Leni Riefenstahl: Conversation with an Icon

Leni Riefenstahl, at 96, is easily one of the most famous and controversial documentary-makers of the twentieth century. Long after most of her contemporaries have passed on or retired - or certainly have been forgotten - her name still causes a...
April 1, 1999

Leni Riefenstahl, at 96, is easily one of the most famous and controversial documentary-makers of the twentieth century. Long after most of her contemporaries have passed on or retired – or certainly have been forgotten – her name still causes a stir. A prominent studio executive recently said she would never okay the making of a movie about ‘the Nazi bitch.’ A new book, Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum, claims she was Hitler’s lover. Riefenstahl, meanwhile, contends she has been unfairly maligned for over half a century because of her association with Hitler in the late 1940s, and that she was certainly never Hitler’s lover.

Sixty years after creating Triumph of the Will and Olympia, Riefenstahl’s work is still the object of debate. Was she a contributor to the Nazi cause, or simply a commissioned artist? She claims she had no idea what Hitler’s henchmen were doing until after World War II.

Regardless of one’s opinion on Riefenstahl’s sentiments, one cannot deny her talent, grit and grand passion. George Lucas has described her as ‘the most modern filmmaker.’ Although Riefenstahl has not made a major film since the end of WWII, her images have continued to impress through a series of photography books. First, there were The Last of the Nuba and People of Kau, books published in the 1970s on tribes in remote areas of Africa. These were followed by books on underwater life: Coral Garden and Wonders Under Water, published in the 1980s and 1990s. As evidence of the lasting impact of her images, last year she was recognized by Time Warner as one of this century’s most distinguished persons.

Perhaps her most cherished acknowledgement in recent times came in January, when The Film Institute in Potsdam featured Riefenstahl in a retrospective, her first in Germany. The retrospective drew the largest crowd of any exhibit the Institute has featured.

‘[Response to the exhibit] was both positive and negative,’ observed Riefenstahl during a recent interview in Munich, Germany. ‘The exhibit caused a stir. The lady who organized the exhibit is an extreme leftist and this was a big risk for her. There were lots of protests… The exhibit described good things and bad things about me so that the viewer could make up his own mind, but it was 80% positive and 20% negative. I see it as a victory. The [institute] did one about [Marlene] Dietrich and Romy Schneider and they never had as many visitors. They’re extending the exhibit,’ she added with a smile.

In person, Leni Riefenstahl shatters stereotypes. A week prior to the interview, she had double pneumonia. The expectation was of a frail, weak, old woman, but Riefenstahl exhibits none of the body language associated with sickness or old age.

She has worked a lifetime with men – world-acclaimed cameramen, directors, and technicians. She has stood her ground with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. One expects a cold woman with sharp features and hard edges, but Leni Riefenstahl is a very feminine woman, even at 96. She could pass for 50.


Perhaps her youthfulness stems from the fact that she still works, but certainly not at the frantic pace she did during her thirties. Then, she would work 18-hour days, everyday while filming, and 14-hour days when editing. She threw herself into isolation, accepting neither visitors nor phone calls for several weeks at a time. While she has certainly had her share of love affairs, which she openly described in her autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, her consistent life passion has been her work.

During the interview, when Riefenstahl speaks of her projects, she becomes impassioned. Just a few days after the interview, Riefenstahl and her companion/principal photographer of 32 years, 56-year-old Horst Kettner, flew to the Indian Ocean for two weeks of diving. The woman is still in the hunt for yet one more symmetrically perfect photograph.

‘I’m not working on a film per se,’ informs Riefenstahl. ‘It’s more accurate to see me as a diver, filming and collecting material.’

Riefenstahl took up skin-diving at 72, lying about her age so that she could qualify for lessons. Skin-diving is considered to be a young person’s sport, and 50 was the oldest one could be to receive instruction.


‘Let’s call [what I'm doing] a project,’ Riefenstahl says. ‘I collect film material when I dive. I have too much already. I could have had the film done already, for years done. But my illness did not allow it.’ Riefenstahl has been plagued with severe lower back pain for years.

She continues, elaborating on what promises to be a hybrid underwater/experimental film. ‘I have wonderful material, and on the days I feel better I always go downstairs to my table and work on it. I try to produce out of the material a mainly visual and artistic film. It is not supposed to be scientific. It is to be a film without narration where design and color are the most important parts, underscored with music.’

To date, Riefenstahl has more than 4,000 photographs and 170 thirty-minute videocassettes of underwater footage. She and Horst have traveled to all the major oceans – the Red Sea, the Caribbean, the Maldives, and the Indian Ocean – to capture on film an underwater world that is quickly disappearing. Late in life, Riefenstahl has become an environmentalist.

