Leni Riefenstahl

On a Nazi female filmmaker

Francine Prose
A photograph of Leni Riefenstahl during filming, 1936.
Leni Riefenstahl during filming, 1936. Courtesy Bundesarchiv.

Propaganda was the genius of National Socialism. Not only did it owe to propaganda its most important successes; propaganda was also its one and only contribution to the conditions for its rise and was always more than a mere instrument of power: propaganda was part of its essence… . Carrying it to an extreme, one might say that National Socialism was propaganda masquerading as ideology… . In view of its capacity for mediumistic communication with the “mind” of the masses, it seemed not to require any real idea, such as had served to gather and hold together every other mass movement in history. Resentments, feelings of protest of the day and hour … replaced the integrative effect of an idea, in conjunction with a gift of handling crowds that made use of every technique of psychological manipulation.
–JOACHIM FEST, "The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership"

For many years, I used to harbor mixed feelings about Leni Riefenstahl’s films. That continuum ranged quite widely, from visceral revulsion to a grudging admiration for her most well-known works: Triumph of the Will, her poetic and dramatic record of the spectacular 1934 Nuremberg rally, and Olympiad, her cinematic hymn to the beautiful bodies of the athletes who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

I remember seeing the films during the 1970s, when cinema historians and journals were beginning to suggest that the power, the technical daring, and the aesthetic achievements of Riefenstahl’s work should be considered separately from its role as National Socialist propaganda. I recall, even then, finding long stretches of her films almost unbearably dull, probably unwatchable if I hadn’t been watching Nazis. The procession of the Olympic teams parading past Hitler’s reviewing stand seemed endless, despite some fleeting interest in the athletes’ haberdashery and national costumes. The Americans sport jaunty white straw boaters, the Egyptians fezzes; the Italians wear black shirts and white pants, while the German angels of Nordic purity are clothed entirely in white.

If one knows enough about the Games, it’s possible to catch the (at best) mild tension generated by the amount of applause each team gets, and by what they do when they pass the Führer; honor him with the Nazi salute, right arm stretched straight ahead, or pointedly give the Olympic salute, right arm to the side. The Bulgarians opt for the Nazi, the French for the Olympic, while the Americans put their straw hats over their hearts and turn their eyes, though not their faces, in the direction of Hitler.

Also both films seemed to me then –and seem even more so now– marred by passages so supremely kitschy that they would seem comical in almost any other context. Hitler’s airplane breaking through the clouds, ta da!, its shadow (like the shadow of a crucifix, or of Superman) skittering over the picturesque rooftops of Nuremberg as he arrives in the medieval German city to assume his rightful place in the pantheon of great Teutonic emperors. The chiseled faces, in close-up, as the recruits boldly shout out the geographic roll call, each calling out the area from which he has come –Bavaria! Friesland! Silesia! Dresden!– regions and states about to be united forever in peace and harmony under the thousand-year Reich. One people, one Führer, one Reich, Germany! Everybody’s here. The theatrically lit naked runner bearing the Olympic torch against a background of scudding clouds, the equally muscular, equally naked discus thrower crouched and swiveling back and forth, like a cross between a mechanical toy and body-builder porn. The darling little girl presenting a bouquet of flowers to the beloved Führer. Let the children come unto me. Practically like Jesus.

So what, then, did I admire? The accomplished and ingenious filmmaking that inspired the editors of the French film journal Cahiers du cinema to feature an interview with Riefenstahl in 1965, an article in which she denied, as she would deny throughout her long life, that her films were propaganda. The virtues that impressed me were probably among those that led the organizers of a film festival in Colorado in 1974 to invite Riefenstahl as their guest of honor. It was difficult not to respect the unusual courage and achievement that caused some 1970s feminist cineastes to include Riefenstahl among the important female filmmakers ignored, overlooked, and buried by history: yet another hapless victim of the prejudices of male hegemony. Look what she accomplished–a woman, in Germany, back then!

Try as I might, I can no longer see the beauty that overlays the horror; all I can see is the horror.

In fact, one has to give Riefenstahl credit for engineering such a successful and rapid ascent from her modest beginnings as a not very good dancer performing onstage to a starring role in the “Alpine films” in which she played innocent, pure-blooded mountain girls climbing bare-footed in skimpy outfits to the craggy summit of dizzying, terrifying peaks. With their emphasis on racial and moral purity, individual heroism, and the nobility of the Fatherland’s unspoiled natural landscape, these films were proto-fascist; The Holy Mountain inspired one right-wing newspaper to write, in capital letters, “This way, German film, to the holy mountain of your rebirth and that of the German people!” Riefenstahl made her directorial debut on one such film, The Blue Light, in which she also starred, as the half-wild creature Junta, the sole secret guardian of the crystal that shines its (also pure, also ennobling) light from high on the mountainside down onto the valley below.

