Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's director, also made the stunning "Olympia"

HTML clipboard

By Gary N. Reese

In 1996, I was ready to hop on a jet to Munich, rent a car and drive up into the mountainous foothills of the Bavarian Alps to Lake Starnberg where Leni Riefenstahl lived. In semi-retirement. Semi, because Leni Riefenstahl never stopped working.

She was the director of Olympia, the most famous sports film of all time. And most infamously, director of Triumph of the Will, the greatest propaganda film of all time. Olympia defined action sports photography. Until Leni Riefenstahl filmed the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, there wasn’t a camera perspective established for sports. Documentary directors just set up a camera on a tripod, trying to get an angle of what spectators would see in the stadium, never moving their cameras, and that was it. If you watch archival footage of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, this is exactly what you are going to see.

Without Leni Riefenstahl we would not see sports the way we see it today. Her film defined the modern media sports image. Riefenstahl went for the drama. To achieve this, she had to devise all kinds of technical innovations for filming. Her results are still ravishing. Her innovations have long since been surpassed. But the effort and the concept and its accomplishment remain remarkable.

I wanted to interview her. Since we both spoke German, I imagined we could let it all down and get to the real core of the matter. At that time, she would have been 94, but still vigorous. I was working on book on gay sports, and I wanted to ask her lots of questions, but most specifically how it was that she made the male body such an exalted sexual image in sports photography. What was behind that? Was there a purpose? Prior to her work, this image had existed, but just in photographs that were cultish. She brought it out into the popular consciousness. It is pretty amazing to watch in Olympia.

Most likely, she would have seen me as just another accuser. She considered herself a patsy for the German people’s support of the Nazi atrocities. To her credit, she never blamed the German people for the Nazi catastrophe. She had fed the Germans the Hitler myth and they ate it like dogs eat dog food. Yet she was regarded as a sort of media wizard, an evil genius. A war crimes tribunal in 1952 tried her and exonerated her. She committed no criminal acts. But she surely was an instigator.

How could a person with such gifts be so conflicted, so compromise her talents to the Nazis, who would force a world catastrophe and annihilate themselves, along with millions of innocent people? How could she not see this? And afterwards, how could she not admit her guilt and role in it?

Don’t wait for any answers. For the last 55 years of her life, Leni Riefenstahl had to eat her own dog food. So many denials, so many lame explanations. Yet, she remains the most controversial film director in the history of cinema. And the first great female director of films.

Now, two books come out simultaneously to document her life. One by an American, one by a German professor translated into English. Steven Bach is an American film historian and writer with considerable credits. His account is the most readable for Americans. Juergen Trimborn interviewed Riefenstahl before she died in 2003 at the age of 101, and has that additional perspective. His book is thorough and scholarly but somewhat dry to our tastes. Both books reference so many of the same sources, they almost crisscross each other. To pick one, I would recommend Bach.

Until now, the best reference In English for Riefenstahl’s life was her own autobiography published in the U.S. in 1995. But, as Trimborn points out in his introduction, it is completely undependable. Turn to the biographies for the actual story of Leni’s life.

“He is beautiful”

First, let’s turn to the film for the homoerotism.

How homoerotic? Just watch the opening sequence of Olympia. It begins with a naked athlete lighting the Olympic torch before he begins his run to the Olympic stadium.

“Shoot more of him!” Riefenstahl shouted to the photographers as filming commenced in Delphi in 1936. “Shoot more of him! Shoot everywhere more of him, he is beautiful!”

There is something gleaming and new about this, if also manufactured. The torch relay is not something borrowed from the ancient Olympic tradition. It was created for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The inspiration is German. The Germans historically have felt themselves as heirs to the ancient Greeks, and this informs Riefenstahl’s film throughout. This also lays a homoerotic subtext all through Olympia .

The first torchbearer was not even ethnically Greek; he was the son of Russian immigrants to Greece. Yet embody the physical perfection of Olympic ideals he certainly did. Riefenstahl was so taken that she paid his way to Berlin, arranged for acting lessons for him and briefly made him her lover.

