The author with her presentation poster

Propaganda through Riefenstahl's Lens:
Exploring the International Cinematic Effects of Leni Riefenstahl

by Celia Soudry
June 2004

student research paper for
UCSB History 133P, Spring 2004 (papers index page),
Prof. Marcuse (Courses page; homepage)

Introducing Leni p. 1
Olympia as a Representation of Politicized Olympic Games p. 1
A Cinemato-grapher is born
p. 3
Triumph of the Will (1935)
p. 4
Olympia 1936-38 and the Olympic Games
The Funding of Olympia p.5
Leni's US Tour
p. 6
p. 7
p. 8

Introducing Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) (back to top)

From the initial stages of Leni Riefenstahl's career, her eyes were fixed on Hollywood and establishing an American-German cinematic connection. Her 1936 film Olympia proved to be a symbol of propaganda for Germany. Despite Riefenstahl's efforts to portray the film as a depiction of real Olympic values, Hollywood ultimately rejected it. For instance, Riefenstahl was invited to Hollywood [*by whom?] to star in a 1932 German-American Arnold Fanck film. She accepted the offer and, as she wrote in her 1993 memoir, expressed "the hope that the American version might help to establish my reputation in the United States."[1] It becomes evident in Riefenstahl's memoir that from early on in her cinematic career she attempted to create an American connection with the primary goal of penetrating Hollywood. However, once she began to work for the Nazis in 1933, the Hollywood industry and American media rejected her advances. For example, they saw her 1938 so-called "documentary" of the Olympic games as a display of German nationalism and Nazi propaganda. Furthermore, Hitler supported and encouraged Riefenstahl's effort to create that film because he saw the prospects that it could bring to his "new Germany."

Olympia as a Representation of Politicized Olympic Games (back to top)

Olympia, known for its innovative style of camera angles and at least 30-person camera crew, became an icon for sports filmmaking, highlighting Riefenstahl's signature low-angle and underwater camera shots. Olympia captured audiences, not only because of the controversies due to its Ministry of Propaganda affiliation, but for its risky and creative film expressions. In the late 1930's Olympia was a highly demanded product as witnessed in its European tour.

During Olympia's European tour from April to October 1938, the film premiered in Berlin, Munich, Zurich, and Vienna, where it received the National film prize for 1937-1938.[2][HM: were there NO reports about this at all in the US??] Cooper C. Graham, in his analysis Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia, presents the interesting argument that Olympia had been given the film prize even before its public release, and that it should have been given the film prize for the 1938-1939 year instead. Graham postulates that "the reason for this rush can only be attributed to the wish to keep film propaganda rolling prior to the film's release in Germany and in Europe."[3] [HM: counterargument: she took so long to finish it--Muller's documentary shows that convincingly--that early versions could have been viewed by test audiences]

Although the film was an acclaimed success in Germany and other countries throughout Europe, it was received negatively in the United States. One factor [*the main factor? were there others??] that came into play was the November 9, 1938 pogrom of Jewish shops in Germany, known as Kristallnacht. While U.S. news reports were coming out with information signaling the virulence of German anti-Semitism, Leni was attempting to promote a film idealizing the Germans through athletics. As stated by New York Times reporter Frederick T. Birchall in August 1936, "this Olympic film is to be propaganda for Germany."[4] Americans perceived Olympia as Riefenstahl's opportunity to create a skewed vision of the Germans and to further support Hitler's concept of the 'Aryan race.'

The Olympic Games are traditionally defined as an arena in which a diverse group of people compete together under the terms of peace and a mutual respect of moral principles. According to the Olympic Charter founder Pierre de Coubertin:

[t]he goal of the Olympic movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.[5]

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics this was not the case, for Hitler used the Games as an opportunity to transform Germans into sports gods through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl. This point is illustrated in a 1936 New York Times article about a planned boxing match between African-American champion Joe Louis and a German. The article criticized National Socialist racism and the discouragement and exclusion of Blacks in public athletic matches: "The Nazi authorities feel that Schmeling as an 'Aryan' and a representative of the Third Reich should not be fighting a Negro."[6] To the Nazis, the Olympics held a political meaning rather than an athletic one, and the victory symbolized a triumph of the Aryan race, rather than a shared respect for moral principles. The same article lays out the effects that Nazi political goals had in the arrangement of the Olympics. "The German Olympic committee in its propaganda has largely stripped the coming Olympics of their character as an athletic carnival. They have been presented to the public solemnly and reverently as a 'national responsibility.'"

