The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl


Tom McNabb gave a balanced and informative view of the controversial Leni Riefenstahl

I didn’t know quite what to expect of this. Leni Riefenstahl (Helene Riefenstahl) was a controversial and complex figure. She was a German dancer and actress in the first part of her life. Tom McNabb relates her training in ballet and her surprise hit tour of Germany as an interpretive dancer. Tom has even tracked down footage of her dancing which he shows as he narrates the tale. She was also a popular -the star of a number of German director Arnold Fanck’s silent motion pictures, typically set in the Alps (so-called Bergfilme). Tom showed us a clip from one of these which shows a confident, empowered and daring woman beckoning a male climber who has lagged behind her. This part of her life indicates her love of nature, appreciation of human beauty and a pagan sensibility. There is a kind of wildness or recklessness just below the surface.

Sadly, this period of her life (as well as the later period of her life) is little known. Leni will perhaps always be best known for her propaganda films in support of the National Socialist Party (the Nazis). Perhaps it was almost inevitable that Leni would fall under the malign spell of Hitler. He was a big fan of her first major feature film, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light) which was released in 1932. Riefenstahl had heard Hitler speak and was mesmerised by him.

In 1933, Hitler asked Riefenstahl to direct a short film, Der Sieg des Glaubens (The Victory of Faith), shot at that year’s Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally. The film was a basis for her more infamous work, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), shot at the Nuremberg Rally the following year, in 1934. Tom showed clips from this film. There is no doubt that it was a masterpiece of propaganda which almost worships power through numbers and organisation. Yet there are also small human touches such as when we see young boys straining to reach up and see what was going on. This is part of what made her propaganda films so dangerous. Alongside the glorification of totalitarian power is a human touch. It is this combination that seduced the audience at the time and still grips now despite our awareness of the horrors inflicted by the Nazi regime. The content cannot be divided from the innovative film technique which is used to support and craft it.

Tom tells how he came to see Olympia, which documented the Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936 and how he was fixated from the opening shots. These were later to influence the hit film Chariots of Fire which Tom was involved in making. It was for Olympia that Riefenstahl pioneered numerous cinematographic techniques, such as filming footage with cameras mounted on rails (commonly known today as tracking shots) and underwater filming. Germany won most gold medals in the game (33). They also won most Silver (26) and Bronze (30). The United States came second.

When we think of these Olympics now many would not be aware of that. The focus is on Jesse Owens.

Owens captured four gold medals (the 100 metre, the long jump, the 200 meter and the 400-meter relay), and broke two Olympic records along the way. Owens record for the world broad jump would last 25 years until being broken by Olympian Irvin Roberson in 1960. Tom showed us clips from Olympia where crowds cheered Owens and we heard an enthusiastic German commentary on his performance. We also saw a smiling Hitler seemingly enjoying his performance. All at odds with tales of Hitler storming out of the stadium or refusing to shake his hand. Owens himself was more critical of segregated America than Hitler. There is a detailed discussion on his Wikipedia page for those interested:

Tom points out the irony of a non-segregated Olympic village under the Nazis at a time when they would not have been able to mix in the US!

Leni witnessed an atrocity in the war (the massacre of Polish partisans) and her enthusiasm for the Nazis seemed to wane (though she filmed Hitler entering Warsaw). After the war she was treated harshly in comparison to others. She was locked up in first a prison and then an asylum for over three years. Veit Harlan, who had directed such crude and damaging Nazi propaganda works as Jüd Süss and Kolberg, for example, returned to a flourishing directorial career in the 1950s. I suspect that it was partly bitterness at her treatment that prevented her from ever really apologising for her role as she should have done. She was, as Tom pointed out, a stubborn lady.

The emphasis on her association with Nazism also deflects from an awareness of her later life. Tom adopts a more balanced approach showing stills she took whilst living with the Nuba tribe of the Sudan. We also see photos she took in her late seventies, when, amazingly she got involved in underwater cinematography.

At the end of the production we were shown a short film (Leni, Leni) that Tom had written about her life. It took up many of the themes in the talk through Leni at earlier ages/life stages talking with an aged Leni. There is a resolution in the film which probably was not reflected in her life itself. That’s excusable as we all wish it had happened and artists deserve some license after all.

It was an unusual but fascinating evening. I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance to see it in your area or at the next Fringe.

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington


1 Comment »

  1. John Field said

    I’ve three comments on this review.

    Firstly, it’s good to know that there are still people out there who are interested in the truth – no matter how Politically Incorrect or inconvenient it may be – and not lies. I refer to what Tom McNabb has to say about the Berlin Olympics. I’ve read a little about this event and apparently Jesse Owens was treated with courtesy and respect.

    Indeed, Owens himself noted that:

    “All I know is that when I went to the presidential dinner in Berlin, I didn’t have to enter the building through the back door like I did when I went to the official welcome home dinner at The White House.”

    Secondly, Tom McNabb mentions the influence of Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympia’ on the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ which he was involved in making. Another of Riefenstahl’s films (‘Triumph of the Will’) featured the Cathedral of light, devised by Albert Speer. Years ago, I heard/read that many of those who’re involved in set design regard the effect of the Cathedral of light as something always to be emulated. Apparently, this is particularly so of Heavy Metal gigs.

    Thirdly, does anyone know if Tom’s film ‘Leni, Leni’ is available via Netflix or You Tube? I’ve not had a chance to check yet.


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