Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

New York Times
September 10, 2003
Leni Riefenstahl, Film Innovator Tied to Hitler, Dies at 101

Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose daringly innovative
documentaries about a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1934 and the Berlin
Olympics of 1936 earned her both acclaim as a cinematic genius and contempt
as a propagandist for Hitler, died on Monday night at her home in Pöcking,
south of Munich. She was 101. 

After the defeat of Germany in 1945, she was pronounced a Nazi sympathizer
by the Allies and never again found work as a movie director. But her
revolutionary film techniques deeply influenced later generations of
documentary makers and television commercial makers, keeping alive the
debate over whether her talent could be separated from her prewar political

For many students of her life and legacy, Ms. Riefenstahl was both
propagandist and genius. A popular dancer and actress before becoming a
movie director in 1932, she enthusiastically put her talent at the service
of the Nazis. Yet, without her exceptional artistic vision, her two most
famous documentaries, "Triumph of the Will" and the two-part "Olympia,"
would neither have caused a sensation at the time nor be considered
classics today. 

Ms. Riefenstahl never denied her early conviction that Hitler could "save"
Germany. She also said that her idealized image of him fell apart "far too
late," near the end of World War II. But amid widespread skepticism, she
insisted that she was never a Nazi and that "Triumph of the Will" and
"Olympia" were apolitical, inspired only by her desire to create works of

Still, while her documentaries continue to be studied in some film schools,
Ms. Riefenstahl remained trapped in the shadow of her association with
Hitler. Her repeated attempts to find financing for a new film always ended
in failure, while public screenings of her movies and exhibitions of her
photographs invariably prompted protests. As recently as last year she was
briefly investigated in Germany on accusations of race-hatred crimes, but
no charges were brought.

She nonetheless worked hard to shed her image as the Nazi regime's most
persuasive propagandist. After the war she spent 20 years in relative
isolation, living in her mother's apartment in Munich. Then, in the late
1960's, perhaps out of frustration, she reinvented herself as a
photographer and, within a decade, she had made her name in a new visual
art form. 

A tiny woman of great physical courage and fierce determination, she next
took up scuba diving, claiming to be only 51, when she was actually 20
years older, to obtain a diving license. Two collections of her underwater
photographs, "Coral Gardens" and "Wonders Under Water," were published in
the United States, and she continued diving in the Maldives until she was
in her late 90's. Last year, to coincide with her 100th birthday, she
released her first movie in almost half a century, a 45-minute documentary
of marine life called "Impressions Under Water."

But it was her photography that stirred most controversy. Inspired by
George Rodger's famous image of a muscular Nuba wrestler carried on the
shoulders of another fighter, she made several trips to southern Sudan to
photograph the Nuba. She worked alone at first, then later with Horst
Kettner, 42 years her junior, who became her companion and lived with her
until her death. She has no other survivors. In March 2000, while making a
return visit to the Nuba, the 97-year-old Ms. Riefenstahl was severely
injured in a helicopter accident in Sudan. She was flown back to a hospital
in Munich.

Her first Sudan book, "Last of the Nuba," published in the United States in
1974, won her recognition as a photographer and to some extent
rehabilitated her as an artist. But while even in Germany it became
acceptable to praise Ms. Riefenstahl as the most important female movie
director ever, both her role in celebrating the Third Reich and what the
critic Susan Sontag described as the "fascist aesthetics" of her work also
came under new scrutiny. 

Writing in The New York Review of Books in 1975, Ms. Sontag said there was
a common "aesthetic" running through what she called Ms. Riefenstahl's
"triptych of fascist visuals" — her early work as an actress in Arnold
Fanck's "mountain films," her two principal documentaries and her
photographs of the Nuba. "The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic
transactions between mighty forces and their puppets," Ms. Sontag wrote.
"Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed,
static, `virile' posing." When Ms. Riefenstahl was over 90, she again found
herself at the center of heated debate when she was the subject of a
three-hour documentary, "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl"
(1993), by the German filmmaker Ray Müller. At about the same time, she
also published her own 669-page autobiography, "Leni Riefenstahl: A

In the book she was able to give her version of her life. Writing in The
New York Times Book Review, John Simon said the memoir did not contain "a
single unspellbinding page." He raised the question about the veracity of
her accounts of everything from her private meetings with Hitler to her
life with the Nuba. But he concluded, "The book must, in the main, be true;
it is far too weird for fiction." 

