Was Leni Riefenstahl a War Criminal?
A brilliant artist driven by fascist ideals and selfish ambition, Leni Riefenstahl was a complex woman composed of contradictions. She was a determined woman, though not a feminist; part of Hitler’s inner circle, though politically unaware; a propagandist but not a war criminal. It has been argued that Leni Riefenstahl has feigned ignorance over the years in order to defend her propagation of the National Socialist party, most notably in her film, Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl's own words in Ray Muller's 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, contradict that argument. Riefenstahl never had to feign ignorance, rather she chose ignorance as a means by which to attain her goals of artistry and adulation, and to positively promote Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Life Before Triumph
Muller's full-length documentary consists of a compilation of in-depth interviews with Leni Riefenstahl where the subject projects herself as a victim of the Third Reich. It must be remembered that Riefenstahl spent most of her life engaged in creating films and was herself an accomplished actress who spent a long career portraying various characters, especially outcasts and heroines. She began her career on the stage and stated in the documentary that becoming a star was “intoxicating.” It can be inferred from her words that she achieved a euphoric feeling upon receiving widespread adulation from the general public. How then must she have felt when she discovered that Adolph Hitler also admired her artistic talents and physical strength?
Riefenstahl had done her own physical work in the Alpine films she made with Arnold Fanck in the 1920s. When she directed her own mountain film in 1932, The Blue Light, she maintained the theme of mountaintops as being a mystical goal with the villagers below being the dispensable mass populace. The mountains not only represented majestic beauty, but were also seen as powerful and dangerous. As an artist, Riefenstahl was acutely aware of how to juxtapose the supremacy of the mountains and Adolph Hitler in her infamous 1935 production, Triumph of the Will. By employing certain camera angles and specific lighting techniques, the director enhanced the image of Hitler and made him comparable to the perception of a mountain; powerful, mystical, and dangerous. Her movies prior to this propaganda film were made to satisfy her artistic talents and her audience's ideas of fantasy, whereas in Triumph, she catered to Hitler's fantasy and played a part in his mythical existence.
The "Ideal" Women
In Eva Braun, Hitler had a mistress with a loyal heart and who practiced blind obedience. In Riefenstahl, he had identified his ideal German woman. In her acting career, she played characters who were brave and heroic and usually of the peasant class. Hitler admired her traits and talents, something of which Riefenstahl was aware. She exploited her role as the dominant woman in Hitler's life in order to gain carte blanche of her Party funded projects, much to the consternation of Joseph Goebbels. As head of the Propaganda Ministry, she was politically aware, intelligent, capable, and fiercely loyal. Tension began to grow between Goebbels and Riefenstahl as the competition for the Fuhrer's attention escalated. Riefenstahl emerged triumphant and began to garner coveted directorial tasks away from Goebbels, thus furthering her career as a film maker and propagandist. A chief component of Riefenstahl's success with Hitler was the way in which she projected German women.
In her masterpiece, Triumph of the will, women are depicted in only two ways; as smiling peasants in parades and as adoring fans of the Fuhrer. The women shown in the crowds are smiling with delight, cheering in ecstasy, and even holding handkerchiefs to their faces to wipe away tears of exhilaration. There were no scenes of women working or participating in any political events. Not coincidentally, in her later book of photographic work, The Last of the Nuba, involving an African tribe in Sudan, Riefenstahl again depicts the males as warriors and physically perfect while the women watch from the sidelines and wait only to be chosen as a wife by one of the virile men in order to bear his child. Although African, they were of pure ancestry, strong, and non-materialistic; all qualities for which the Nazi’s longed.
Similar qualities were also to be found in Olympia, Riefenstahl’s film concerning the 1936 Olympics held in Germany. The opening sequence shows men of physical perfection participating in feats of athleticism, strength, and endurance. Throughout the two part piece, women are shown primarily in the audience cheering. This is how Hitler wanted women depicted to the world. Nazi ideology did not support women achieving greatness as athletes or politicians; another reason Riefenstahl fit so perfectly into his utopic fantasy.