Film historian David B. Hinton assesses that "For Riefenstahl, there was only one possible way to begin the film, and that was with a prologue that would bring the audience back into the days of ancient Greece and the origins of the Olympic Games."[7] The film converts the German decathlon champion Huber into the Greek Myron statue, through a dissolving dreamlike sequence. Riefenstahl's filming techniques gave the impression that the athletes were equivalent to Greek gods. This expression alluded to the idea that during the late 1930's the Germans were a superior race.

A Cinematographer is born (back to top)

It is important to understand the film career of Leni Riefenstahl in order to examine the effects that her films had on Europe and the United States during the 1930's. Riefenstahl was not merely a filmmaker for the Third Reich, but a revolutionary symbol for the women's movement. She gained the admiration of many, including Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and other powerful Nazi authorities. Riefenstahl's films, regardless of what they stood for, reached the masses.

Riefenstahl began her career as a dancer when she appeared for her first on stage solo on October 23, 1923. She expressed a desire to direct as shown in her choreography of numerous dances, such as Die drei Tänze des Eros, Tanzmarchen, Lyrishe Tänze, Sommer, and Traumblüte. She proved herself to be a success in Munich and Berlin as noted in a 1923 review from the Münchener Zeitung newspaper. "Leni Riefenstahl brings with her to stage many of the important prerequisites for success."[8] Her career moved from dancing to acting when she responded to an advertisement for a movie about mountain climbing, titled Berg des Schicksals (Mountain of Destiny) in 1930.[9] Riefenstahl's acting career sky-rocketed when she began starring in Arnold Fanck's "Bergfilme" (Mountain Films), beginning with Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain) in 1925-26.[10] Her career as an actress gave her the tools and connections to pursue her ultimate goal of directing.

The first film that Riefenstahl directed, starred in, and produced was Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light). She created a film that symbolized attaining a goal, her goal, of becoming a prominent director. Riefenstahl had a fascination with powerful scenes, such as reaching the light, or in this case, the blue crystals. This fascination emerges in the following films: Victory of Faith, Triumph of the Will, and Olympia. Later in life Riefenstahl commented on the commercial success of Das Blaue Licht: "As if it were a premonition, The Blue Light told of my ultimate fate: Junta, the strange mountain girl living in a dream world, persecuted and driven out of society, dies because her ideals are destroyed."[*fn?]

The 1933 Victory of the Faith, a documentary of the fifth Nazi party rally, was the precursor to The Triumph, and the first film that Riefenstahl created for Hitler. She notes that "[w]hen I watched the film in a cinema I was anything but happy. What I saw was only a fragment, not a motion picture." Riefenstahl was dissatisfied with Victory of the Faith and wanted to create something that would make her into a star. The film that accomplished this goal of super-stardom was the 1935 Triumph of the Will, a film now viewed as the greatest propaganda message of all time. It includes speeches given by Hitler, as well as various pro-Nazi rallies and marches. Triumph of the Will was a pivotal part of Riefenstahl's film career in that it paved the way for the political power of cinema.

Riefenstahl took on Hitler's project with eagerness. As Goebbels states in his diary a week after the May 1933 book burning, "Afternoon. Leni Riefenstahl: she tells me about her plans. I suggest a Hitler film. She is very enthusiastic."[11] This confirmed Riefenstahl's genuine passion for creating Nazi propaganda.

