Leni Riefenstahl: “Hitler’s Controversial Film Director”

Leni Riefenstahl: “Hitler’s Controversial Film Director”

As the Olympic Games gear up this year to be hosted in London it should be remembered that in 1936, the then Games were premiered in Berlin, amid much Nazi propaganda and much else. Film director, Leni Riefenstahl, would be happily awarded $3 million to film and capture the events for Hitler’s approval and of course her own ego.

Her groundbreaking film Olympus offered so much to the cinema in those days and is still the considered sporting achievement in celluloid. And Hitler it seems was mighty pleased with Leni and the publicity her film offered the world of Nazi Germany that summer, 76 years ago to a watching world.

So how did this girl with ballerina aspirations reach such dazzling heights as a superb film director, easily becoming Hitler’s favourite and then only later to come crashing down at the end of the war. Her reputation now lay in ruins in a post-war world. Fame and its rewards never come cheap to the seeker.

Leni Riefenstahl would taste both success and scorn yet somehow redeem herself and her legacy.

Born in Berlin in 1902, the daughter of a plumber, her striking looks and temperament would see her naturally seek a career in where else, but the theatre. Later she would find fame and fortune in the flicks in pre-war Germany.

If Leni courted the camera then the camera happily returned this adoration. It was a love affair that would bring her fame and fortune both nationally and internationally.

Again if men were attracted to Leni and her charm, then Miss Riefenstahl would naturally use this gift to fund her assorted film projects, and I certainly place Hitler and Albert Speer in that willing band of admirers. However her charm would somehow fail with Dr Goebbels, and any funding she grudgingly received from his propaganda/film department was bought with tears and toil drawn from Leni’s deep acting skills. But Leni did, after all, socialise with Messer’s Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Goering. Frequently dinning with them and perhaps even considering some of them as her friends. A simple woman in a man’s world and I can’t help thinking she adored every minute of the limelight.

However, from the turbulent 1930s, she would launch the movie camera to new film heights, with many of today’s directors still consulting her books in compiling their own films for viewing.

To date (2012) over 100 books have been written about Leni and her life’s journey through the 20th Century and briefly into the 21st. (Film rights concerning her life had been acquired by Hollywood actress, Jodie Foster, although Leni bluntly suggested after discussing the project with Jodie in Munich, that perhaps Sharon Stone might be a better choice to portray her on the silver screen!)

Today Leni Riefenstahl even boasts of her own official website. She may be long gone but not forgotten in cyberspace in more ways than one.

(Signed card, circa 1940, from the author’s private collection)

Her first important directorial venture was the 1932 German film The Blue Light. A mountain film in which she had starred with good effect gathering praise from audiences and critic’s alike, and no less a personage than Adolph Hitler, who had caught her movie on his political travels and later remembered Leni with her languishing looks.

But not only was Leni a superb inventive film director but also an accomplished film editor. (Always an added bonus in that trade.) In fact, the achievement of most completed films is in the final editing rather than in the vision of the director. But I cannot help suggesting that if Leni had spent less time consulting “the film editing manual” and more time in the “book of Job” she might have benefited spiritually in her life’s search for peace of mind which seemed to elude her so often in her final years.

For over fifty years Leni Riefenstahl would be judged artistically, morally and politically for her association with four Nazi-inspired propaganda films, all of which she supervised and directed. She will be forever associated with them.

They were her “babies” after all:

Victory of Faith (or fascism), 1933

Triumph of the Will, 1934

Olympiad, 1936

Day of Freedom: Tribute to our armed forces (Wehrmacht), 1935.

But was she a Nazi member just enjoying the success of Hitler’s victory in the polls. Well, first of all, Leni Riefensthal it seems, was never a member of the Nazi party but perhaps the description of her after the war as “a happy fellow traveller” sounds about right. Or was she just a woman in a man’s world trying to do her job as she would complain so bitterly to journalists after the war who sought her out for interviews (and later the feminists who would spring to her defence.)

