. [85] Both parts premiered on April 20, 1938, Hitler’s 49th birthday. [86]

As is generally the case with directors, Riefenstahl again drew on talent she had employed in previous endeavors. Herbert Windt again contributed the score. [87] She also brought back Willy Zielke, a cameraman for Triumph of the Will; Walter Frentz, another cameraman from Triumph; Ernst Kunstmann, cameraman from Triumph, as well as Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent monument Metropolis; Kurt Neubert, cameraman from The Great Leap and The White Intoxication; and Heinz von Jaworsky, Schneeburger’s assistant cameraman from The Blue Light—these were not trivial choices, as camera technique is of the highest importance in a Riefenstahl production. [88]

File:Olympia1.jpg The famous diving scene from Olympia.

According to Riefenstahl, Hitler did not refuse to shake the hand of Jesse Owens; rather, after the first day, Hitler was barred from shaking the hands of athletes due to the protest of Count Baillet-Latour, the French president of the Olympic Committee, on the grounds that it was a breach of Olympic protocol. [89]

Political Intrigue

At the end of February, she was sent to meet Mussolini, at the secret arranging of Hitler. Il Duce told her, “You can tell the Fuhrer that whatever happens with Austria, I will not interfere in Austria’s internal affairs.” She informed Hitler of Mussolini’s declaration upon her return. A week later, on March 7, 1936, a week after her return from visiting Mussolini in Rome, Hitler declared the nullification of the Locarno Pact, marching the Wehrmacht into the Rhineland—-the message from Mussolini, it was later revealed, was advice to take this step. [90]

Promoting Olympia Abroad

According to Leni’s account, she got off the boat in America and was met by many small boats full of American reporters, one of whom asked her, “what do you say to the report that the Germans are burning down Jewish synagogues, destroying Jewish shops and killing Jewish people?” She protested, “That is not true, that cannot be true!” These were the events of Kristallnacht, which her memoirs claim had happened just days before her arrival. [91] In fact, Riefenstahl arrived on November 4, while Kristallnacht did not take place until November 9. [92]

Nonetheless, some Americans persisted in receiving her. In Detroit, she was received by Henry Ford, whom she claims “praised the elimination of unemployment in our country and in general seemed to have a soft spot for Socialism.” He allegedly said that he was looking forward to meeting Hitler at the coming Party rally in Nuremberg. [93] Walt Disney received her at his studios, where she spent the whole day and showed her sketches for his new production, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” from Fantasia. He could not screen the prints she had of Olympia, however, citing his unionized projectionists as the cause—-he feared that he would be boycotted after the projectionists let his reception of her be known to the public. [94]

A detour to the San Francisco World’s Fair, by her account, apparently involved a screening of Olympia, with the reception from the directors of the event being so positive that she was presented with a contract within 24 hours; however, upon returning to Los Angeles, this too was cancelled. [95]

Upon her return to Germany, Leni was quoted by Hamburg’s Tageblatt on the subject:

Whether or not Riefenstahl actually said this can never be known for certain.

Konskie Massacre

On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Wanting to be of service, Leni considered becoming a nurse, but was convinced by some of her staff to lead a crew for combat reporting. [97] She assembled a team including cameramen Sepp Allgeier and the brothers Guzzi and Otto Lantschner, and successfully submitted her scheme for Wehrmacht approval. [98]

Leni’s combat correspondence took her into the town of Konskie, in which, by her account, Polish civilians had previously killed a high-ranking German officer and four enlisted men, and then proceeded to mutilate their bodies, while the day prior partisans had killed six enlisted men in their sleep. [99] On the day in question, she came across German enlisted men, who were “extremely excited,” standing by as some Polish men dug a pit, by her account for the previous days’ dead Germans; she stated that a German police officer arrived, and upon concluding as the Poles apparently had, that these civilians were digging their own graves, ordered the soldiers to release the prisoners and dig the graves of their fellow soldiers. [100] The police officer then left, however, and began beating the Poles; she intervened in protest, and she reports someone pointed a rifle at her, at which point her photograph was taken, a look of horror clearly upon her face. [101] Soon rifle-fire in the distance touched off a shooting spree, in which more than 30 of the Poles were killed, which she claims not to have witnessed, since she was fleeing the shooting at the time. [102] She directly thereafter informed Col. Gen. Reichenau of her desire to quit her job as a combat reporter effective immediately. [103]

