Larry Levy
Hist 33D, Marcuse

Leni Riefenstahl: Actress, Filmmaker Contributor to Nazi Mayhem

There is no doubt that Leni Riefenstahl was a very innovative and creative filmmaker. Riefenstahl believed she was creating documentaries, but she was simply a vehicle for the creation of Nazi propaganda. While some consider Riefenstahl a pioneer and genius, others see her as a devious contributor to Nazi mayhem. Although Riefenstahl cannot be questioned on her expertise in making films, she was a major source of Nazi propaganda. Whether or not she knew where her actions would take Germany, Riefenstahl is responsible for a work that made something very evil look appealing. She defends herself as having made a documentary. Many, on the other hand, believe that Triumph of the Will is far from a documentary. After all, the little bit of dialogue in the film is of Hitler and other high level Nazis giving speeches.

Before creating the films she is famous for, Leni Riefenstahl was a famous actress and dancer. She was favored between Hitler and many other high profile Nazis because of her filmmaking talent. She captured the Nazis in a certain light that proved to dazzle the German public. Her most famous work for the Nazis, Triumph of the Will, glorified a 1934 rally in Nuremberg. The filming techniques that Riefenstahl employed were considered to be very cutting edge for the era she worked in. She used tracks, lifts, and cranes to capture interesting and never-before seen angles. Riefenstahl pioneered many techniques used today in filmmaking in the 1930's. Watching scenes of military assembly in George Lucas' Star Wars bring about the eerie Riefenstahlian touch.

But unlike filmmakers of today, filming was especially difficult for Riefenstahl because the cameras she used were much heavier and more difficult to operate than those today. Another famous work of Riefenstahl's was Olympia, a documentary on the 1936 Olympic games held in Berlin. And while both films are considered classics almost 70 years later, Riefenstahl's reputation has been tainted after the Nazi Regime crumbled in the aftermath of WWII. Some Riefenstahl critics point out that she created propaganda for a regime that it held responsible for the deaths of millions of innocents. Riefenstahl defends herself by saying that she was never a member of the Nazi party; that she was simply trying to make a documentary film that would be more interesting than the rest. 

And interesting they were, over half of the German population watched Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will when it was released. When compared to the older, poorly made propaganda film the Nazis had temporarily released, Triumph of the Will triumphs as a masterpiece. It's sweeping views of marching Nazis gives the feel of power and determination. The Nazis appear organized and regal, marching proudly. Particularly interesting were the shots taken from tracks around Hitler and other top-tier Nazi officials. The combination of film technique and editing made it easy to imagine what it might have been like to hear Hitler give a speech to thousands of fanatic Nazis. After the war, Riefenstahl did not make any more films. In a documentary made interviewing her in the 1990's, she vehemently fights off allegations that she was socially involved with Hitler and Goebells during the height of the Nazi regime.

People tend to disagree on whether or not Triumph of the Will is a film of propaganda or a simple documentary. Riefenstahl herself claims that she was merely trying to make a film about the rally in Nuremberg. She says that she was assigned a job and believes that she captured the true essence of what it felt like to have attended the rally. She explains that while most propaganda films have a narrator, hers does not. And although it may have been true for the era when Riefenstahl worked for the Nazis, most good documentaries are narrated. Riefenstahl tries to create an image of herself as the passive observer; simply filming and editing an event that she did not really take part in. However, in the book Hinter den Kulissen des Reichsparteitag-Films, she explains that the rally was created for the film. The Nazis knew that Riefenstahl's film would reach millions upon millions of eyes, therefore they allowed her to set up the rally as she pleased; giving her some power in planning the rally would lead to a more effective film.

In discovering whether or not Triumph of the Will was a work of propaganda or documentary, it's important to decide for oneself the motivations and effects behind these two genres of films. Generally, a documentary is created for the effect of educating people about the facts behind a subject. A work of propaganda can be considered 'half' a documentary in that while it does aim to show people facts, it selectively chooses what it will and will not show with the intention of misleading an audience.

To Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will is a documentary. It is crystal clear that Riefenstahl was very talented and received what she believed was a priceless opportunity from Hitler. After Triumph of the Will and Olympia were released, Riefenstahl was a name that the entire world was acquainted with. And although her reputation was tarnished after WWII because of her relationship with the Nazis, her career flourished under the Nazis. Most people will never know what it's like to be personal friends with people of untouchable power. Riefenstahl is not one of these people. Before the Nazis seized power, Riefenstahl was a famed actress and dancer. But after the Nazis took power, she was making films and having dinner at a table with people who were on the brink of taking Europe over. It seems as though she enjoyed the admiration and distinction that being close to men in power brought her. Life couldn't have been better for Riefenstahl during the Nazi Regime. It was the most productive and memorable part of her life. To Leni Riefenstahl, her film was a documentary. She is showing the world the side of the Nazis she knows. She is showing the world power, prestige, and her feelings of accomplishment and pride. In Riefenstahl's eyes, she is showing the world a documentary about a Nazi rally in Nuremberg.

But Riefenstahl knows a very different Nazi Germany than most do. If Riefenstahl were in a concentration camp, her documentary would have probably looked a lot different. To face the facts is to understand that Riefenstahl had a very biased opinion on Hitler and the Nazis. And although very artful and creative, she passed her bias onto her film and fans. Had Riefenstahl truly created a documentary, she would have shown more than one side of the Nazi party. But Riefenstahl would have never created a film that illustrated all the death, deception, and manipulation used by the Nazis to seize power.

The way that Hitler is projected during the film is especially noteworthy. The audience is first shown romantic footage of the skies and clouds. In the midst of all this a plane is spotted flying through the German air. It's none other than Hitler descending upon Germany much like a heavenly god would descend from the skies. As the film progresses, it becomes evident that there is a clear distinction between the masses of people and Hitler. The crowds become faceless people while Hitler is portrayed as something of deity. Hitler is not simply one of the people; he stands on an ever-present pedestal.

Although the evidence seems quite strong that Riefenstahl was an enormous part of Nazi evil, those who side with Riefenstahl would elude to her other films in explaining that her works are documentary-like and unbiased. Leni's 1936 film Olympia has close-up segments of the African-American runner Jesse Owens. Riefenstahl knew that Hitler despised blacks and wished that that none were positively portrayed in the German made film. Contrary to Hitler and Goebells' wishes, Leni showed clips of the runner in her film.

Riefenstahl was an expert filmmaker, and although she tried to make what she refers to as 'documentaries,' the effects of some of the films were quite the opposite. While many Germans believed the Nazis to be saviors of a once fallen nation, Nazi contributions including conquering nations and killing innocent civilians. And while Riefenstahl claims she was merely fulfilling an artistic job, she indirectly contributed to Nazi evils through attracting more people to the party. All in all, Triumph of the Will is a bad work, but Leni Riefenstahl did an excellent job making it.

Works Cited & Linkography - an in-depth site about the life and achievements of Leni Riefenstahl; hosted by - a British web site hosted by outlining Leni's life achievements; good and bad. - the official Leni Riefenstahl web site. It shows Leni Riefenstahl's life through her own eyes.

Riefenstahl, Leni. Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir. Picador, USA; 1978.

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(Riefenstahl bio)

written by Larry Levi, 11/19/03; prepared for the web by H. Marcuse, 12/26/03
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