Leni Riefenstahl - documentary filmmaker or propagandist?

21 May 2019


This month Aurora Metro books are publishing a collection of plays by Tom McNab who after a full and successful career coaching many sports stars and teams to victory, in his 70s started writing plays.   


Three of  Tom's plays have a connection to the controversial film director Leni Riefenstahl.  Two are in the collection 1936: Berlin and other plays (Aurora Metro, 2019)


1936: Berlin tells the story of the legendary athlete Jesse Owens, the young German-Jewish athlete, Gretel Bergmann and the Irish American judge Jeremiah Mahoney, who narrowly failed to secure an American boycott of the Games. The play also features Leni Riefenstahl who created Olympia (1938), the magnificent film of the 1936 Olympics. Riefenstahl is a central character in Whisper in the Heart, which is an imaginary meeting between Riefenstahl and the acclaimed director Orson Welles in 1955 Spain.  The third play in the collection Orwell on Jura is set on the remote island of Jura to which the ailing Orwell has retreated to write his seminal novel 1984.



Although not in the collection McNab also wrote Leni, Leni which is set in 1993 as an older Riefenstahl looks back at three pivotal moments in her life.  This was made into a short film adapted by Alistair Audsley and directed by Adrian Vitoria. It stars Hildegard Neil and Valeria Kozhevnikova as Riefenstahl.   This is being screened as part of the book's launch at The Cinema Museum.  It's very good, if you get the chance do try and see it.



As you may have spotted from my writing and talks, I am very interested in women directors, and Leni Riefenstahl is an extraordinary filmmaker.



In 2009 I wrote a chapter on German propaganda for Under Fire: a century of war movies (Ian Allen Publishing, 2009). The book is now out of print, but you can snap up secondhand copies on Amazon from 1p!


Here's an extract from my chapter “Don't Come to Me with political material” Joseph Goebbels and Nazi Propaganda, on Leni Riefenstahl ....





It is then perhaps ironic that for audiences studying this period of filmmaking today, that the two most well-known feature films are Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia, as they were not part of the canon of films overseen by Goebbels but were commissioned by Hitler direct using general Nazi Party funds.


Riefenstahl's directorial debut The Blue Light was an artistic triumph, if not a commercial one.  Hitler, who had long admired her as an actress, thought that she could capture the spectacle and romanticism of the Party.  Her perceived lack of political interest meant that she could see the events through an in-expert eye, focusing on the overarching themes and power of the events and convert these real events into theatrical presentations that would move and inspire an audience regardless of their level of engagement with the politics. 


Their first collaboration was a short film of the Nazi party's 1933 Nuremberg rally, Victory of Faith (1934).  A year later, he commissioned her to make a feature length film of the 1934 rally Triumph of the Will (1935).  Another short followed, Day of Freedom, Our Army (1935) which focused on the German Army - a montage driven piece which juxtaposes images of artillery preparation with the mythic images of earth and sky, fire and water.  Her final film was Olympia (1938) a four-hour celebration of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.


Triumph of the Will has been described as "an impressive spectacle of Germany's adherence to Hitler", a "Nazi masterpiece" and "a masterpiece of romanticised propaganda", and is an oft cited example of propaganda at its most effective and manipulative.



Hitler’s direct involvement meant Riefenstahl had huge resources at her disposal - an unlimited budget, a crew of 120 and between 30 and 40 cameras.  It stands as a powerful artistic representation of the ideas in Hitler's book Mein Kampf (work, extreme nationalism, belief in corporative state socialism, a private army, a youth cult, the use of propaganda and the submission of all decisions to the supreme leader). 


Riefenstahl has consistently claimed that it was "Not a documentary but a work of art, [there was] no commentary in the normal sense of the word.  There's no commentator to explain everything.  That's the way it differs from a documentary or a propaganda film.  If it were propaganda, as many say, they'd be a commentator to explain the significance and value of the occasion.  This wasn't the case".[1] 


In contrast, Susan Sontag in her essay entitled ‘Fascinating Fascism’, claims that it is the "most successful, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the film-makers having an aesthetic or visual concept independent of propaganda.” [2]



Riefenstahl has always denied that her films were designed as propaganda; they were merely film records of actual events.  In an interview in 1964, Riefenstahl makes this clear: "If you see this film again today you ascertain that it doesn't contain a single reconstructed scene.  Everything in it is true.  And it contains no tendentious commentary at all.  It is history.  A pure historical film ...  it is film-verite.  It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history.  It is therefore a documentary.  Not a propaganda film.  Oh! I know very well what propaganda is.  That consists of recreating events in order to illustrate a thesis, or, in the face of certain events, to let one thing go in order to accentuate another.  I found myself, me, at the heart of an event, which was the reality of a certain time and a certain place.  My film is composed of what stemmed from that." [3]


It cannot be denied that Triumph of the Will is a record of an event.  It is a film of an actual event which occurred where and when the film says it did.  In an account of the making of the film, Riefenstahl writes that she was involved in the Rally's planning - and conceived the event with filming in mind, as Susan Sontag reiterates in her article ‘Fascinating Fascism’ "The Rally was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but as a spectacular propaganda film." However, by 1993 Riefenstahl claimed that she was not involved in the design of the Rally - "I just observed and tried to film it well.  The idea that I helped to plan it is downright absurd". [4] 



However, it has generally been accepted that the Nuremberg Rally was staged for the cameras, rather than the cameras having to accommodate the action: as was the case with the cinema newsreel crews.  The film was cut to rhythm in time to anthems and music, creating choreographed images of endless numbers of men in uniform, marching in to and out of abstract shapes and patterns filmed from a variety of angles, reducing the men to geometrical designs.  The passionate music, feeling and emotion builds up to a climatic frenzied finale when Hitler takes the stand.  The dramatic intensity of the event was accentuated by the composition and editing.  It is this deliberate manipulation of emotion that makes this film so effective. 




[1]   The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl written and directed by Ray Müller, Eureka Video, 1993


[2]   re-printed in Movies and Methods Vol 1 edited Bill Nichols, University of California Press, 1976


[3]   re-printed in A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema by David Thomson, Andre Deutsch, 1994


[4] The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl written and directed by Ray Müller, Eureka Video, 1993



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