Other accounts differ from Riefenstahl’s. The most important difference was that all of the Poles killed were Jews—-to be fair, even if the rest of her account is deceitful, there is little reason for Riefenstahl to have known that the Poles in question were Jewish. [104] A military radio operator present during the massacre gave the following account:

An aide to General von Manstein testified during the Nuremberg trials that Riefenstahl confronted Manstein and “described the shootings of Jews at Konskie and declared that she could not continue her work in such circumstances.” [106] Like the previous witness, the aide does not specify whether Riefenstahl herself knew that the shooting victims were Jews. Manstein himself confirmed his aides account in his memoirs, though did not specify that the victims were Jews. [107] Riefenstahl seems to have mistaken Gen. von Manstein for Col. Gen. Reichenau, which makes the account more plausible—von Manstein was never a party member, while Reichenau had been since 1932.

Leni and her combat cameramen would soon record the Wehrmacht’s parade in Warsaw; the parade took place on October 5. [108] [109]

At the time of the 20 July attempted assassination of Hitler, Leni was at the funeral of her father. She later learned that at the same time, her brother was killed in Russia, blown to bits by a grenade at the age of 38. [110]

In November of 1944, she trekked to Merano, Italy, in search of her then husband, Peter. She hitched a ride with a supply column, and had to dive into ditches to avoid being gunned down by strafing Allied aircraft; she did not, however, find her husband. Unsuccessful, she returned to Merano, where she finally found him in an army hospital, incapacitated by a severe attack of rheumatism. [111]


Concurrent to the course of the war was the making of Leni Riefenstahl’s Tiefland, with shooting spanning from August 6, 1940 until September 1944. [112] Leni cast herself as the gypsy dancer love-interest vied for by the corrupt marquis and one of his shepherds; to direct her scenes, she employed G.W. Pabst, co-director of The White Hell of Piz Palu. [113] Initially failing to gain permission to shoot in Spain, she instead chose the village of Krun in the Bavarian Alps. [114] Despite being made at the height of the war, right through the edge of Nazi Germany’s collapse, Tiefland continued to receive funding, becoming one of the most expensive films ever made in Germany. [115] In one particularly spectacular expenditure, the wooden models around which the screenplay had evolved were constructed not as film sets, but actual buildings; concluding that the village’s layout was not suited to her desired camera positions, she had it entirely demolished and reconstructed, wasting, by her own account, “almost half a million marks.” [116]

The production is the source of another human rights controversy that would haunt Riefenstahl for the rest of her life. By her own account, the Gypsy extras from the nearby “welfare and care camp” in Maxglan, which, although determined at trial not to have been a concentration camp in a strict sense, the camp’s SS commandant Anton Bohmer described it as having barbed-wire fence five feet high and armed guards in watchtowers; her memoirs also fail to relate that the camp was closed in May 1943, at which point all its prisoners were sent to Auschwitz. [117]

Additional filming took place in Spain, where the bullfighting scenes were captured, and the famous Barrandov studios in occupied Czechoslovakia. [118]

Aftermath of the War

On her way back to her mother, she was arrested and imprisoned no less than three times by Americans, escaping each time—-escapees did not seem to bother the Americans. [119] Upon her arrival, she found that her home had been confiscated by American forces and turned into command center. Her mother had been relocated to the Ribbentrop estate, where her husband, still alive, was also staying. [120] Shortly thereafter, more Americans forced their way into the Ribbentrop house and arrested her for the fourth time, along with her husband and everyone else. They were all taken to Kitzbuhel before being released once more. [121]

After a few days at this new location, Leni alone was arrested for the fifth time, and taken to Salzburg Prison; during the night she spent there, she reports she had to listen to the screams and shrieks of a company of SS men who were being interrogated, along with the screaming of her insane cellmate. [122] The following day, Leni was taken several hours north to the headquarters of the American Seventh Army, where she roomed with Hitler’s senior secretary Johanna Wolf and two other women. [123] She was questioned as to her knowledge of the concentration camps, and their associated crimes. [124]

Finally, on June 3, 1945, Frau Riefenstahl was discharged from the camp and given a document certifying that she was rehabilitated. [125] She returned to the Ribbentrop estate, and her mother and husband. [126]

