“I think the Germans have been too tough on her,” I heard a woman behind me say as we left a remarkable three-hour German documentary film entitled (in English) The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. The documentary, conceived and directed by Ray Mueller, is based on the life and work of the greatest woman director in film history—who, unfortunately, was also an ardent supporter of Adolf Hitler. The woman behind me continued: “What about Eisenstein and the other Russians who made all those propaganda films about Communism? Nobody’s ever held it against them. Why was Leni Riefenstahl any worse?”
As it happens, the prodigious esteem accorded for decades by American film schools to the works of the great Soviet directors—Eisenstein (October, The Battleship Potemkin, Ivan the Terrible); Pudovkin (The End of Saint Petersburg, Mother, Storm Over Asia); and Dovzhenko (Arsenal, Earth)—has been sinking precipitously. Superbly crafted works which brought the cinema into the realm of high culture, these films nonetheless presented quite fabricated “historical” episodes, were sometimes factually fraudulent from one end to the other, and were not only unashamedly propagandistic but never deviated by one iota from the Communist “party line” of the moment. Film students, of course, admired these Soviet films for their technical brilliance, dramatic angles, lighting, and montage (Eisenstein’s word); but to a degree they seem also to have fallen under the spell of their “story.” Thanks to the events of the last few years, that spell has now been broken, and so, to some extent, has the cachet once enjoyed by Soviet directors.
It is true, as the woman behind me indicated, that Leni Riefenstahl became a pariah in her own country in the wake of the Hitler catastrophe. But it is also true that she continued to be studied abroad by virtually all of today’s great Western directors. Indeed, her works still figure hugely in film history today, particularly Triumph of the Will, her celebratory documentary of the Nazi party’s 1934 congress in Nuremberg, and Olympia, her documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
Leni Riefenstahl was born in 1902 in Berlin to a well-to-do family in the plumbing business. As a teenager—in the face of her father’s strong disapproval—she became interested in dance, and first made her mark in Germany as a star performer in that field. Her dancing, not unlike that of Isadora Duncan, must have seemed bold and brave and free to emancipated spirits of the early 1920’s, but, as it is captured in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, it looks slightly ridiculous today.
Still, it was as a dancer that Riefenstahl caught the eye of Weimar’s great theatrical producer-director Max Reinhardt (a Jew), who presented her at his Deutsches Theater. The next step was movies, and specifically what Germans at the time called “mountain movies.” These silent films were an outgrowth of the Romantics’ fascination with nature at its most dangerous—angry seas, shipwrecks, threatening jungles, towering mountains—and with the opportunities thereby provided for heroes to demonstrate various combinations of fearlessness, strength, and beauty against the fierceness of nature.
In 1924 Riefenstahl saw Mountain of Destiny, directed by Arnold Fanck, and was deeply stirred. Never the retiring sort, she wrote to Fanck demanding to be the star of his next mountain movie, and so she became. Mueller shows us Riefenstahl doing some difficult and rather dangerous rock climbing. This was before the age of doubles and stuntmen, and the young Riefenstahl could very easily have fallen and broken her neck; but that seemed to be part of the attraction. Already we see taking shape a very specific character type.
Riefenstahl starred in a series of these mountain movies (The Holy Mountain, S.O.S. Iceberg), after which she left Fanck to direct as well as star in her own mountain movie, The Blue Light, with lots of soft, filtered light for shots of her face. Despite her own assertive personality, Riefenstahl felt that women’s faces should be featureless and innocent, lit softly from the front to obscure any irregularities. Men’s faces, on the other hand, should have character and strength, and be lit from the side to show their sharp, handsome angles.
The Blue Light was a big hit, and it caught the eye of none other than Adolf Hitler, at the time not yet Chancellor of Germany. Returning to Berlin after a publicity tour for The Blue Light, knowing nothing of politics and hardly reading newspapers, Riefenstahl went by chance to a Nazi rally at Berlin’s Sports Palace. In her autobiography, published last year to generally positive reviews, she writes:
I was too far away to see [Hitler’s] face. But after the shouts died down I heard his voice: “Fellow Germans!” 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 in front of 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 quite paralyzed. Although there was a great deal in his speech that I didn’t understand, I was still fascinated, and I sensed that the audience was in bondage to this man.
