Leni Riefenstahl

As a change from the usual fare of economics and finance, I recently read  Jürgen Trimborn’s biography Leni Riefenstahl: A Life about Hitler’s favourite film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl was a highly controversial figure. Her films Triumph des Willen, chronicling the 1935 Nazi party rally in Nürnberg and Olympia, documenting the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were critically acclaimed around the world, but also served as propaganda for the Third Reich.

After the war, Riefenstahl was acquitted in de-Nazification trials, but for some years struggled to shake the taint of her association with Hitler and his regime. Over time she found much of the world shifting its attitudes towards her. As Trimborn observes:

The older she became, the more pronounced was the phenomenon of Riefenstahl’s “promotion to the status of a cultural monument,” as Susan Sontag described it in 1974. The critical disputes surrounding her receded further and further into the background, replaced by an enthusiastic, or at least respectful, tribute to Riefenstahl’s ceaseless vitality.

This vitality really was extraordinary. At the age of 71, she lied about her age, claiming to be twenty years younger in order to take a scuba-diving course and from there spent decades developing a new career as an underwater photographer. She died in 2003 at the age of 101.

But Trimborn argues that this fascination with Riefenstahl’s vitality was a distraction from the complexities of Riefenstahl’s character. His biography portrays a brilliant, driven woman who was also a narcissist and a liar, who spent most of her life denying her complicity with the Nazis. For instance, she spent the later years of the war working on a fiction feature, Tiefland. The exigencies of war stymied her plan to film in Spain, so instead she made use of gypsies from Nazi labour camps as extras. She later claimed to have seen her cast fit and well after the war, but later eyewitness testimony not only revealed that many had ended up in concentration camps like Dachau, but that Riefenstahl knew only too well what was happening.

Reading about Leni Riefenstahl is a good recipe for cognitive dissonance: the contradictions are hard to reconcile. Her documentaries were stylistically revolutionary, redefining the genre, and yet the content and the context are appalling. She was a gifted artists, but in many ways highly objectionable. But, who said the real world was simple?

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3 thoughts on “Leni Riefenstahl

  1. Magpie


    By now I suppose you know that I am essentially a pessimist.

    I think wars and extreme situations have the power to make evident things that otherwise, during more benign times, go unnoticed. It’s like these situations highlighted in starker contrast, brighter colors, what was always there in more subdued tones, and one did not perceive.

    It’s hard to explain, but look at Goya’s The 3rd of May:


    Extreme situations make characters like the guy who is about to be shot (arms extended and eyes open wide) more visible. And it’s not only the horrible, monstrous and cruel that acquire relief: the heroism, the ingenuity, generosity and dedication also become more visible during wars!

    In normal times, however, the same things exist, but fade in the background, like the two figures at the extreme left of the picture.

    That’s what people are: a complex mix of contradictory things.

  2. Stubborn Mule Post author

    @Magpie: you make an excellent point: true colours do tend to shine out under extreme circumstances. It’s a good perspective from which to view Riefenstahl (and, indeed, other enablers of the Third Reich).

  3. dan

    There were any number of artists (and others) who hitched their wagons to Hitler’s train. And in the Soviet Union, others who were happy to take Stalin’s ruble. And it has always been thus. Artists generally speaking need rich patrons, and meglamaniacal despots tend to be some of the better ones going round. A fortiori, Architects.

    The more interesting question – which can never really be resolved – is how do you treat, respond to, appreciate, the art of a seriously tainted artist. It is the Wagner/TS Eliot/Ezra Pound problem. Vicious anti-semites, and in the later case, Nazi-sympathiser and collaborator.

    In the case of artists, I think you can separate the personal views and behaviour of the artists from the work. So ultimately Wagner is performed by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/07/25/uk-israel-germany-music-idINLNE76O02420110725

    The case of Riefenstahl gets more intersting because her work was so overtly political and philosophically supportive of the Nazi party itself. I think in this regard she’s more like Heidegger, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidegger_and_Nazism) and she was right to be shunned after the war. She sold her soul to the devil – or gifted it – and no amount of artistic photographs of “primative” Nubians (and there was something creepy about that) would ever get it back.

    The most interesting comparison is between the career of Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marlene_Dietrich#World_War_II

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