"Triumph of the Will" (1935) (back to top)

The American anti-Nazi league expressed the rejection of Riefenstahl's Triumph from Hollywood in a 1939 Hollywood Tribune article stating, "[t]here is no room in Hollywood for Riefenstahl. There is no room in Hollywood for nazi-agents."[12] Riefenstahl created Triumph following the failed attempt of Walter Ruttmann, a Communist filmmaker-turned Third Reich member. Hitler rejected Ruttmanns' style of filmmaking, as Rolf Giesen, a historian of filmography, observes: Ruttmann's footage was filled "with shots of the frenzied German stock market in 1923, a flood of worthless money paper."[13] Hitler believed that Riefenstahl would attain his goal of displaying Germany's power and triumph over obstacles facing the country in the aftermath of World War I. Siegfried Kracauer compares the images of Hitler coming down from the clouds in The Triumph to "a reincarnation of All-Father Odin, whom the ancient Aryans heard raging with his hosts over the virgin forests."[14] Consequently, Riefenstahl demonstrates her ability to visually convert Hitler, a mortal man, into a god-like figure, giving the audience an image that was larger-than-life, as exemplified in Olympia.

Roger Russi analyzes Riefenstahl's filming techniques stating, "the [figures] stand larger than life, heads raised, looking down upon their respective empires--the mass parade and the herd of sheep grazing at the mountainside."[15] Leni used The Triumph as a stepping stone to produce films of her choice and obtained funding from Goebbels and the Third Reich. Additionally, she gained the trust and respect of her Nazi comrades, while leading them to believe that her next film would promote similar messages of German nationalism and Nazi ideology.

Olympia 1936-1938 and the Olympic Games (back to top)

Riefenstahl's inclination to support and promote Nazi propaganda would inevitably taint her documenting of the Olympic Games. Cooper C. Graham discusses how the history of Hitler's regime plays a key role in understanding the meaning of Olympia. He asserts that Nazi propagandists and National Socialists wanted the world to believe that Germany's objectives were strictly aimed towards peace and tranquility and would prevail, despite their economic and political hardships.

It is impossible to ignore the situation in Germany with the mass discrimination and torture of the Jews at the time of the Olympics and Riefenstahl's filming. Because the Games took place in the midst of Hitler's reign of terror, persecution, and widespread German nationalism, the environment in Berlin was quite different from the traditional Olympic setting, although the gory details were hidden from Germany's international visitors. Graham described Berlin as follows: "Olympic and Swastika banners were everywhere, and the crowd was so thick that it was expected that a million people would watch Hitler's ride along the Olympic way to the Stadium."[16] Hitler and the Third Reich invested in heavy preparations for the Olympics in the hope of leaving an impression on the world and gaining admiration from world leaders. In August 1936, just prior to the Games, The New York Times commented on the goals of German authorities in charge of the Olympic Games. The paper noted: "They seem likely to accomplish what the rulers of Germany have frankly desired from them, that is, to give the world a new viewpoint from which to regard the Third Reich…"[17]

The Funding of Olympia (back to top)

The aims of the National Socialist Party were contradictory to their actions. They wanted to prove to the world that Germany could produce the strongest athletes and display the country's progress since World War I. Consequently, their actions sabotaged their goals. They could not hide their racist ideology while excluding Jews from athletic teams. By 1935 it was no secret that there were no Jews practicing within German facilities. They exhibited these ideas about Blacks as well, as stated by the Völkischer Boebachter:

There is nothing for Negroes at the Olympics… The ancient Greeks would turn in their graves if they knew what modern man had made of their holy national games…The next games take place in Berlin in 1936… The Blacks must be excluded.[18]

Graham finds that there were two main figures in the organization of the Games, a non-political actor Dr. Carl Diem, and his Nazi counterparts, Von Schammer and Osten. Riefenstahl stands by the statement that she was only affiliated with non-political Dr. Diem and not his Nazi partners. Graham notes that contradictions exist in Riefenstahl's statements on the commissioning of the film by Hitler and her link to Dr. Diem.[19] Hitler developed a strong interest in Riefenstahl, hastily recruiting her for the film. In a contract for the production of Olympia, Reich Minister fur Volksaufklärung und Propaganda Goebbels ordered "1.5 million Reichmarks will be paid out to Fräulein Riefenstahl in the following amounts…" and then continued to split the commissioning into designated quantities.[20] Graham explains that Hitler appointed Riefentahl through the Ministry of Propaganda and was determined and excited to commission the film. In October, when the film had been given its official commission, Goebbels wrote, "contract with Leni Riefenstahl with reference to the Olympic Games approved."[21] It is clear, from the terms under which Hitler and Goebbels had with Riefenstahl, that the level of propaganda in the film played a crucial role in their final decision.

