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Leni Riefenstahl’s films gave the world the lasting images of Nazi Germany, whether in the form of propaganda or as she claims, in a completely historical sense. Following the second world war, Leni Reifenstahl was both praised and put down for her contributions to the Nazi Party through her films. Some historical debates state she was creating propaganda films knowingly and deliberately for the Nazi regime while others have succumbed to her adamant protest that she was merely creating films that reflected her technical creativity, artistic accomplishments and the history of the time period. Riefenstahl began her career as a dancer and actress, but it was her films of the 1934 Nazi party rally and of the Berlin Olympics two years later that brought her prewar acclaim and postwar infamy. Her films of the Nuremberg rallies were stated by historian Susan Sontag as being “the most purely propagandist films ever made”, while others argue that her films could not be cited as propaganda as they lacked many of the elements that would traditionally make them so. Riefenstahl’s film made of the of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympia, perhaps raises much of the debate surrounding whether Leni Riefenstahl was creating propaganda rather than documenting history as many analysts and historians have perceived elements of Nazi ideology through her pioneering film techniques. Amidst all of the claims made against her for over half a century, Leni Riefenstahl remained relentless in denying the allegations made against her; whether she was a Nazi sympathiser and propagandist or purely an artist. However, through the allegations made against her and her films, either way there is no doubt regarding that “through her lens, Leni Riefenstahl gave the world the lasting images of Nazi Germany”.
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Helene (Leni) Berta Amalie Riefenstahl was born in Berlin in 1902 and began her career as a dancer, when waiting at a train station after severely injuring her knee, she saw a poster for a mountain film directed by Dr Arnold Fanck. Becoming immediately inspired, she took up acting in Fanck’s films which then led her to direct, edit and perform in the film Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) in 1932. After completing a European tour promoting the film, she returned to Berlin to find her city filled with Nazi propaganda. Curious, she attended a Nazi Party rally held at SportsPalast where she saw Adolf Hitler speak. She reflected in a later interview; “He radiated something very powerful… Something which had a kind of hypnotic effect. That frightened me a little.” Leni requested a meeting with Hitler to which he accepted, having previously admired her work, and confronted her with the idea of making his party films. According to Dr Fritz Hippler, the Reich Director – General of film; “Riefenstahl was lucky, of course, in getting on terms with Hitler… before there was any talk of his seizing power. At that early stage, she had already won for herself Hitler’s approval and involvement.” However, Leni declined the offer, but would come to accept his offer in August 1933.
Riefenstahl had always been in denial about her contribution to any of the Nazi propaganda and maintains that all of her films were created for documentary purposes. The first of her films of the Nuremberg rallies, Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), was considered pure propaganda by many, and until her death, Leni Riefenstahl was reluctant to acknowledge it due to the lack of artistic skill shown. Victory of Faith was the first film directed by Leni of the NSDAP party rally in Nuremberg between the 30th of August and 3rd of September in 1933. The main scenes of the film include Hilter’s arrival in Nuremberg, the welcoming of the NSDAP, the opening of Congress, the Zeppelinweise Parade of NSDAP leaders, Hitler Youth report and Hitler’s speech at the end of the film. The film contained few explanatory titles and no commentary. A point of interest, perhaps, is shown through the leader of the SA, Ernst Röhm depicted by Hitler’s side, apparently on the same level, and also shown conversing with him, suggesting a close relationship. Victory of Faith was shown to the general public between December 1933 and January 1934. It was withdrawn from circulation and most of the prints were destroyed, following the “Night Of Long Knives”, during which, Hitler had his old friend, Röhm, executed.
Riefenstahl’s next step is one of the main reasons it is believed that she was creating propaganda rather than documenting history. She was once more commissioned by Hitler to create a film of the Nuremberg Party Rally held in September of 1934. The film, Triumpf des Willens (Triumph of the Will) was considered to be more of a remake than a sequel to her previous Victory of Faith in which Leni Riefenstahl was disappointed. However, she remained reluctant to continue filming the party rally, claiming she had been drafted by Hitler into making it and had very little choice about the film, as well as stating that she was given only two weeks to plan the film and lived in constant hope that the task would be given to someone else. The claims made by Riefenstahl were contradicted in Joseph Goebell’s diary where he stated that she was given 10 weeks to plan the film.