Running for just over an hour Victory of Faith was Leni’s professional contribution to the Nazi propaganda machine and it has the usual marching troops (SA and SS and it’s interesting that the SS’s sinister black uniform and the SA were designed and sold by Nazi Party member, Hugo Boss from his shop in Munich. The company is still a major supplier in the fashion world.)

She seemed to enjoy posing and filming the so-called shock troops. For example, now blonde youth drummers and the consecration of the blood-stained flags. Also, some rather sharp close-ups of lean SS faces all captured by her cameras, as well as thousands of fluttering banners. A true landscape of the coming Nazi Power that will dominate and later almost destroy Germany.

And later from a parked Mercedes in Nuremberg town are the uniformed figures of Hitler and Ernst Rohm, then the second most powerful man in the Nazi party, surveying all before them. (In the early days of the Nazi party Hitler had been Rohm’s protegee with Rohm offering protection to the young Adolf, much of the homosexual facts comes from these early days.)

But Rohm’s final days and the films shelf life were numbered. Nine months later, Rohm was a victim of “the night of the long knives,” with the film then being hastily withdrawn from cinema circulation by Nazi censors.

On a note of particular interest, a duplicated copy was discovered in 1994 in England. It seems Leni may have allowed this to happen when she visited Cambridge in 1934, with an original copy to the screen. Leni would concede much later that it was a “thankless task” to edit and prepare for the premier of the film.

I have to rate the film 2/10. And this is simply for the description of the splendid town of Nuremberg as seen in those pre-war days. There is so much innocence on the adoring crowd’s faces as they greet Hitler after he descends from the sky rather like a Wagnerian god. Sadly eight years later millions of these young men will freeze to death in the bitter Russian winter campaign alone and forgotten. Never to return to the Fatherland.

Leni’s 1934 presentation to the Nazi stable of films would be titled Triumph of the Will and by now her skills were toned to near perfection. And aged just 34 years old and this might be just the film to offer her international fame and maybe even a Hollywood offer might later beckon to her.

Interestingly her production manager on the film later stated: “Leni Riefenstahl was not ordered….she asked to do this picture…”

In its execution, she will present her leader as the coming “Messiah” of Germany. Raw propaganda as never seen before and always viewed by her cameras with precise precision. The good news for her was that the budget for this film had been enlarged to now allow eighteen cameramen with assistants to load and unload necessary back up cameras.

Aerial photography would be incorporated into her vista, then very much a novelty to the public. Why she even experimented with film operators on roller skates to obtain that special shot. Technician and electricians were on call to lay tracking equipment. Trenches were prepared for concealed cameras. Now before Leni’s artistic eye would parade 750,000 soldiers awaiting their Fuehrer’s arrival and perhaps her directorial command.

This is Hitler’s happy hour as he is driven through the Nuremberg streets with adoring crowds reaching to touch him. It will all be filmed by a secured cameraman in a Mercedes with another standing behind Hitler’s shoulder. Later swastikas and salutes abound as the shovel brigade now building the network of autobahns across the country as part of the “make-work-programme” for the unemployed, they now offer salutes with raised shovels. (In still photos of the event Leni can be spotted amongst the crowd and on the raised podium wearing her trademark cream coat as she issues orders and directions to crew and extras. In all of this she would receive full support from Hess and Bormann, and even during the final days of the war, Martin Bormann amazingly was able to offer her important favours. What was it all for when in 1945 Berlin lay in ruins and a defeated people were starving. I know because I witnessed it myself as a six years old child when my father was part of the BAOR stationed near Hamburg.)

Mention should be given to Albert Speer’s Cathedral of Light that offers an eerie 130 projected beams that offer homage it seems to the night and its mystery.

I particularly appreciated the fine musical score of Herbert Windts, with touches of Korngold and Wagner (naturally) underpinning this whole Nazi tribute.

During the recordings with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Leni would frequently mount the conductor’s podium to dramatically conduct the orchestra to demonstrate how she wanted tempos performed in synchronization of her film.

