In the USA and Postwar Germany
“This film was pivotal in my life, not so much because it
was my first successful effort as a producer and director,
but because Hitler was so fascinated by this film that he
insisted I make a documentary about the Party rally in
Nuremberg. The result was Triumph of the Will.”
— Leni Riefenstahl, about her film The Blue Light, in her book A Memoir
In 1938 Riefenstahl embarked on a trip to America, including Hollywood, to promote Olympia. The visit was marred by several factors, not the least of which was the infamous Kristallnacht — the Nazi burning of synagogues and the vicious persecution of Jewish shopkeepers in Germany on November 9.
No less disruptive for Riefenstahl’s US tour were the efforts of the Anti-Nazi League as well as a spy in her own entourage, one Ernst Jäger, who turned out not to be the loyal colleague Riefenstahl thought he was. Too late she would discover that it was Jäger who helped sabotage her efforts to arrange the US distribution of her award-winning Olympia documentary.
For her Hollywood stay Riefenstahl booked a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Despite a hostile press and the billboard equivalent of Leni Go Home!, the world’s most famous (or infamous) female director gained an audience with Walt Disney, although he did refuse her offer of a private showing of Olympia. He was just too afraid of a possible boycott of Disney films. Other studio heads treated her like the pariah she had become, refusing to see her at all. An invitation to meet with Gary Cooper was suddenly and regretfully cancelled. Even Disney would later make the unconvincing claim that he hadn’t known who Riefenstahl really was.
However, Riefenstahl did finally manage to arrange a private screening of Olympia for an exclusive audience of some 50 press people and Hollywood insiders, some of whom felt compelled to sneak into the darkened theater incognito. Despite the Riefenstahl boycott, the press reviews for Olympia were enthusiastic. The Los Angeles Times wrote: This picture is a triumph of the camera and an epic of the screen. Contrary to rumor, it is in no way a propaganda movie, and as propaganda for any nation, its effect is definitely zero. Such praise notwithstanding, the Third Reich-tainted Olympia never found a US distributor, and a dejected Riefenstahl sailed back to Germany. It must have been very depressing to know that the sneaky Herr Jäger had betrayed her. And, despite his assurances to the contrary, Jäger was not aboard for the return voyage. Riefenstahl’s betrayal was doubly painful, since she had gone out of her way to have Jäger accompany her to America, against the protestations of Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who had earlier kicked Jäger (whose wife was Jewish) out of the Reich Literature Chamber.
The Denazification Ordeal
Following the war in 1945, Riefenstahl had to face Allied charges that she was a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer. Her close ties to Hitler and her propaganda films, most notably Triumph of the Will, made her an obvious target. She endured post-war chaos and was imprisoned (and escaped!) three times trying to get to her mother’s house in Austria where she was reunited with her husband and arrested again—not once but twice. This time she sat in a real prison as a guest the Seventh American Army, in the company of people like Hermann Göring and Sepp Dietrich (of the SS). But after her interrogation the Americans officially denazified Germany’s most notorious film director and released her without prejudice on June 3, 1945.
A relieved Riefenstahl returned to her film library and editing suite in Kitzbühel in the Austrian Tyrol, where she had moved during the war to avoid Allied bombing in Germany and to continue her work on the long-delayed Tiefland, which she had begun in 1940. But she had not reckoned on the French. The Americans were leaving Tyrol, which was to become part of the new French occupation zone. Despite being advised to move to the American zone, Riefenstahl was reluctant to move her massive film library (including the Olympia negatives) and she believed that her American denazification was valid for all the Allied powers.
But Riefenstahl was far from free. Freedom and partial denazification did not mean she could resume her career as a director, and she had more legal trials ahead of her. The French were still holding all the film material taken from her house in Austria. Even her marriage was falling apart. To top it all, her attempts to get her Tiefland film back from the French were now being hindered by the release of a so-called “Eva Braun Diary” (a fraudulent precursor of the later and equally bogus “Hitler Diary”), the work of Luis Trenker, a former co-star with Riefenstahl in several films, now turned director and con-artist. As is usually the case, a court ruling that the Eva Braun diary was a fabrication failed to stop the false rumours and innuendo the diary had produced. In a bizarre twist, Riefenstahl received an unsolicited affadavit of support from none other than her former foe Ernst Jäger.
The Nazi Pin-up Girl
Although she scouted film locations in Africa (where she had a bad car accident and almost died) and had serious plans to make other films (one titled The Red Devils), it was not to be. Riefenstahl encountered resistance and protest from too many quarters. There was almost no prospect of getting a Riefenstahl film shot, much less shown in most of the world. So, she did the next best thing; she took up still photography.
She lived for a time with the native Nuba tribe in Africa, recording images that have appeared in several photographic essay books. She took up scuba diving in 1970s at the age of 72, and continued underwater photo work into her 90s.
To her dying day controversy surrounded Riefenstahl wherever she went and wherever her work was displayed. In March 1946, even before the French threw her into an insane asylum, Budd B. Schulberg wrote an article about Riefenstahl for the Saturday Evening Post. Its title was a taste of things to come: Nazi Pin-up Girl: Hitler’s No. 1 Movie Actress.
An exhibit of Riefenstahl’s movie stills and her African and underwater photographs in Hamburg in late 1997 brought out a whole new generation of protesters. Their signs read: Now showing: Nazi exhibition and No commercializing of fascist aesthetics. First published in the 1970s, not even her still photographs of naked Nubians have been immune from controversy. Critics somehow managed to see fascist tendencies in Riefenstahl’s images of African natives—a race deemed inferior by the Nazis.
The 1993 film documentary about Riefenstahl by Ray Müller, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, is available on DVD. It’s a fascinating, if somewhat long (188 min.), look at her films and her point of view. The original German title better conveys the thrust of Müller’s film: Die Macht der Bilder (The Power of Images).
NEXT > Riefenstahl Filmography
BACK > Riefenstahl - Part 1
MORE > German-Hollywood Connections
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’s Body Beautiful - 007 and Leni Riefenstahl by D.L. Booth in the Bright Lights Film Journal
- Leni Riefenstahl (IMDb)
- 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
- 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
NEXT > Riefenstahl Filmography
BACK > Riefenstahl - Part 1
MORE > German-Hollywood Connections
|Find a famous person poster!|