Riefenstahl assesses in her autobiography that Dr. Goebbels was interested in the film, wished to contribute to its financing, and expressed that if the film were a success "it would be good publicity to the Reich."[22] Thus Dr. Goebbels, standing as the leader of propaganda, allowed and encouraged Riefenstahl to ensure that these values were enforced in the messages of her film.

Ernst Jäger, a crucial actor that Cooper C. Graham includes in his research, was a friend to Riefenstahl's Press Chief of Olympia and editor of the popular German film trade journal, The Film Kurier. Graham explains that in 1937 Goebbels fired Jäger from the Film Kurier because of his Jewish wife and supposed "social democrat" status. Jäger played a crucial role in promoting Olympia, through German magazines such as the Film Kurier and Licht Bild Bühne. Riefenstahl then chose Jüger to accompany her to America, and to promote Olympia. It was during this trip that Jäger and Riefenstahl had a falling out. Thereafter, Jäger defected to America and wrote a series of articles for the Hollywood Tribune titled "How Leni Riefenstahl became Hitler's Girlfriend."[23]

Leni's US Tour (back to top)

Despite the success of Leni Riefenstahl's European tour, Americans did not welcome her with such benevolence. Although the 'new Germany' that the Olympians and American media saw was visually swamped with swastikas, the dark Nazi hatred and anti-Semitism was temporarily masked. It is important to understand that Hitler wanted the world to see Germany as a welcoming land that would bring the world prosperity and success, in order to recognize that the American perception of the Games was limited to displays of National Socialism. As described in a February 1936 New York Times article, "[w]hole streets of Garmisch and Partenkirchen are lined with huge swastika banners flying from poles erected by the municipality, and the swastika can be seen waving from every roof and draped from almost every balcony."[24] This article continues to illustrate doubts on German intentions, as it continues that the Propaganda Ministry "took the foreign press to task for not presenting conditions in Germany truthfully-that is, as the Nazis conceive the truth."[25] It is evident from the New York Times publications that the American press was questioning German motives for the Olympic Games prior to the commencement.

The actors in protest went under the name of Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League. They started a campaign against Riefenstahl on November 7, 1938, claiming that she was in America promoting pro-Nazi propaganda, and aimed to shut her down via complaints to Hollywood companies and New York distributors. On November 29, 1938, Riefenstahl felt the heat from another organization, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy, as they published a full-page advertisement calling on the film industry to "[c]lose its doors to all Nazi Agents." A November 30, 1938 New York Times article also cites the Anti-Nazi league, stating "[t]here is no room in Hollywood for Leni Riefenstahl. In this moment, when hundreds of thousands of our brethren await certain death, close your doors to all Nazi agents!"[26] With advertisements and protests such as these, the American public was prepared to see Riefenstahl and her work in a tainted light. On January 28, 1939, a New York Times article responded to Riefenstahl's visit as being unwelcome in Hollywood and reported that she had received a copy of "an alleged order from studio executives prohibiting their stars from talking to her."[27]

Despite Riefenstahl's later denial of her intention to penetrate Hollywood, she expressed the desire to do so, as reflected in a January 1939 New York Times article, where she stated that "she had no interest in the Olympics picture," but later she added that "she hoped the picture would be bought here."[28] In addition to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times released articles on Riefenstahl's visit. On November 5, 1938, in a Los Angeles Times article, Riefenstahl gave an interview in which she stated that her visit had nothing to do with the American showing of Olympia, although she expressed her desire to have it shown as well as travel to Hollywood.[29] On November 6, 1938, the Los Angeles Times reported House member Andrew L. Sommer's protest "on the presence in this country of Fräulein Leni Riefensthal, German motion picture executive and a friend of Adolf Hitler."[30]

