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Leni Riefenstahl and the Holocaust!

Leni Riefenstahl

 

Leni Riefenstahl

Helene Bertha Amalie “Leni” Riefenstahl was born in Berlin on the 22 August 1902 and began her career as a ballet dancer, employed by Max Reinhardt among others, for dance performances in the early 1920’s.

 

Her father Alfred Riefenstahl  was said to have wanted his first child to be a son so that he could carry on the firm that had provided a secure amount of wealth to the Riefenstahl family. However, as the young girl Leni grew into young adulthood, she felt her passions grow in the artistic direction that had been a staple of her mother’s life.

 

At the age of 4, Leni began to write poetry and paint. Along with this, Leni felt that from a very early age she was an athletic child, due to the behest of her father. At age twelve, she recalled joining a local gymnastics and swim club called "Nixe". It was her mother that noticed that Leni had quite the artistic bent. She perceived that Leni had the ability to paint with a natural understanding of composition and balance, which were two of the profound qualities in the later films of Leni Riefenstahl.

 

In 1925 she made her film debut as an actress in Der Heilige Berg the first of a series of well photographed movies about the Alps, made by Arnold Franck, the father of the mountain cult in the Wiemar cinema.

 

Riefenstahl became a leading figure of this cult, starring in Franck’s Der Grosse Sprung (1927), Die Weisse Holle vom Piz Palu (1929), Sturm uber dem Mont Blanc (1930) and Das Blau Licht in 1932, which she co-authored and directed for the first time, produced and played the leading role in, winning a gold medal at the Venice Biennale.

 

Riefenstahl first remembered hearing of the political name of Adolf Hitler around the filming of Das Blaue Licht. However, at this time, Hitler was a large political force in German politics. Riefenstahl attests to a naivety about the political world due to her rigorous and involving filmmaking during Hitler’s political rise that his name had sadly no recognition for her. Yet, Hitler had noticed Leni and her work in Das Blaue Licht along with the earlier Arnold Fanck films and would later call on her and her talents for the Party.

 

In late February of 1932, she attended one of his election speeches at the excited and overcrowded Berlin Sports Palace. Once again, like at the films, she was struck by the power of this moment that she had to make up her own mind and meet the speaker. She quickly wrote a letter to the Nazi paper "Völkischer Beobachter", in which she requested a meeting with Hitler before she had to leave Germany for a Arnold Fanck shoot in Greenland.

 

Leni Riefenstahl with Himmler in 1934

In 1933 she made her last film for Franck titled SOS Eisberg, before being appointed by Hitler as the top film executive of the Nazi Party. Hitler saw Leni Rifenstahl as a director who could use aesthetics to produce an image of a strong Germany imbued with Wagnerian motifs of power and beauty.

 

In 1933 he invited Reifenstahl to direct a short film, Der Sieg des Glaubens (The Victory of Faith), which was filmed at that year’s Nuremburg Party Rally. This film was the template for her most famous work, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), shot at the Nuremburg Party Rally of 1934.

 

Reifenstahl initially refused Hitler’s commission for the film, but relented when she received unlimited resources and full artistic control for the film. Triumph of the Will, with its evocative images and innovative film technique, ranked as an epic work of documentary film making, and is widely regarded as one of the most masterful propaganda films ever produced.

 

It won several awards, but forever linked the artist Leni Reifenstahl with National Socialism.

 

Equally stunning were Reifenstahl’s directorial efforts in Olympia, which captured with haunting effectiveness the images of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. It was for Olympia that Reifenstahl pioneered numerous cinematographic techniques, such as filming footage with cameras mounted on rails. Olympia’s forceful blend of aesthetics, sports, and propaganda again won Rifenstahl accolades and awards, including Best Foreign Film honours at the Venice Film Festival and a special award from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for depicting the joy of sport.

 

German magazine cover detailing Riefenstahl's filming of the 1936 Berlin Olympics

By her own account, the advent of the Second World War and the rapid escalation of violence under the Nazi regime had an unfavourable effect on both Reifenstahl and her career. Early in the German invasion of Poland, she witnessed an incident that seemed to shake her confidence in the movement she had glorified in her films.

 

During the Invasion of Poland, Riefenstahl was photographed wearing a military uniform and a pistol on her belt in the company of German soldiers. she had gone to the site of the battle as a war correspondent. On 12 September 1939 she was in the town of Końskie when 30 civilians were executed there, in retaliation for an alleged attack on German soldiers.

 

While accompanying German troops near Konskie, the filmmaker witnessed the execution of Polish Jews and this upset her so much, she halted filming and went to Berlin, to seek an audience with Adolf Hitler.

 

Her distress was short-lived, she was back in the General Gouvernment and filmed the victory parade along the Ujazdowsskie Avenue on the 5 October 1939. The podium where Hitler took the salute was located in front of the Ujazdowski Park near Chopin Strasse.

 

In 1940 Riefenstahl commenced filming on Tiefland (Lowlands), a story set in the Spanish Pyrenees, this was a project she had earlier shelved when persuaded by Hitler to film Triumph of the Will.


Tiefland was filmed on location near Kitzbuhl, Austria, the filming dragged on for nearly four years, in order to enhance the films “gypsy” flavour, 51 young Roma inmates from the nearby labour camp at Maxglan – Leopoldskron were hired as extras by Reifenstahl’s staff.
 
For the indoor scenes, filmed in Berlin- Babelsberg in 1942, Riefenstahl used as extras at least 66 Roma and Sinti inmates from the Berlin – Marzahn camp for gypsies. Allegations that the German Police returned the gypsies after fulfilling their filming roles, to the Maxglan and Marzahn Gypsy camps, and subsequently deported them to the Auschwitz death camp, were serious enough to involve Reifenstahl in a civil suit.
  
That legal suit was dropped in 2002 only after her production company retracted a public statement Reifenstahl had made in which she claimed that all of the extras had survived the war. Tiefland eventually was shown in 1954.
 

In 1944 she married Wehrmacht Major Peter Jacob, but this marriage ended in divorce, and during the 1960’s she developed a life-long relationship with Horst Kettner, who was forty years her junior.  

Read more here: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/holoprelude/riefenstahl.html

The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
www.HolocaustResearchProject.org

Copyright Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010

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