A month later, an American camp officer informed her that the Tyrol, in which they were located, would become a French zone of occupation the next day. He advised her to follow the Americans out of the region and avoid French occupation, but doing so would require her to leave the Tiefland footage; she was also confident that her document of rehabilitation would safeguard her from further action by the occupiers. [127]

She was again arrested, this time by the Deuxieme Bureau, France's military intelligence agency, only to be released a day later and told to leave the French zone within 24 hours, by the evening of August 4. She was allowed to take her personal belongings, money, her film Tiefland, and films she’d made before 1933. [128] Unfortunately, she suffered a severe attack of renal colic and ended up in the hospital, causing her to miss the deadline. [129]

Her husband had come to help her move out of the French zone by the end of the deadline, only to be arrested and imprisoned, along with her, by another French military patrol. At this point, they were again separated. She was detained at the sick ward of the Innsbruck women’s prison, where she was kept in almost complete isolation, being held for an indeterminate number of weeks. [130] Afterwards, she was released on her mother’s recognizance. [131]

Then, finally, she was stripped of practically everything:

As she would later learn, “the French had put all my material on trucks and carried it off—including editing tables, sound equipment, mixing desk, movie film cameras and all the office files together with my trunks, clothes and personal effects. According to Willy Kruetschnig, a friend in Kitzbuhel, everything had been transported to Paris.” [133]

Leni asked the French driver to take her to Freiburg, where her old director, Dr. Fanck, was living, but upon her arrival there, she found that he would have nothing to do with her, despite having gotten him work during the Reich and exemption from military service for the entirety of the war. [134] This attempt at obtaining housing having failed, the occupation government gave her bomb-damaged accommodations in Breisach, instead. [135]

Leni personally observed and suffered the depredations of the French occupation:

The French were very harsh. I had met a young girl in Breisach, Hanni Isele, who later became my live-in maid. Her parents had a vegetable garden and fruit trees, but she was not allowed to pick a single plum or apple there, not even the fruit that had fallen to the ground. French soldiers even checked the allotment gardens and hit old people and children on the hands if they tried to remove fallen fruit." [136] After five months in these conditions, she was taken to a military facility in Baden-Baden and interrogated; afterwards, she was informed by a French general that she would be moved to Koenigsfeld in the Black Forest, along with her mother and husband. When she asked what she was supposed to live on, and about her films and other property, he replied that it was no concern of his. [137] The poverty there proved just as great. [138] During this time, she divorced her husband. [139]

Then came the worst: in May 1947, on the pretext of her request for medical attention for her depression, the French committed her to a sanitarium somewhere outside of Freiburg; during her three-month internment there, she was subjected to electro-shock therapy. Upon her release, she returned to Konigsfeld and her mother [140]

Finally, a stranger came to her with an offer of freedom—he convinced her to sign two contracts, the first giving exclusive rights to all her films to his company, with a promise to her of fifty percent of the profits, and the second giving his company a 10-year monopoly on her written works and the ability to negotiate any film deals she might be involved in. [141] By early February 1948, she was released from her previous state of constant arrest. She was even free to move to the American zone. Nothing else ever came of the stranger or his contracts.

Leni was first cleared of accusation of membership in the Nazi party on December 1, 1948; the French military government appealed this decision, and on July 6, 1949, she was again tried and exonerated. [142]

Disappearance of Films

In June 1950, Frau Riefenstahl discovered that her film depot in Berlin-Schonefeld had managed to escape damage from bombing, and with the permission of the American Motion Picture Branch, she conducted an inventory, finding duplicate negatives and lavender prints of all her films except Tiefland, along with over a million feet of Olympia rushes. “Many years later,” the American Movie Production Bureau released the contents of the bunker, but all that remained were an old print of The Blue Light and some cut footage from it. It was not until the 1980s that the footage was rediscovered, by American doctoral candidates, in the Library of Congress and elsewhere across the United States. [143]

