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Disingenuous Genius:
A Tribute to Leni Riefenstahl

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Leni Riefenstahl would be 109 today, had she lived. And if she had lived to such an advanced age, I would hardly have been surprised. For a while it seemed that she was indestructible. She released her final film (Impressionen unter Wasser) the year before her death, when she was 100. It consisted entirely of color footage she had shot while deep-sea diving over the course of many years. She was certified as a scuba diver at age 72 – but had to lie about her age (she claimed she was 52).

Leni never lived down the fact that she made Triumph of the Will and Olympia for Hitler, and she was hounded and harassed until the day she died. Shortly before her death there was even talk that the German government intended to put her on trial because she had denied (as she always did) that gypsy concentration camp inmates had figured as extras in her film Tiefland (released 1954). And Impressionen unter Wasser was, of course, the first film Leni had been able to make since Tiefland.

If one reads Leni’s memoirs or watches her interviews (such as those included in the fascinating The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl documentary), one will be struck by her almost childishly clumsy attempts to disassociate herself from Hitler. She claimed, for example, that she was completely ignorant of politics; that she was almost forced to make Triumph of the Will; that she barely knew anyone in Hitler’s inner circle (even though we know that she saw them frequently); and that she abhorred the arch anti-Semite Julius Streicher (even though her friendship with him is well documented; they even addressed each other with the familiar du).[1]

Leni Riefenstahl with some casual acquaintances

If Leni wanted to exculpate herself (albeit disingenuously), why didn’t she simply take the course others did and say “I supported Hitler at first because I thought he was good for Germany. I was also overwhelmed and flattered by his attention and his offers of patronage. And yes, I did move in those circles. But I now see that I was wrong, blah, blah, blah. . .” ? Leni did say that meeting Hitler was the worst catastrophe of her life, but why did she lie about things so ineptly? Why did she put forth fabrications that could be so easily exposed? Earlier I used the adjective “childish” to describe her actions – and there is indeed something childishly egocentric about her. Leni seemed to lack any real self-consciousness about how she appeared to others and perhaps even about her own motivations.

But great men . . . Oops, I mean, great people usually have great flaws.

Leni and Arnold: A Love Story?

Another of Leni’s flaws was an inability to give credit to others who helped her or influenced her. And as a filmmaker, no one was a greater influence on Leni than Arnold Fanck. Derek Hawthorne has been writing a terrific series for Counter-Currents about the films Fanck made with Leni as star, and in his essay on The Holy Mountain, he tells us the story of how Leni and Arnold met in 1924.

Arnold Fanck in old age

Leni was 23 at the time and establishing a career for herself as a dancer. A knee injury threatened to cut that career short, however, and it was on her way to visit a specialist that she saw a poster for Fanck’s Der Berg des Schicksals at the Nollendorfplatz U-bahn station. Transfixed by the poster’s image of a mountain climber in a rather difficult spot, she immediately went to see the film. Then she travelled to the Dolomites to meet its star, Luis Trenker.

On meeting Trenker, Leni announced that she would be co-starring with him in his next film. This was typical of her – and when she set her mind on something she usually got her way. The egotistical Trenker, who probably feared being upstaged by Leni, was not encouraging. On her return to Berlin, Leni’s financial backer Harry Sokal arranged a meeting for her with Arnold Fanck. They met one afternoon at a café on the Kurfürstendamm. Fanck said little, and Leni assumed she had not made a good impression. In reality, Fanck was head over heels in love. He wrote to Trenker that Leni was “the most beautiful woman in Europe” and would soon be “the most famous woman in Germany.”

Leni then went into the hospital to undergo (successful) knee surgery. While there she received a visit from Fanck, who brought her a film script inscribed with the words “The Holy Mountain: Written for the Dancer Leni Riefenstahl.” He had written it in three days. Once Leni was fully recovered, she traveled to Freiburg to stay with Fanck. She herself said that he became her intellectual mentor.

Leni claimed that she rejected Fanck’s advances (which, by her account, were constant). However, a recent biographer, Steven Bach, is not so sure.[2] Leni reports in her memoirs that love blossomed between her and Luis Trenker while making The Holy Mountain and that Fanck was insane with jealousy. She describes a fistfight breaking out between Trenker and Fanck, which only came to an end when she threatened to jump out a window. Leni even claims that Fanck made a (rather lame) suicide attempt.

