Leni Riefenstahl- Nazi Sympathiser or Creator of Art?

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The controversy surrounding Leni Riefenstahl’s films has been an ongoing historical debate since the outbreak of World War II. Labelled as ‘purely and simply Nazi propaganda’ Riefenstahl’s work was the cornerstone of Nazi Germany’s media regime. Riefenstahl argues however that her intent was simply to produce art. Whilst the films’ value as promoting the Nazi regime is undeniable it can be questioned whether or not they are entirely propaganda or if they hold more, artistic value. Born in Berlin August 1902 to Alfred and Bertha Riefenstahl, Leni was raised in a comfortable middleclass family. Her father was a controlling and authoritarian figure and tried to discourage her growing passion for dancing. When he discovered she had secretly been attending classes at the Grimm-Reiter school for dance he threatened to divorce her mother and made arrangements for Leni to attend a boarding school in the Heinz Mountains. Eventually he accepted his daughter’s wishes and arranged lessons with a Russian Ballet teacher as well as at the Jutta Klant School for expressive dance. Riefenstahl’s dancing career soon took off with her first solo in 1923 at age 21. This caught the attention of famous theatre manager and producer Max Reinhardt and signing with him she quickly became an acclaimed dancer across Europe. However a dancing accident in Prague in 1924 ended her career. She then pursued a career in acting and soon became the lead female role in Arnold Fanck’s ‘Berg’ films. She starred in numerous films, including ‘The Holy Mountain’ 1926, ‘The Big Jump’ 1927, ‘The White Hell of Pitz Palu’ 1929, and ‘Storm over Mount Blanc’ 1930. Riefenstahl soon took to creating her own films, and in 1930 she began working on ‘The Blue Light’ which she directed, co-produced, starred in and edited. Released in 1932 ‘The Blue Light’ was technically fantastic and incorporated new outstanding filming techniques. Steven Bach comments however that it was somewhat of a disappointment to Riefenstahl as it did not raise her to international fame nor ‘catapult her into a new orbit among actresses’ (1) regardless, it did ensure for her the attention and admiration of Adolf Hitler who was an ardent fan. Riefenstahl on the other hand was still entirely ignorant of Hitler and the Nazi party. As Hinton discerns ‘Leni Riefenstahl was totally unaware of and disinterested in German political affairs before 1932.’ (2) They were first brought to her attention when she returned to Berlin after touring with ‘The Blue Light’ and was urged by a friend to attend a Nazi rally at which Hitler would be speaking. She, like millions of others, was attracted to his social ideals and promises to fix the financial instability and crippling unemployment in Germany and felt he ‘radiated something very powerful.’ (3) This mutual admiration led to a relationship between Riefenstahl, Hitler and numerous other Nazi members, such as Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels. Despite this she declined initial offers to make films for the Nazi Party on the grounds it would limit her artistic independence; reinforcing the comment that Riefenstahl at least believed she was producing art. However, the project she had been working on was cancelled and, needing money, Leni Riefenstahl finally agreed to Hitler’s insistence and filmed the 1933 Nuremburg Rally, ‘Victory of Faith’. She was entirely unpleased with the result of the film ‘what I saw was only an imperfect fragment, not a motion picture.’ (4) The film was rather chaotic and used poor quality footage, although as Rainer Rother comments the film had reached all of Germany, not only Nazi followers and ‘the nation in its entirety had entered Hitler’s service.’ (5) It was the first time Hitler had been presented on such a wide scale to the people and he was able to realise the benefit of using Riefenstahl’s filming talent to abuse this new media. Hitler was so pleased with ‘Victory of Faith’ that he asked Leni Riefenstahl to make a...
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