Concluding Remarks (back to top)

Ray Muller's video documentary about Leni Riefenstahl and her work follows her through her career and includes interviews with questions varying from filming techniques to her relationship with Hitler and the messages of her films. Riefenstahl expressed a variety of responses regarding their relationship and her party affiliation. Because the interviews were conducted in the 1990's, long after the war and the collapse of the Third Reich, Riefenstahl adamantly denies her connection to the Nazi party but states "I must admit I was never an opponent of Hitler."[31]

Ray Muller concludes with:

I think an artist has a great responsibility. Riefenstahl says that she's obsessed with her art and she's not looking right or left--just doing her own thing. I think this is not an excuse. She purposely wanted not to be aware of what was going on--and that's something you can blame her for.[32]

Although Riefenstahl claims to have been documenting the Olympic Games, solely with a concentration on aesthetics and the performance of the world's top athletes, Olympia was reported by the American media as a film dripping with messages of Nazi fascism and German propaganda. The commissioning of Olympia by Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, is undeniable, as is Hitler's enthusiasm for Riefenstahl's making of Olympia. Without the support of Hitler and Goebbels and other Nazi authorities, the making of Olympia would not have been possible. Although Olympia was a success in Germany and other European countries, Americans eventually saw through the documentary style footage, and therefore the film was rejected by the Hollywood film industry.

Bibliography (back to top)

  1. Birchall, Frederick T. (1936, August 14). Humble Old Lady and the Fuehrer get Biggest Kick from Olympics. The New York Times, pp.20. Retrieved April 29, 2004, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
  2. Giesen, Rolf. (2003). Nazi Propaganda Films: A History of Filmography. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co.
  3. Ginsberg, Terri, & Kirsten Moana Thompson. (Eds.). (1996). Perspectives on German Cinema. New York: G.K hall; London: Prentice Hall International.
  4. Graham, Cooper C. (1986). Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. Metuchen, New Jersey & London: The scarecrow Press, Inc.
  5. Hinton, David B. (2000). The Films of Leni Riefenstahl (3rd ed.). Lanham, Maryland and London: The Scarecrow Press. Inc.
  6. Muller, Ray. (Director). (1993). The Wonderful, Horrible life of Leni Riefenstahl[video documentary]. United States: Kino International; Omega Films, Nomad Films.
  7. Olympic Games. ATOS Origin, International Olympic Committee, 2004. <>
  8. Pressbook (1993). The Wonderful, Horrible life of Leni Riefenstahl. Kino International Corporation, Omega Film.
  9. Protest Olympic Movie: Two Groups Threaten to Picket Riefenstahl Film. The New York Times, pp. 20. (1938, November 4). Retrieved April 29, 2004, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
  10. Reimer, Robert C. (Ed.). (2000). Cultural History through a National Socialist Lens: Essays on Cinema of the Third Reich. Rochester, NY: Camden House.
  11. Riefenstahl, Leni. (1993). Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir. New York: St. Martin's press.
  12. Rother, Rainer. (2002). Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius. London, New York: Continuum.
  13. (1936, February 5). Aid to Nazis asked at Reich Olympics. The New York Times, Retrieved April 30, 2004, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
  14. (1938, November 30). Hollywood Ad Hits At Leni Riefenstahl. The New York Times, Retrieved April 30, 2004, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
  15. (1939, January 28). Leni Riefenstahl Angry. The New York Times, Retrieved May 1, 2004, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
  16. (1938, November 5). Leni Riefenstahl, Here on Visit Only. The New York Times, Retrieved May 1, 2004 from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
  17. (1938, November 5). May Come to Hollywood. The Los Angeles Times, Retrieved May 1, 2004 from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
  18. (1938, November 6). Leni Riefenstahl Visit Protested. The Los Angeles Times, Retrieved May 1, 2004 from ProQuest Historical Newspaper database.