The Red Devils

Due to some combination of the poor state of the German film industry in the 1940s and ‘50s, and the stigma associated with her name, Leni was unable to find reliable German backing for another production; failing at this, she spent time in Italy during the early ‘50s, where she secured the initial funds for the production of a ski film, The Red Devils (Die roten Teufel); the film was a joint Austrian-Italian venture, filmed in the Alps of the South Tyrol, a province of Italy once a part of Austria and still primarily German-speaking. [144]; [145] Casting was done in large part by Riefenstahl’s friend, Jean Cocteau, who brought in Jean Marais and a then-unknown Brigitte Bardot. [146] The project was possible with the help of the Austrian government, which provided discounts for lodging and services; when, in 1955, these de facto subsidies became a public issue, the Austrian government ended its ties with the venture, and thus sealing the fate of the film. [147]

Back in Germany, Back at Work

Starting in late September of 1953, after having secured the rights to Tiefland in her struggle against the French government, Frau Riefenstahl began receiving footage from that film and immediately began cutting it into form. In February of 1954, it premiered at the EM Theatre in Stuttgart, receiving modestly favorable reviews. [148] Jean Cocteau, then president of the jury of the Cannes Film Festival, had the film screened at the 1954 festival. [149]


Inspired by Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, Frau Riefenstahl began to take a keen interest in Africa, and soon began to search for a film subject; she settled upon the topic of the slave-trade active in Africa at the time. [150] In April 1956, she departed for Sudan and Kenya, with no backing for a film. [151] While in Kenya, 250 miles north of Nairobi, a small dwarf antelope leapt across the path of the jeep in which she was then riding; when the tour-guide swerved to avoid hitting it, the vehicle struck two large rocks, smashing her head through the windshield, seriously injuring both of them, Leni critically so. [152] A half-hour later, a British district officer was making a monthly drive along this road from Somalia to Nairobi, and upon discovering them, drove them to a police state in Garissa. [153] The tour-guide then had to stitch a gaping wound in an unanaesthetized Leni’s forehead, from which a large vein dangled. [154] She was triaged as being beyond saving by the medical staff in Nairobi; nevertheless she eventually regained consciousness—-in addition to her head-wound, she had a punctured lung from her several broken ribs on her right side. [155] Despite having foregone surgery to reinflate her lung, within six weeks of the accident, she could again stand, another testament to her tenacity. [156]

During this trip, Frau Riefenstahl made her first observations of an African tribe, in this case the Masai. [157]

Germany Once More

Leni set about securing financial backing for her film about the modern African slave-trade, which was to be titled Black Freight; however, she was unable to do so either with German or American firms. [158] Failing at this, one of her old collaborators, Waldi Traut, founded Stern Film Inc. in July 1956, and invested 200,000 marks of his own money. [159] An expedition began in Africa, with filming of the script getting underway, but arrangements with the tour company fell through, and Leni was forced to return to Germany following the injuring of Traut in an automobile accident. [160] Even with the initial footage, no companies took interest in Leni’s project, and Herr Traut was himself incapable of further investment. [161] The project was no more.

In despair after the failure of Black Freight, Leni checked herself into a hospital to receive treatment for nervous exhaustion-—she referred to the weeks spent there as “the darkest in my life.” [162] During this stay, she was given regular injections of what she later learned was morphine. At the end of her stay, she traveled to Spain and, against instructions from her physician at the hospital, abruptly discontinued her use of morphine, leaving her in painful withdrawal for well over a week. [163]

A “denazified,” reedited printing of Olympia was released in 1958, but despite a certain degree of initial enthusiasm from distributors and theater owners, commercial interest in the new edition of the film almost entirely ceased following a string of defamatory newspaper articles. [164] At approximately the same time, the famous ballet choreographer Marquis de Cuevas was making preparations to stage The Blue Light in Paris, with prima ballerina Rosella Hightower dancing the part of Junta, but this project only made it to the rehearsal stage before the unexplained involvement of an “influential person” in Paris brought about its termination. [165]

At the Venice Biennale of 1958, Olympia was screened, and Leni ran into one of her old acquaintances, director Josef von Sternberg, whom she had not seen in 20 years. [166] In a similar turn of events, she was reunited with Manfred George at the 1960 Berlin Film Festival. [167]

Her bad luck continued, however. At the end of the decade, an attempt to remake The Blue Light as a musical, with the screenplay being written by Scientology founder and former Columbia screenwriter L. Ron Hubbard, fell through. [168] Within a few years, Mr. Hubbard would alight to Africa and declare himself the reincarnation of Cecil Rhodes.