It is worth comparing this description of rapture with a passage later in her autobiography in which Riefenstahl—who ran up a rather extensive list of lovers: good-looking tennis players, ski instructors, mountain guides, and aviators—describes meeting Glenn Morris, the American decathlon champion, at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games:
We looked at one another. We both seemed transfixed. It was an incredible moment and I had never experienced anything like it. I tried to choke back the feelings surging up inside me. From then on I avoided Morris, with whom I exchanged barely a dozen words, and yet this meeting had a profound impact on me. Glenn Morris won the decathlon, achieving a new world record. It was already quite dark when the three Americans stood on the podium and received their medals. The dim light prevented any filming of the ceremony, and when Glenn Morris came down the steps, he headed straight toward me. I held out my hand and congratulated him, but he grabbed me in his arms, tore off my blouse, and kissed my breasts, right in the middle of the stadium in front of 100,000 spectators. I wrenched myself from his grasp and dashed away, but I could not forget the wild look in his eyes.
There are many differences between Riefenstahl’s descriptions of her encounters with Hitler and with Morris (with whom she soon had a mad love affair), but a number of similarities as well. In addition to exemplifying her prose style, and casting doubt on her general veracity (can anyone believe Morris ripped off her blouse and kissed her bare breasts in the middle of the Olympic Stadium in 1936?), they give clear evidence of Leni Riefenstahl’s extreme susceptibility to hero figures. There seems little doubt that the oceanic, orgasmic feeling she experienced on encountering Hitler and Morris was produced not merely by the individuals themselves but by the wild cheering of the crowds. There is considerable overlapping here with the Nazi “cult of the leader,” naturally, but Riefenstahl herself appears to have been not so much a Nazi as a worshipper of mass heroes.
Shortly after she attended the rally in Berlin, in any case, Riefenstahl boldly wrote another of her letters—this time to Hitler. It was the beginning of a historic relationship. Hitler, she reports in her autobiography, constantly urged her to have more self-confidence—a quality in which other observers did not find her noticeably lacking. She made a random first stab at filming the Nazi-party congress in Nuremberg in 1933, before Hitler had consolidated his power. Interviewing her in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Ray Mueller refers to the 1933 footage as “her” movie, but Riefenstahl is irate with him: it was not her movie, she declares, it was not even a movie, just a few shots.
But by the next year, for Triumph of the Will, she was ready. She says now that she had no part in the actual planning of the 1934 party congress, which was all the work of Hitler (a failed architect) and of Albert Speer (a very successful architect and later Hitler’s armaments minister). But rarely if ever has a film director had at his disposal such resources, with crews everywhere and cameras zooming up and down on specially built mini-elevators. The sports arena at Nuremberg in which the culminating scenes of Triumph of the Will take place is, when all is said and done, simply a modest-sized soccer stadium; how Riefenstahl got her shots of what seem to be measureless Germanic masses and godlike Germanic leaders is a marvel to this day.
Hitler, Riefenstahl says, wanted not a political but an “artistic” film. It is easy to sneer at this, but one has only to compare Triumph of the Will with the humdrum footage of giant May Day celebrations in Red Square in Moscow, or of comparable celebrations under Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in Beijing (in both of which vastly greater numbers of people took part), to realize just how much artistry Hitler got for his money. And the real artistry was accomplished not by cameras on elevators, but by weeks of work in the cutting room as Riefenstahl chose among the thousands and thousands of feet of film, juxtaposing one shot with another in order to produce the desired dramatic effect.
The 1934 Nazi-party congress in Nuremberg was a quintessential example of what Daniel Boorstin was later to call a “pseudo-event,” in that essentially it was held not for the actual participants, few of whom could see more than the tiniest fraction of what was going on, but for the millions of Germans who would later see its apotheosis in Triumph of the Will. Yet Leni Riefenstahl maintains to this day that her film was not political.