It was from Fanck that Leni learned everything she knew about cinema. From the very beginning, on the set of The Holy Mountain (1926), Fanck expressed his love for Leni by proudly explaining to her all the facets of film-making. When she finally made her own film, The Blue Light, in 1932, Fanck re-edited the film for her. This enraged Leni, but she had to grudgingly admit that in many ways he had improved the film.

If one studies the films of Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl, the influence of the former on the latter is obvious. The Blue Light is, of course, a mountain film in its own way. Leni worked on her films with crews that were virtually identical to Fanck’s (e.g. cinematographers Hans Schneeberger and Sepp Allgeier). One need only view Fanck’s skiing sequences in The Holy Mountain to see how he influenced Leni’s documentary style in Olympia. The quick-cut style of Triumph of the Will, where the camera is almost always in motion, is also heavily influenced by Fanck’s technique. He was a master at capturing real events with an unsurpassed energy and immediacy. Fanck even mounted cameras on the ends of skis.

None of this is meant to take away credit from Leni – who was heavily influenced by Fanck, but never “copied” him. She was a brilliant filmmaker in her own right. And one of the most remarkable women of the twentieth century.

By the end of the Second World War, Fanck’s love for Leni seemed to have soured into hate. When she was on the lam from the allies and looking for someone to harbor her, she called Fanck – who flatly refused to have anything more to do with her. In later years, they both had few kind words to say about each other. Steven Bach reports an incident many years later in which Leni exploded at an American doctoral student who told her she had interviewed Fanck:

“Dr. Fanck will never tell you the truth even if he is speaking well about me. Never. He lies, one hundred per cent! You can’t believe one word of what he says. He’s a liar. Very bad!” Her voice rose in excoriation of Fanck’s talent, his vanity, his politics, his finances, his romantic life, and his ingratitude, climaxing in outrage at his “telling people that my mother was Jewish!” Her agitation was strident enough to provoke [partner Horst Kettner’s] alarm. “Is the [tape] machine still on?” he asked in panic, to which Leni shouted “I don’t care!”[3]

In all, Leni made six films with Fanck. The last was S.O.S. Iceberg (1933) – the subject, so I understand, of Derek Hawthorne’s next mountain film essay. She traveled to Greenland to make that film, carrying with her a copy of Mein Kampf and a framed photograph of Hitler.[4] Who knows? Perhaps Hitler had just asked her to deliver them to an Eskimo.

Plotting her Comeback

Other casual acquaintances

Leni was briefly imprisoned after the war.  She was subjected to a number trials and threats of trials, accused of breaking various ex post facto laws. She tried and tried again to relaunch her career as a filmmaker. Leni scored a small triumph in 1954 with the belated premiere of Tiefland (filmed a decade earlier). As mentioned earlier, Impressionen unter Wasser, released the year before Leni’s death, was the only other film she managed to make.

No one wanted to be associated with her. When Ray Müller made The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, he wanted to open the film with a series of brief interviews with major figures, all stating what the name “Riefenstahl” meant to them. All refused.

I have always wondered why Leni didn’t simply pull up stakes and go to Japan. In the far east, Hitler is used to sell noodles and the holocaust sounds like a great idea for a theme restaurant. Arnold Fanck actually made a film in Japan: 1937’s Die Tochter des Samurai. Leni could have made spectacular Japanese mountain films with huge casts of flag-bearing Samurai, à la Kurosawa. There are obvious difficulties with this, but it is still an appealing fantasy.

In later life, Leni tried to improve her reputation by photographing black people. This backfired on her, however, because they had fantastic bodies. To her credit, Leni never compromised her aesthetics; she never went in for the modern “ugly is the new beauty” aesthetic. Consequently, no one was fooled. The odious Susan Sontag certainly wasn’t. In 1974 she reviewed Leni’s The Last of the Nuba under the title “Fascinating Fascism.” Sontag accused her of perpetuating the fascist “cult of beauty.” It became apparent to everyone, including Leni, that there was simply no way to win the critics over.

In the last years of her life, however, more balanced treatments of Leni began to appear. The most significant of these was Ray Müller’s documentary (released in Germany under the more dignified title Die Macht der Bilder). For those who have not seen it, this film is a real treat.

