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Creator / Leni Riefenstahl

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"I feel as though I have lived many lives, experienced the heights and depths of each and like the waves of the ocean, never known rest. Throughout the years, I have looked always for the unusual, for the wonderful, for the mysteries at the heart of life."

Helene Bertha Amalie "Leni" Riefenstahl (August 22, 1902 September 8, 2003) was a German actress, filmmaker and photographer.

She first trained as a dancer and played in several German films of the 1920s and 1930s. Five of these were successes, including The Sacred Mountain (Der heilige Berg) and The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü — if you haven't seen that one, you probably heard of it in Inglourious Basterds). She then embraced a career in film directing during the rise of Nazi Germany. Her first directed film was a fiction, Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), in 1932.

Her most well known directorial efforts were documentaries counting among the most visually striking and influential propaganda pieces ever filmed. How influential? Ask George Lucas, who took some cues from her when filming crowds in Star Wars. They earned her a privileged place in the artistic world of Nazi Germany, which was most unusual considering the era's sexism that vastly limited opportunities for women.

She was arrested by the Allies at the end of World War II, but classified as "fellow traveler" / "Nazi sympathiser" only and was not associated with the regime's war crimes and crimes against humanity. She was nonetheless prohibited from directing again and focused on photography instead. She had a particular interest in the Nuba peoples of Sudan and later underwater photography (she started underwater diving in her 70s and practiced it well into her 90s, no less). She passed away a few days after her 101st birthday in 2003.

Leni's life and ties with the Nazi regime, and with Adolf Hitler in particular, remain subject of controversy up to this day (she was notorious for suing anything published about her that she disapproved of), controversial enough for people like Jodie Foster and Steven Soderbergh to back down on biopic projects about her.

List of her works:

As director:

  • Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932), fiction film.
  • Der Sieg des Glaubens (The Victory of the Faith, 1933), documentary about a Nazi party rally following their rise to power in 1933.
  • Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will,1935), documentary about the 1934 Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg.
  • Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Wehrmacht, 1935), documentary about the German army.
  • Olympia (1938), documentary about the 1936 Olympic Games of Berlin.
  • Tiefland (Lowlands, directed in 1940-1944, edited in 1954), fiction film.
  • Allein unter den Nuba (Alone Among the Nuba, 1965), unreleased documentary about her days among the Nuba peoples of Sudan.
  • Impressionen unter Wasser (Impressions under Water, 2002), documentary about seabed life.

Tropes about her works:

  • Droit du Seigneur: In Tiefland (an adaptation of a 1903 opera of the same name): Don Sebastian, marquis de Roccabruna and a landowner in Northern Spain, is set to marry a rich woman but does not want to let go of his mistress, the dancer Martha. He contrives to arrange a marriage between Martha and Pedro, one of his shepherds, and set Pedro up as a miller in a mill close to the castle, calculating that Pedro will not dare to resist him having Martha as his mistress because Pedro is dependent on Don Sebastian. On Pedro's and Martha's wedding night, Don Sebastian turns up at the mill in order to force himself on Martha, who however has come to loathe Don Sebastian. Pedro, who now understands Don Sebastian's true intentions, comes to her aid and in the ensuing struggle eventually strangles Don Sebastian.
  • Heroic Build: She filmed the athletes of the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 like Greek gods or heroes for Olympia. So much so that the film's French title literally translates as Gods of the Stadium.
  • Hitler Cam: One of the Trope Makers with Triumph of the Will.
  • Million Mook March: She was expert at filming parades crowds marching in order, be it SA paramilitary in Triumph of the Will or the army itself in subsequent films.
  • National Geographic Nudity: The photos and footage she took when living with the Nuba tribes of Sudan show plenty of male and female nudity, owing to these people's lifestyle and traditions.
  • Nature Documentary: The last thing she directed, Impressions under Water, is a documentary about seabed life she filmed in her late 90s.

Trivia about her works:

  • Banned in China: Aside from the obvious ban on her Nazi propaganda works in modern Germany outside of educational purposes on the dangers of the ideology, her very first film of that kind, Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of the Faith) was banned in 1934 by the Nazi leadership itself. The reason for this was the prominent role the SA (the infamous "Brown Shirts", paramilitary units of the Nazi party during its political ascent) had in it. The SA was purged of its leadership during the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934 and the organization's role was considerably reduced, so works showing them prominently (and especially their leader Ernst Röhm, who was executed during the purge) were not welcome anymore. All copies were believed to have been destroyed but one survived.
  • Directed by Cast Member: She had acting parts in Das blaue Licht and Tiefland, both of which she directed.
  • Troubled Production: She completed the shooting of Tiefland (Lowlands) in 1944, but the war prevented her from editing it. She resumed editing it in 1954. The production itself reportedly used prisoners from the Maxglan concentration camp as extras, who weren't paid and described the food and accommodation as worse than the camp. The shoot lasted thirteen months and by the end, the children and teenagers had outgrown the clothes they arrived in (they were forbidden from taking their costumes back), and those whose shoes wouldn't fit anymore had to walk barefoot to the nearest train station. One survivor, Rosa Winter, tried to escape because she feared for her mother's life back in the camp and, when she wouldn't apologise after being recaptured (claiming Riefenstahl ordered her to get on her knees and beg for forgiveness), she was imprisoned for five years in Ravensbrück on the director's orders. As the film was not released until after the War, Riefenstahl went to great efforts to keep the story hidden; successfully suing a magazine for writing about the on-set abuse of the Roma and Sinti extras, and got the documentary Time of Darkness & Silence banished to the archives because it had an interview with a survivor Josef Reinhardtnote  who claimed that Riefenstahl had promised to save him and his family from being deported to Auschwitz. Another possible reason for the delay in editing was that the initial editor on it was Willy Zielke, who had filmed and edited the prologue of Olympia (although Riefenstahl had his name removed from the credits). He had been committed to a psychiatric facility for a nervous breakdown, but she checked him out of it to work on the film by appointing herself his legal guardian, and allegedly made him sleep in an unheated room with minimal guarded by her assistant to prevent him from escaping.

Leni Riefenstahl in fiction:

  • Her film merits are discussed between characters in Inglourious Basterds (2009). And, again, a film she played in, The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü), is mentioned a lot. The film's poster, on which she appears, can be seen.
  • Riefenstahl was referred to in the final episode of Weeds (2012) when Nancy Botwin questions Andy (who is Jewish) for naming his daughter after a Nazi, to which he replies: "She was a pioneer in filmmaking, I don't believe in holding grudges".
  • She's played by Carice Van Houten in Race (2016), which is about the story of Jesse Owens during the Berlin Olympic Games. To make her semi-sympathetic depiction tolerable, the real accounts of her squabbles with Joseph Goebbels about her filming of the Olympics, and of the African-American track star in particular, proved handy to highlight.
  • Helene Winter, from the video game Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (2017), is pretty obviously based on her. She's a prominent film director in the Nazi-controlled world of the game's Alternate Timeline, making propaganda movies such as America: The New Order. She also serves as Hitler's favorite film instructor and reluctant caretaker.
  • A Netflix series titled Leni was announced in 2021, based on filmmaker Nina Gladitz's extensive biography about her.