Leni Reifenstahl Biography


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Birth Name: Leni Reifenstahl
Born: 08/22/1902
Birth Place: Berlin, DE
Death Place: Germany
Died: 09/08/2003


Born on Aug. 22, 1902 in Berlin, Germany, Riefenstahl was raised in a prominent home by her father, Alfred, the owner of a heating and ventilation company, and her mother, Berta, who encouraged her daughter's artistic ambitions. When she was 16 years old, she attended the Mary Wigmann School for Dance, where she learned Russian ballet, and continued her studies at the Jutta Klamt School for Dance. Riefenstahl quickly developed a reputation for being a good interpretive dancer and attracted the attention of director Max Reinhardt, who sent her on a tour of Europe in a program of modern dances of her own creation. But a knee injury in 1924 while performing in Prague ended her dancing career. Riefenstahl transitioned from dancer to acting after signing a contract with director Arnold Fanck, pioneer of the German mountaineering film. She made her debut in "Peaks of Destiny/The Holy Mountain" (1926), playing a dancer-turned-mountaineer, and went on to appear in a number of subsequent mountain films for Fanck, including "The Great Leap" (1927) and "The White Hell of Piz Palu" (1929), their most popular work together.

Embodying an inflated spirit of heroic idealism, which went hand in hand with growing Nazi fervor, Reifentstahl's work with Fanck made her a fast-rising star of his film series. After her first talkie, "Avalanche" (1930), she lost out on starring in Josef von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel" (1930), a role that went instead to Marlene Dietrich and made her an international star. Riefenstahl began stepping away from acting and moved toward directing after having learned the fundamentals of mise-en-scene and the value of aerial shooting, among other film techniques, from Fanck. In fact, she often found herself involved in the camera work and collaborating with the directorial crew on his films. In 1932, she formed her own production company, Leni Riefenstahl Studio Films, and made her directing and co-writing debut, "The Blue Light" (1932), a Fanck-like mountain film in which she played a free-spirited climber who becomes ostracized by her community after making a dangerous climb. "The Blue Light" brought Riefenstahl critical acclaim and the attention of Adolf Hitler, whose acquaintance Riefenstahl wanted to make after seeing him address a rally and reading his book Mein Kampf.

Impressed by her work on "The Blue Light," Hitler invited Riefenstahl to shoot a documentary about the Nazi Party's annual rally at Nuremberg in 1933. The film, "Victory of Faith" (1934) - withdrawn after Hitler's purge of party leadership that year - never received a public viewing but earned her a return trip to Nuremberg for the next year's revelries. The result was the extraordinary "Triumph of the Will" (1935), arguably the most honest and compelling fruit of the fascist temperament. Riefenstahl later admitted that the carefully-orchestrated spectacle was stage-managed for her cameras, raising concerns that the filming process had actually shaped the rally and given it meaning. But her repeated claims that her effort was purely documentary and a work for hire rang hollow since the film's mythos blatantly manipulated the viewer. Perhaps she knew only one way to tell the story with her background in the mountain films, but Hitler's arrival by air, through the endless vistas of clouds, evoked a god's descent to earth, setting the idolatrous tone for the entire movie. Her stirring assault on the pagan heartstrings, using all the tricks at her disposal - effective camera angles, moving shots and masterful editing - made it almost impossible to maintain perspective. Whether intended or not, "Triumph of the Will" was the finest example of a propaganda film in the history of the medium.

The relentless certainty of "Triumph of the Will" condemned Riefenstahl in the eyes of the world as an agent of demagoguery. But she was hardly a cog in the propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels, who was bitterly jealous of her success and influence with Hitler. She clearly had her own agenda and artist's integrity when, in defiance of Goebbels' orders to play down the accomplishments of non-Aryan athletes during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, she gave special prominence to the dominance of black American track star, Jesse Owens, in the most ambitious of her films, "Olympia" (1938), a two-part record of the games. Employing a team of 45 cameramen, Riefenstahl mounted cameras on steel towers, lifted them on balloons - prefiguring the blimp shots of today's sporting events - sunk them in trenches, floated them on rafts, and for the famous diving sequences had a cameraman specially trained as a diver to take underwater shots. After the games were over, she spent a year and a half editing the 200 hours of film down to four of some of the most dazzling footage ever brought to the screen. A hymn of praise to physical strength and beauty, as well as to Hitler and his entourage, "Olympia" struck many to be just as openly fascistic as "Triumph of the Will." But it remained an unsurpassed masterpiece in the study of physical motion. A trimmed-down, propaganda-free version appeared under the title "Kings of the Olympics" (1948).