‘Since I started diving,’ she says, ‘about 70% of the world’s underwater coral reefs have been destroyed. I tried to film subjects which you can’t often see in many of the other underwater films. There are underwater narrative movies and wonderful scientific films, like from Cousteau and others, but I like to do something different. I like to search for rare things. I try to show the most interesting part or habit of these underwater creatures. It’s unbelievable what you discover sometimes. It is hard to believe that some of these creatures really do exist. And you can only find these things on healthy reefs.’

According to Riefenstahl, the reefs once found in the Red Sea and Maldives have been destroyed by either divers or by fishing nets. ‘It’s a terrible practice,’ observed Riefenstahl, referring to the nets. ‘The fishermen comb the ocean floor for kilometers only to sell, let’s say, small crabs. Because of that, millions of other animals have to die. They clean out the whole ocean floor.’

She also places some blame for the aquatic destruction on aquariums. ‘In countries like Papua or the Caribbean, kids collect small fish and sell them for a few pennies. The fish get transported, most of them die and the rest end up in aquariums.

Others causing the demise of underwater life are what Riefenstahl describes as ‘specialist’ diving groups. ‘They have tragically decimated the world’s reef fish population,’ laments Riefenstahl. ‘They bring with them bundles of the most up-to-date harpoons and simply shoot everything that moves.

‘I’ve dived now for nearly 30 years and nothing looks the same anymore. I can’t even recognize many of the reefs.’

Almost certainly, Riefenstahl’s underwater work will become a critical part of the visual preservation of a spectacularly colorful ocean life, just as her photos of the Nubas lifestyle have proven to be about all that’s left of the tribe’s primitive way of life.

The Nuba were isolated and unaffected by the outside world when Riefenstahl first took her cameras into their camp in the 1960s. Over the next several years she went back regularly, gradually winning their confidence and trust. In turn, they allowed her to photograph them as they went about their daily rituals and routines. It was an incredible feat for the time. She was a European, living alone among African tribes, sleeping on the ground, eating their food and learning their language. In those early days, with Riefenstahl’s camera clicking, the Nuba walked around naked, unashamed and proud. Years later, during her last visit in the mid-1970s, they had donned clothes and had been corrupted by outside influences.

These days she continues to seek out challenging filming. ‘One of our most difficult diving trips was the Pacific Ocean, next to the Cocos Islands, 500 miles north of the Galapagos Islands,’ recalls Riefenstahl. ‘Galapagos is a part of Ecuador, and the Cocos Island of Costa Rica. You need to take a 34-hour boat trip to get there. It was a very cold and turbulent sea with lots of sharks. That area has every shark species you can think of. It was so difficult to dive that I had second thoughts on if I should go at all. I did it after all just because I always have so much fun doing it.’ Riefenstahl was in her late 80s at the time.

Riefenstahl also points out that the dives do not guarantee results. It may result in only one or two photographs, she observed. Her underwater footage is shot with a Betacam SP encased in an elaborate housing costing over dm 70,000. Filming must be done up close, from a distance of a few meters or less. She uses micro lenses, avoiding telephoto lens, which she feels distort depth and diminish clarity.


Once the film has been shot, the challenge is logging the footage in such a way that it can be identified for later use, says Riefenstahl. Then comes the task of editing, which is undoubtedly Riefenstahl’s trademark. ‘The creation of a documentary actually takes place in the editing room,’ observed Riefenstahl. ‘Creation in this context means first that the architectural design has to be established. I start with movement and then build up. Which means that when you look at the film it gradually comes to a climax. You cannot select the most interesting part for the beginning. You have to have climaxes and something to stand in contrast with the climax.’

The underwater film, as yet untitled, will present a number of editing challenges. ‘It is the most difficult task there is. Olympia was easy compared to this. This is a film experiment, which exists only out of fish and coral and maybe a female diver. Is it possible to watch something like this for an hour or half an hour? We’ll see. The cuts are very important, it’s not going to work if the cuts do not go together. The length of each take is crucial, you have to find the perfect length to accomplish the most powerful effect. I have to find how the colors will work together and how they will fade into each other. It needs to have a thematic structure, the whole thing needs to be grouped in some manner. A mix of all different shots will not work.’

Once edited, Riefenstahl plans to send the film to a composer to be scored. For Triumph of the Will and Olympia Riefenstahl edited the old-fashioned way. Now she uses an avid, located in the basement of her house. ‘I was one of the first to understand the big advantage of an avid,’ says Riefenstahl, whose edit suite is as modern and elaborate as many professional editing facilities. ‘It is completely different from cutting film. It has so many positive sides. For example, when I did a fade in Olympia, like where you see a statue fading into a person, it involved a few days of lab work and lots of money, but with an avid I can do it right here in less than a minute. Because of the avid, I can see right away if something will work or not. I have everything right here on the monitor and I do not have to hang or find certain shots in the bin. I can try everything without losing one shot. Back then, I had to try each shot, tape it together and take it apart if it did not work.’