A self-possessed artist, Riefenstahl remained intentionally ignorant to the realities taking place in her environment when such realities interfered with her ambitions. She was filming in the Swiss Alps in 1933 when the Nazi book burnings took place but was immediately informed of the events upon her return to Germany. In Muller's documentary, she admits to confronting Hitler and supposedly admonishing him for sanctioning the destruction. She continues by describing the details of being escorted out of his Austrian home after he became enraged with her for raising the issue. As an intelligent woman, it must have been apparent to Riefenstahl that something was dreadfully wrong with Germany's new regime yet she chose to ignore the incident and never again disagreed with the Fuhrer on any social or political issues. When she discovered friends emigrating from Germany and Jewish shops were being closed and boycotted, she chose to ignore the reality and scope of what was transpiring in order to maintain her place in the Party and Hitler's circle.
On June 30, 1934 the event called the Night of the Long Knives took place wherein the SA was purged and its leader, Ernst Rohm was assassinated. Hitler sanctioned Rohm's murder yet Riefenstahl never questioned him as to Rohm's fate. By 1934 little was done within the Third Reich without the Fuhrer's authorization, a fact with which Riefenstahl was aware. Why then did she continue a relationship with a man she knew to be a killer? Either she did not care that Hitler was a murderer of she did not care that Rohm was murdered. By not questioning anyone as to Rohm's whereabouts, she was able to remain blissfully ignorant and maintain deniability.
Perhaps the most blatant example of Riefenstahl’s preferred ignorance presented itself during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Riefenstahl went to the front as a war correspondent and was horrified at the atrocities being committed on civilians by German soldiers. A still photo in Muller’s documentary confirms her repulsion at what she was witnessing. Without delay she removed herself from her front line position. In the documentary, filmed fifty-four years after the Polish invasion, she claims to have left the front line due to the horrific violence and atrocities she was witnessing. It is just as likely that she distanced herself from the fighting as way of maintaining her ignorance. Riefenstahl was an apathetic woman who was primarily concerned with her career and artistry. Remaining blind to what was unfolding before her eyes was a means by which to retain plausible deniability. For, if she had been truly aghast by what was transpiring, she may not have filmed Hitler’s victory parade through Warsaw one month hence. It can be further argued that had Riefenstahl not chosen ignorance, she might not have sent Adolph Hitler a telegram congratulating him after the German army successfully invaded France and seized Paris.
In interviews with Ray Muller, Leni Riefenstahl maintained that she believed Hitler and the Nazi party conveyed a message of peace. She claimed to have sent Hitler the congratulatory telegram under the pretense that she thought the conquering of Paris meant that the war was over. The telegram captured feelings of awe and adoration and Riefenstahl admitted that Hitler had indeed “stirred feelings” in her. She claimed to have believed the Reich’s message was one of peace yet Triumph of the Will contained uniformed soldiers in most frames. There was a militaristic theme throughout conveyed through the use of salutes, parades, and flags. In defending her telegram to Hitler, she did not denounce the invasion of another country or express any sympathy for French civilians. By remaining silent, she was giving her tacit approval for Germany to be a conquering nation. She was in awe of Hitler and continued to view him as her country’s savior, as is evident by the way she filmed him in Triumph of the Will.
