Leni Riefenstahl was a dancer, actress, film director, photographer and author. Best known by many for her directing of highly acclaimed films such as Triumph of the Will and Olympia, the story of Leni Riefenstahl’s life, and particularly her career, provides a very good insight into Life in Weimar and Nazi Germany: and the after effects of the war.
Leni Riefenstahl began her career as an interpretive dancer. She was part of a troupe who travelled Europe putting on shows. This dancing career began in 1918, in Berlin. Riefenstahl quicky became noted as a talent and earned herself a reputation as a dancer to look out for.
Following an injury to her knee, Riefenstahl looked for opportunities away from dancing. In 1924 she met with Luis Trenker, who had connections in the film industry. Trenker introduced Leni to film producer Arnold Fanck. Fanck gave Riefenstahl her break as an actress and she starred in several of his silent films. These films were quite unlike the ones that she was later to direct herself. In them she played the role of a mountain girl, was ‘suggestive’ by the standards of the day.
An opportunity to direct a film, rather than acting in it was presented to Riefenstahl in 1932. This film, The Blue Light, saw some success across Europe but received some harsh criticism from some quarters.
The rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi Party coincided with Liefenstahl’s rise to prominence as an emerging film director. Shortly after Hitler became Chancellor, Liefenstahl heard him speak. She was impressed by his charisma and the message that he put forward. as a result she asked Hitler for a meeting which duly happened. The result of that meeting was a commission to film the 1933 Nuremburg Rally. This proved to be a significant turning point in her career. The documentary, ‘Victory of Faith’, was well received by Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy. The following year another film was commissioned. This film is widely considered to be one of the greatest ever made in terms of the cinematography and innovative filming style. Triumph of the Will, as the film was called, made Riefenstahl famous, or following later events, infamous.
Triumph of the Will is regarded as a masterpiece. It is also widely rebuked due to it’s use by the Nazi’s for propaganda purposes. The film remains banned in Germany to this day for that reason.
Rifenstahl’s next major work was a documentary of the 1936 Munich Olympics. Again she innovated. Multiple cameras recorded events at the Olympics. Scenes such as Jesse Owens winning the 100m are still widely used.
Olympia, a 1938 release directed by Leni Riefenstahl:
Riefenstahl’s wartime film making has been the source of controversy. Her work on the film Tiefland made use of extras from a concentration camp. Following the war this led to several legal arguments, which are outlined on this Wikipedia page. Riefenstahl was also associated by many with the Nazi Party. The post war years saw her held in detention camps and she was accused on numerous occasions of being a Nazi: She successfully contested over 50 libel cases relating to this accusation. Despite her successes in libel cases the association was enough to hinder her film making career for quite some time.
Riefenstahl was effectively isolated from film making until the 1960’s. In the 1960’s she travelled to Africa to learn more about the Nuba tribe. She documented her time their and produced a film and several books about the tribe. In her late 70’s she took up Scuba diving and released books of underwater photography. Aged 100, she released a documentary about life underwater.
Leni Riefenstahl died in 2003, aged 101.