Her attitude toward Hitler’s speeches at the party congress is rather breezy. “What’s a speech?” she asks in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. “A beginning, an end, and in between two or three stirring sentences.” The Hitler shown in her film, she maintains, stands for only two things: work and peace. There is not a word of anti-Semitism in the film. (This is true.) Asked by Mueller if she does not feel she glorified Hitler, misleading the German people as to his true nature, Riefenstahl is defiant. There is a whole list of Nazi evils of which she claims she was ignorant, at least until much later on: Kristallnacht, book burnings, the concentration camps, preparations for war, and, of course, the “Final Solution.”
Well, then, Mueller asks, given what she discovered later, was not her film too worshipful of Hitler? To which she answers, as if a bit surprised, “But that’s all there is [in the film], the Fuehrer and the Volk, the Volk and the Fuehrer.” Later, with a hint of disdain, she adds, “What did you want? A news-reel?” And at another moment of irritation under even closer questioning, she declares, “I wish I never made the damn film! It’s caused me so much trouble!”
Which has its irony, of course, since were it not for Triumph of the Will, and to a lesser degree Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl would now be quite forgotten.
Her Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin summer games (won by Germany), is another extraordinary film, by almost universal accord the greatest sports movie ever made. In France, where it has a large following, it is called rather appropriately Les Dieux du Stade (“The Gods of the Stadium”).
If in Triumph of the Will Riefenstahl had thousands of feet of film to edit, in Olympia she had mile after mile, and the editing took her two years. Nor was she content merely to place her countless cameras in good but conventional vantage points. After fierce altercations, she got permission—unheard of before or since at the Olympic Games—to dig pits by the pole-vault and long-jump tracks, by the discus pitch, the shot-put, and the hammer throw, so she could shoot her athletes godlike against the sky, sometimes seemingly soaring into the sky.
For the marathon, since she was not allowed to follow the runners with her dolly during the race itself, Riefenstahl shot all the principal contenders in close with a “subjective camera” as they did their training, to capture their bodily effort and the test of endurance and will. She did the same with the swimmers and divers, splicing “in-tight” workout shots with the actual Olympic finals. For the pole vault, the light was too weak to film, so—in some of the movie’s most spectacular shots—she got the athletes to do their vaulting all over again after the games were finished.
In short, there has never been a film about sports that can even compare with Olympia, with the possible exception of Kon Ichikawa’s documentary of the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, a very considerable work, but one which has had nothing like Olympia’s influence.
Having done nothing of any importance during World War II itself, Leni Riefenstahl at war’s end was finally exonerated at American, British, and French “denazification” hearings as having been only a Nazi sympathizer. Still, in disgrace and almost penniless, she lived for many years with her mother in Munich, in a single room without a kitchen or bathroom. In 1954, France’s Jean Cocteau (who shared her love of beautiful men) championed her work at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 1959 she was honored, along with Josef von Sternberg, at the Venice Film Festival; but in Germany, for a full quarter-century after the war, her countrymen almost tried to pretend that there had never been such a person as Leni Riefenstahl.
In the early 1970’s she got financing for a number of trips to Africa to take still photographs. She first tried the Nile and Kenya, seeking out the most primitive Kenya tribesmen, the Masai, but did not like their physical appearance. Returning to Africa later, she hit upon the Nuba in the southern Sudan, handsome, muscular people given to painting their faces and bodies. Already almost seventy, alone in a hut, she lived among the Nuba for six months and brought back some extraordinary still pictures which, extremely well-received, made the name Riefenstahl almost respectable again in Germany. The autobiography she published last year helped to rehabilitate her further. Today, over ninety, still physically vigorous and assertive, unrepentant (“an anti-Semitic word never crossed my lips”!), she is hard at work in a scuba-diving suit doing underwater photography for a film on marine life.
Reviewing Leni Riefenstahl’s autobiography on the front page of the New York Times Book Review last year, the critic John Simon asked if the political self-deceptions of an obsessed aesthete could “wipe out the fact of her greatness as an artist.” He concluded that in the pursuit of her obsessions, Leni Riefenstahl “may have compromised her humanity. But her artistic integrity, never.”