Afterwards when the dust had settled Leni would begin editing 60 hours or 400,000 feet of raw footage into 2 hours of viewing time. After five months of intensive 16-hour days editing, the film was ready for its trumpeted premier. Naturally, it was a success in German and fascist Italy. However, her images of the ideology of the Nazi party will forever remain in the minds of the countless millions who were the innocent victims of the horrors of Hitler’s holocaust.

These images of the Nazi party will not and cannot be forgotten. So much of fascism seems dedicated to the worship of paganism.

So I have to rate this extraordinary film offering that Leni Riefenstahl’s presented to Hitler and his sycophants with a 5/10, simply for its bold technology of that era. Yet hers and the German peoples’ blind spot concerning Hitler and his future intentions of dealing with the Jewish people, remain conveniently naive and nauseous sixty years later.

From Herod to Hitler all these despots have failed to destroy a nation that will continue to flourish until the Jewish Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, returns to Jerusalem to be seated on the anointed throne of David as predicted in the Holy Bible after the Great Tribulation. Only then will it be the turn of the despots to quake in fear in the coming Judgment that will be unleashed upon a sinful selfish world.

Flushed with the success of Triumph Leni would be commissioned to shoot a tribute to the Wehrmacht (Army). Hitler, after all, owed a debt of gratitude to the military who had not stepped in when he plotted the so-called “night of the long knives” as it became known through the tabloids.

The army must have been very relieved that none of the bloodsheds over those few days had stained their own hands when Rohm’s SA thugs were finally de-fanged.

Leni’s 2/3 day filming would be titled Day of Freedom: A tribute to our armed forces. Leni, as usual, flung herself into its conception preparation and filming. She would later remark to a reporter: “I don’t do things by halves. I hate halves.” So spoke the lady whose star was now in the ascendancy at the court of “King Adolph.”

Lasting some 30 minutes, Leni would naturally distance herself from the film and its contents soon after the war. But it is an interesting little film that is somehow largely forgotten today.

Day of Freedom has opening images of young soldiers leaving tent city as early morning arrives in the cookhouse. Steaming cauldrons of porridge and sizzling sausages waiting to be served to hungry men are visible. However, the true stars of this film, in my opinion, make a welcome appearance and I refer to the horses. Later we see them being saddled up for inspection, hooves pounding the hard earth, condensation erupting from flared nostrils as they line up now fully mounted for inspection. They will be seen again later riding across darkened bridges and galloping through rivers on military commands. Later moving into army manoeuvres on the fields armoured cars arrive to play mock battles with tanks and overseeing this is the beaming face of Hermann Goering. Rudolph Hess is then caught nodding in approval with the generals of what is being played out on the battlefield.

Soon low flying aircraft trace patterns in the sky of swastikas. It’s all very dramatic and the message is simple to a watching world: war is approaching and we are preparing to meet it or even instigate it!

So was this film and its offering just a warm-up for Leni Riefenstahl before she unveils her loaded cameras for the filming of Olympiad. It certainly looks that way in retrospect. Because of Leni’s affinity with the horses, I have to offer it a 5/10 just for her presentation of men and animals working in close harmony, briefly performing in the morning mists of a world where the trumpet of war has yet to be blown.

And a fragile peace still prevails in those pre-war days. Hitler would remind his generals in Berchtesgaden on 22 August 1939, “Close your hearts to pity. Act brutally.”

I wonder if Leni was there that day when these wicked words were spoken because later she would remark, “The world collapsed on me at the thought of war.”

An interesting choice of words to suit the occasion it seems.

Some have hailed her next celluloid offering Olympiad as a landmark in the film genre. Others quickly dismiss the whole presentation of the games as lamentable. Either way, it must be Leni Riefenstahl’s finest hour on film, but she would later pay a high price for its success that would later tarnish her reputation for the rest of her life.

Today a restored version of the movie can be purchased in DVD format on the Internet and all students of her style should watch it to understand her approach to the media of film.