In the documentary, while Mr. Müller allowed her to talk at fascinating
length about her filmmaking techniques, he also questioned her memory,
notably her claim to have had few dealings with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's
propaganda minister. At the end of the documentary, Mr. Müller also tried
to provoke her into admitting guilt for her past. 

"What do you mean by that?" she asked, clearly surprised. "Where is my
guilt? I can regret. I can regret that I made the party film, `Triumph of
the Will,' in 1934. But I cannot regret that I lived in that time. No
anti-Semitic word has ever crossed my lips. I was never anti-Semitic. I did
not join the party. So where then is my guilt? You tell me. I have thrown
no atomic bombs. I have never betrayed anyone. What am I guilty of?"

It was evidently a well-rehearsed response. In an interview with The New
York Times last year, she said: "I didn't do any harm to anyone. What have
I ever done? I never intended any harm to anyone."

Certainly in her final years she never shied from the limelight. In 1997,
when a Hamburg gallery held the first exhibition of her work in postwar
Germany, Ms. Riefenstahl agreed to be interviewed by major German news
weeklies even though she knew much of the questioning would be hostile.
That same year, ignoring protests, she traveled to Los Angeles to receive a
lifetime achievement award from Cinecon, a group that restores old movies.
In 2001 she visited St. Petersburg, where her films were shown in a
documentary festival.

Whether out of vanity or naïveté, Ms. Riefenstahl may well have believed
that her artistic independence was never compromised, that she did not
"sell" her talents to the Nazis who financed "Triumph of the Will" and
"Olympia." Yet, shaped by the profound romanticism of 19th-century German
culture, her monumental vision of beauty fitted perfectly into the National
Socialist ideology. 

Born into a comfortable Berlin home on Aug. 22, 1902, Helene Berta Amalie
Riefenstahl grew up loving nature and outdoor life. Her mother encouraged
her artistic flair, and although her father, a businessman, was opposed to
her working on the stage, she began dancing in an Isadora Duncan-like free
style at age 16 and soon found work — and considerable recognition — in
Berlin theaters. 

In 1924 her life changed direction. Recovering from an injury at 22, Ms.
Riefenstahl was profoundly affected by seeing Fanck's movie "Mountain of
Destiny" and promptly sought out the director. Entranced by the striking
young dancer, Fanck cast her in his next seven mountain films, among them
"The Holy Mountain," "The White Hell of Piz Palu" and "SOS Iceberg." 

These films gave her the image of a romantic heroine in the Wagnerian cast,
in harmony with nature and bent on fighting evil. Her often dangerous roles
— she climbed rock faces barefoot and was once almost swept away by an
avalanche provoked by Fanck — also showed her to be fearless. In 1932 she
directed her first movie, "The Blue Light," another mountain film, in which
she appeared as a warm-hearted peasant girl. (The names of her Jewish
co-writer, Bela Balazs, and the film's Jewish producer, Harry Sokal, were
removed from the credits when "The Blue Light" was reissued in 1938.)

It was also around this time, one year before Hitler's rise to power, that
she first heard the Nazi leader speak at a rally. "I heard his voice:
`Fellow Germans,' " she recalled in her autobiography. "That very same
instant I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget.
It seemed as if the earth's surface were spreading out before me, like a
hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an
enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the
earth. I felt paralyzed." 

She subsequently wrote to Hitler, noting that "I must confess that I was so
impressed by you and by the enthusiasm of the spectators that I would like
to meet you personally." Her popularity as an actress made the request seem
reasonable; Hitler's appreciation of her role in "The Blue Light" made the
encounter possible. 

In the years that followed she met frequently with the Nazi leader. She
always stridently denied that they were lovers, although recalling one
meeting, she later wrote, "That evening I felt that Hitler desired me as a
woman." At their first meeting in 1932, though, she said she was most
struck by his informality and she quoted him telling her, "Once we come to
power, you must make my films." 

