Third Reich artists: Leni Riefenstahl

The Third Reich artists, like Leni Riefenstahl, played an important role in spreading Nazi propaganda. All artistic branches were culturally valuable. Some of them flourished during Hitler’s regime, and one of them was Leni Riefenstahl.

Who was Leni Riefenstahl?

Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl was a German dancer,  actress, film director, photographer, and writer. In the early days of her career, during the Weimar period (from 1919 till 1933), she was one of the few female film directors. She directed in 1932 her own film The Blue Light (Das Blaue Licht).

In the 1930s, she directed her first propaganda films: Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) and Olympia. These two films were technically innovative and some of the most effective propaganda films during the period. They brought her worldwide acclaim and attention. Even years later George Lucas used some of her monumental techniques.

However, most of her works, especially the film Triumph of the Will, negatively affected her reputation after the war. Being involved with the Nazis greatly damaged her career; she was also a friend with Hitler as well. Hitler and Riefenstahl also collaborated on a few Nazi movies.

Some people claimed that her visions played a key role in the Holocaust. The police arrested her after the war and released soon after because they classified her as a Nazi sympathizer. They hadn’t had enough proof to accuse her of being associated with any war crimes.

She strongly denied that she had known something about the Holocaust.

Aside from directing, Riefenstahl also pursued a photography and writing career. Later in her life, she wrote a few books about the Nuba people, as well as her autobiography.

Childhood

Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl was born in Berlin on August  22, 1902. Since her early childhood, she loved art and started to write poetry and paint. She was interested in swimming and gymnastics so she decided to join school clubs.

Aside from her interests in arts and gymnastics, Riefenstahl’s love for ballet and dancing seemed to be the greatest. It took her to the Grimm-Reiter Dance School in Berlin, the place where she achieved brilliant results.  Riefenstahl became one of the best students at the school.

Early years

After having attended some dancing academies, Riefenstahl became famous for her unique dancing skills. As a dancer, she got a chance to travel all around Europe. Her dancing career did not last long, unfortunately.

After a few foot injuries, she had knee surgery which hugely affected her dancing career. In 1924, while on her way for a regular check-up, she saw a poster for a film. The film was The Mountain of Destiny (Der Berg des Schicksals), which inspired her to pursue a film-making career.

She spent lots of time in cinemas, watching movies and attending film shows. After she met Arnold Fanck, the man who directed Der Berg des Schicksals, she started her acting career. He featured her in one of his films after witnessing her acting skills and learning that she admired his work.

Leni Riefenstahls acting career

Arnold Fanck gave her a role in his 1926 film, The Holy Mountain (Der Heilige Berg). Riefenstahl took roles in several other films and learned editing techniques and acting from Fanck. It was one of Fanck’s films that brought her fame in many other countries.  

The movie was The White Hell of Piz Palü (Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü) in 1929.

A few years later, in 1932, Riefenstahl produced and directed her own film, The Blue Light (Das Blaue Licht). Béla Balázs and Carl Mayer were her co-writers. Even though not well-received, the film won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival.

Riefenstahl blamed critics, mostly Jewish ones, for their criticism. The film saw its second release in  1938 when Sokal and Balázs, both Jewish, didn’t get their credits. Many believe that this happened at Riefenstahl’s behest.

In the Blue Light, Riefenstahl plays the role of an innocent peasant girl. The villagers hate the girl, believing she’s diabolic and they cast her out. She gets protection from a glowing mountain grotto.

Leni Riefenstahl once stated that she had received many invitations to move to Hollywood and make films there, which she refused.  In 1933 though, she appeared in other Arnold Fanck’s films, which were German- USA co-productions. She filmed S.O.S Iceberg, the only English language role film she ever had.

She wanted to live and work in Germany.  Upon seeing the movie the Blue Light, Hitler became interested in her. He was convinced she portrayed the perfect German woman and wanted to meet her instantly.

Directing propaganda movies

Before she got a chance to meet Hitler in person, she heard him speak at a rally in 1932. His talent for giving public speeches fascinated her. Riefenstahl captivated Hitler as well as she fitted his ideal od Aryan woman. 

