October 1, 2001

Springtime for Leni: Riefenstahl Revisits Her History

Leni Riefenstahl, Five Lives by Leni Riefenstahl
Taschen Publishers, 2001
336 pages (hardcover)

 

A huge new book—6 ½ pounds, 19 x 11 inches, with perhaps 200 black-and-white and color photos—has just been published in Germany, with robust distribution as well within the US: Leni Riefenstahl, Five Lives.

Whenever the name Leni Riefenstahl comes up, the standard accusation is that she is a Nazi bitch, an intimate confidante of ruthless dictator Adolf Hitler and the director in 1934 of the infamous Triumph of the Will, a powerful two-hour documentary glorifying the German Army and the Nazi Party leaders. At that time, the party had been in power for only 15 months, but was moving fast, and ruthlessly, to consolidate its power and dispose of opponents.

Presumably Riefenstahl's guilt by association stops there, in 1934, with the production of Triumph. After that, her films, both fiction and documentary, were non-political, and she was not politically active in any manner. In 1936, she took on the enormous task of filming the Olympic Games in Berlin. Despite the handicap of working in 1936 without the amenities of modern cinematography—color stock and sync sound, for example—Riefenstahl directed an elite team of cinematographers, and the result was perhaps the greatest sports film ever made. While some critics at the time saw sinister Nazi symbolism in the film's glorification of the human body and neglect of the intellect and spirit, Olympia was heaped with honors in Great Britain, France and other Allied nations.

As the terror of the Third Reich quickly spread to Czechoslovakia, Poland and other parts of Europe, Riefenstahl's filmmaking career was essentially put on hold. Although she later managed to complete the narrative feature Tiefland, shooting in Spain, she never again produced enduring cinema, whether in fiction or documentary.

In late spring 1945, the Germans having surrendered, Riefenstahl was arrested and held for weeks as a possible war criminal and confidante of Hitler. Her interrogation was recorded in an official US Army report, which by a stroke of luck, was acquired and published in Film Culture, the publication of Anthology Film Archives in New York, headed by Jonas Mekas. After several weeks of detention and interrogation, she returned to her Munich home to find that much of her archives were badly damaged. Moreover, her brother was killed in the war, while her husband was wounded. And for years thereafter, Riefenstahl was periodically summoned for new interrogations, charged with contributing to the war, then discharged and branded a “Nazi sympathizer.”

With difficulty, she put together a new career in still photography, living for long periods among the Nuba people in the mountains of Sudan and producing a half-dozen critically acclaimed books and collections—among them, The People of Kau and The Last of the Nuba.

At age 76, Riefenstahl joined a diving school in East Africa and combined undersea skills with undersea cinematography and photography, accompanied by her colleague of many years, Horst Kettner. Coral Gardens is her book of color photography, shot in her favorite site, the Maldives Islands of the Indian Ocean. To this day, Riefenstahl continues diving—in the Maldives, Indonesia and in the Pacific near Panama.

In January 2000, she was badly injured in Sudan when her helicopter, caught in the crossfire of a vicious civil war, crashed. She is still recovering from injuries but plans to resume her photography career soon. She turned 99 on August 22.

Riefenstahl skillfully documents her “five lives”—dancer, actress, filmmaker, photographer and deep-sea diver—as interconnecting and overlapping vocations. She first studied dancing in the early part of the 20th century and soon became an adept soloist. Trained in art as well, she knew many European artists and, in the 1930s, wrote a screenplay about Van Gogh. Her dance career branched off into cinema, where she acted in, wrote and directed such films as The Blue Light, in which she plays an untamed mountain girl. Her filmmaking career crystallized with Triumph of the Will and Olympia, and her image-making sensibility evolved into the aforementioned forays into photography and underwater cinematography.

Refuting persistent charges that she is an unrepentent Nazi, and thus guilty of war crimes, Riefenstahl replies that in World War II she “never dropped atomic bombs on anyone and…never rounded up victims and put them in concentration camps or crematoria.” “Of what am I guilty?" she asks filmmaker Ray Mueller in his three-hour documentary The Wonderful and Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. “I can and do regret making…Triumph of the Will. I regret—no, I can’t regret—that I was alive in that period. But no words of anti-Semitism ever passed my lips. Nor did I write any…I didn’t denounce anyone, so where does my guilt lie?”

Her conviction as a Nazi sympathizer could very well be applied to millions of German civilians, who, in a free election in 1934, overwhelmingly confirmed Hitler into power, as well as to citizens of many of Germany’s wartime enemies. For Riefenstahl, whose ambition at nearly a century of life seems undiminished, Five Lives may be her last effort to tell us all who she is, what she has experienced and what other works she hopes to achieve. Her book is simply magnificent.

For further information on Leni Riefenstahl, Five Lives, contact Tashen Publishers in Cologne, Germany, at +49.221.20180.77; e-mail: u.fethke@taschen.com. In the US: Pat Sommers, 212.683.5889; e-mail: p.sommers@taschen-america.com.

 

Gordon Hitchens serves as consultant to numerous film festivals around the world, including Berlin and Yamagata.

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