Back to Africa

In December of 1962, Frau Riefenstahl, at the age of 60, returned to Africa, this time making contact with the primitive Nuba of Sudan. [169] During this visit, she witnessed the tribe’s elaborate funeral for one of its members. [170] By May of 1963, she had made her way to Kenya and spent time studying the Masai tribe. [171] She returned to Germany that August. [172] Her photographs from this expedition ran in the Hamburg-based Kristall magazine. [173]

Before returning to Africa and the Nuba in December 1964, a chance encounter with the wife of Robert Gardner, then head of the film department at Harvard University, resulted in an invitation to America, which she accepted; during this stay, Kodak film bought prints from her for its museum, where she gave a presentation on her pictures of the Nuba tribesmen. [174] The trip also netted her 60,000 marks in capital for a film project on the Nuba. However, due to an emergency involving the reception of her visa to Sudan, she was late to a meeting with National Geographic, which had expressed interest in buying her Nuba photos, and thus this deal fell through. [175]

In December 1964, she returned to the Nuba in Kenya, finding them completely undisturbed by the civil war that had engulfed the country and resulted in the deposing of the government in late October. [176] Her visit was interrupted, however, by the passing of her mother on January 14, 1965, news that she did not receive until four days later. By the time Leni arrived in Munich, another four days had passed, and her mother had already been buried. [177]

Leni returned as soon as possible to Sudan and the Nuba tribe. During the month of February, Leni and her crew took footage of the ceremony by which the Nuba initiate an adolescent, and later, captured footage of a ceremonial wrestling match. [178]

Bad luck struck again, however. Due to the incompetence of the specialist tasked with developing the footage, the then-advanced Kodak ektachrome film-stock was irreversibly ruined. [179] Before this turn of events, the American company underwriting that had underwritten her expedition, Odyssey, had promised her that if the Nuba film was a success, they would sign a deal with her to direct three documentaries in America. [180]

In August 1966, Frau Riefenstahl was able to meet once more with Albert Speer, an acquaintance from the time they both spent working for Hitler. He had recently been released after serving 20 years in Spandau prison for his involvement in the Nazi regime. [181]

Christmas of 1966 was her third spent with the Nuba. [182]

In 1967,National Education Television purchased the television rights to the English-language version of Olympia for five years. [183] That same year, the Six Day War created a political situation that made it impossible to visit Sudan, a country with a largely Arab culture. [184]

In the summer of 1968, while preparing for a fourth expedition to Sudan, she met Horst Kettner, whom she hired for his rare qualifications of being both a motor-mechanic and a cameraman. [185] Within time, he would become her lifelong companion, despite being 42 years her junior.

In December of that year, she returned to Sudan, where she was received by Mubarek Shaddad, Speaker of the Sudanese parliament. [186] She managed to arrive by Christmas; however, she was disappointed to find that civilization had begun to influence the culture of the isolated Nuba. [187] Whereas previously, the tribespeople had been naked and often elaborately painted, they were now almost universally wearing ragged clothes, their calabashes replaced with plastic bottles. [188] Under these circumstances, the wrestling ceremony, which they had recorded two years before, was not even deemed worth filming. Nonetheless, Stern magazine was sufficiently impressed with them to run a 15-page, full-color photo series of her Nuba photos. [189]

In the '70s

Leni continued to face more intense opposition at home than abroad. To commemorate the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Sunday Times Magazine of London hired her to photograph the ’72 games, while the BBC acquired the British television rights to both parts of Olympia; meanwhile, a sellout screening of Olympia at the Zoo-Palast in Berlin was cancelled following anonymous threats of arson. [190] American film producer David Wolper was producing the film for the ’72 Olympics, and approached Leni with an offer to make the portions covering the opening and closing ceremonies; he was, however, pressured by the West German government to forego this deal. [191] At the time of the games, no German agencies invited her to their festivities, while the America House received her, giving occasion to the first meeting between her and Jesse Owens since 1936. [192]

The first book of her Nuba photography, The Last of the Nuba, was published in 1973; it’s American publishing was handled by Harper & Row, and the American Book of the Month Club purchased 10,000 copies. [193] In the same year, at the age of 71, she earned her diving certification, an incredible feat. [194]

