Hitler’s Favorite Director
“They kept asking me over and over again whether
I was having a romance with Hitler. Are you Hitler’s
girlfriend? I laughed and answered the same way each
time: No, those are false rumors. I only made documentaries for him...”
— Leni Riefenstahl, about her 1938 US tour, in A Memoir
She was Hitler’s favorite director. She was beautiful and talented. She was a woman in a man’s field. Three strikes and you’re out.
Leni Riefenstahl (REEF-en-shtal) was never able to shed the historical contamination that attached to her during the last half of her 101 years. Despite (some say because of) her demonstrated talent as actor, dancer, director, cinematographer, and still photographer, Riefenstahl could not shake off her Third Reich associations. Although her films have had enormous impact on world cinema and even television sports coverage, the woman herself found it difficult to gain public respect. Her attempt to revive her directorial career in the 1950s proved futile. The often-imitated, seldom-honored artist remained a controversial and unrepentant pariah up until her death on 8 September 2003. Ironically, her own well-crafted black-and-white motion-picture images of Hitler, Nazi pageantry, and the Jesse Owens Olympics helped keep both her genius and her past alive. In the words of Ray Müller, director of the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, “Her talent was her tragedy.”
Riefenstahl’s story begins in the Wedding district of Berlin, near the start of the twentieth century. Her father, Alfred Riefenstahl, was a prosperous businessman dealing in heating and ventilation. Her mother, Bertha Sherlach, had been a part-time seamstress before she married. Their first child, Helene (Leni) Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl, was born on August 22, 1902 in the family’s apartment on Prinz-Eugen-Straße in Berlin. Leni’s younger brother, Heinz, was born three and a half years later. He would later die in Hitler’s war at age 38 on the Russian front.
Mountain of Destiny
Young Leni grew up in Berlin and lived at home until she was 21. Against the wishes of her father, she studied dance and was soon performing in Munich, Berlin, and Prague. But according to her memoirs, the course of her life was changed dramatically one day as she was waiting for a subway train at the Nollendorfplatz station in Berlin.
In a daze, thinking about the whirlwind of her dance appearances over the last six months, Riefenstahl could feel the pain in her injured knee that was threatening to end her dancing career in its early stages. She was on her way to yet another doctor, trying to find one who could finally put her back on her dancing feet. Her gaze happened to fall upon an advertising poster on the wall opposite the platform. Suddenly the image of a man climbing a jagged mountain came into focus. The colorful poster was promoting a movie with prophetic name Berg des Schicksals (Mountain of Destiny). Its letters further spelled out the words: Ein Film aus den Dolomiten von Dr. Arnold Fanck (A film from the Dolomites by Dr. Arnold Fanck). The picture was currently playing at a nearby cinema.
Amazingly, Riefenstahl got her first acting role in the film, Der heilige Berg (written for the dancer Leni Riefenstahl), directed by Dr. Arnold Fanck, only 18 months after that fateful day at the Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station. Within weeks of seeing Fanck’s Mountain of Destiny she had happened to meet the director himself in Berlin. Following a successful operation on her knee, Riefenstahl met with Fanck at his home in Freiburg near the Black Forest. Soon she would be appearing in movies directed by Fanck and co-starring Luis Trenker. Her dream was coming true, but the day would come when she regretted having ever met either of these two men.
After appearing in several films, Riefenstahl turned to directing—remarkable for a field so dominated by men, then as now. An admirer by the name of Adolf Hitler asked her to film a documentary of his Nazi party’s rally in Nuremberg, and the rest is indeed history.
Following her success with Triumph des Willens, in 1936 Riefenstahl was put in charge of filming the Berlin Olympics, a project that was no minor undertaking. For Olympia she had to manage a total crew of 60 cinematographers, who used three different types of black-and-white film stock—Agfa (architectural shots), Kodak (portraits), and Perutz (fields, grass)—to shoot over 1.3 million feet of film (400,000 meters, over 248 miles). In the process, Riefenstahl invented or enhanced many of the sports photography techniques we now take for granted: slow motion, underwater diving shots, extremely high (from cranes/towers) and low shooting angles (from pits), panoramic aerial shots, and tracking systems for following fast action. The editing alone took her a year and a half to complete. The result is considered a classic cinematic masterpiece. The four-hour long (two-part) epic Olympia premiered at Berlin’s UFA Palast am Zoo cinema on Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1938.
Next > Riefenstahl visits the United States...
NEXT > Riefenstahl - Part 2
MORE > Riefenstahl Filmography
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Riefenstahl in Print
- A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl by Audrey Salkeld (paperback biography)
- The Films of Leni Riefenstahl, Third Edition by David B. Hinton (paperback)
- Leni Riefenstahl: A Life by Jurgen Trimborn (paperback)
- Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach (paperback)
- Leni Riefenstahl by Leni Riefenstahl
Riefenstahl on DVD
- Olympia -The Leni Riefenstahl Archival Collection (1938) 2-disc set of Riefenstahl’s groundbreaking coverage of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games
- Triumph of the Will (1935) - A visual masterpiece of propaganda for the Nazis
- The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1994) - A fascinating documentary (with clips of her films) by German filmmaker Ray Müller
- Impressionen unter Wasser (2002) - Underwater scenes by Riefenstahl (NOTE: This German Region 2 DVD from Amazon.de will not play on a standard US DVD player.)
- Das blaue Licht - The Blue Light (1932) - Directed by Leni Riefenstahl who also stars
- SOS Iceberg (1933) - Leni Riefenstahl stars in both the German and English versions of this drama (the DVD has both versions)
- Der heilige Berg - The Holy Mountain (1926) - Leni Riefenstahl stars in this mountain-climbing drama
- Storm Over Mont Blanc (1930) - Leni Riefenstahl stars in this Alpine thriller by Arnold Fanck
- Tiefland (1954) - Directed by Leni Riefenstahl who also stars
- The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929) - Leni Riefenstahl stars in this mountain-climbing drama
Riefenstahl On the Web
- Leni Riefenstahl - The official site is in English and German
- Leni Riefenstahl (IMDb)
- Leni’s Body Beautiful - 007 and Leni Riefenstahl by D.L. Booth in the Bright Lights Film Journal
- Das blaue Licht - The art of Leni Riefenstahl (in English)
- The Exciting Life and Art of Leni Riefenstahl - Fan site by Helmut Schmidt (in German)
- DHM: Bio of Leni Riefenstahl - Year by year (in German)
- Leni Riefenstahl - Wikipedia (English)
- Leni Riefenstahl - Wikipedia (German)
- Lonesome Leni - A 1999 review of the DVD of The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, by Gary Morris in the Bright Lights film journal
Related German Way Pages
- German-Hollywood Connections
- Ufa and the Babelsberg studios, where Lang shot Metropolis and other films
- Famous German Movies - Films from Germany have made their mark on world cinema—and influenced Hollywood
- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood - About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
- Berlin City Guide - Sights, history
- German Cinema - From the German Way book
- Famous Germans, Austrians and Swiss
- Famous Graves - The graves and cemeteries of the famous
MORE > German-Hollywood Connections
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