Leni Riefenstahl, while being regarded as the most famous female film director of all time, also had careers in dancing, acting and photography:
During the Nazi era, Leni Riefenstahl was a common household name in Germany. She has, however, been a source of incredible controversy. Many regard Reifenstahl a Nazi propagandist, responsible for the projection of Hitler during his reign. Others see Riefenstahl as a female pioneer, responsible for incredible cinematic innovation. Riefenstahl’s three greatest achievements, The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, are examples of her controversial success.After six years of acting in Dr. Arnold Fanck’s berg or mountain films, Leni acknowledged the improbability of being cast in Hollywood films such as the identities of Marlene Dietrich had. Deciding “I want to make pictures myself” Riefenstahl cast herself in a film she would title The Blue Light. Riefenstahl had learnt a great deal about technique and directing films by observing Fanck during projects such as The Holy Mountain in 1926. While some claim Riefenstahl took the storyline from the 1930 novel Rock Crystal, Riefenstahl herself claimed “everything that happened came to from her head.” While Riefenstahl proved to be an extraordinary director of her films, she lacked the ability to write a structured script. Bela Balazs assumed this role, however was never paid for his work after the film was released and making profits. The Blue Light was seen by Hitler who considered Leni’s dance the “most beautiful thing”. Riefenstahl’s creation of this film ensured she was brought to the attention of Hitler, ultimately serving as a highly significant event.
The Blue Light was Leni’s first film and showed cinematic innovation:
Technically, Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light showed great cinematic innovation. She used new green and red filters on her insistence that they would create a “magical effect.” Furthermore, she was able to manipulate techniques in order to create night time climbing scenes. They were filmed during the day, however, her manipulation of technique made the sky seem like night. In editing, Riefenstahl claimed Fanck had made the film “kaput”. Other versions of the story credit Fanck as “saving the film.” Regardless, Riefenstahl admitted in her memoirs that she was disappointed with it, commenting “the film didn’t look as I had envisaged it.” The Blue Light received mixed reviews from German critics. Those of the right wing seemed to write more favorably about her film, while Jewish critics labeled it “inwardly sick.” Riefenstahl’s direction of The Blue Light forms a significant achievement in her professional life. It started her directing career where she showed great cinematic innovation. Furthermore, Riefenstahl’s first directing projected brought her to the attention of Adolf Hitler, a man who soon after would change her life completely.
Leni’s Triumph of the Will, considered by many as the greatest propaganda film ever made, forms an incredibly significant event within her professional career:
Before the 1934 Nuremburg Rally Germany’s political landscape had changed considerably. With sole leadership within his hands after Hindenburg’s death and Rohm’s execution, Hitler’s consolidation of power was at a crucial stage. By allowing her “artistic and technical responsibility”, Riefenstahl would create a film to promote the image of the Fuhrer. In effect, Triumph of the Will became a ‘vehicle to apotheosize Hitler as absolute leader. “ (Bach, 2007, p. 128) This project was highly significant as Hitler allowed Leni unlimited resources, unrestricted access and most of all, independence from the Propaganda Ministry. It was a rare that someone had such power in Germany, especially for a female who wasn’t a member of the Nazi Party. Triumph of the Will highlighted this as Riefenstahl was allowed access to Hitler whenever she wanted something and had authority beyond Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry.
Riefenstahl, in an attempt to distance herself from the Nazis during post war trials recalled that she was forced to make the film and had just days to prepare:
However, a letter discovered in Ufa files dated in April, five months before the rally signed her onto the project. In having this time, Riefenstahl was able to intricately plan the program ensuring she would satisfy Hitler’s desires. Riefenstahl, after the rally spent up to twenty hours a day editing the film. After filming four hundred thousand feet of footage, Riefenstahl was required to cut it into juts two hours.
Many of Leni’s signature innovations were achieved in collaboration with Albert Speers:
In collaboration with Albert Speers, Hitler’s favourite architect, Riefenstahl showed great innovation and technique. Her innovation included a lift being built into flagpoles to give high angle panoramic shots of the rally. Rail tracks were installed on Riefenstahl’s insistence that the camera must always be moving. Circular tracks were built below the speaking platform so the camera could pan around Hitler as he spoke. These never before tried techniques provided Leni’s audience with new lively images that would win awards in Venice and Paris. Triumph of the Will was a significant achievement for Riefenstahl, whether viewed as propaganda or simply art. It showcased a revolution in film while promoting the Fuhrer Cult.
Olympia, Riefenstahl’s film on the 1936 Berlin Olympics is regarded by many as the greatest sports documentary ever made:
Continuing from Triumph of the Will, Leni made further innovation in cinema, ensuring Olympia was a significant achievement within her professional career. Leni, after being signed on to film the Olympic Games by Dr. Carl Diem of the Olympic Committee, had to secure financing. Leni attempted to gain support independently, proposing her film to Ufa and Tobis production companies. When both declined to finance her film she negotiated with Goebbels who agreed to the 1.5 million reichsmarks she demanded. While this was more than three times the budget on blockbuster films at the time, Goebbels acknowledged the potential this film had in promoting the ‘New Germany’. Such a ‘sensational’ budget for a woman in Nazi Germany held significance alone.
While Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will secured Hitler’s power within Germany, the international community remained cautious of Hitler:
Countries with high Jewish populations such as America, who also had the greatest representation at the Olympics, opposed Hitler’s regime. Hitler acknowledged the propaganda potential of Leni‘s film where it could be sold that Hitler meant it when he said “Germany needs peace and desires peace!” Therefore, Olympia becomes a significant event and achievement in Riefenstahl’s career as once more she contributed to Hitler’s image through her creation of propaganda.
Similarly to Triumph of the Will, while Olympia can be considered as propaganda, Riefenstahl continued to revolutionize the film industry:
In this way her film also forms a significant achievement in her career. Leni employed the use of the world’s fastest cameras to film events in slow motion. She used cameras with the longest possible telephoto lenses to capture intimate shots of athletes. She attempted to film from high angles, placing cameras in planes and balloons. Although unsuccessful, such thought showed incredible innovation. Riefenstahl continued her use of low angle shots by placing cameras in trenches dug under athletes. In collaboration with Hans Ertl, Riefenstahl captured the first underwater diving shots. Many of Riefenstahl’s techniques continue today to be used by modern film makers. Her innovation in sport documentary and technical advancement ensures Olympia was a significant achievement within her professional career.
While it’s controversially debated whether Riefenstahl actively sought to create Nazi propaganda or simply art, there’s little doubt she made a substantial contribution to history. Her three greatest achievements, The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will and Olympia hold a level of significance not only to her professional career but to history and society in general.