After they met, she got an offer to direct The Victory of Faith (Der Sieg des Glaubens). This was a propaganda film about the fifth Nuremberg Rally in 1933.

Triumph of the Will

The second propaganda film she got a chance to direct was Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). This was another film about the party rally in Nuremberg in 1934. Many believe this is one of the greatest propaganda films in history.

The motion picture of the film was an innovative and epic work of propaganda film-making. Riefenstahl became internationally popular and recognized. According to Riefenstahl, she agreed to film Triumph as the last one for the party.

Lowlands

Riefenstahl then continued to direct a film based on Eugen d’Albert’s opera, Lowlands (Tiefland). She received the production funding and shot the film between 1940 and 1944. It was a black and white film, considered to be the third most expensive films of the Third Reich.

For this film, Riefenstahl employed Romani from internment camps for extras. Unfortunately, the way people treated them on set was inhumane. After shooting the film, those Romani ended up in Auschwitz.

In one of her interviews, she denied any attempt to create Nazi propaganda. She told to be appalled that Nazis used Triumph of the Will for such purposes.

Olympia

in 1935, Hitler invited her again to film the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. She accepted, believing the International Olympic Committee commissioned the film funding.  The truth was that The Third Reich secretly funded the film.

This film was Olympia, an immensely successful film for its aesthetic and technical achievements. Riefenstahl was one of the first filmmakers who used tracking shots while filming a documentary. To follow the movements of athletes, she placed a camera on rails.

She also took slow-motion shots, panoramic aerial shots, underwater diving shots, high and low shooting angles. These shots were pretty unheard of at the time. Her work on this film influenced modern sports photography.

Leni Riefenstahl visiting  the USA 

Riefenstahl visited the USA to secure the commercial release of the movie Olympia. At the time, Hitler was one of the greatest men and she defended him fiercely. Little did she know then about the brutality he had been preparing. 

While she was in New York City, Kristallnacht took place in Germany. Again she defended Hitler and his actions. She carried out her mission in the USA. Olympia played at the Chicago Engineers Club and it received great appraisals. 

She met with many great names in America: Walt Disney, Louis B. Mayer, Henry Ford, and others. She had a chance to live and work in Hollywood, but she preferred to stay in Germany. 

World War II

The Nazi’s violence during WWII shook her confidence in the party.  Following German troops for film-making, she saw the execution of Polish civilians. The very same day she witnessed such violence, she left the set to meet Hitler.

She made an appeal against such actions. However, she did not object to filming the triumph parade in Warsaw a few weeks later. 

After the war

After the war,  Riefenstahl tried to separate herself from the Third Reich regime. She stated how she only created work and it happened that the Nazis commissioned it. For her, it didn’t mean she worked for them and their purposes.

She was never a member of the party, but only their sympathizer during their early years. This association with the Nazis made it difficult for her to regain position in cinematic communities in Europe, especially Germany.

Riefenstahl chose still photography. In the 1970s published an illustrated volume on the Nuba people, the primitive tribe of Sudan.  Later in her life, she became interested in underwater cinematography.

Years that followed after the end of the war were isolation years. She lived in Munich, where she died of cancer on September 8th, 2003, at the age of 101. Her burial site is in Munich at Munich Waldfriedhof.

People will probably remember her more as Hitler’s favorite film director, and not a great artist. And she was one indeed, the first female film director with international acclaim. Not well known for her work, she does deserve more attention. 

Just like many other artists during the Third Reich, she was manipulated and used to advertise its propaganda. They weren’t all aware of how it would end. They did what they did best, create work that would live long after they’re all gone. The work that tells the story of their time.

More about Leni Riefenstahl?

If you are interested in booking my Third Reich tour, be sure you’ll get a chance to come near to the manipulation of folk and artists in those dark years. There are plenty of sites that exhibit the great works of art, the Third Reich art. There are places that witness the mistakes of our past. 

Visiting concentration camps, in my opinion, honors the Nazis and their propaganda. What we can do is to see works of art as they tell more about the whole society. These works tell about mistakes, good deeds, and they can help us learn. 

We don’t need more discrimination, more hatred. What we seek is love and peace for everyone, no matter their race, sexuality, or religion.

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