Notable in the Nazi’s use of the cinema to further their own ends was the career of propagandist and documentarian Leni Riefenstahl. Born in Berlin in 1902, Riefenstahl rapidly emerged as the foremost filmmaker of the Reich. A genuine artist, she gave her considerable skills to the Nazi cause, most notably in her “documentary” of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935). Her unquestioned masterpiece, Olympia, a two-part record of the 1936 Olympic games, took her two years to edit before appearing in 1938.
Riefenstahl began her career as a dancer and painter and soon found her athletic, blonde good looks in demand for director Arnold Fanck’s mountain films, which featured her in a variety of alpine settings, climbing from one adventure to the next.
She soon became a star and was able to leverage her fame into a chance at directing with the mountain film Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light, co-directed by Béla Belázs, 1932), which she also starred in, produced, and wrote. Drifting rapidly into the Nazi orbit, Riefenstahl found personal favor with Hitler as the personification of “Aryan perfection” and became active in fund-raising and other party affairs. In 1933, she created her first short film for the Reich, Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of the Faith).
Hitler then asked Riefenstahl to record the 1934 Nuremberg rallies and placed nearly unlimited resources at her disposal. The result was Triumph of the Will, for which she employed a crew of more than 120, including 30 cameramen. The sets were designed by the Nazis’ in-house architect, Albert Speer, and the production included a vast amphitheater with camera cars moving up and down amid the swastika-emblazoned banners for spectacular crane and wide-angle shots. Most of the film was shot silently, with music added later; Riefenstahl not only edited the film herself but also supervised the music recording sessions. When she found that the conductor could not keep to the beat of the soldiers’ marching feet on the screen, she pushed him from the podium and conducted the orchestra herself, achieving perfect synchronization.
More than seventy years later, Triumph of the Will is still studied as a classic propaganda film, because it astonishingly manages to make both Hitler and the then-rising Third Reich seem simultaneously attractive and an agent for positive social change. Indeed, as the director Frank Capra and others discovered during World War II when they tried to reedit the film to discredit the regime, Triumph of the Will is “edit proof.”
Riefenstahl followed this with two short films, a paean to the German Wehrmacht, Tag der Freiheit (Day of Freedom, 1935), and further Nazi Party rallies in Festliches Nürnberg (1937). With Olympia, however, she outdid herself. Again assembling an army of cameramen and technical assistants, she and her crew photographed every aspect of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, from the athletes relaxing in their guest quarters to the drama of the events themselves, linking the entire event (in a lengthy prologue) to the glories of ancient Greece. For Olympia, she used forty-five cameras, shot more than two hundred hours of film, and then locked herself in a cutting room for two years, editing the footage down to a 220-minute, two-part epic that employed slow motion, underwater photography, and even reverse motion to produce a kaleidoscopic hymn to the human body in motion, creating perhaps the greatest sports film ever made. Moving from personal athletic triumphs to scenes of epic spectacle, Olympia manages to be fairly evenhanded in its coverage of the event, even including footage of African American athlete Jesse Owens’s victorious presence at the games, over Hitler’s strenuous objections.
Goebbels had been adamantly opposed to the project, jealous of both Riefenstahl’s personal access to Hitler and her artistic skill; in addition, she was a woman, and the entire Nazi culture viewed women as essentially inferior beings more suited to childbearing than creative endeavor. But when Olympia finally emerged to nearly universal praise, Goebbels became one of the film’s most ardent supporters, and Riefenstahl was now considered untouchable within the Nazi film hierarchy. From this success, she spent some time as a photojournalist covering the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and then began work on the project that would take her through the war, Tiefland (Lowlands, 1940-1944; released in 1954), based on the opera by Eugen d’Albert, with herself in one of the lead roles. She spent years meticulously working on this very minor, deeply artificial film, again displaying her insensitivity to humanity by using the Gypsy prisoners of one of the Nazi concentration camps as extras.
After the war, Riefenstahl was so identified with the Nazi regime that she found it impossible to obtain work, and even though she was formally cleared of charges of collaboration by a West German court in 1952, she remained an outcast in the international film world. She released Tiefland in 1954 to indifferent reviews and almost immediately withdrew it from circulation. In the 1970s, she began work on a long film about the Nuba tribe in Africa and published a coffee-table book of stills from the project, although the film itself was never completed. In her last years Riefenstahl supported herself by appearing on the lecture circuit with screenings of her films, and in 2002 actually released a new film, Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), which was essentially a documentary centered on her late-in-life passion (she was ninety-eight) for deep-sea diving and underwater photography. Keeping herself physically and mentally alert right up to the moment of her death in 2003, she ultimately seemed mystified at the furor that surrounded her career. In her memoirs, published in 1993, she argued that she would never have supported the Nazis if she had been aware of their ultimate aims.
This claim was received with deep skepticism by most observers, however, and Riefenstahl remains a curious anomaly—a gifted artist who chose to work against the interests of humanity, to embrace evil rather than social justice. It is perhaps the most curious career in the history of the cinema, and one of the most deeply troubling.