Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Riefenstahl, Leni (1902–2003)

Title: Leni Riefenstahl directs film
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German film director and actress who made movies for the Nazi regime. Born in Berlin on 22 August 1902, Leni Riefenstahl trained as a dancer, and her performances in Berlin, beginning in 1923, made her a star. Hired by Max Reinhardt, director of the Deutsches Theater, she performed throughout Europe. After sustaining a knee injury, Riefenstahl became the foremost actress in the troupe of Arnold Fanck, founder of the Freiburg Mountain and Sport Company. The film Holy Mountain launched her acting career in 1926, and she would thereafter appear in The Big Jump (1927) and White Hell of Pitz Palü (1929). She mastered the transition from silent films to sound, as evidenced in Storms over Mount Blanc (1930).

In 1931, Riefenstahl founded a film production company and began directing her own projects. Blue Light: A Mountain Legend from the Dolomites, the first film she directed, won a silver medal in Venice in 1932 and ran for over a year in Paris and London. She also produced and acted in SOS Iceberg in 1932, a film shot in Greenland.

In June 1933, Riefenstahl concluded an agreement to make films for the Nazi Party. Her first commission, Victory of Faith, dealt with the Fifth Party Congress. Renaming her company Reich Party Congress Film, she was assigned the following year to capture on film the Nuremberg party rally. Triumph of the Will, made in the style of a newsreel to enliven the endless columns of marching participants, displayed numerous artistic and technical innovations and became one of the most famous documentaries of the century.

In 1935, Riefenstahl produced a film about the German army, called Day of Freedom. Consisting largely of scenes of military exercises, its first public showing was held in the Berlin Chancellery and was attended by Adolf Hitler and more than 200 high-ranking guests. The next year, on the occasion of the Olympic Games held in Berlin in August, she directed a film about conceptions of the Olympic ideal, Olympia, released in 1938. Her second great documentary, it was intended to be a bridge from antiquity to the present but was largely boycotted abroad as Nazi anti-Semitic policies became widely publicized.

During the war, Riefenstahl was expected to contribute to the propaganda offensive. Although she and her cameramen underwent training as frontline correspondents, she showed little enthusiasm for the war effort. Widely denounced as a faithful servant of Nazism with a gift for glorifying the wrong cause, Riefenstahl is cinema's principal figure in the discord between morality and art.

After the war, Riefenstahl traveled frequently to Africa and lived for extended periods in the Sudan with primitive tribes. She attracted worldwide attention with her photography of the Nuba. At 71, she learned to dive and thereafter became a renowned undersea photographer. Riefenstahl died on 10 September 2003 in Pocking, near Munich.

David M. Keithly


Further Reading
Infield, Glenn. Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.; Riefenstahl, Leni. Memoiren. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Ullstein Verlag, 1996.; Rother, Rainer. Leni Riefenstahl: Die Verführung des Talents. Berlin: Henschel Verlag, 2000.; Salkfeld, Audrey. A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl. London: Jonathan Cape, 1996.
 

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