In December of 1973, she returned once more to her Nuba tribe. Disappointed to find that the Nuba were even more affected by civilization than before, Leni’s expedition pushed even further into the uncharted regions of the country; this persistence was rewarded, for they discovered the Nuba of Kau, who were just as untouched by society as the previous tribe had been a decade earlier. [195] They captured photographs and footage of these Nuba dueling and choosing their mates, each a ceremony of deep importance to their culture. [196]

After this time spent observing the Nuba, Sudanese President Gaafar Muhammad Nimeri received Leni and her crew at his private residence, where he gave her Sudanese citizenship, a first for a foreigner. [197]

Upon their return to Munich in April of 1974, the results of their shooting enticed Stern magazine into giving their support to another expedition; better still, Harper & Row ordered 17,000 additional copies of her first book, ensuring the necessary capital for another expedition. [198]

Mick and Bianca Jagger also agreed to pose together for the Sunday Times on the condition that Leni Riefenstahl perform the photography—-during this photo session, Keith Richards reportedly showed up in a rented SS uniform. [199] [200] The 1974 Telluride Film Festival also chose her, along with Gloria Swanson and Francis Ford Coppola, as the three guests to be honored; accordingly, the festival opened with a screening of The Blue Light. [201]

Immediately after the festival ended, she flew to Honduras, and was thus caught in Hurricane Fifi, after which she bore witness to the corpses of storm victims washing up on the beach for several days. [202]

December 1974 saw them return to Sudan and the Nuba of Kau. [203] During this visit, they recorded the customary, two-day ordeal of a South-Eastern Nuba woman being tattooed over her entire body using a thorn and a knife. [204] Additionally, they happened to stay during the yearly Nuba festival of love, during which women chose their mates—in a particular stroke of luck, they even filmed two women vying for the same man. [205]

After returning from Africa and successfully developing all the film they had shot, here new photographs were again purchased by Stern magazine and the Sunday Times Magazine; new book publishers also signed deals to publish both books in England, West Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Japan, where they had been previously unavailable. [206]

Luck, however, was not entirely on her side. At this time, she found out that a friend had squandered Leni’s savings through poor investments, along with money friends had loaned her for the completion of the Nuba film. [207] Concomitantly, Susan Sontag published the article “Fascinating Fascism” in the New York Times Review of Books in February of 1975, which begins by conceding that Last of the Nuba was “certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years,” and then, after accurately refuting Riefenstahl’s postwar narrative of her life’s work, ascribes a series of values to the Nuba book that she outlines as being those of fascism, and ending by warning that such values in art are dangerous, as they encourage these same values that they possess:

The more problematic of Riefenstahl’s values were “the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders).” [209] How these values are exploited by art without them already being powerful among mass consumers, why any of these values are necessarily connected to one another, why each of these values is bad, and whether the truly bad among these values is really alive in the public discourse or glorified in Riefenstahl’s art, Sontag does not address. However, the article was surely influential, and according to Riefenstahl, Mary Smith of National Geographic credited it with the magazine’s decision to cancel the running of Nuba photographs. [210] Actor Kurt Kreuger related, “In our many conversation, I do not recall Leni to have been hateful towards anyone, even Hitler, except Susan Sontag.” [211] Less sophisticated variations of Sontag’s work arose; one, in Der Spiegel, drew a similar parallel between the qualities of her Nazi films and her Nuba photographs, but unlike Sontag, used this connection for simple guilt by association. [212] The article also mocked the sexual significance of the Nuba’s nudity, and sported the title “Blut und Hoden” (Blood and Testicles), a pun on the Nazi catchphrase “Blut und Boden” (Blood and Soil). [213] Same as ever, though, Leni Riefenstahl did not give up.

Undersea Photography

By the end of the ‘70s, Leni had turned towards a new and final fixation: undersea diving and photography. Her time in Africa had provided her with her first opportunity to scuba dive in the Indian Ocean, an activity later giving rise to her first book of undersea photography, Coral Gardens, in 1978, photographed off the African coast of the Indian Ocean. [214] That same year, a fateful skiing accident, resulting in the breaking of her femur, left her with intense chronic pain at the point of fracture, which she soon discovered abated when she was swimming. [215]

