Hitler's Filmmaker: Leni Riefenstahl

Photographer and film-maker, Leni Reifenstahl
Triumph of the Will and Olympia
In 1936, under the auspices of German dictator Adolf Hitler, Berlin played host to the Summer Olympic games. It was a grand event and the Germans went all out to impress. A new 100,000 seat track and field stadium, six gymnasiums and a host of smaller arenas were created, along with state of the art high-tech equipment, closed circuit TV and a radio network that broadcast internationally.

Hitler saw the games as an opportunity to showcase the 'glory' of Germany and in a world first, decided to produce a documentary film to mark the event.  He wanted an inspired work that  both elevated the German sense of pride and awed the rest of the world and he hired young German photographer and film-maker Leni Riefenstahl to make it. 

In the male-dominated 1930s it was highly unusual to hire a female filmmaker and indeed, few of them even existed but then, Riefenstahl had exceptional talents and had already proved her credentials a couple of years earlier with the propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934), which chronicled the watershed Nazi Part congress in Nuremberg, attended by 700,000 enthusiastic supportersThe title, with its Nietzschian overtones, reflected Hitler's megalomaniacal conception of himself and Nazism as an unstoppable force as well as his distortion of Nietzsche's philosophy for propaganda purposes.  

For Triumph of the Will, which  is now regarded as one of the great achievements of cinematography, Riefenstahl had introduced several innovative film techniques. including aerial shots, long-focused lenses which created effective distortions of perspective and clever use of music. It has been noted many times that Riefenstahl portrays Hitler almost as a God and frames the German  Nazi Party within a religious-like context. The brief was to inspire and glorify Nazism and Riefenstahl gave it her all - this is State worship for the masses.

Thus in 1936, by order of der Fuhrer, Riefenstahl launched into Olympia with the same, extraordinary artistic eye, innovation and and deep nationalist consciousness that she had with Triumph of the Will. The result is an impressive study in cinematic  idealization  and  upon its release in 1938, it set the film world alight with it's dazzling originality. Riefenstahl's ground-breaking use of extreme close-ups, tracking shots, imaginative camera angles and abrupt transition shots from scene to scene (known as smash shots) were to raise the bar in film-making and later became industry standards. All this before Orson Welles's acclaimed 1941 epic, Citizen Kanewhich employed some similar techniques and is generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

Olympia was made in two parts: the first opening upon a misty scene which clears to reveal grandiose, crumbled visions of the ancient world - pillars, statues, the Acropolis - all romantically evocative of the original home of the Olympic games. The whole is underlined by composer Herbet Windt's emotionally stirring musical score, seamlessly integrated into the film by Riefenstahl at a time when synchronising moving pictures with sound was still a very difficult process. 

Still from Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl
The film continues with a concentration on the seductive pageantry of the event: marching athletes, the lighting of the Olympic torch etc. Underlying the spectacle is an ever-present sense of the political tensions of the era, disturbing for their ominous Nazi associations - there are shots of an obviously proud Adolf Hitler receiving the Nazi salute from the crowd and passing procession, including many from other countries, as heads turn toward him in perfect sync - for this reason, there is a warning on youtube clips of the film, that the "following may be offensive". 

Part Two focuses on the events and athletes and highlights the beauty of the human form, when it's  at its physical best. The ancient Greeks believed in a perfect union between mind and body, that is, that one is not more important than the other: to reach full potential, we must concentrate on both equally and reflections of this idealism comes across in the film. Riefenstahl's artistry is very much evident in her portrayal of the human form through the careful angle camera's lens - she often takes shots of the athletes in action from below, with a heavenly sky behind them and the effect is quite magical.

Riefenstahl the actress 
Riefenstahl began her professional life as an entertainer, enjoying a successful career  as a self-styled, interpretative dancer on the Berlin stage before venturing into films in 1925 with a dancing role in Ways to Strength and Beauty, directed by Nicolas Kaufmann and Wilhelm Prager.

Through what seems to have been a forceful, adventurous personality and a highly developed sense of aesthetics, she  forged connections in the film industry, learning the trade along the way and starring in a series of films for Arnold Fanck, a geologist turned filmmaker, who was one of the pioneers of the popular German 'mountain film", which were often shot in remote, visually impressive locations.  In the late 20s and early 30s she became a popular silent film star, making a name for herself beyond German borders.

In 1932, she was, unusually,  given her own project and co-wrote and directed, as well as starred in, The Blue Light and it was this film, which won a silver medal at the Venice film festival,  that drew the  attention of Adolf Hitler, who was immensely impressed with Leni's skill and presence on screen, viewing her from an ideological perspective as a striking representative of what he considered the alpha German woman.

It was the beginning of a mutually beneficial association that, for a time, greatly bolstered the Nazi propaganda machine and gave Riefenstahl the resources and backing to pursue a creative professional life...until Nazism and Hitler crumbled to dust, and Leni was left with the aftermath of her own political and moral choices.

Post War
In spite of her considerable talent, Riefenstahl's reputation never really recovered from its WWII associations and she was compelled to carry her Nazi baggage around for the rest of her life, which was a long one - she died in 2003 at the age of 101.

From Nubi by Leni Reifenstahl
In her own defence, Riefenstahl claimed political naivety, ignorance of Jewish persecution (don't they all) and that she was first and foremost an artist, interested in form over ideological content. Yet her close involvement with Hitler and Nazism is undeniable. More recent biographers of Riefenstahl, have unearthed some disturbing facts about Hitler's talented film-maker- her great enthusiasm for  Hitler's vision upon reading Mein Kampf for the first time, her exploitation of Gypsies destined for Auschwitz, as slave labour, the eye-witnessing by her of atrocities and her inability to admit remorse for the millions lost to the barbaric ideals of Nazism.

It has been argued, that like architect Albrecht Speer, she was career ambitious and not so much a Nazi as willing to accept Nazism as a means to an end, in which case such allegiance is perhaps worse, as it not driven by genuine, if misguided and odious, idealism,  but merely opportunism at the expense of others - in this case, great expense.

Disgraced or not, Riefenstahl continued to be creatively active. Although her many attempts at film making were met with resistance and hostility, she released Teifland, based on an opera, in 1954 to mixed reviews, though it was in fact shot between 1940-44 and she had been developing the script since 1934.

In her 60s, she travelled to Africa and published books of fascinating photographic stills documenting the life of the Nubi tribes in Sudan in 1970. If nothing else, she was an adventuress.  In later life, she turned away from human documentation and made uncontroversial underwater films of the Red Sea, releasing a film, Underwater Impressions, a compilation of her collected footage over thirty years, just a year before her death.

Leni Riefenstahl in Africa
Leni Riefenstahl's story raises interesting questions about truth, art and morality - are they interwoven or separate? There seems to be no necessary corollary between great talent and moral awareness, yet great art reveals certain truths. My own view is that, immersed as she was in the Nazi scene, Hitler's filmmaker was indeed morally culpable but an extraordinary person nonetheless.

Riefenstahl's legacy is a significant one, for its artistry as well as its historical lessons. Triumph of the Will reveals to us how easily we can be reeled in through aggressive propaganda and transported to a state of nationalistic fanaticism. Olympia presents us with human achievement  in an exalted state but in the wings lurks our capacity for evil: one moment in a long and complex timeline vividly captured  by Riefenstahl's camera.