But the advent of avid, and non-linear editing in general, has enabled other editors to rush through their shots, complains Riefenstahl. ‘Everything speeds by,’ she says, referring to contemporary documentaries and films she’s seen. ‘You can’t see any of the pictures, that’s how fast everything is. Can you enjoy the pictures? No! Everything is fast. It’s just a rush. If you want to be creative and if you want to experiment, you need time to edit. The art of editing is dying. They paste frames together even when they don’t work together. There is no such thing as a well-edited film anymore.’


It’s not surprising Riefenstahl disapproves of modern films. The woman is renowned for being a perfectionist. But rarely, if ever, does a modern filmmaker have either the time or the budget Riefenstahl enjoyed in making her two famous documentaries. However, it could be argued that even if they did, it’s unlikely any other filmmaker could have matched her end result.

Her films were monumental, requiring a rare combination of a creative eye, technical knowledge and organizational skills. And even though the effort exhausted her for months following each project, she basked in the accomplishment.

‘My life was only the way I wanted it up until the war was over,’ she confesses. ‘All the movies that I wanted to do…’ she says, her voice trailing off. ‘I was not able to do any of them and that makes my life very unsatisfied. I wasn’t even able to complete my Nuba film. It was only satisfactory until 1939.’

In many respects, Riefenstahl is very fortunate. By German standards, she lives very comfortably. Her home is located in a very well-to-do suburb of Munich. She travels to some of the most exotic parts of the world, she receives recognition and acclaim. ‘That I’m still able to work is some reward,’ she admits, her mood shifting when focused on her actual work as opposed to work never completed. ‘Everybody my age is already retired. Despite my illness and my high age, I’m still able to go diving and, not only that, but also create films out of it.’

Yet, her life certainly has a dark side. She didn’t make her fortune until she was in her 80s, only after the release of her autobiography. Until then, she lived in a small, four-room Munich apartment. For long stretches of time after the war she was nearly destitute, sometimes relying on friends for food and shelter.

Leni Riefenstahl had always been attracted to projects others considered impossible. She had never been satisfied with mundane, ordinary work. Before directing and editing Olympia, during which she managed a camera crew of 20 men and the editing of over 300,000 feet of film, she was an accomplished actress. In Germany, she was considered an equal to Marlene Dietrich. But again, she didn’t star in ordinary films. She was featured in mountain films, which required her to climb mountainsides bare-footed and to act through actual avalanches.

‘There is one thing I’m not interested in,’ she admits. ‘I don’t like to do any of the things I have already done. I could never do another Olympia. The Finnish and Norwegian government asked me to do their Olympia film, but I could not do it. I can only do one of a kind and then I have to do it as good as I can. I’m not a production machine. I’m happy if the people like what I did. If something becomes a success, then that makes me happy. If the success holds on for a long time, that’s even better. Olympia is already half a century old and it’s still alive.’

Throughout the last 50 years, she has repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to raise money to make films. The association with Hitler still haunts her, both publicly and privately. A major motion picture about Riefenstahl has been stalled for years because of Hollywood’s resistance to making a movie about a woman who many view as a Nazi sympathizer. Leni claims she has been the victim of a conspiracy since WWII. Why would Riefenstahl be the target of such sustained universal wrath? One could theorize that she has yet to repent for creating the film used to glorify the Nazi movement.


In Ray M-ller’s 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl expressed regret for making Triumph of the Will because of the pain it had caused her. She did not express regret that her documentary had been used to promote the Nazi cause. Riefenstahl’s position is that she shouldn’t be held responsible for how her film was used. She insists that, as an artist commissioned to make a film, her responsibility ended with a commitment to make the best film she could.

Supporters of Leni argue that, as a woman in the 1920s and 1930s, working in a male-dominated world and industry, eager to prove her talent and make the transition from that of a movie star to a filmmaker, Hitler gave her a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Of course, not everyone agrees.

Riefenstahl points out that in the early days of the Nazi regime, Hitler was viewed by most Germans as a great leader. She admits she thought him to be good for Germany up until it was too late. Certainly, because of Hitler’s support for her filmmaking, he was good for Riefenstahl. She admits she was ambitious, driven and focused. But, she asserts, that did not make her a Nazi.

Each documentary-maker brings to the work his or her own personal background, inclinations and worldview. Most current doc filmmakers are former news reporters, or educators, or liberal arts majors. Riefenstahl was a famous actress. The story goes that Hitler had seen Riefenstahl in The Blue Light, the first movie she directed as well as starred in, and that he wanted her to create a documentary on the Third Reich which would illuminate the screens with the same magical potency.