(Patrick looks at Leni)

As regards Olympiad I’m not sure if the opening introduction really works as her camera takes us on a journey back through the mists of time to the birth of the games in Ancient Greece. To me, the models look rather like paper models hastily constructed. (I was however impressed to discover that an early form of television was used to beam shaky but acceptable black and white pictures into the Olympic village and in and around Berlin.)

I had to smile at the refusal of the English and American athletes to offer a “Seig Heil” to Hitler and his cohorts on the reviewing platform as they enter the Arena. Most of the other 50 countries would offer the salute but who knows, maybe political pressure was put on them to conform.

At the finale of the Games Leni’s directorial skills would now be sharpened in her editing rooms and apparently, it took her ten weeks to view 250 miles of completed film stock! It would further take up to one and half years, ten hours a day it seems of mixing and splicing the film ready for its premiere on April 20th 1938, to happily coincide with Hitler’s forty-ninth birthday, organized and orchestrated by Dr Goebbels of course.

Later when Leni visited America with the film, after landing in New York, the press referred to her as “pretty as a swastika.” She naturally hated these personal attacks but sadly for her Hollywood did not beckon to her or her talents to join them in the California sun. (She did however rather click it seems with good old “uncle” Walt Disney) and her offering of the Olympiad had rather limited film screenings and she would find no distributor for the film either. She later departed for home to meet a coming war that would devour most of Europe.

Not surprisingly but of some interest is that Leni Riefenstahl would in the 1960s skilfully re-cut her film so that it became a “de-Nazified” version of the Olympic Games. However, this gesture would do little to restore her tarnished reputation and instead, she later turned her attention to Africa and the beautiful oceans.

Olympia must remain her most controversial cinematic achievement but doesn’t glory always come at a rather high price and in the post-war years, Leni would work furiously to distance herself from Hitler, his Games and the past Nazi pageants of pomp and power.

The damage was done. Reputations can rarely if ever be repaired. Yet todayOlympia still amazingly remains an enigma of the silver screen. And in my opinion, it reveals far more of her passion for the Nazis and her hero worship of Hitler, that blinded her and so many other Germans in those crazy Nazi years from 1933-45.

Later Miss Riefenstahl’s war years would in some ways be just as controversial as her pre-war years had been in Germany.

In 1939 her own propaganda film unit would witness, it seems, some area of a massacre in Konskie in Poland, and there is photographic evidence that she did witness these atrocities herself. It was in fact caught on film by a soldiers camera. It does rather contradict her published statement that: “In Poland, I never saw a corpse, not of a soldier, not of a civilian.”

Well, she certainly witnessed something that day, judging by the look of horror on her face, recorded on the black and white photo. Amazingly Leni would later be in Warsaw on October 5th, when her film cameraman recorded the moment for posterity as Hitler reviewed his troops, they entered a humiliated but never humbled city. Yes, she was there watching the armed parade and I speculate she felt very proud as the triumphant troops marched past their “master” and to some degree hers as well.

Returning to Germany she decided to raise some finance to dust down an earlier treatment from a 1934 project titled Tiefland and here she would enter into a fairyland world that would occupy her artistic talents almost to the closure of the war.

With Martin Bormann’s financial support and protection, the Reich Marks rolled into her film company. She seems somehow to always grasp what she wanted, perhaps I suspect by tears or veiled threats. She had after all been an actress first before she graduated to directing. She even approached her old friend the odious “Jew-baiter,” Julius Streicher who at one time was one of the most important members of the Nazi party. Hitler greatly admired Julius even mentioning him in a dedication in Mien Kampf.

Streicher would later go on to praise her by predicting, “Here you have found your heaven and in it, you will be eternal.” A stupid remark from a Christ-hating bigot but then the whole Nazi criminal wolf pack must fall into that category it seems. God will not be mocked.

What makes this film controversial is the forced uses of Gypsies to strengthen the storyline. The question has to be where did they come from and what was their fate after the film finished? To date, this still remains controversial. What is a cruel fact is that Sixty Romanies seem to have been auditioned and taken from a holding/transit camp at Maxglan outside Salzburg to be cast in her film.