When World War II began, Riefenstahl served briefly as a war correspondent and followed the advancing German army into Poland with a camera team, a fact that would come back to bite her later. In fact, a damning photograph of the director watching a massacre of Polish civilians in 1939 surfaced in the early 1950s. An inquiry in a West Berlin denazification court, commenced at her request, supported her claims that she had tried to stop the atrocity at some risk to herself after discovering it. Regardless of her denouncement of the Nazi horror and her claims of ignorance of their crimes, Riefenstahl remained an avid supporter of Hitler throughout the war. But she also maintained her artistic integrity, refusing Goebbels' invitation to make propaganda films in order to work on a non-musical version of Eugen d'Albert's opera "Tiefland" (1954), which starred the director as a poor girl ensnared by a powerful lowlander but rescued by a highland shepherd. An atmospheric and visually poetic drama, "Tiefland" was an affirmation of faith in simple people living close to nature. If she had finally recognized Nazi criminality and was attempting to recover her innocence through the project, she would discover that there was no escaping the pervasive evil. Riefenstahl recruited gypsies from a concentration camp as extras to dance with her in the opening scenes, allegedly unaware that their final destination would be the death camps at Auschwitz. Goebbels stonewalled her on state financing and there were constant interruptions during filming. She finally finished in 1944, but did not complete the editing for nearly a decade, releasing it in 1954. Later, Riefenstahl attempted numerous times to make a film throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but was always met with resistance and protest, while Hollywood remained completely closed off.

Though Riefenstahl was never a member of the Nazi Party, her two great documentaries served Nazi ideology exceedingly well, and her technical virtuosity - use of automatic and hand-held cameras, jump-cuts and impressionistic sound effects - influenced later German newsreels and films by the German Army Propaganda companies, many of whose members had worked as part of her "Olympia" team. For her contributions to the Third Reich, she spent nearly four years in American and French internment camps after the war, but the worst was yet to come. With the exception of "Tiefland," which was already in the can and the aborted "Black Cargo," a documentary about the slave trade in Africa, Riefenstahl never made another film, with her inability to raise financing leading her to a career as a still photographer instead. She was able to reclaim a portion of her career in the 1960s when she lived with and photographed the Nuba, an African tribe she grew to adore, resulting in a critically acclaimed portrait of the tribe. She published two international best sellers, The Last of the Nuba (1974) and The People of Kau (1976) - possibly her best defense of accusations of harboring a racist philosophy - and in the process was able to reconcile her infamous past, at least with herself.

After winning acclaim for her pictures of the Nuba, Riefenstahl covered the 1972 Munich Olympics for the London Times, and also photographed Mick Jagger with wife Bianca for the Sunday Times. She next turned to underwater photography, diving in the Maldives, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and off Papua New Guinea, after having learned to dive when she was 72, lying about her age by 20 years to gain admittance to a class. In fact, Riefenstahl was still going strong into her nineties, scuba diving and working on a deep-sea video reflecting her fascination with underwater themes. Indeed, timed to coincide with her 100th birthday was the release of "Underwater Impressions" (2002), a 45-minute film drawn from footage shot while scuba diving between 1974 and 2000. Yet her past continued to haunt her: as late as 2002, Riefenstahl was investigated for Holocaust denial after claiming to not know that the Gypsies used in "Tiefland" were sent to death camps. Authorities eventually dropped the case, saying her comments did not rise to a prosecutable level. Despite the suspicions that dogged her, she was not an embittered, old woman; rather a vigorous, soft-spoken and courteous nonagenarian who remained active right up until her death on Sept. 8, 2003. She was 101 years old and left behind a legacy that counted her as one of the most talented, yet hated filmmakers of the 20th century.