There are images that could be called homoerotic throughout Olympia. This is not a film like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (which is still banned in Germany.) Olympia was not conceived with a specific political agenda — other than the same kind of perspective that U.S. networks employ in filming the Olympics today (what looks good for the U.S. is good for our coverage.) The ultimate point here is Nazi racial purity and Jesse Owens, and how Riefenstahl treated this in her film. Any archival footage of Owen’s winning performances at the Olympics is surely taken from Riefenstahl’s Olympia. She filmed all of his triumphs and his four gold medals, and better than anybody else. She made no decisions on filming athletic performance on the basis of Aryan superiority.

The Nazis, Hitler especially, didn’t really like the Olympics. Sports bored them. They thought it was frivolous but could be a good PR vehicle for their regime. They trusted Riefenstahl but were not really sure what she thought she was doing. In particular, she feuded continually with propaganda chief Josef Goebbels. Riefenstahl saw the Olympics as competition, triumph, beauty — filmed on a worldwide stage in a splendor as never before. She devised a multiple-camera filming of events that simulated zoom close-ups years before a zoom camera was invented. She put cameras on the runners in the marathon. She had little railroad tracks built along the tracks in the stadium, so that as the runner dashed around the tracks, a camera could follow them. She dug holes along the track to film runners at foot level. It was madness, but it was a brilliant concept. She anticipated film techniques that Orson Welles would use a few years later for Citizen Kane.

She was an obsessive micro-manager of her crew of 300, dashing from one venue to another, often obstructing sports officials and competitors. She didn’t really care. In fact, she appeared to think that filming the Olympics in her concept was more important than the Olympics themselves.

Riefenstahl’s work ethic was mind-boggling, and her task of making a final film had proportions on a Wagnerian scale. The Olympics last two weeks; she ended up with 250 hours of footage. It took four months just to view the results. And 18 months total to edit the film down to its final result.

A pariah

The film was a triumph. Time magazine put her on its cover during the Berlin Olympics, the first woman so honored up to that time. Riefenstahl’s stock rose highest with the film’s premiere in Paris in 1938. Then she sailed to the U.S. as the most famous film director in the world. It was to be a triumphal tour across the country. But Kristallnacht, the burning and sacking of synagogues across Nazi Germany, occurred shortly after her arrival in New York City. She said that the attacks on Jews were not “important.” It was the same kind of denial she used throughout her life. This killed the tour. When she got to Hollywood, only Walt Disney, a friend of the Nazis, greeted her and gave her a tour of his studios. She had become a pariah.

There was some hypocrisy in this. U.S. film studios did big business with Nazi Germany; it was their biggest overseas market for American films before the war. Even MGM could not turn her away. She came, she signed contracts at MGM but there were no directing assignments offered. Her film Olympia shown around the world to acclaim and awards was never distributed to U.S. theaters.

She returned to Germany, no Hollywood contract as she had hoped. The war started and her career as a film director was effectively over, except to do more Nazi films. Her film Tiefland is a ridiculous, uncompleted production. It featured herself as the star, and she was never a convincing actress. Many of the gypsy extras in the film were later sent to concentration camps and killed. Riefenstahl denied knowledge of this, and this is the most clearly damning evidence of her complicity with the Third Reich’s genocide. In the 1990s, she was charged with Holocaust Denial, a very serious crime in Germany. She settled out of court, with a half-hearted public apology.

For the remaining 55 years of her life, she made a few films that were pretty but not really important. She was the most famous film director in the world who didn’t make any films of merit.

Riefenstahl recreated herself. Several times over. For one, she became the oldest deep-sea diver in the world, and a deep-sea photographer. She specialized in beautiful filmic images. She made numerous trips to Africa, to the Sudan.

She was rigorously heterosexual in her personal life. But I would argue she had a gay sensibility, even if she unwittingly practiced it as gays were sent to concentration camps. She embodied qualities I find quintessentially gay: irony, physical beauty and resistance.

First, there is irony, and its ability to separate the moral from the aesthetic in art; then, beauty, and a deep appreciation of its physical appearances even when it may be superficial; and finally, resistance, and the stubbornness to insist on one’s personally defined identity as legitimate. She spent most of her life arguing with the world to accept her on her own terms.

