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Disingenuous Genius:
A Tribute to Leni Riefenstahl

[1]2,464 words

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 [2]) 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 [3] and Olympia [4] 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 [5] (released 1954). And Impressionen unter Wasser was, of course, the first film Leni had been able to make since Tiefland [5].

If one reads Leni’s memoirs or watches her interviews (such as those included in the fascinating The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl [6] 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 [8] 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 [10], 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.

[11]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.

[13]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 [14] under the title “Fascinating Fascism [15].” 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.

[16]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?

[17]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 [18], 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 [19] (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).

2.  Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (Vintage) [20] (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.