Saturday, August 22, 2015

Leni Riefenstall: An Acclaimed And Controversial German Cinema Pioneer

Leni Riefenstall in 1933

Today marks the birthday in 1902 of the German film maker, Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003). If you were in school during the third quarter of the 20th century there's a likely chance you are familiar with her landmark 1935 film, Triumph of the Will. This legendary propaganda piece was the product of her fascination with Adolph Hitler, the National Socialist movement and his desire to document the party rally in Nuremberg in 1934. It was the second film she produced for Hitler and its success, as well as their ongoing friendship, resulted in other notable projects but nothing approached the success of Triumph of the Will. At the same time, her association with the party, its principals, and her use of the enforced labor of talented Jews brought her a brief prison term at the end of World War II. She was also shunned for three decades by the world-wide film industry.

Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler greets Leni Riefenstahl, 1934

In the last quarter of her life of 102 years she focused on still photography of nature and culture in Africa. At age 72, she developed an interested in underwater photography, became a certified diver, and went on to produce two books and one film featuring marine life.

Riefenstahl reached the heights of creativity and controversy in her lifetime. I don't expect interpretations of her legacy will change. To admire her amazing technical innovation in documentary film making one has to ignore her association with evil. It is an association she denied but the evidence in her life and work cause us to suspect otherwise. At this point we are left only with the hard evidence that she was a genius behind the motion picture camera.

Here are some highlights from her films: the 1932 film, Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), an early sound film - she plays the lead as well as directs - illustrating her Expressionist training, and her appreciation of nature, culture, and sense of place;

From Triumph of the Will (1934), a propaganda masterpiece;

And from the prologue of Olympia (1938) her documentary of the famous Berlin games of 1936. Image and sound quality are marginal in this clip but the intent shines through. Viewer warning: this clip contains NEAR-NUDITY and BARE BREASTS.

For an interesting assessment of Riefenstall's impact on film making, here is D.L. Booth writing in the Bright Lights Journal about the "body beautiful," particularly in the James Bond film series beginning in 1962.


portrait, Невідомо [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
with Hitler, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99035 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Text:, Leni Riefenstall, Leni Riefenstall

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