It is predominantly quite fair to Leni, though Müller includes revealing, raw footage of her arguing with him and others. At one point she flies into a rage, insisting that it is impossible for her to walk and talk at the same time! On another occasion, dissatisfied with the light in which Müller intends to shoot one scene, she grabs him and begins shaking him and shrieking. To me, these scenes are more amusing than anything else. To the flat-souled, the simpleminded, and the bourgeois, they are images of a nasty old woman. Actually, they merely depict the typical volatility and perfectionism of a great artist.

Predictably, Leni hated Müller’s film when it was released in 1993. However, when the film met with acclaim and renewed interest in her work, Leni softened on Müller and they developed an uneasy friendship. Sometime later, Müller accompanied her and Horst Kettner to the Sudan for a reunion with the Nuba (now forced by their Muslim overlords to cover up). For Ray Müller the visit provided a memorable glimpse into Leni’s soul. Steven Bach writes:

Shortly after their arrival, as Müller took a break from filming and Leni was chatting up a cluster of aged Nuba, he heard an outcry. He looked up, alarmed to see Leni charging furiously toward him. She had just inquired after two of her oldest Nuba friends. Told they were dead, she began to weep, when she suddenly realized Müller’s cameras were idle. He had missed the dramatic moment, her emotion, and the proper angle to capture tears running down her face. Her fury mounted as she berated him and then stalked away, shaking with rage and frustration. . . . She relented, giving him one last chance to rectify his inexcusable ineptitude with his cameras. She returned to the cluster of old man and, missing not a beat, repeated her inquiry, her shock, and her tears as if the moment were spontaneity itself.[5]

Equally endearing is Müller’s story about the helicopter crash that occurred shortly thereafter. Leni suffered broken ribs, an injured back, and various cuts and bruises. She was unconscious for several days. When she awakened, she asked Müller if he had photographed her being pulled from the wreckage. When she learned that he had not, she asked if it might be possible to re-create the incident using special effects.

You’ve just got to love her. An artist to the end.

Why They Couldn’t Forgive Leni

Other artists who had worked for Hitler (like Arno Breker) fared much better than Leni did and continued to work. Why did Leni have it so hard in the post-war years?

Perhaps it’s because Triumph of the Will was simply too good. It was not just a great propaganda film, it was a great film, period. A great work of cinematic art, which set a new standard in documentary film-making and has since been endlessly imitated. Leni could not be forgiven for producing a great work of art for the Nazis. But, of course, Breker’s sculptures were also great works of art, and he continued to work until the day he died, producing portraits of Anwar Sadat and Konrad Adenauer, among others. So something more is involved, I think.

If I can be forgiven for a moment for sounding like a feminist, I think it has to do with the fact that Leni was a woman. Female film directors are a very rare breed, and for one to produce several genuinely great films (The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will, and Olympia) is an even greater rarity. By all rights, Leni ought to be a feminist goddess, but of course she had the wrong politics. That history’s only great female filmmaker was a Nazi just doesn’t sit well with the Left.

Since Leni’s existence couldn’t be denied, they simply had to make it as miserable as possible.


1. See Jürgen Trimborn, Leni Riefenstahl: A Life, trans. Edna McCown (Faber and Faber, 2007). Trimborn’s book is highly critical of Riefenstahl, but there is no reason to believe that the evidence he cites is somehow fabricated. For Leni’s own account of her life, see Leni Riefenstahl, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).

2.  Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (Vintage) (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). Bach is also harshly critical of Riefenstahl, but like Trimborn he backs up his claims with documentary evidence.

3. Bach, 279.

4. Trimborn, 60.

5. Bach, 292.


  1. karsten
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    The “feminist” bit at the end of this article is sickening. It makes the author sound like he’s trying to appear fashionably “modern” and thus, wittingly or unwittingly, raise his cachet by fitting into the Jew-created contemporary paradigm. The tough times that Riefenstahl faced after the war had nothing to do with her sex. But for an author even here to invoke this fashionable “ism” shows how deeply the poison of cultural Marxism (of which feminism is one branch, and probably the most odious one) has penetrated.

