Leni Riefenstahl

From Academic Kids

Riefenstahl circa 1930
Riefenstahl circa 1930

Berta Helene Amalie "Leni" Riefenstahl (August 22, 1902 - September 8, 2003) was an actress, a director, and subsequently a Nazi-era German filmmaker renowned for her aesthetics and advances in film technique. Her most famous works are documentary propaganda films for the German Nazi Party. Shut out of the film industry after the war, she later became a photographer.



Born in Berlin, Germany, Riefenstahl started her career as a self-styled interpretive dancer; in a 2002 interview she recalled that dancing was what made her truly happy. After injuring her knee, she attended a film showing on the topic of mountains and became impressed with them and the possibilities of the medium. She went to the Alps for about a year and when she returned fascinated by them, she confidentially approached Arnold Fanck, the director of that film, and demanded a role in his next film. He consented and Riefenstahl went on to star in a number of Fanck's bergfilme, presenting herself as an athletic, adventuresome young woman with sex appeal suggested rather than shown. When presented with the opportunity to direct The Blue Light she took it; her main interest was initially in fictional films.

She heard Adolf Hitler speak at a rally in 1932 and offered her services as a filmmaker, because she was mesmerized by his powers as a public speaker. In 1933 she directed a short film about a Nazi party meeting. Hitler then asked her to film the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in 1934. Initially she refused, suggesting that Hitler have Walter Ruttmann film it instead. Riefenstahl later consented, and made Triumph of the Will, a documentary film glorifying Hitler and widely regarded as one of the most effective pieces of propaganda ever produced, even though Riefenstahl herself claims she had intended it solely as a documentary. She went on to make a film about the German Wehrmacht: the film was released in 1935 as Tag der Freiheit (Day of Freedom) and is now available on DVD. It is not documented that she would ever have a relationship with Hitler.

In 1936, Riefenstahl qualified to represent Germany in cross-country skiing in the Olympics but decided to film the event instead. This material became Olympia, a film celebrated for its technical and aesthetic achievements. She was the first to put railways on the stadium to shoot the stadium crowd.

Missing image
22 Jews digging their graves, picture by Leni Riefenstahl

After World War II, she spent four years in a French detention camp. There were accusations of her using concentration camp inmates on her film sets, but those claims could not be proved in court. In the end, being unable to prove any culpable support of the Nazis, the court called her a "sympathizer". In later interviews, Riefenstahl maintained that she was fascinated by the Nazis but politically naﶥ and ignorant about their atrocities—a position which many of her critics dismiss as ridiculous.

Riefenstahl attempted to make other films after the war, but each attempt was met with resistance, protests, sharp criticisms, and an inability to secure funding. The few films she made were short and personally funded. As a result she became a photographer. She was the first to be able to photograph the rock star Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca Jagger as a couple holding each other's hands after they got maried, as they were both great admirers of her. Mick Jagger told her that he had seen her movie The Triumph of Will at least 15 times.

Later she became interested in the Nuba tribe in Sudan. Her books with photographs of the tribe were published in 1974 and 1976. She survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan in 2000.

In her late 70s, Riefenstahl lied about her age to get certified for scuba diving, and started a career in underwater photography. She released a new film titled Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an idealized movie of life in the oceans, full of harmony, on her hundredth birthday - August 22, 2002.

Apart from her controversial propaganda movies, Riefenstahl is renowned in film history for developing new aesthetics in her films, especially in relation to nude bodies, and while the propaganda in her early films repels many people, their aesthetics are nonetheless outstanding and cited by many other filmmakers.

In October 2002, when Riefenstahl was 100, German authorities decided to drop the case against her for falsely claiming that "each and every one" of the Roma people which had been drawn from a concentration camp to appear in her film Tiefland had survived the war. A Gypsy group had filed the case, claiming that she used them for the film and sent them back when she no longer needed them. In addition to the fact that Riefenstahl had signed a withdrawal of her claim, the prosecutor cited Riefenstahl's considerable age as a reason for dropping the case.

Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep on September 8, 2003, at her home in P?ng, Germany; a few weeks after her 101st birthday. In her obituaries Riefenstahl was said to be the last famous figure of Germany's Nazi era to die.


As an actress

As a director

As a photographer

As author


In 1998, the VAWS (Verlag und Agentur Werner Symanek) record label released a tribute double CD titled Riefenstahl [1] (http://www.discogs.com/release/208963), featuring such artists as Strength Through Joy, Death In June, and Von Thronstahl.


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