1980s and On

Leni Riefenstahl published her memoirs in August 1987, and the reaction from the West German press was similarly hostile as in years past: Der Spiegel referred to her as “Hitler’s Unconsummated Bride,” while Die Zeit dismissed her memoirs as “idiotic chatter of a sycophant.” [216] Foreign reviewers sometimes tended towards a similar degree of unfavorability, depending on whether or not they were aware of the falsehoods in Riefenstahl’s memoirs—-John Simon, who wrote in the New York Times Review of Books, “Whether she lied to herself then and whether she is still doing so, one can’t know,” praised the work as “so exciting that you often must put it down, lest you overdose on thrills”; however, Manohla Margis of the Village Voice, being acquainted with the true history of Riefenstahl’s life and work, called Riefenstahl the “Queen of Denial.” [217]

German filmmaker Ray Muller released a documentary of her life in 1993, incorporating extensive interviews with Riefenstahl herself, entitled The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl; in 2000, he again paired with Riefenstahl to document her return to Sudan to find out the fate of the Nuba tribes she had famously photographed almost three decades ago. [218] During the flight back to Khartoum, the helicopter in which Leni was riding came under ground fire, ultimately crashing; Leni’s injuries included broken ribs, a back injury, and head trauma, leaving her unconscious for several days, by which time she was already back in Germany—after coming to and being informed of these events, she asked Muller whether he had recorded her being dragged from the wreckage, and upon learning that he had not, she inquired whether it might be possible to reenact the crash for the documentary. "Typical Leni," Muller mused.[219]

On the occasions of her 100th birthday, she was profiled by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, and was interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition. [220] Concurrent to this was the release of Underwater Impressions (Impressionen unter Wasser, 2002), a 45-minute documentary of the undersea life in and around coral reefs, set to a score by Giorgio Moroder, also known for his synthesized rescoring of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. [221]

Time finally caught up with Leni Riefenstahl, however, in the form of cancer. She died on September 8, 2003, at 10:50PM, of cancer. [222]

Significance of Gender

According to Leni Riefenstahl’s account, Hitler’s personal pilot, the famous Hanna Reitsch, told Leni the following: “The Fuhrer mentioned you too; it was several months ago, when I finally managed to get to see him. I had to speak to him because I was the victim of the most incredible intrigues—having so many colleagues who resented my success. Hitler told me that this was unfortunately the fate of many women. He named several women and then said, ‘Look at Leni Riefenstahl. She has so many enemies. I’ve been told she’s sick, but I can’t help her. If I did, it could mean her death.’” [223] It is uncertain whether this is a recollection based in fact; however, even if her multiple recollections of Adolf Hitler commenting on the unfair hardships against her because of her gender are all false, they at least demonstrate Riefenstahl’s own belief in these prejudices.

It is not necessary to rely upon Riefenstahl’s own recollections to find confirmation of sexism against her, though. Certainly, were she not a woman, she would not have been referred to as Reichsgletscherspalte, or “glacial crevasse of the Reich,” a variation on the Landesgletscherspalte ("the nation’s glacial crevasse") epithet that had been attached to her ever since her days in the popular Fanck Bergfilmen. [224]

Albert Speer was one person able to comment on this topic, and said the following:

The double-standard of gender was a sword that cut both ways, though. Leni’s strategic use of crying would not have been nearly so successful had she not been a woman. Robert Gardner also recalled once being “in her presence with a producer and she wept until the man was so beside himself he didn’t know how else to deal with her and said, ‘Go ahead, Leni, go ahead and do it.’” He observed, “She was an actress, after all, and willing to be shrewd, to cajole, to weep to get her way.” [226] She had even done this before in front of Hitler in order to free herself from Goebbels’ financial audit of the production of Olympia. [227]

Leni also commented to interviewer Peggy Wallace on how she received permission to shoot inside the Olympic stadium in 1936: “I had to get permission and if I had been a man, I wouldn’t have gotten it. So, it was easy. I was a nice young girl, so I said, ‘Please let me do it. Please let me do it. Please let me do it.’” [228]

The unlimited artistic and financial license afforded to Leni Riefenstahl during the Third Reich constantly raised suspicions as to whether her being a beautiful woman, and one capable of manipulating the patronizing attitudes of men, was behind her unlimited support by the Third Reich, but such a situation is not unprecedented in the history of film under totalitarian regimes—-the most obvious example is Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk’s production of War and Peace (1968), the most expensive film production ever, costing (indexed for inflation) nearly $700,000,000. [229]

It is almost certain, however, that observers would not have assumed Leni to have been romantically linked to Hitler had she not been a woman. During her time in American custody, a doctor came to her cell and asked her “a few intimate things about Hitler”: whether he “was sexually normal or if he was impotent, what his genitals looked like, and so on,” on the pretext that “these things are important for understanding his character.” The implication of asking the questions to her was clear. [230] Such presumptions and rumors say a great deal about the power structure of her day, given that such behavior was presumed to be the reason for a fairly young and good-looking woman being in a top position, regardless of her talent.

