Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)
This will most assuredly be my most controversial selection for my short bios of women artists and writers I admire, but hear me out. To be clear I am not saying I admire her affiliation with Nazi Germany. I am not saying that I feel her propaganda work during the 1930’s & 1940’s is something that inspires me or I admire. I do however recognize the brilliance of the work she did during that time from a strictly artistic point-of-view and as an effective form of propaganda for a morally reprehensible regime that unfortunately existed in a dark period of human history. Whether you believe her claims that she was unaware of the Nazi war crimes they were committing or not I leave up to your own conscience. For what it is worth she won over fifty libel cases against people accusing her of knowing of the Nazi crimes. She would later go onto say of meeting Hitler, “It was the biggest catastrophe of my life. Until the day I die people will keep saying, ‘Leni is a Nazi’, and I’ll keep saying, ‘But what did she do?”
Her most infamous and historically significant film was “Triumph of the Will” (Named by Hitler) of the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. According to reports she originally did not wish to make the film, but Hitler convinced her on the condition that she not be required to make further films for the party. She did however make a few more films for the Nazi party such as an eighteen minute follow up film at the 1935 party rally focusing on the army which felt they were not fairly represented in the first film. She went on to claim to never have intended to make a pro-Nazi propaganda film and was disgusted it was used that way. Whether that is true or not “Triumph of the Will” has been universally recognized as a masterful, innovative example of documentary filmmaking. Years later the Economist (magazine) wrote that Triumph of the Will “sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.” The film scholar Mark Cousins went on to claim, “Next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented Western film maker of her era”.
In 1936 with the Olympics approaching she traveled to Greece to film the location of the original Olympics at Olympia. This footage became part of the film “Olympia” a highly successful film. It was noted for its technical as well as aesthetic achievements. Her use of tracking shots as well as slow motion of the athletes has been seen as a major influence on modern sports photography. She is noted to have filmed footage of all races at the Olympics, including the American Jesse Owens. Upon its release in the United States the American philanthropist and former Olympic athlete (1912 Olympics) Avery Brundage said it was, “The greatest Olympic film ever made.”
During the invasion of Poland she worked as a war correspondent. On September 12th, 1939 thirty civilians were executed and there are claims she attempted to intervene, but a German soldier held her at gunpoint and threatened to shoot her if she continued. Whether that is true or not, close-up photos of a distraught Riefenstahl still exist from that day. She would later claim she did not realize the civilians were Jews. Nevertheless a month later she filmed Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw. It was the last Nazi related film of her career.
After the war she was held in American and French run detention camps and prisons from 1945-1948. She is reported to have reacted with horror and tears when shown photos of the concentration camps. She was tried four times but never found guilty of anything but being a “fellow traveler” who was sympathetic to the Nazis. Through the 1950’s and 1960’s she attempted many times (15 by her count) to make films but they were always met with resistance, public protests and sharp criticism.
In the 1960’s her focus made the transition to still photography. She became enamored with Africa, inspired by Hemingway’s book “The Green Hills of Afruca,” and the photography of George Rodger. She traveled many times to Sudan to photograph the Nuba tribes. She lived with them sporadically learning their culture so she could photograph them more easily. She was eventually granted Sudanese citizenship for her services to the country, becoming the first foreigner to have a Sudanese passport. Her two books of the tribes, “The Last of the Nuba,” and “The People of Kau,” published in the 1970’s were both international bestsellers. She photographed the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. Later she photographer Mick Jagger, Siegfried and Roy, and was a friend of Andy Warhol. She was a guest of honor at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
At age 72 she became interested in underwater photography. She lied about her age (by 20 years) and became certified to scuba dive. In 1978 she published a book of coral gardens and then in 1990 her book “Wonder Under Water.” On her 100th birthday she released her final film, “Underwater Impressions” an idealized documentary of life in the oceans. It was her first film in twenty-five years. At age 100 she was still photographing marine life and gained distinction as the world’s oldest scuba diver. She continued to be active in her late life being a member of Greenpeace for eight years. In 2000 she was in a helicopter crash while attempting to determine the fate of her Nuba friends during the Sudanese civil war. On Auguest 22nd, 2003 she celebrated her 101st birthday and married her longtime friend and cameraman Horst Kettner, who was forty years her junior. On September 8th she died from cancer.
As the daily telegraph wrote upon her death :
“[Leni Riefenstahl] was perhaps the most talented female cinema director of the 20th century; her celebration of Nazi Germany in film ensured that she was certainly the most infamous…Critics would later decry her fascination with the athletes’ [Olympia] physiques as fascistic; but in truth her interest was born not of racist ends but of the delight she, as a former dancer, took in the human form.”
“Opinions will be divided between those who see her as a young, talented and ambitious woman caught up in the tide of events which she did not fully understand, and those who believe her to be a cold and opportunist propagandist and a Nazi by association.”