Simon seems to be implying that we should overlook Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi obsessions because of her genius as a director. Whether or not one is disposed to overlook them, however, there is no question that without her work, an important key to modern political history would be missing.
Yet what, exactly, was the nature of her genius as a director? The thesis has been put forth that with her emphasis on male strength and beauty, she represents something that has been called the “fascist aesthetic.” On the face of it, this would make fascists of Michelangelo and the ancient Greeks, to whose art Riefenstahl has always been devoted, not to mention the sculptors of the statuary at Rockefeller Center in New York. Questioned about the “fascist aesthetic” by Mueller, Riefenstahl laughs and calls it preposterous.
Does this mean that, were it not for the stigma of her connection with Hitler and her work as a Nazi celebrant, Leni Riefenstahl would have gone on after 1945 to become one of the great postwar directors: a German John Ford, Orson Welles, David Lean, Ingmar Bergman, Visconti, de Sica, or Fellini? Paradoxical though it may seem, the answer to this question is most probably not.
She is certainly a virtuoso, and something in her temperament enabled her to capture on film a specific political and psychological phenomenon: the total surrender of individual will to “the leader” in the name of a mystic nationalism. Although I expect her forthcoming underwater documentary—of which Mueller shows us some footage—will be quite splendid, when it came to dialogue and more conventional drama, the work of her early years bears the ineradicable mark of the “serving-girls’” fiction of her girlhood. Tiefland, a “Spanish” story begun just before the war but finally released in 1954, in which she danced again, was a complete dud and an embarrassment. In the 1950’s, Riefenstahl saw project after project fall through, but it is hard to feel that the world thereby suffered a terrible loss.
Mueller does not let Leni Riefenstahl forget her Nazi past. In his documentary he shows footage of the director being received in Vienna shortly before Hitler’s annexation of Austria, with Riefenstahl speaking reverently of “our Fuehrer.” And perhaps the most incriminating piece of evidence Mueller both shows and reads to us is an ecstatic letter of congratulations Riefenstahl sent to Hitler in 1940 after Germany’s great military victory in the West.
“I sent him that letter because I thought peace had come,” Leni Riefenstahl replies earnestly. But her letter is not peace-loving. It is triumphalist.
In his film’s very last frames, Mueller asks Riefenstahl whether she does not feel guilty at the role she played in the Nazi regime. To which she answers, apparently sincerely puzzled, “Guilty?” She insists that she was never a member of the Nazi party, that she was never anti-Semitic. She realizes that “what Hitler did to the Jews” is a particularly sensitive point, but claims that in the days when she saw him frequently she repeatedly did her best to talk him out of his anti-Semitism. Hitler, however, firmly refused to discuss “the Jewish problem” with her, cutting her off and telling her rather stiffly that he was not going to have a debate about the Jews with the likes of her. (At the thought of Leni Riefenstahl or anyone else trying to talk Hitler out of his anti-Semitism, one does not know whether to laugh or cry.) In the film’s last words, she asks, seemingly troubled, “Why should I feel guilty?”
A thought still vibrant in Leni Riefenstahl’s memory is a visit Hitler paid to her shortly after the fall of France, with German armies victorious everywhere. He told her that once the war was over, he planned to retire from politics. What he really wanted to do, he said (to her astonishment), was work with her on motion pictures. “If brilliantly done,” he declared, “motion pictures could change the world!”
Scholars have often speculated how different the course of history might have been if an aspiring young Austrian architect named Adolf Hitler had been accepted instead of rejected at the Vienna Kunstschule—where his application for admission is still on file with accompanying architectural designs. But the thought of Hitler as a great filmmaker is new.
True, a strain of megalomania runs through the work of a number of modern film directors, so the fact that Hitler was attracted to the profession should not really be surprising. Nor, on reflection, is it surprising that he should have preferred an alternative world which he could fashion to his wishes to the real one, which was sometimes obstinate. The Roman Emperor Nero, on his deathbed, is reported by Suetonius to have said, “The world, in me, is losing a great artist.” And so the world, in Adolf Hitler, perhaps lost a great filmmaker. The thought casts light on both Hitler and the cinema.
Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir. St. Martin’s Press. 669 pp., $35.00.