    Did Breker really have it better? I don’t think so. At least Riefenstahl’s Third Reich films still exist. They’re even available on DVD. Most of Breker’s Third Reich-era sculptures were destroyed after the war, certainly the grander ones. That seems much the worse fate — his art has been lost. And you cannot say that “It’s okay, because photographs of the sculptures exist.” That would be the equivalent of a case where Riefenstahl’s films had been destroyed (every print), but only a few posters and stills had survived. IMO, Riefenstahl fared better than Breker.

    Also, I reject the assertion that Riefenstahl made “childishly clumsy attempts to disassociate herself from Hitler.” I’ve seen the Müller film many times over the years, and I think her argument about the aesthetic independence of the artist from politics is a sound one, neither childish nor clumsy, and whether I agree with her premise or not, I think her contention has merit and is a defensible position. I find it much braver than if she had taken the author’s prescribed, facile, “But I now see that I was wrong” stance.

    Remember: Müller had editorial control over his film, and everyone knows how that can be used to skew the presentation of an individual. Müller could hardly have allowed Riefenstahl to appear even more persuasive without having his own career destroyed, even if he’d wanted to do so, and I find no reason to believe he did. So who knows what arguments Riefenstahl made that were left on the cutting-room floor?

    But despite having the editing of the film working against her, I think she gamely fought back against Müller’s standard Leftist insistence that the artist must be “politically responsible.” She responded with words to the effect of “What does ‘political responsibility’ mean, and to whom is the artist ‘responsible’? Even consider politics today — how can we know which politician assures us of the best future?” I was pretty young when I saw the Müller film, and was certainly not pro-NSDAP at the time, but even then I thought that Riefenstahl’s statement questioning the “political responsibility” dogma was a good rebuttal. By saying so, she actually made a better defense of art itself than if she had taken the easy post-hoc denunciation tack, and even opened the door, ever so slightly to a defense of Hitler — more so than if she had said. “But I now see that I was wrong.”

    Müller argues in the film that it is, in fact, Riefenstahl’s refusal to renounce her NSDAP work that actually gave her the most trouble after the war. I agree. IMO, it was indeed that, and not any feminist claptrap about her being a woman, that made her postwar artistic life difficult. But it is also the greatest testament to her artistic integrity.

    • Jef Costello
      Posted August 22, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Well, you’ve completely misunderstood my conclusion.

      My point was that the feminist Left found it intolerable that the only great female filmmaker in history happened to be a Nazi. I was not suggesting that “sexism” was somehow involved in Leni’s post-war difficulties. Leni committed the unpardonable sin of being a great, independent woman who did not fit the feminist paradigm: she was a right-winger.

      You also miss the point of my remarks about her inept attempts to disassociate herself from the Nazis. I completely agree with you that Leni was right to argue for “the aesthetic independence of the artist from politics.” The trouble is that she also lied about the extent of her involvement with the Nazis, her friendships, the circumstances under which she made her films for Hitler, and her political views. And the lies she told were often highly implausible and easily exposed. I thought I had made this point very clear.

  2. Petronius
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    >”Leni did say that meeting Hitler was the worst catastrophe of her life, but why did she >lie about things so ineptly? Why did she put forth fabrications that could be so easily >exposed?”

    That will be clearer if you become more familiar with what the Germans call “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (“Coming to terms with the past”), which has been the country’s cultural guiding star for decades. Its history is quite complex, but I will explain it to you in a nutshell here: first a public climate of social pressure was created that made it impossible for people to speak honestly about their experiences under Hitler and during the war, and then the same people were being accused of being hypocrites. So a lose-lose situation was created. Two jaws of the same pincer. A kind of blackmail that has been serving as a convenient political tool until this day. This is for sure one of the reasons prominent people refused to acknowledge her in front of Müller’s camera: they were very likely afraid to get a bashing.

    Leni was being accused of “denial” until the very end, and that was partly true. Only, if she had indeed been honest, the same thing would have happened, because she wouldn’t have followed the official “shame and blame”-line of what to think or say about the Third Reich. So to some degree I understand why she stubbornly hid in her nutshell and her mind bunker, and even that she decided to “wash” her memory. It was a refusal to be broken and being made jump through the hoop. Out there everybody was lurking to catch her saying something naughty that could be used to disgrace and scapegoat her. Some of her denial tactics and blatant excuses made her an easy target, but on the other hand it finally worked out for her. She grew an elephant’s skin, became a cult figure and is generally quite revered and acknowledged today in Germany. A “differentiated” view of her has become the mainstream, and you can be an outspoken Riefenstahl fan without being accused of being a Nazi (though you might get a few certain looks).

