Leni Riefenstahl always insisted that the two most famous films she directed, “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” were nothing more than straight-forward documentaries. Others have argued that they were nothing more than Nazi propaganda. What’s indisputable is that the controversy over Riefenstahl, who died this week at the age of 101, will forever supersede her acknowledged artistry.
“If she had said at any point, ‘I’m sorry,’ I could have begun to put her work into perspective,” said Los Angeles Times film critic Manohla Dargis. “The fact that she always insisted she was innocent was infuriating. She was vile — she was the apotheosis of an amoral collaborator. I’ve been waiting for her to die for years.”
Born in Berlin on August 22, 1902, Riefenstahl first made her mark as a popular dancer. Then, working under director Arnold Fanck during the 1920s, she portrayed a series of nature girls in silent films, shot on location in mountainous terrain. In 1932, she starred, directed and produced “The Blue Light,” another mountain film, establishing herself as both a perfectionist and a female pioneer.
She met Hitler that same year, about a year before he came to power. She admits that she was immediately fascinated by him, though she denied in her memoirs that she was Hitler’s lover or a member of the Nazi Party. In 1933, however, she agreed to film a Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. The next year, she returned to Nuremberg to direct the now-notorious “Triumph of the Will.”
Alternating between stark close-ups and panoramic shots, Riefenstahl glorified Hitler’s orations and his sycophantic audience of brown-shirt-clad storm-troopers. Indeed, “Triumph” presented Nazism in all of its horrific intensity, earning Riefenstahl the nickname “Hitler’s filmmaker.”
“The film was out and out propaganda,” said David Hinton, author of “The Films of Leni Riefenstahl,” “and yet it’s impossible not to be stirred by the imagery.”
According to New York Magazine film critic Peter Rainer, Riefenstahl “typifies more than any other filmmaker the enormous difficulty of reconciling art with ideology. If you eliminate ‘Triumph of the Will’ from her filmography, you’re left with a number of movies with Teutonic grandeur and Wagnerian appeal that today seem corny and dated.”
Ultimately, Rainer said, “Because of what we know about Hitler — and how ‘Triumph of the Will’ became a rallying cry for the cause — you have to draw the line: Fascist art is bad art because it is inhumane. ‘Triumph of the Will’ remains the most problematic film ever made.”
Two years later, Riefenstahl chronicled the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. She ended up with more than 250 miles of film; it took her nearly two years to edit the two-part film. “Olympia” won the Grand Prize at the International Film Festival in Venice in 1938, beating out Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and won the Olympic Award from the International Olympic Committee in 1939. Earlier this year, Sports Illustrated ranked “Olympia” No. 7 on its list of “The 50 Greatest Sports Movies of All Time.”
According to Time Magazine film critic Richard Corliss, “All televised sport is indebted to ‘Olympia’; It pioneered such techniques as cameras in balloons, in ditches, on a track racing with the sprinters, underwater as divers slice into the Olympic pool. More important, the film personalized the athletes: the glint of confidence on [Jesse] Owens’ face, the exhaustion of the marathoners as each painful step leads toward the stadium.”
Riefenstahl has contended that “Olympia” was nothing more than a ground-breaking documentary and points out that she spotlighted the success of African-American athletes such as Owens. “Hitler had nothing to do with that film,” she told Reuters in 1999. “I always heard that he was bitterly disappointed that I made it…. He didn’t like it that black athletes won top events.”
But in an essay titled “Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympia’: Brilliant Cinematography or Nazi Propaganda?” Robert Schneider and William Stier note that “records show that the finances of ‘Olympia’ were controlled by National Socialist Party Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels.” In addition, the film was released on Hitler’s birthday.
After World War II, Riefenstahl was tried and found to be a Nazi sympathizer. Shunned by the filmmaking community, she was able to release just one other film, “Tiefland,” in 1954. She turned to still photography and published several books, including collections of her underwater shots — she was an avid scuba-diver into her 90s — as well as photographs of Sudanese natives.
“It was impossible for her to do something else,” said publisher Angelika Taschen. “The Nuba didn’t know about her past — they accepted her right away. Imagine such artistic potential, and she couldn’t live it.”
In her memoirs — and in Ray Müller’s fascinating 1993 documentary titled “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl” — she maintained her innocence. Few believed her; the showing of her work at film festivals always drew protesters.
“Until the day she died, Leni Riefenstahl defended herself by saying, ‘I was just doing my art,’ and ‘I really didn’t know what was going on,’” said filmmaker Aviva Kempner, director of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” “But we’re never artists in a vacuum. The great irony is that one of the best documentary filmmakers was a woman with fascist ideals, and we cannot separate her filmmaking from that.”