Leni Riefenstahl

The history of the world is riddled with great people, all who contributed to the progress and development of the world or otherwise. One of the names that have remained in the history books is Leni Riefenstahl. This essay discusses the life and times of Leni Riefenstahl, especially with reference to her association with the Nazi party and the consequences of the association. Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl, popularly known as Leni Riefenstahl, is the name  synonymous  with movie production and movie directing (Hess 11). At some point, the fame was attributable to her talent. However, as is discussed later in the essay, the fame of Leni Riefenstahl was not justified .

To begin with, there are few people today who can boast of the life and achievements Leni Riefenstahl lived and made. Born in 1902 in Berlin, Germany, Leni’s career path appeared to have been destined to be pursued in the performance and entertainment industry. As a young girl, she attended an art school, where learnt to paint and later took up dancing classes. It would be dancing that would open her doors to further opportunities and avenues in the industry. Her dancing career was brought to a brutal end after sustaining a knee injury. She then diverted to acting as a career (Rother 42). Here, she was successful by any standards and featured in many popular movies at the time while she was  winning numerous accolades. Her acting career soon graduated to movie production and movie directing.  It is in her career as a movie director that she came to interact with and thereby work with the Nazi party (Infield 81). The party was led by the infamous Adolf Hitler. Her admiration of Adolf Hitler after she attended his rally led to a meeting that would result to the production of the movie Victory of Faith. As it was, Leni directed the movie. However, the aftermath was as far-reaching as it could get. The movie, widely seen as a tool of propaganda employed by the Nazi people, was met with great hostility, especially by Hitler’s opponents (Hess 37).

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Leni the Controversial Artist

Controversy started beckoning and knocking on Leni Riefenstahl’s door after the German war. Before the war, her fame as a movie producer had won her great admiration and following in and beyond her native country Germany (Manchel 35). The release of the movie The Triumph of the Will was particularly a hit. It earned accolades in Germany and beyond, some s later  in 1937 in Paris ( the movie  was released in 1933). It is worth noting that  the movie was named after the Reich Party Congress. “Third Reich” was a term used to refer to the Nazis and the Nazi regime particularly between 1933 and 1945 (Trimborn 45). The other famous film she produced was  Olympia.

These movies propelled her career and soon she was on the road  going to other countries to continue with her movie directing work. It is about that  time that the war in Germany began. When she came  back to Germany, Leni met untold hostility. It was believed by many that she let herself be used by the Nazis to spread propaganda messages through her films. Indeed, evidence was later found linking elements of her movies to spread of propaganda, especially The Triumph of the Will (Manchel 67).

Leni’s Ideology and How She Associated Her Political Convictions with Her Work

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Leni Riefenstahl obtained a lot of publicity as a result of her association with the Nazis, which was  negative publicity. In fact, she was seen as the political mouthpiece of the Nazis and Hitler himself. She was widely seen as a film maker who made her films for the benefit of Hitler’s administration, mostly propaganda-filled films. Most notably, movie reviewers note the elements of propaganda incorporated within the films, particularly in the movie The Triumph of the Will. This is seen by many of the reviewers as a movie that worships the German people and Adolf Hitler. It has been pointed out that throughout the movie, faces are shown looking at the man on the stage with awe. In a way, it is presented that the faces view the man as some kind of deity, a divine figure. The man in question is Adolf Hitler (Trimborn 79). Indeed, Leni admits to having played a role in organizing the rally that would feature in the movie. However, she denies any knowledge of the brutality of the Nazi administration which was taking place. She insists further that she was neither a Nazi follower nor a sympathizer as had been alleged. Even then, her assertion remains questionable especially bearing in mind the irrefutable evidence linking her to the Nazi association. This is according to historians and movie reviewers.

The movie Olympia based on the Olympic Games that had previously been held in Berlin shed some light. Hitler was a staunch critique of black people and he firmly believed that no black person was or could ever be better than a white man. He oversaw the production of the movie. The one person he did not want to get much air play in the movie was the black American Jesse Owens, who had gone against all odds to win a number of medals in athletics, effectively embarrassing Adolf Hitler in his own backyard. Even though she was considered a staunch Nazi adherent, much of her convictions were not known. For instance, it has been documented that on one occasion, when accompanying the German troops while on a mission to shoot a movie, she witnessed as a multitude of Polish civilians were attacked and ruthlessly killed by the German troops. Apparently, the Polish civilians were guilty of attacking a section of German troops. On witnessing this orgy, Leni put aside her ambitions in shooting the film and went back to Hitler to remonstrate with him to bring an end to the senseless and heartless killings. It has been documented that after this incident she tried to detach from the Nazi regime (Infield 56).

The Consequences of Her Decisions

Her association with the Nazis was, to say the least, devastatingly harmful to her career as a movie director and producer. Immediately after coming back to Germany after the war, she was branded a Nazi supporter and sympathizer an allegation she denied vehemently to her very last days. For that reason, she was made to undergo a series of processes of denazification. After the process, she did not stand trial. However, she was stripped of her movie production rights. In addition, her movie production equipment was confiscated and her film production company (Leni Riefenstahl-Produktion) closed down altogether (Manchel 90). On top of that, her earlier movies, especially those perceived to be propaganda tools of the Nazi regime were banned in Germany. That officially and effectively ended her career as a full time movie director and producer.  

However, all that did not mark the end of the story. The shame and embarrassment of the sudden change from a local hero and champion to a villain accompanied her through the rest of her life like a constant shadow. In contrast, her colleague, Veit Harlan with whom they had worked with on a couple of the Nazi propaganda films did not suffer the same fate (Rother 63). After the war, he continued to ply his trade and maintained his name as one of the most respected film-makers in Germany.

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The German population was shocked by the discoveries and the accusations that were leveled against Leni Riefenstahl. This was expected given the manner in which she took the film industry by storm. In addition, she had won the hearts of many through her acting prowess and unique talent as a producer and director of movies.


Up until her death at an impressively ripe age, Leni Riefenstahl had not participated much in film production. Right after she was stripped of her filming license and rights, she took up photography, a career path she followed till late age (Hess 53). She then took up photographing underwater life and scenes. She made history by being the first person to ever shoot an underwater film at one hundred years of age. Leni succumbed to cancer just after celebrating her 101st birthday. By the time she died, she had on multiple occasions denied any deeper association or involvement with the Nazis except for the documentaries she was hired to direct and produce. Indeed, a German court found her innocent of many of the accusations that had been leveled against her. For instance, in 1952 she was cleared of any wrongdoing in the allegation of having contributed to war crimes (Trimborn 97). All in all, the controversy that had marred her mid-life did not prove all too fatal as she managed to pull through and make it till an impressive age.

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