    Also mind this: show people are usually always an opportunist bunch by nature and by professional requirements. They live on audience popularity so they can hardly afford to go against the grain of the zeitgeist. Movie people need general approval of the society they live in, as movies are very expensive to be made.

    >”On another occasion, dissatisfied with the light in which Müller intends to shoot one >scene, she grabs him and begins shaking him and shrieking.”

    “I will tell you everything you want to know, but not in that shitty light!”, haha!

    >”Why did Leni have it so hard in the post-war years?”

    I agree that this had a lot to do with her being a) a woman and b) being brilliant. Both made her a far attractive and so to speak “glamourous” scapegoat than many others who were more “responsible”. The less talented Veit Harlan, who under Goebbels did far “worse” stuff than she, was able to continue his career with a dozen (mostly forgetable) movies throughout the fifties. Still, he was an interesting and exceptional director enough that until this day he is being discussed in movies, books, articles etc. It is only the talented ones that get the bashing. That adds the spice to bashing, and ensures attention for the basher. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” is one of those things that provided an irresistible opportunity for the talentless and small souls to drag down people who really have achieved something, and get public applause for doing so. Any idiot could pick up the “Nazi mace” and wipe his shoes on Leni and Harlan or Heidegger, Schmitt and Jünger etc, and be sure someone would pat him on the back for that.

    In the late nineties German left wing feminist icon Alice Schwarzer of all people wrote very sympathetically about Leni, and discovered the “feminist” aspect of her career. That was another huge step of making her more “mainstream” accepted.

  3. john sumner
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I do wish that Leni Riefenstahl had been more like Hannah Reitsch, and had not chosen to distance herself from and disparage the National Socialists and Third Reich Germany. Still, despite this and her less than admirable personal quirks, I adore her. Das Blaue Licht and Triumph des Willens are two of the most beautiful and amazing motion pictures I have ever seen. She was a true genius.

  4. Fourmyle of Ceres
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for a wonderful commentary. I do have an alternative perspective on one issue you addressed.

    jef Costello in blockquote:

    If I can be forgiven for a moment for sounding like a feminist, I think it has to do with the fact that Leni was a woman. Female film directors are a very rare breed, and for one to produce several genuinely great films (The Blue Light, Triumph of the Will, and Olympia) is an even greater rarity.

    Might another issue be that she was simply, transcendentally “great,” in the highest and best meaning of the term? Given film technology that was available after the War, she could have created much more visually impressive films, that all – ALL – revolve around he metatheme of the inherent greatness of the Volk. Look at her mountain films. The cloud scenes are so riveting, and so compelling, it almost as if you are gazing into the vaguely discerned foundations of Higher Realms, and are being called Forward to see more deeply, more clearly, into the world where Solutions may be discerned.

    By all rights, Leni ought to be a feminist goddess, but of course she had the wrong politics. That history’s only great female filmmaker was a Nazi just doesn’t sit well with the Left.

    I understand that Jodie Foster is considering doing a film about Leni. It just may be that Jodi herself will portray Leni in the film. That pretty much takes care of the feminist creds! Maybe she can get Clint Eastwood, of “Eiger Sanction” fame, to appear in the mountain films phase. Maybe she can get Mel Gibson in there, too, say, during the Olympia sequence! He could, I don’t know, play someone announcing the opening of the Games. Or something.

    “Do I feel lucky?” Why, yes. Yes, I do.

    What’s In YOUR Future? Focus Northwest!

  5. Fourmyle of Ceres
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Helvena in blockquote:

    It may just be the way my mind works, but to me a poor attempt to distance herself from the Nazis may really have been no attempt at all.

    Very astute. In one of his broadcasts, Harold Covington noted that the same pattern can be seen in “Inside the Third Reich.” Get rid of the gratuitous criticism, which is exaggerated and appears out of context, and you can see the author’s true deep and profound admiration for what Uncle Adolf formed in the NSDAP Cultural Moment.

    What’s In YOUR Future? Focus Northwest!

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