Prior to her acting career, Riefenstahl had been a dancer. Her mind’s eye was naturally drawn to the beauty of movement and she already knew the power of physical beauty, having perfected her own image on the big screen. It would have surprised no one that her documentaries were shot and edited to accentuate the glory, the power and the grandiosity of the Third Reich.

Even today, Riefenstahl’s fascination with color, beauty and movement dominate her work. For inspiration in editing her underwater footage, Riefenstahl turns to the work of Impressionist painters. This is evidenced by her own admission and the collection of art books filling her bookshelves. Books depicting the work of Picasso, Van Gogh, Goya, Monet, Renoir, Velazquez and Michelangelo are scattered amongst volumes written by Guy de Maupassant and Tolstoy.

Riefenstahl’s work has always consistently focused on the visually appealing aspects of the world. This perspective can be seen in the stylized marching of the German army, the movements of the world’s most conditioned human beings, the naked glory of the primitive Nuba tribes and the splendor of an underwater world. She has an innate appreciation of the world’s most aesthetically pleasing images. None of her work relies on dialogue or strong narration, but rather on the flow of images accentuated with music.

Riefenstahl doesn’t feel obliged to apologize for where she points her camera, and Riefenstahl’s camera eye has ignored the ugly and disagreeable. For example, when she filmed the Nubas in Africa, she focused her camera primarily on the young warriors and the budding females. The elderly Nuba, with their wrinkled skin and sagging breasts, were ignored.

Perhaps Riefenstahl’s disdain for the world’s ugliness helps explain why she might have turned a blind eye to the horrific acts of the Nazis. She was assigned to the front only once during wwii. Aghast at what she saw, she says she quickly left and returned to the world of feature movie-making. Leni was more comfortable in the enchanted world of make-believe. Soon after, she started work on her last film, Tiefland. She not only starred in the movie – the script was about a naive, young couple whose love is thwarted by an evil, outside world – but also directed and produced it.

Riefenstahl bemoans the fact that her association with Hitler has haunted her. ‘I worked for Hitler seven months of my entire life,’ she says at the conclusion of the interview, pointing to a sheet of paper where she has written down, hour by hour, and day by day, her time spent under Hitler’s employ. ‘I’ve been persecuted all of life for seven months.

‘[After my death] I really wish that the truth will come out. I wish that all the legends; good or bad, all of those that don’t have anything to do with me will go away, so that the real Leni can finally come to the surface. I wish that at some point, there would be no prejudice so that people can see me without the political glasses on. I really did not have that much to do with the Fuehrer. I want people to know that Olympia was never done on order from Hitler. Never.’

But ironically, one wonders if she would have remained in the public eye if not for the controversy. Certainly, Leni Riefenstahl is an extraordinary human being. Yet it is her association with Hitler that has created the media attention, the debate, and the speculation. Both her benefactor and her ruination, if not for him she may have never had the chance to fully express her genius on film. If not for him, she would have been able to make other films.


The popularity of Riefenstahl’s retrospective in Potsdam was fueled by the never-ending dispute about Leni’s relationship to Hitler. In one corner of the exhibit, visitors watched The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. On the opposite end of the exhibit, visitors clustered around small TV sets showing her four films. In another area, larger-than-life size photos of the Nuba towered over the visitors. Projected against a white backdrop was the footage of her underwater films.

But the crowd’s interest was only partially on Riefenstahl’s actual work. They were as fascinated by her childhood photos, her personal correspondence, and the dozens of newspaper articles recounting her extraordinary life. The press photos revealed the extent to which she had been acclaimed by the international film industry. She clearly stood equal ground with powerful men who changed the course of history.

In all the pictures, she smiles and radiates, always the consummate actress, giving the people what they want.

Dolly Carlisle is a documentary-maker, author and former correspondent for People Magazine Weekly. David Hinton is author of The Films of Leni Riefenstahl and the dean of Watkins Film School in Nashville, TN.


Leni Riefenstahl Filmography

The Blue Light (1932): Riefenstahl directed and starred as Junta, an outcast mountain girl who alone knows the secret to the mysterious blue light emanating from the summit of Mt. Cristallo.

Triumph of the Will (1935): Riefenstahl’s famous documentary record of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg, Germany.

Olympia (1938): Olympia was released in two parts in 1938 (Festival of the People, Festival of Beauty). Riefenstahl’s monumental film of the 1936 Berlin Games.

Tiefland (1954): Tiefland, filmed during World War II, was not released until 1954. Riefenstahl plays a gypsy dancer who rescues Spanish peasants from an oppressive nobleman.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.