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Helene Bertha Amalie

Riefenstahl in The Blue Light, 1931
Riefenstahl in The Blue Light, 1931.

Helene Bertha Amalie "Leni" Riefenstahl (August 22, 1902 - September 8, 2003) was a German film director, dancer and actress, and widely noted for her aesthetics and advances in film technique. Her most famous film was Triumph des Willens, a documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg congress of the Nazi Party, which was used by the Third Reich as a powerful propaganda film. Because of Riefenstahl's social prominence in the Third Reich, including a personal acquaintance with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, Leni Riefenstahl's film career ended after Germany's defeat in World War II, when she was arrested but not found guilty of war crimes.

Riefenstahl is renowned in film history for developing new aesthetics in film, especially in relation to nude bodies. While the propaganda value of her early films repels many, their aesthetics are cited by many filmmakers as outstanding.

Rejected by the film industry after World War II, she later published her still photography of Nuba tribes in Africa and continued to make films of marine life.


Dancer and actress

Riefenstahl was born in the working class suburb of Wedding in Berlin. Riefenstahl began her career as a self-styled and well-known interpretive dancer. (In a 2002 interview, she said dancing made her truly happy.) After injuring her knee while performing in Prague, she attended a viewing of a nature film about mountains, and became fascinated with the possibilities of the medium. She went to the Alps to find the film's director, Arnold Fanck, intending to become the leading lady in his next project. Riefenstahl found the star of Fanck's films, who wrote to the director and informed him of Riefenstahl's intentions. Riefenstahl went on to star in a number of Fanck's bergfilme, presenting herself as an athletic and adventurous young woman with suggestive appeal. Riefenstahl's career as an actor in silent films was prolific, and she became highly regarded by directors and publicly popular with German film-goers. Her last acting role before moving to directing was in the 1933 film SOS Eisberg (U.S. title SOS Iceberg).

Riefenstahl brought a perfectionism to filmmaking that enabled her to produce exceptionally polished movies, culminating in her final works in National Socialist Germany. Her main interest at first was in fictional films. When presented with her first opportunity to write and direct Das Blaue Licht in 1932, she took it. Breaking from her mentor's style of setting realistic stories in "fairytale" mountain settings, Riefenstahl wrote Das Blaue Licht as a romantic, mystical tale which she viewed as more fitting to the terrain.

Propaganda film

Riefenstahl on a camera dolly (during the production of Olympia)
Riefenstahl on a camera dolly (during the production of Olympia).

Riefenstahl heard Adolf Hitler speak at a rally in 1932 and was mesmerized by his powers as a public speaker. Upon meeting Riefenstahl, Hitler, himself a frustrated artist, saw the chance to hire a visionary who could create the image of a strong, proud Wagnerian Germany radiating beauty, power, strength, and defiance, an image he could sell to the world. During a personal meeting he asked Riefenstahl to make a documentary and, in 1933, she directed the short film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), an hour-long feature about the NationalSocialist party rally at Nuremberg in 1933 (released on DVD in 2003). Riefenstahl decried the technique in this piece and didn't consider it to be adequately produced to be called a feature.

Reports vary as to whether Riefenstahl ever had a close relationship with Hitler but, impressed with her work, he then asked her to film the upcoming 1934 Party rally in Nuremberg.

After initially turning down the project because she did not want to make "a prescribed film", Riefenstahl began making another film titled Tiefland. She hired Walter Ruttmann to direct it in her place. When she fell ill, Tiefland was cancelled. Upon her recovery, she reviewed Ruttmann's initial footage and found it to be terrible. She eventually relented to Hitler's pressure, and resumed her role as director of the film. She was given unlimited resources, camera crews, budget, complete artistic control and final cut of the film.

Triumph of the Will was a documentary generally recognized as a masterful, epic, innovative work of documentary filmmaking. Because it was commissioned by the National Socialist party and used as propaganda, however, critics have said it is nearly impossible to separate the subject from the artist behind it. Triumph of the Will was a rousing success in Europe, but widely banned in America. The film is widely regarded as one of the most effective pieces of propaganda ever produced. However, in interviews for the 1993 film The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl herself adamantly denied a deliberate attempt to create pro-Nazi propaganda and stated that she was disgusted that Triumph of the Will was used in such a way.

Triumph of the Will won many international awards as a ground-breaking example of filmmaking. Leni Riefenstahl also made a lesser-known film about the German Wehrmacht, released in 1935 as Tag der Freiheit (Day of Freedom).

In 1936 Riefenstahl qualified as an athlete to represent Germany in cross-country skiing for the Olympics but decided to film the event instead. She also went to Greece (aided by fellow Greek photographer Nelly's) to film on the Games' original location. This material became Olympia, a film widely noted for its technical and aesthetic achievements. She adopted a technique commonly known as a tracking shot and applied it to the documentary form, placing the camera on rails to follow the movement of the athletes. Riefenstahl's achievements in the making of Olympia have proved to be a major influence in modern sports photography.

World War II

During the Invasion of Poland Leni Riefenstahl was photographed wearing a Waffen-SS uniform and a pistol on her belt, while accompanying German soldiers in Poland. On 12 September 1939 she was present in the town of Konskie during an execution of 30 civilians carried out in retaliation of an unspecified attack on German soldiers. According to her memoir she tried to intervene but a furious German soldier held her at gun point and threatened to shoot her on the spot. Closeup photographs from that day survive, showing a distraught Leni. As a result of the events, Riefenstahl immediately went to meet Hitler who at that time was in Zoppot (now Sopot, Poland) on the Baltic watching Battle of Hel.

In Zoppot, Riefenstahl used her personal influences to demand an audience with Adolf Hitler. However, by 5 October 1939 Leni Riefenstahl was already back in occupied Poland and filming Hitler's victory parade in Warsaw.

Riefenstahl herself, in interviews, claimed she wasn't aware of the nature of the internment camps.

Post-war accusations

After World War II, she spent four years in a French detention camp. She was investigated by postwar authorities several times, but never convicted, either for her alleged role as a propagandist or her use of concentration camp inmates in her films. See Happy Birthday, Leni Riefenstahl. In later interviews Riefenstahl maintained that she was "fascinated" by the National Socialists but politically na´ve and ignorant about the war crimes of which they were subsequently found guilty.

Postwar career, legacy and personal life

Riefenstahl attempted to make films after the war but each attempt was met with resistance, protests, sharp criticisms and an inability to secure funding. In 1944, she married Peter Jacob, whom she later divorced, and in the 1960s began a lifelong companionship with Horst Kettner, who was forty years her junior. He remained with her until the end of her life.

She became a photographer and was later the first to photograph rock star Mick Jagger and his wife Bianca as a couple holding hands after they were married, as they were both admirers. Jagger told Riefenstahl he had seen Triumph of the Will at least 15 times .

Riefenstahl developed an interest in the Nuba tribe in Sudan and lived among the Nuba for various periods. Her books with photographs of the tribe were published in 1974 and 1976. She survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan in 2000.

At age 72, Riefenstahl lied about her age (she claimed she was 52) to get certified for scuba diving and began to pursue underwater photography. She released a new film titled Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an idealized documentary on life in the oceans, on her 100th birthday - August 22, 2002.

In his book The Story of Film, film scholar Mark Cousins claims that, 'Next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented Western film maker of her era.'


Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep in the late evening of September 8, 2003, at her home in P÷cking, Germany a few weeks after her 101st birthday. She had been suffering from cancer. She was buried in the Ostfriedhof (Eastern Cemetery) in Munich.

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