Now the incriminating question has to be asked did Leni supervise the cast of whom she wanted or did she consign it to an assistant director. Those unfortunates who had been later forcibly deported to Auschwitz at the film’s competition, and amazingly survived, later testified that she had visited the camp and in uniform as well for the simple purpose of casting and some remembered very interestingly that she used her thumb and forefingers to “frame” their faces before selection. This, of course, is an old film director’s trick.

Leni would not be however responsible when later many were dispatched to the ovens of Auschwitz and elsewhere, but she certainly exploited them as cheap labour in the pursuit of completing her precious film. Maybe she was aware of their final destination and just didn’t care. But do remember all of us one day will be judged for own our past words and deeds.

With the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Leni’s reputation also declined, although she would suffer house arrest and brief prison spells for some years.

She was ostracized by the movie industry but she survived much of this and still had plans it seems for herself and her camera. But times were changing, the past as far as she was concerned was another country and she certainly didn’t wish to play a return visit to its hostile frontiers. She did however suffer frequent mental health problems even being subjected to electroshock therapy for three months in an insane asylum under orders from the French Government or so she claimed. But perhaps much of her problems were simply repressed guilt of what she knew or heard of the Third Reich’s terrible final solution to the “Jewish problem.”

During the 1970s she would journey to Sudan to film and inspect the impressive “people of Kau” and the “last of the Nuba.” Two books would come out of this trip. She had become “Africa crazy” she declared and much of this would be highlighted for her documentary of the native habitat.

On the journey home after one safari trip, a helicopter malfunction would nearly kill her, yet she would survive the ordeal. Ever resilient Leni it seems.

Later she would grasp the opportunity to explore and map God’s beautiful oceans by scuba diving, conveniently lying about her age. In her delightful book Coral gardens, her faithful camera captures forever the hidden beauty that the Almighty bestowed on that silent world still yet to be discovered.

(First edition from the authors private collection)

From the Red Sea to the Virgin Islands to the Cayman Islands, Leni was there in her wet suit, even posing for pictures later to be autographed. But now she was privileged to film and observe this secret world beneath the sea. As it has been called by those who have journey there to discover its allure.

I suspect she also wished to become the female Jacques-Yves Cousteau or queen of the oceans. The late French Captain, will however in my humble opinion, always be remembered for the terrible screams of anguish he heard from one of the mouths of Hell whilst diving in the deep. (Perhaps in the notorious Bermuda triangle.)

This brave French sailor never ventured to that region again or forgot what he had heard. He certainly never ignored it.

In conclusion, when death came for Leni in 2003 she was then in her one hundred and first year. But I have to enquire had she repented of her sins and was she ready to meet her Maker and did she even believe in a Judgment hereafter?

Who knows because it all seemed to mean so little to her in her long life.

Later a brief cremation service would be held in Munich. This allowed friends and I suspect enemies to gather at the crematorium to praise her talent or curse it.

Wagner’s Tannhauser was played as the congregation departed from the chapel. But for now, the Leni Riefenstahl era had finally ceased. Only the film images she had prepared and pored over for the silver screen would survive.

But if Hitler had hijacked the 1936 Olympic games for his own purpose (which he had) Leni Riefenstahl had also used this sporting occasion to further her own ambitions (which she did.) But what both of them foolishly overlooked and ignored was that the games and its traditions are far bigger than both of them or their legacies or reputations.

“If she was fascinated by Hitler, he was fascinated by her” so remarked an obituary on her life but I have to suggest that all along she was just another naive Nazi “groupie” allowing her artistic strings to be pulled by her Fuhrer and his henchmen.

In conclusion, I suppose she was an Icon of the 20th century but for all the wrong reasons.

“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”

Selected books

Leni, Steven Bach.

A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl, Audrey Salkeld.

Films and Filming, Leni Riefenstahl and Gunter Knorr



4th February 2012

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