Judgment by History

As remarkable a human being as she was, Leni Riefenstahl was and is tainted figure in film history. Through her remarkable drive, she could almost single-handedly take control of the huge endeavor filmmaking is and form it into superlative art, and was as strong in shaping her fate in other areas as she was in the medium with which she’ll always be identified, yet she never had the strength to examine her own history and come to honest terms with it. Even so, though, she was indeed a remarkable human being.

On the positive side of the ledger, the artistic merit of Leni Riefenstahl’s better works is essentially beyond question, and to nearly the same extent, so too is her influence on the medium of film. Susan Sontag may have stated otherwise: “Triumph of the Will and Olympia are undoubtedly superb films (they may be the two greatest documentaries ever made), but they are not really important in the history of cinema as an art form.” [231] Perhaps that was true in 1975—-the Star Wars films had not yet injected imperial pomp into science fiction, and fragments of Triumph in countless WWII documentaries had not yet given us an idea of conformity that was as seductive as it was repressive, nor had TV sports presentation started aping the grandeur of Olympia. Today, though, there is no denying Leni Riefenstahl’s place in the cinematic canon.

As a model of human tenacity, she was no less remarkable. Whether it was climbing on razor-sharp winter mountainsides in her bloody bare feet, or spending 12 hours a day, for months on end, editing miles of raw footage into masterpieces, she was driven in a way that even her fiercest detractors could admire.

On the other hand, however, there was her history, and her unwillingness to accept it. To be fair, there was no “smoking gun” evidence that Leni Riefenstahl had been a die-hard racist, that she new about the Holocaust while it was taking place, or anything similarly damning; as Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice put it, “the problem with either a prosecution or a defense of Riefenstahl is that so much of the evidence has disappeared in the rubble of the Third Reich that we can never be quite sure whether Leni was Little Eva (as she claims) or Lucrezia Borgia (as Sontag suggests) or (more likely) an opportunistic artist who has been both immortalized and imprisoned by the horror of history.” [232] However, her credibility died the death of a thousand cuts as she maintained her declarations of a ludicrous level of innocence.

There is a temptation to write Riefenstahl off as an observer with a fascistically perfectionist eye-—a “beauty freak,” as Sontag defined the narrative that Leni tried to create for herself. [233] One could take it the next step even, and accuse her of consistently propagandizing morally corrosive values such as self-repression, obedience, and a devotion to male power. For sure, all of these characterizations are largely correct, but in the end, they only add up to so much bad taste on her part, for the modern, cynical consumer is more than equipped to take Leni’s paeans with a grain of salt.

No, the real moral failing of Leni Riefenstahl was her inability to ever admit her culpability, however passive, for the activity she undertook for the Nazi regime. German society had, over the decades, finally accepted the disingenuousness of the notion that except for a few bad actors, it was not responsible for all the atrocities of Nazism. For Leni not to have taken similar accountability, despite the propaganda she made for the Third Reich and the unlimited degree of patronage the regime had given her, only to have the temerity to call these works documentaries, is a long shadow cast over her memory. That is the tragedy of Leni Riefenstahl. As Roger Ebert put it, “if she had confessed and renounced her youthful ideas, she might have had a more active career. It is her unconvincing, elusive self-defense that continues to damn her.” [234])

External Links

Wilson's Annotated Bibliography


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  221. "Soundtracks for Metropolis" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017136/soundtrack Accessed June 1, 2009
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  229. http://www.filmforum.org/films/warandpeace.html Accessed June 1, 2009
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  234. Ebert, Roger. review of "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl." Accessed June 2, 2009

Note: all pictures of and works by Leni Riefenstahl from the Nazi period are part of the public domain.

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This page has been accessed 444,542 times. This page was last modified on 10 June 2009, at 14:05.


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