Both of the books regard these qualities as masking a massive deception; they clamor for a second reexamination of Riefenstahl’s career and her place in 20th century cinema and history.

The first re-examination began, interestingly enough, in the United States about 30 years ago. There is a logic to this; the U.S. is one country where people maintain that art can be apolitical. In Europe it is the opposite. The U.S. became the incubator for a new perspective on the director: Riefenstahl the person, the Nazi propagandist, was separated from Riefenstahl the cinematic pioneer and artistic genius. Now, her accomplishments could be evaluated in a context divorced from the politics.

Bach and Trimborn agree that this reexamination can only take place in a vacuum — where human experience and the creative impulses that enliven it are sucked out, and where the art is only evaluated on the basis of its pyrotechnics. These are very engaging arguments to reexamine the reexamination. Neither succeeds ultimately in redefining Riefenstahl, or encompassing her artistic legacy. At the close, their books peter out. It looks like Riefenstahl has won. She seems to be saying: “You thought you knew me, but you don’t know me.”

We expect a great artist to reflect our basic human values and affirm this in their work. Riefenstahl, except in Olympia, viewed apolitically, absolutely does not do this. Yet, her accomplishments continue to dazzle and perplex us. Is this bewitching chimera or great art?

But the books raise her profile in the U.S. I expect a biopic will soon be made on her life. Actresses, particularly Americans, are already prepared to kill for the part. From the grave, Leni Riefenstahl must be chuckling.

That would be her triumph of the will.

More about Leni Riefenstahl:

The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993): Chosen by Time magazine as one of the 10 best documentary films of the 20th century, this 3-hour overview (first released in Germany as Die Macht der Bilder — “The Power of Images”) is the best introduction to the filmmaker. Ray Mueller, an unknown at the time, took on the project after it had been turned down by numerous big-name directors. His will isn’t a match for Riefenstahl’s, but he does keep the film on track — she rages at him at points, dictates to the cameramen how they should film her and how her face should be properly lit. There are many clips from the famous films, and a remarkable sequence with Riefenstahl and two of her cameramen from the 1936 Olympics touring the stadium in Berlin and reminiscing. Still, no apology, no real acknowledgement of her role as the Nazi propagandist. Trimborn dismisses the film as another example of a “failed dialogue.” If so, his dialogue with Riefenstahl for his own book research must also be viewed as a failure.

Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir (1995 U.S. translation of Memoiren): This is for the die-hard Leni fans — 650 pages of autobiography and so much of it untrue. One must read it with an eye for color, flair, history, and not be too concerned about accuracy. It is the best way to get inside the woman’s head; this is her story as she wished it to be told. In the New York Times, the acerbic critic John Simon reviewed it, calling Riefenstahl “one of the supreme artists of cinema, the greatest woman film maker ever,” and the book without “a single unspellbinding page.” It’s a great read. Trimborn is correct in calling it “completely unreliable” as an historical document.

Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism.” (New York Review of Books, February 6, 1975) An alternative view of Riefenstahl by the most intellectual of American writers. Sontag celebrates Riefenstahl’s talent as perhaps the best photographer in the world. In the last chapter of his book, Bach calls her wrong on one point. “Nobody making films today alludes to Riefenstahl,” and that is correct only if you forget many important U.S. film directors today and every sports photographer alive, according to Bach.

And then there are the movies: The three that are most important are: Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light) 1932 — the “mountain-drama” that got Hitler’s attention even before he assumed power; Der Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) 1935; and Olympia 1938, her masterpiece and the film she wanted to be remembered for.

(Gary N. Reese has researched and written on issues of sports, sexual orientation and gender identity for more than 15 years. His work has appeared in the Advocate magazine, the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Texas Triangle, Bay Windows, the Bay Area Reporter and other mainstream and gay publications. He is a medalist at the Gay Games 1990 in Vancouver and 1994 in New York City. He lives in Houston and works in the field of information technology. He can be contacted at [email protected] )