Woman who shaped Films: Leni Riefenstahl

By Itthi CT special to Thai Newsroom

 AS the Oscars near and the debate over women’s place in film returns, one name rings out: Leni Riefenstahl, one of the greatest filmmakers of the Modern Period.

Her story begs the question: Do you measure a movie maker on merit (skill)? Or bow to political groups championing gender as criteria?

For those familiar with Leni’s work, she was the best because of her acumen and intellect. Being a woman was irrelevant when she was commissioned to make “Triumph of the Will”.

There was no other like her or nor will there ever be. No man could match her in visuals or the play on movement in film. No one could capture the human spirit whether in the Berlin Olympics or in the primal Nabu villages in Sudan that span 80 plus years of films, photographs and books.

She was in her twenties when she made movies, successful romantic features before her tough “Blue Light” in 1932 demonstrated her tenacity and endurance shooting in the brutal freezing temperatures, climbing peaks without flinching nor retreating.

It was this incredible energy and more, her ability to shoot things like a ballet that caught the eye of the German government, and more importantly Adolf Hitler.

His rise to power came as he restored pride back to a German populace impoverished by the Treaty of Versailles, as compensation and punishment for World War One.

To capture the euphoria of the Nazi movement, Leni was hired to film “Triumph of the Will” in 1935, which to this day is mandatory curriculum for all film students.

Just 32 years old, Leni manned massive telescopic cameras in cranes and panned expansive parades that mark the film’s highlights. The birth of the Third Reich, a new Rome as the Nazis would tout it, swept viewers worldwide. This was four years before the invasion of Poland and turned the term Nazi to become the ugliest word in the 20th Century.

At the time, Leni too was carried away by the dizzy wave that greeted Hitler, never realizing like many others the horrors he was capable of, the most traumatic being the Holocaust.

A year later she shot the greatest of sports movies, “Olympia: Festival of the Nations”. She gave the Berlin Olympics in 1936 immortality with stunning cinematography of athletes in action, often using slow motion. Released in 1938, Olympia came in two parts,

“ Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” won Best Foreign Film in the Venice Film Festival in the years that they were competing.

The secret to Leni’s unique talent was her background as a trained dancer and a stage performer. She understood the beauty of dance and choreography as well as the role of the subject in front of the camera. This gave a huge edge when competing against other filmmakers.

Place this in context of the fact that women were only given the right to vote during this time and the contrast is even more stark. Britain gave women the vote in 1918; Netherlands in 1919 and the United States in 1920. In Britain the voting age for women then was 30!

If anything the film world, being part of the arts world, was the best place for women to excel.  Already the biggest film stars were women!  Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow were the reasons audiences flocked to theatres,

And in the movie world, talents that draw the crowds call the shots. Women in films ruled for many years and were as powerful as the studios. We tend to forget this in the age of shallow media.

A biopic called “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl” reflected her meteoric rise and fall.  From 1945 to 1948 she was held in a special prison and was under house arrest for some time after that.

In reflection, Leni said her biggest regret in life was meeting Hitler. “It was the biggest catastrophe of my life. Until the day I die people will keep saying, ‘Leni is a Nazi’, and I’ll keep saying, ‘But what did she do?'”

The Berlin Games was an eye opener where she met Jesse Owens, the Black American athlete who smashed Hitler’s Aryan Supremacy theory. Showing Leni there were cracks in the Nazi narrative.

In the 2016 movie “Race” about Owens at the Olympics, Carice Van Houten plays Leni who befriends him in the politically charged Games.

Years later, fascinated by the lost cultures of Africa, she spent 8 months living with the Nabu tribe in Sudan, a subject of many photographic books she published.

To be sure, she led a turbulent but exhilarating life. One minute she was standing with God like rulers. The next minute she was running from armies invading Germany.

Leni never faced war crime charges. Her mistake was being a sympathizer. Her amazing talents would see her through with more films,books and TV appearances.

At age 98 she returned to Sudan for the last time to shoot a sequel to her 1977 adventure with the Nabu.

Before her death in 2003 at age 101, she made several underwater films that influenced environmental protection awareness for marine life. It was through her eyes, the oldest scuba diver in the world, that so many people realize there was such an abundant beauty beneath the waves.

What made Leni special in film and in life was her attitude towards her purpose and her passions. She said:

“If I start a work I forget food. I forget that I am a woman. I forget my dress, I only see my work. I forget because I am fascinated by my work.”


Top: Leni Riefenstahl captured great moments on film including the rise of Hitler and the Berlin Olympics.

Home Page:  Leni Riefenstagl photographs a diver for Olympia that won Best Foreiign Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1938.



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