Bertha Helene Amalia "Leni" Riefenstahl (1902
) was a multi-talented German woman most famous for directing "Triumph of the Will
" - Hitler
's greatest propaganda film
. In her own words, she led "five lives" - dancer, actress, director, photographer, and deep-sea diver.
Renowned for her great beauty, Riefenstahl was first an accomplished ballet dancer in the 1920s and then when a knee injury ended that career she became a silent film star. In the 1930s while in her early 30s she turned to directing and won great acclaim for her directing genius on two documentaries - the aforementioned "Triumph of the Will," which recorded a 1934 Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg, and "Olympia," which documented the 1936 Olympic Games. She used many revolutionary techniques that had not been seen before, such as interesting camera angles, zoom lenses, and slow motion. For "Olympia" she put cameramen on roller-skates, in hot-air baloons, in row boats and on miniature rail cars to capture athletes in action from previously-undreamt-of camera angles. After the war Riefenstahl was a war prisoner for seven years because of her ties to the Nazis and then tried to go to Hollywood, but directors and producers who had praised her work back in the 1930s before they knew how evil Hitler was now totally shunned her. After several years of frustrating failures to land directing jobs, Riefenstahl finally took up a new career as a still photographer, documenting the Nuba tribes of the Sudan. It was a self-imposed exile of sorts, among people who cared nothing for her past. Then in the 1970s, at the age of 72, she started her fifth "life" as a deep-sea diver and underwater photographer. This too could be seen as an escape - Riefenstahl was fond of describing the "peace" of the deep ocean.
Riefenstahl lived to see her 101st year, dying of complications related to cancer on September 8, 2003. She retained her vibrant and active lifestyle until the very end, still diving and puting on exhibitions of her photographs at art museums after her 100th birthday. But even though over 50 years had passed since the demise of Hitler, Riefenstahl's association with Hitler continued to plague her image into the 21st century. Although she condemned Hitler's actions and claimed she had no knowledge of his genocidal policies until after the war, Riefenstahl never expressed remorse regarding her own role in the rise of his regime, and always unashamedly regarded "Triumph of the Will" as her finest achievement. From Riefenstahl's point of view, she was nothing more than a glorified camerawoman. Of her relationship with Hitler she claimed, "Altogether I only worked with him for six days, as that is how long the party congress lasted." Yet rumors lingered that she had a love affair with Hitler and possibly witnessed concentration camp inmates or massacres - rumors she denied and that have never been proven beyond doubt. Well into the 1990s there were still protests at her exhibits, and in 1997, for example, she had to be secretly spirited into Los Angeles to receive a lifetime achievement awar from the Cinecon club of private film buffs amidst a furious outcry from Holocaust survivor groups.
While Riefenstahl was certainly punished heavily for her involvement with one of the great villians of history, it is also hard to feel too sorry for her, knowing that much of her suffering could have been avoided with even a small expression of remorse. In a life that straddled one of the most turbulent centuries in human history, Riefenstahl was the archtypal genius - supremely talented and driven, but also incredibly vainglorious and detached from the reality of her world, at times to an almost delusional extent. Between half a century of vehement denials by Riefenstahl and the wild accusations of her detractors, it becomes very difficult to separate fact from fiction. It seems that the real truth of Riefenstahl's relationship with Hitler has gone with her to her grave.
Tiefland ("Lowlands") - 1954 (actress, director)
Olympia - 1938 (director)
Triumph des Willens ("Triumph of the Will") - 1934 (director)
Sieg des Glaubens - 1933 (director)
S.O.S. Eisberg ("S.O.S. Iceberg") - 1933 (actress)
Das Blaue Licht ("The Blue Light") - 1932 (actress, director)
Der Weiße Rausch - Neue Wunder des Schneeschuhs ("The White Intoxication") - 1931 (actress)
Stürme über dem Mont Blanc ("Storm Over Mont Blanc") - 1930 (actress)
Die Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü ("The White Hell of Pitz Palu") - 1929 (actress)
Der Große Sprung ("The Big Jump") - 1927 (actress)
Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit - 1926 (actress)
Der Heilige Berg ("The Holy Mountain") - 1926 (actress)
Tragödie im Hause Habsburg ("Tragedy in the House of Hapsburg") - 1924 (actress)