Triumph of the Will is considered to be one of the greatest documentary films and most powerful propaganda tools ever made, and shows that Riefenstahl was a master of creative documentary film-making. In the film, the changes that had occurred in Nazi Germany since Victory of Faith are evident. Himmler, head of the SS, replaces Röhm in his place by Hitler’s side and the new leader of the SA is barely, reflecting the loss of power of the SA and the height of power of the SS. Triumph of the Will’s main scenes and features include: Hitler’s arrival, the folk parade, the opening of the Congress, Lutze’s address to the SA, the Hitler Youth, the Army review, the Parade and the Rally closing. Triumph of the Will was shown throughout Germany to a public audience and is still highly regarded as a masterpiece.
Leni Riefenstahl’s next film, or the third and final in the Nuremberg Rally films, was called Tag der Freiheit! — Unsere Wehrmacht! (Day of Freedom! – Our Armed Forces!) and depicted a celebration of the Nazi military regime. A sequence of events include the presentation of the Wehrmacht, Hitler’s Speech to his forces and the Wehrmacht in full exercise. It is said that in this film, a warning of things to come is depicted with a mock battle staged by German troops. The camera follows the soldiers from their early-morning preparations as they march to the vast parade grounds where a miniature war involving infantry, cavalry, aircraft, flak guns and the first public appearance of Germany’s new forbidden tank is presented before Hitler and thousands of spectators. The film ends with a montage of Nazi flags and a shot of German planes flying overhead in a swastika formation.
Leni’s final film made during the World War II era perhaps sparks most of the debate concerning whether she was documenting history or creating propaganda. In 1936, Riefenstahl was commissioned by the International Olympics Committee to make the official film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The result was Olympia, a two part film (The Festival of Nations and The Festival of Beauty) that established precedents for filmed sports coverage that continue to the present day, as well as invented new devices to facilitate the filming. Hitler is shown few times on the film – the major section that does is the opening ceremony, filmed in a straightforward documentary method. The critical acclaim for Olympia began with the film’s premiere on April 20th, 1938, in Berlin. It was acclaimed by many different governments and award prizes and achievements from different countries. Following the release of Olympia, she traveled to the United States of America to promote the film. The tour coincided with the infamous Kristallnacht of violence against the Jews, when an estimated 20, 000 were carted off to concentration camps and scores were murdered. A campaign made by the American Anti-Nazi League ensured that she received poor press coverage. An advertisement placed in the Hollywood Reporter on the 29th of November, 1938, states; “THERE IS NO ROOM IN HOLLWOOD FOR LENI RIEFENSTAHL! In this moment, when hundreds of thousands of our brethren await certain death, close your doors to all Nazi agents.” She was unable to find an American distributer for her film.
Through her lens, Leni Riefenstahl gave the world the lasting images of Nazi Germany, but were they visions of history or fabricated and propagandised? Leni Riefenstahl has been described as an egotist, driven by ambition and not as politically innocent as she claimed; rather as someone who took advantage of every situation for personal benefit without regard for the moral consequences. According to her cameraman, Hans Ertl; “Leni made documentaries, not propaganda. She didn’t make propaganda films to order”. However, according to historian, Susan Sontag, Riefenstahl’s films were considered to be blatant forms of propaganda.
Victory of Faith was used by Hitler and the Nazi Party as propaganda promoting his rise in fame. The London Observer stated that “It is to be sincerely hoped that this film will be shown in all cinemas outside Germany if one wishes to understand the intoxicating spirit which is moving Germany these days.” Victory of Faith was made in collaboration with Albert Speer, later Hitler’s minister for armaments, and contained a speech by the arch anti-Semite, Julius Streicher. Hitler is shown to be more “human” in Victory of Faith, where scenes feature him fixing his hair, sweating or appearing awkward and uncomfortable
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. This shows that Leni, at this point, was not attempting to glorify Hitler or his party. The third film of the Nazi party rallies, Day of Freedom shows a hint of what is to come under Hitler’s reign. Many historians say that it is impossible for Leni to have continued to claim political ignorance and deny her involvement as a Nazi sympathiser when she had such a clear idea of power relations and how to show them, however, she remained “I was never anti-Semitic and I never joined the Nazi party. So what am I guilty of? Tell me that.”Like Triumph of the Will, Victory of Faith and Day of Freedom contain no commentary or explanatory titles. Riefenstahl says in a later interview “The film does not contain a slanted commentary for the simple reason that the film has no commentary at all. It is history. It is purely historical film.”Triumph of the Will presents Germany as an orderly society, and showed Germany to be a peaceful country. This image reassures European audiences that Germany is no longer threatening the peace.