In her autobiography she said she told him that she could not make films on
commission. Yet, the following year, with Hitler now chancellor, she made
"Victory of the Faith," a documentary about a Nazi party rally at
Nuremberg. She was not happy with the film, and the following year she
tried again, this time with ample time, money and equipment. The result was
"Triumph of the Will." 

The film, which took almost two years to edit from 250 miles of raw
footage, included such innovative techniques as moving cameras, including
one on a tiny elevator attached to a flagpole behind the speaker's podium
that provided sweeping panoramic views; the use of telephoto lenses to
create a foreshortening effect (for example, when filming a parade of Nazi
flags); frequent close-ups of wide-eyed party faithful; and heroic poses of
Hitler shot from well below eye level. The film also used "real sound" but
was accompanied by no commentary. 

The film won Ms. Riefenstahl assorted German prizes, and although she again
pledged to make no more party films, she then made an 18-minute
documentary, "Day of Freedom: Our Army," about the Wehrmacht in 1935. Soon
afterward, she was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee to record
the 1936 Berlin Olympics. To the end of her life, she insisted that
"Olympia" was not an official film, but ample evidence exists to suggest
that it was indirectly financed by Goebbels's propaganda ministry. 

Still, she made extraordinary use of the 170-member team of cameramen and
technicians that she assembled. To evoke the early Greek Olympics in the
first part of the documentary, "Festival of the Nations," she filmed
near-naked athletes in assorted heroic poses. During the training period,
she also filmed close-ups of oarsmen, marathon runners and swimmers that
she edited into the final version. When the games began, she had to cover
136 events because, she recalled, "we never knew when a world record would
be broken." 

And once again, both her filming and editing techniques broke new ground.
To capture the drama of the pole vault and long jump events, she had holes
dug beside the sand pit where the athletes landed. In the high-diving
event, which dominated the second part of the film, "Festival of Beauty,"
she used four cameras, including one underwater, to capture the movement of
divers from all angles. Then, in the editing room, she turned the divers
into graceful birds. 

"Olympia" was not blatantly propagandistic. Notably, it showed Jesse
Owens's moments of victory, while Hitler was seen for only 15 seconds on
the single occasion that he visited the Olympic stadium. Although the film
was widely praised, its reception in 1938 was muted by Europe's gradual
slide toward war. She was also met with hostility when she took the film to
the United States in November 1938.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Ms. Riefenstahl went to the
front as a war correspondent, but she claimed that she soon left in disgust
at Wehrmacht brutalities. Yet the following year, when Germany occupied
France, she sent a telegram to Hitler congratulating him on seizing Paris.
"Everyone thought the war was over," she later explained, and in that
spirit I sent the cable to Hitler." 

During the war she continued to see Hitler sporadically but turned her
attention back to filmmaking. Several projects fell through, but in 1944
she was able to complete filming of "Tiefland," or "Lowlands," an
adaptation of the Eugene d'Albert operetta in which she also played the
role of a Spanish Gypsy dancer. The film was shot in the Tyrol, and its
extras included Gypsies interned in a nearby concentration camp.

After the war Ms. Riefenstahl insisted she had not known that the Gypsies
were being detained prior to their deportation to Nazi death camps. But
when in April 2002 she repeated the claim that none of the Gypsies had
died, a German Gypsy Association, Rom, started legal action against her,
arguing that at least half the extras were later killed. On her 100th
birthday the Frankfurt prosecutor's office opened an investigation into
charges that she had denied the Holocaust, but the case was dropped two
months later for lack of evidence and because of her advanced age.

Ms. Riefenstahl said she saw Hitler for the last time in March 1944 when
she visited him in Kitzbühel, Austria, to introduce her new husband, an
army officer named Peter Jacob. She later wrote that Hitler had aged
considerably and his hands trembled, but "he still cast the same magical
spell as before." 

Ms. Riefenstahl's only marriage lasted little longer than her numerous
affairs during her time as an actress and filmmaker. At the end of the war,
she was detained for almost four years for de-Nazification, first by the
American authorities and then by French forces. She was found to be a "Nazi
sympathizer" but she was not banned from working and was finally able to
release "Tiefland" in 1954. But her movie career was over.