Triumph and Beyond
In the 1935 award winning Nazi propaganda film,Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl exposes the viewer to her magnificent talent as a film maker. She was unquestionably a pioneer and innovator with regards to cinematography and a genius in her application of lighting technique. From the very first appearance of Hitler in the film, as he emerges from the sky to the blaring tones of Wagner, Riefenstahl casts him in a glowing light reminiscent of a deity. During his speeches, she films him from below so he appears as a tall and imposing figure. All flags and soldiers are perfectly aligned and the soldiers’ eyes remain in the shadows of their helmets to signify blind obedience. The scenes from the Nuremberg Rally are magnificent in scope and purposefully depict the Nazi party as a civic religion. In fact, she films Hitler walking down the center aisle of the massive gathering with a man at each side. The trio stops at the altar of the Unknown Soldier, conjuring an image of the Holy Trinity, thus intentionally equating Hitler to Jesus Christ. She filmed segments of the event from above to show the mass of people and flags as being united with one being indistinguishable from the next. All of these images are based on fascist ideologies. The film was funded by the Nazi party and Leni Riefenstahl helped choreograph and stage the event.
The most atrocious and blatant example of Leni Riefenstahl’s self-obsession was her use of Gypsies when she began filming Tiefland in 1940. Under Hitler’s regime, Gypsies were rounded up and forced into camps on what American’s would call reservations. Riefenstahl needed extras for several scenes in her movie and made use of the Gypsies. They were forced to work without pay and once filming was complete, they were sent to Auschwitz. Muller showed written documentation of this in his documentary but Riefenstahl denied knowing the Gypsies were from camps or what was to be their fate. In all probability she never saw the names of the people or witnessed the horrors of Auschwitz; however, that does not mean she was unaware of what did and did not exist.
Riefenstahl continued her Fascist themes long after the fall of the Third Reich. In 1974 she published a book of photography based on the lives of the African Nuba tribe. The natives depicted in “The Last of the Nuba” are men of physical perfection who are strong and virile. The women are present for breeding purposes only. The tribe is of course primitive and non-materialistic. They have been untainted by urban values and come from pure blood, tenets that were essential to Nazi ideology. Continuing with her Fascist theme was one particularly compelling photo of three Nuba men atop three separate tall rock formations. They were posed in dramatic fashion and possessed a look of athleticism, akin to her work on Olympia. It is arguable that Riefenstahl, as an artist, was simply responding to an aesthetic. It is equally believable that Riefenstahl, as a Nazi, was continuing to propagate her Fuhrer’s ideologies. As was true of all her work, it was art. It was propaganda. A propagandist is not necessarily a criminal.
It is indisputable that Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant artist, self-involved, and enamored with Hitler. When discussing Hitler in Muller’s documentary, she showed a wide smile when recounting her first meeting with him and never once denounced his actions or beliefs. She claimed that she was not proud of Triumph of the Will, yet when discussing her editing process with Muller and viewing scenes from the film, she beamed with delight. She also told Muller that she did not know the film was about politics and stated that for all she cared it could have been about “fruits and vegetables.” In the same interview she said that she refused to make any further films that pertained to politics. A logical conclusion to be drawn from this statement is that one cannot refuse to do something a second time unless she was aware she did it the first time; therefore, Riefenstahl knew she had made a political film. Another conclusion to be made is that she was completely unconcerned with the fate of others. To her, “fruits and vegetables” and six million human beings were interchangeable. Her selfish apathy was appalling, most especially after her arrest when she was shown pictures of the victims at Dachau. When recounting this story for Muller she failed to mention the plight of the Jews or exhibit any sadness for these helpless victims. Her only sentiment was that her life had been shattered.
Leni Riefenstahl lived to be 101 years of age. She travelled the world and was emotionally intimate with one of the most horrific dictators history has ever known. Films did not dictate the actions of Adolph Hitler or any other Nazi just as music and video games do not cause teenagers to become criminals. Leni Riefenstahl was not a war criminal. She was an arrogant and jealous woman who was concerned with no one but herself. She was morally bankrupt and devoid of human emotion and enjoyed being blind to her surroundings. Ignorance, however intentionally assumed, is not a crime.
- Ray Muller, The Wondeful, Horrible Life of Leni RiefenstahlDVD (1993,New York: Kino on Video, 1998)
- Leni Riefenstahl, Last of the Nuba (London: Harvill Press, 1986)
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