Notes (back to top)

[1]Riefenstahl, Leni. (1993). Leni Riefenstahl/A Memoir. New York: St. Martin's Press, 103.

[2] Graham, Cooper C. (1986). Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. Metuchen, N.J., London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 196.

[3] Graham, Cooper C. (1986), 196.

[4] Birchall, Frederick T. (1936, August 14). Humble old Lady and the Fuehrer Get Biggest Kick from Olympics. The New York Times, pp.20.

[5] Olympic Games. ATOS Origin, International Olympic Committee, 2004. <>

[6] (April 8, 1936). Nazis Boycott Schmeling-Louis Fight Trip; Sport Heads Oppose Bout With a Negro. The New York Times, p.18. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers on April 30, 2004.

[7] Hinton, David B. (2000). The Films of Leni Riefenstahl, Filmmakers Series, no. 74. Lanham, Maryland, and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

[8] Rother, Rainer (2002). Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius. London; New York: Continuum.

[9] Rother, Rainer,(2002), 22

[10] Rother, Rainer, (2002), 22

[11] Entry for May 17, 1933 in Goebbels Diary cited by Rainer Rother, p.46.

[12] Hollywood Tribune, 1939, cited in Rolf Giesen. (2003). Nazi Propaganda Films: A History and Filmography. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers [*page?]

[13] Giesen, Rolf. (2003), 22.

[14] Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, cited by Rolf Giesen's, Nazi propaganda films, 24.

[15] Essay by Roger Russi, Escaping Home: Leni Riefenstahl Visual Poetry in Tiefland, 159. Published in Reimer, Robert C. (ed.) (2000). Cultural History through a National Socialist lens: Essays on cinema of the Third Reich. (Rochester, NY: Camden House).

[16] Graham, Cooper C. (1986). Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. Metuchen, N.J, & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 75.

[17] Idem, New York Times article, 1 August, 1936, cited by Cooper C. Graham's, Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia, 78.

[18] Arnd Kruger,(1973) Die Olympishen Spiele 1936 und die Weltmeinung. Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Bartels and Wenitz KG., pp.33, citing the Volkischer Beobachter, 19 August 1932, cited by Cooper C. Graham, (1986), 5.

[19] Graham, Cooper C, (1986), 11.

[20] Contract for the production of an Olympic film cited by Cooper C. Graham, (1986), 264-65.

[21] Graham, Cooper C, (1986), 19.

[22] Riefenstahl, Leni, A memoir,(1993),178.

[23] Graham, Cooper C, (1986), p.36.

[24] (1936, February 5). Aid to Nazis asked at Reich Olympics. The New York Times, Retrieved April 30, 2004, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database, p. 11.

[25] Aid to Nazis asked at Reich Olympics, (1936).

[26] (1938, November 30). Hollywood Ad Hits At Leni Riefenstahl. The New York Times, Retrieved April 30, 2004, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database, p.15.

[27] (1939, January 28). Leni Riefenstahl Angry. The New York Times, Retrieved May 1, 2004, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database, p.10.

[28] (1938, November 5). Leni Riefenstahl, Here on Visit Only. The New York Times, Retrieved May 1, 2004 from ProQuest Historical Newspapers database, p.14.

[29] (1938, November 5). May Come to Hollywood. The Los Angeles Times, Retrieved May 1, 2004 from ProQuest Historical Newspapers, p.1.

[30] (1938, November 6). Leni Riefenstahl Visit Protested. The Los Angeles Times, Retrieved May 1,2004 from ProQuest Historical Newspaper Database, p.1.

[31] Muller, Ray. (Director). (1993). The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl [video documentary]. United States: Kino International; Omega Films, Nomad Films.

[32] Pressbook (1993). The Wonderful, Horrible life of Leni Riefenstahl. Kino International Corporation, Omega Film.

paper completed June 2004; prepared for web publication on 3/28/05 by H. Marcuse
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