Riefenstahl, Leni (born 1902)

The most innovative film maker of the Nazi cinema, Leni Riefenstahl was born in Berlin on 22 August 1902 and began her career as a ballet dancer, employed by Max Reinhardt, among others, for dance performances in the early 1920s. In 1925 she made her film debut as an actress in Der Heilige Berg, the first of a series of well-photographed movies about the Alps made by Arnold Franck, the father of the mountain cult in the Weimar cinema.

In the late 1920s, Riefenstahl became the high priestess of this cult, starring in Franck's Der Grosse Sprung (1927), Die Weisse Holle vom Piz Palu (1929) made together with G. W. Pabst, Sturme uber dem Mont Blanc (1930) and Das Blaue Licht (1932) which she co-authored, directed, produced and played the leading role in, winning a gold medal at the Venice Biennale. In 1933 she made her last film for Franck, SOS Eisberg, before being appointed by Hitler (who greatly admired her work) as the top film executive of the Nazi Party.

The muscular, sportive and beautiful young actress-director now became the ardent cinematic interpreter of such Nazi myths as the 'national renaissance', the cult of virility, health and purity, the romantic worship of nature and the human body. Commissioned to make a full-length movie of a Party Congress, she produced Reichsparteitag (1935), a pure apologia for Hitler and his Party, and the powerful Nuremberg Rally film, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935) - perhaps the most effective visual propaganda for Nazism ever made. Over a hundred people worked on the film including a staff of sixteen cameramen, each with an assistant, and no fewer than thirty-six cameras were used as well as a huge number of spotlights. Riefenstahl combined melodramatic camera techniques from the silent movies of the 1920s with the dramatic effects of Wagnerian opera to submerge completely the individual in the mass and absorb reality into the artificial structure of the Party convention with its endless parades and show marching. In this work the Germanic imagery of the Nibelungen, extremely magnified and subordinate to an authoritarian human pattern, reappears in the form of a modern Nuremberg pageant.

Riefenstahl's film won a gold medal at the Venice Film Festival. It was followed by her classic documentary, Olympia, a four-hour epic released in two parts, which was devoted to the Berlin Olympic Games. It received its gala premiere on 20 April 1938, to mark Adolf Hitler's forty-ninth birthday. Riefenstahl's Olympic films, widely admired for their technical innovation and accomplishment, were awarded first prize at the Venice Biennale and were also honoured by the International Olympic Committee in 1948.

After the fall of the Third Reich, Riefenstahl was one of the few leading figures in the German film industry to suffer for her past glorification of Nazism. She vigorously denied all accusations of romantic involvement or political complicity with Hitler. In recent years, her continuing interest in primitive peoples and their natural environment has found a new outlet in her photographic work during various expeditions to Africa. This has resulted in two remarkable books of photography, The Last of the Nuba and The People of Kau. In the 1990s there has been a resurgence of interest in Leni Riefenstahl, following the publication of her memoirs and the screening of a documentary film in 1994 about her and her cinematic work, entitled The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.

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