Her life became entangled with the 20th century’s most tragic defining event, the Holocaust. She lived for much of that century as an emblem, her name and oeuvre the catalysts for strong feelings and divided opinions. Leni Riefenstahl, often described as one of the greatest filmmakers as well as Hitler’s favourite, died at the age of 101 on 8 September in her home in Pöcking, just outside of Munich.
While many believe that a long life is a blessing, especially when you remain fit and mentally capable to the end, in Riefenstahl’s case, it was rather a curse. Had she not outlived all her peers, would she have remained so controversial and unforgiven, yet also admired? Her detractors remain repelled because she refused to apologize for her connection with the Nazis. Others give her the benefit of the doubt and concentrate on her groundbreaking filmmaking skills.
Born Leni Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl on 22 August 1902, she initially found work as a ballet dancer and an actress, appearing in films during the 1920s that film historian Siegfried Kracauer, in his seminal 1947 study, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Cinema, calls the “mountain film, adventure movies whose storylines revolved around mountain-climbing antics.” Kracauer sees in those films a metaphor for a vulnerable collective emotional state. He writes, “The idolatry of glaciers and rocks was symptomatic of an anti-rationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize.”
From those initial experiences in film, Riefenstahl learned about lighting, film equipment and directing techniques. She used these lessons when she moved to the other side of the camera, a process she details in her mammoth 1993 autobiography, The Sieve of Time, in which she firmly defended herself against the accusations that she had been a Nazi collaborator. Her first film was a mountain film called The Blue Light (1931/1932), in which she also starred. The film impressed Hitler, who then invited her to make a documentary about the 1934 Nazi Party Rally.
The result was The Triumph of the Will. The film famously portrays Hitler descending in a plane from the skies above Nuremberg to an ecstatic reception on the ground. According to Kracauer, Riefenstahl remembers the scene as confluence of effects: “The preparations of the Party Convention were made in concert with the preparations for the camera work.” From this, Kracauer concludes, “The Convention was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but also as spectacular film propaganda.” Indeed, The Triumph of the Will, it might be argued, was a precursor of the dramatised televisual news style adopted by international media corporations, most recently as embedded journalists in Iraq, or George Bush’s “fighter pilot” landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce the end of “major hostilities.”
Riefenstahl followed The Triumph of the Will with the legendary Olympia (released in 1938), another prototypical work in which she pioneered a visual grammar that has become standard in the coverage of sports events, such as filming athletes from below or grand-scale aerial shots. Her glorification of the “body beautiful” would eventually be used against her, as viewers identified it as a celebration of Hitler’s fascism. This view continued to haunt her in later stages of her life, even when she joined Greenpeace. When she published a book of photographs of the Nuba tribe in Central Sudan, The Last of the Nuba (1976), critics again saw in these images a reflection of the artist’s “fascist” aesthetic.
Her work and self-representations have drawn critical attention for decades, including a 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl by Ray Mueller, books, and analytical essays by B. Ruby Rich and Susan Sontag. In 1993, film theorist Thomas Elsaesser wrote, “Riefenstahl may have been a fellow traveler and a beneficiary, but nothing like as brazenly as many a Party member (which she was not) officially rehabilitated during the ’50s and allowed to enjoy top positions in West German government, industry and judiciary” (Sight and Sound, February 1993). At the same time, however, based on her autobiography, he accuses her of preferring the “verdict of irredeemable naïvete to that of culpable ignorance.”
On her death, Riefenstahl’s biographer Jürgen Trimborn was quoted in London’s Guardian last week: “History will forgive her.” Considering the headlines she made with her death that tended to describe her as “Hitler’s favourite film propagandist,” like the one in the Guardian, her posthumous reputation is likely to remain polarised by the two films that were her rise and fall, at the same time.