Triumph of the Will also promotes typical Nazi ideology through the depiction of fair skinned, blonde haired children, soldiers and works, playing games or going about their lives as healthy, fit and smiling Aryans. Nazi ideology is also represented through the “roll call” scene where Aryan soldiers lined up in formation and reeled off the names of their hometowns, which intends to highlight the Nazi belief in the superior Aryan race, and also the Nazi policy of Volksgmeinschaft. Adolf Hitler is shown in the opening frames of the film as a deity or a god-like figure, as he descends from the sky on an aeroplane to greet the screaming and cheering population of Nuremberg. The way she shot Hitler from below against a blue sky, and with him constantly being made to appear above the crowd are just some of the ways in which Leni Riefenstahl deifies Hitler. Through her outstanding techniques she has captured Germany in all of it’s glory for all of the world to see and admire. In these ways the film has been considered as the propaganda film of all time – emphasizing the greatness of their leader who through composition, cutting and special camera angles, is given mythical dimensions. Hitler himself saw the film as propaganda; “a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our movement.”
However, Riefenstahl maintained that it was simply a documentary and claims “The backdrop was there already, both in Nuremberg and Berlin. I did not shape my subject. I did not manipulate the material or add any propaganda; I simply got my cameramen to film what I saw, as well as they could.” Riefenstahl, while during the editing and filming of Triumph of the Will, refused to let Hitler intervene when he stated that he wanted more of the party’s officials and leaders shown. This was an insult to Leni’s artistic principles. Leni Riefenstahl claims ignorance to politics and remains adamant in saying that she had no intention to make propaganda for the Nazis and that her only intent was to document a historic event as artistically and creatively as possible. According to Dr. Fritz Hippler, the Reich Director of film; “As a great artist, what meant most to her was producing a convincing and artistically acceptable film.
Nothing else interested her.”Her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia, has been criticised by many to be propaganda and to support the Nazi ideology of the Aryan body, through Riefenstahl’s fascination and manipulation of the muscular male anatomy. This focus reflects the Nazi’s idealisation of the classical Greek body as the pinnacle of racial perfection. In reality, the Olympics were yet another area where Jews were excluded, despite the International Olympic Committee’s attempts to alleviate discrimination. In 1938, Riefenstahl went to America to promote Olympia. The tour coincided with the infamous Kristellnacht and the film was never released in the USA after a campaign made by the American Anti-Nazi League. However, Leni proved to show that her filming was a work of art through her impressive and original camera techniques, her dramatic use of sound and silence and her representation of the human body. According to Guzzi Lantschner, one of Leni’s cameramen, “She expressed no political comments or opinions. The Olympic film was certainly not political; it had after all been commissioned by the OIC.” It is undoubtedly difficult to pin Olympia as a purely propagandist film, as Nazis or Aryans were not the only race or people shown. Some sympathetic historians believe that the true hero of Olympia is not the Fuhrer, but the African-American athlete, Jesse Owens, who won gold. He is featured prominently in the film, despite Hitler’s overt disgust at his performance.
Many historians believe that the reason why such a debate as to whether Leni Riefenstahl was documenting history or creating propaganda is owed to the fact she was woman. Some feminist historians believe that the view that she was creating propaganda and that she was a Nazi sympathiser or follower was only raised because of her being female. They argue that she has suffered because she was too successful in a male dominated industry. Other historians have portrayed her as highly talented and opportunistic, but politically naïve in her youth, allowing herself to be used by Hitler as a propagandist. Leni, when talking of her films, was remorseful and stated “I regret I was alive during the period” and “I’ve suffered for half a century. It’s an incredible burden.”Riefenstahl’s career has become the focus for heated debates about the relationship between art and propaganda and she has remained a highly controversial figure in the history of cinema. Her films of the Nuremberg rallies were considered masterpieces of their time, and also great achievements in the world of propaganda.
There is no doubt that her films were of benefit to the Nazis in terms of promotion, however, it is evident that at this time she had not known the effects of the ideology presented in her films on German life. The view that Leni Riefenstahl was documenting history rather than creating propaganda is not one-sided. It cannot be said that she was doing one or the other because through her documenting history and recording what was in front of her, in what she saw was a groundbreaking artistic way, she created propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl’s most celebrated films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia cannot be dubbed “propaganda” because the responder can now reflect upon the aftermath of her films; something she could not do during the time of creation. She did not add to the set of her films or create any of the background propaganda, but merely filmed what she saw, in the best way she could. “Through her lens, Leni Riefenstahl gave the world the lasting images of Nazi Germany”; history presented in an artistic way, but used by the Nazis in the form of propaganda to promote one of the most horrific periods of power in the world’s history.
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