Already a fan of Mein Kampf, Riefenstahl attended a 1932 rally in Berlin, after which she described her response to Hitler as “like being struck by lightning… . It seemed as if the earth’s surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.” Not long afterward, she wrote a letter to Hitler, who had greatly enjoyed her Alpine films–the film she danced in, as well as the one she directed. He summoned her to a meeting at which he told her that when the Nazis came to power, “You must make my films.” She would claim that he also made a half-hearted sexual advance, but Hitler scholars tend to agree that this seems doubtful.

Reading Steven Bach’s 2007 biography, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, and watching Ray Müller’s excellent 1993 documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, you sense that what drove her was neither fascist ideology nor German nationalism but an almost demonic personal and professional ambition. Her anti-Semitism was aroused not by an ideal of racial purity but by instances when she felt that Jews –the so-called “Jewish press”– didn’t value her talent. When The Blue Light got negative reviews, she is reported to have said, “What do these Jewish critics understand about our mentality? They have no right to criticize our work.”

One feels that she would have consorted with anyone, done anything that anyone asked her to do if she thought it might help her rise to become a more famous, successful, and powerful director. In Müller’s documentary, she lingers momentarily over the phrase “pact with the devil,” then quickly goes on to say about Hitler, “We could only see one side of him, not that terrible dangerous side.”

If what Riefenstahl wanted was the funding, access, and equipment to create a cinematic extravaganza, she certainly got it from Hitler and from his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, whom Riefenstahl claimed to have despised. The hatred, she insisted, was mutual, but Goebbels’s journals refer to pleasant social evenings in one another’s company, at the opera and so forth.

Aided by a talented staff, Riefenstahl found original and ingenious solutions to the problems and challenges of filming colossal public events. Cameras were mounted on high towers and sent up in balloons; torches were lit and relit; pits dug so that the athletes could be filmed, from below against the background of the bright sky and the decorative clouds. A circular track was built around Hitler, allowing the camera to film him from a range of angles, so that his speeches (there were four at the Nuremberg rally) would not, as Riefenstahl feared, become “boring.”

For a long time I admired Riefenstahl’s instinct for the visual: for lighting, editing, montage, camera angles. I respected the organizational skill, the energy, the creativity, the confidence, and the physical endurance that went into the making of a film with, as Bach describes, “a production staff or more than 170, including sixteen cameramen and sixteen camera assistants operating hand-cranked cameras.” In addition, “nine aerial photographers supplemented those on the ground, as did another twenty-nine cameramen from the newsreel divisions of Germany’s Ufa and Tobis film companies… . A technical staff of ten was complemented by a lighting crew of seventeen, two full-time still photographers (one of them personal), twenty-six drivers, thirty-seven watchmen and security guards, a sound crew of thirteen … and, to ensure ideological integrity, the staff accommodated Dr. Herbert Seehofer, propaganda consultant of the National Socialist Party.”

In the same way, I admired the unlikeliness of the heights to which Riefenstahl rose in the profoundly misogynistic culture of National Socialism to become the only female member of the leader’s inner circle who wasn’t someone’s wife or mistress. It seems inexplicable now, to have admired a woman for being a friend of Hitler’s, but all of that was somehow a little abstract, even unreal, despite my having been fully aware of the horrors that Hitler had perpetrated.

I admired all the things that Riefenstahl herself admired about her work, and that apparently continued to give her pleasure throughout her long life. In Müller’s documentary, she watches Triumph of the Will on an old-fashioned reel-to-reel editing machine. By then in her nineties, fully alert, gifted with a prodigious (if selective) memory for names and detail, physically agile and frequently contentious, Riefenstahl smiles as she regards her own footage. She points out how good she was with the color range and gray tones, as well as her “feeling for the links between images.” She describes her hope that the film would resemble “a musical composition,” with a “continuous build-up” leading to a dramatic climax. Her eyebrows lift and her face glows with satisfaction, darkening only briefly when she denies, yet again, that the film was a work of propaganda.

She seems to believe that the entire difference between art and propaganda is voice-over narration. A narrator is propaganda. No narrator is art. Without “a commentator to explain everything” it’s art. “If it were a propaganda film, there would have been a commentator to explain the significance.” When the interviewer gently reminds her that she has been accused of glorifying the Nazis, she considers this for a beat, then says, “Those people should have tried making the film themselves.”

Of course, I knew that Triumph of the Will was a work of propaganda, and yet I had always found myself, despite myself, admiring what first-rate propaganda it was: how stirring, how persuasive, how dramatic, how powerfully –if bizarrely– affecting. The beauty of those young determined faces, lit by flickering torchlight; the monumentality of those columns of men marching in perfect precision; the pageantry of those billowing flags; the romantic drama of those night shots. The scariness of those uniformed men doing a kind of mass ballet holding rectangular shovels as props, everyone flipping them, front to back, like Busby Berkeley dancers or the Rockettes in hell. What was it that allowed them to make us imagine these presumably innocent farm tools repurposed as the most brutal sort of weapon?

I knew that Olympiad was a celebration of the Nazi ideal of physical perfection, and yet I found myself responding to the grace of the divers, springing off the high boards, their bodies abstracted to resemble Deco representations of birds in flight. A friend says that even if you manage to remove what you know about the historical circumstances surrounding the production from your “pure” reaction to the film, you would still know that Olympiad is one long lie–a lie about the body.

In a 1975 New York Review of Books essay, an article highly critical of Riefenstahl and her work, Susan Sontag acknowledged the excellence of the director’s method and technique: “Triumph of the Will [is] the most successfully, most purely propagandistic film ever made,” and she added that alongside a “detached appreciation of Riefenstahl” was “a response, whether conscious or unconscious, to the subject itself, which gives her work its power. Triumph of the Will and Olympiad are undoubtedly superb films (they may be the two greatest documentaries ever made)… . With Riefenstahl’s work, the trick is to filter out the noxious political ideology of her films, leaving only their ‘aesthetic’ merits.” And the narrator of Müller’s documentary calls Triumph of the Will “the best propaganda film of all time.”

Over the years, I’ve told students that Riefenstahl’s films are lessons in the dangers of sentimentality – in the ways in which our reason, our intellect, and common sense can be disarmed and overridden by appeals to our emotions and the limbic part of our brain. I know I am seeing young S.S. recruits, and yet each time I see the film I find myself thinking of something that the photographer Lilo Raymond told me. Having grown up in Hitler’s Germany, the daughter of a Jewish mother and the high-ranking Nazi father who helped Lilo and her mother escape, she used to laugh, and her accent seemed to thicken, when, in a wondering, only half-ironic tone, she recalled the soldiers in the parades as being “so good looking.

All that was what I used to feel about Leni Riefenstahl, what I used to let myself think. How awful … and how beautiful. How criminal … and how powerful. What an extraordinary work of propaganda. It was part of a terrible history, but it was also sort of abstract, as Riefenstahl meant it to be. Abstract propaganda must be the scariest kind; a distorted image or design gets past the censors of the intelligence and operates directly on the lower parts of the brain; the swastika is an example of how well that process can function.

Whether or not we think of them as art, Riefenstahl’s films share certain qualities in common with art. Among them is the ability to appear to change, to shape-shift depending on the age we are and the historical moment when we experience it.

Her films look entirely different to me, watching them in 2018, from the way they did decades earlier. The fear that our country may be drifting toward fascism means that appreciating the aesthetic appeal of fascist art has come to seem like a luxury I can no longer afford. Try as I might, I can no longer see the beauty that overlays the horror; all I can see is the horror. I can no longer experience the transgressive thrill of something I know to be evil; it’s as if that ability –that capacity– has been taken away from me, leaving only the shock and awe.

Long before we entered this so-called “post-truth” era, I’ve been fascinated by lies and liars: the casual, the compulsive, the pathological. Many writers share that interest, perhaps because what liars do vaguely resembles what novelists do: we create fictions, we make things up. But even the most cynical artist, the most jaded lover of art retains a respect for the truth, and much art represents an attempt to say something true – about the world, about human nature, about the act of picking up a paintbrush or a camera, putting words on paper.

Leni Riefenstahl was fantasist, a lifelong liar. She lied about her biography, her motives, her creative process. Consequently, she was the natural choice –the perfect candidate– to serve as the most visible, celebrated, and enduring of the dozens of filmmakers involved in creating the lies that fueled Hitler’s propaganda machine. Bach’s biography, Müller’s documentary, Sontag’s essay, and Riefenstahl’s own memoir, Leni, are, in part, compendiums and catalogues of the lies she told. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Müller’s consistently interesting film is the chance to watch Leni Riefenstahl lying her head off from the start of the three-hour film to the finish.

She claims to have been forced by Hitler to make films for the Nazis. “I didn’t want to take on this terrible workload … but … it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to get out of it.” She agreed to make Triumph of the Will only “if he promised me that I would never have to make another film for the Third Reich,” but she soon directed Olympiad, so either Hitler broke his promise, or (more likely) such a promise was never extracted, except perhaps in her mind. She lied about her mother’s identity –there was speculation that her mother might have been Jewish– and falsely claimed that her grandfather’s second wife was her mother. She lied about having been the object of Hitler’s sexual advances and reported that she once comforted a weeping Führer in a time of great need; she lied about Goebbels’s attempts to destroy her. She exaggerated her role in the making of the Alpine films and lied about the filming of Victory of Faith, an earlier rally film that was a sort of rehearsal for Triumph of the Will. As Bach reports, “Though she was adamant about the purely documentary nature of her work, she staged scenes in a studio after the rally was finished… . Orators were relit and speeches re-photographed… . Tracking shots … were made and cut into the finished film with barely detectable differences in lighting.” Victory of Faith was full of mistakes, from all of which Riefenstahl had learned by the time she arrived in Nuremberg.

Sontag quotes the jacket copy on a volume of Riefenstahl’s photos of the Nuba tribe in Africa, sentences that, Sontag suggests, were probably written by Riefenstahl herself. “Except for the bit about her once having been a household word, in Nazi Germany, not one part of the above is true.” Riefenstahl denied that she witnessed a mass murder in the Polish town of Konskie, but there is a photograph of her at the site, watching the massacre happen. In Müller’s documentary, Riefenstahl claims to have been “appalled” when she learned, after the war, about the concentration camps. She insists that she was never a Nazi, and complains about the “character assassination” to which she was subjected, the “terrible things” that were said about her during the postwar period.

Among the charges leveled against her was the accusation that she used Gypsies from the Maxglan concentration camp as extras in the making of her film Tiefland, which was set in Spain and needed a supporting cast of extras who could pass for Spaniards. When the filming was over, she returned them to the camp; the majority were later deported to Auschwitz, and only a few returned alive.

Though Riefenstahl claimed that she had never visited Maxglan, Bach notes that “a number of Gypsies who worked on the film and survived Auschwitz later testified that they had first seen her at Maxglan… . In choosing her extras, they said, she used her thumb and forefingers to ‘frame’ their faces as if looking through a view finder… . A Gypsy boy named Josef Reinhardt, then thirteen, recalled overhearing her tell an official, ‘I can’t take these people like this; they need to be re-clothed.’”

In Riefenstahl’s memoir, she recalls these events somewhat differently: “Irresponsible journalists claimed that I had personally obtained the gypsies from a concentration camp and used them as ‘slave laborers.’ The truth is that the camp from where our gypsies were selected … was not a concentration camp at that time. I myself couldn’t be there as I was location-hunting in the Dolomites. The gypsies, both adults and children, were our favorites, and we saw nearly all of them again after the war. They said that working with us had been the loveliest time of their lives, though no one compelled them to make this statement.”

I can’t read this in the same way I did when the memoir was published in 1992; I can’t watch Müller’s film the same way I did the following year. At the time I was at once horrified, detached, and enraptured by the spectacle of a woman perjuring herself for 650 pages and a three-hour film. And I can’t watch her films the same way. These days they simply give me the creeps, the horrors undiluted by admiration.

Now that we live in a country led by a liar, now that we are surrounded by lies, now that the newspapers keep count of the lies our president tells and the president accuses journalists of lying, I’ve lost whatever was left of the ironic detachment I once had. Leni Riefenstahl and her work seem like warnings, like a nightmare vision of a possible future–a world to which we could wake up one day and find all around us. I keep coming back to what Riefenstahl’s boss, Joseph Goebbels, said: “Propaganda has nothing to do with truth! … That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad whichever fails to achieve the desired result, however intelligent it is, for it is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success. Therefore no one can say your propaganda is too rough, too mean… . It ought not to be decent, nor ought it to be gentle or soft or humble; it ought to lead to success.”

And I can’t help wondering how close that is to what our leaders think now.

As I write this, there are children in the shelters on our southwest border and scattered, some apparently missing or lost, across the country, just as there were children in the camp at Maxglan, from which Riefenstahl chose her “Spanish” extras. I am grateful to those Americans who have a conscience and compassion, and who are, as I write this, still preventing our leaders from convincing the rest of the nation that the sufferings of children count for nothing compared to yet another fanatic’s wicked, hollow promise to make a country great.

Francine Prose is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic. Her over twenty works of fiction include Mister Monkey; Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932; My New American Life; and Blue Angel. She is a former president of the PEN America Center, and currently teaches writing at Bard College.
Originally published:
October 1, 2018


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