1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Reflecting on the Life of a Controversial Genius

December 18, 2002

A retrospective, looking back at the life and work of controversial German filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefensthal, has opened in Bonn.

Leni Riefenstahl turned 100 this yearImage: AP

Leni Riefenstahl has been surrounded by controversy ever since being commissioned by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler to make propaganda films. A restrospective of the dancer, actress and film-maker's comeback since the 1960’s has now opened in Bonn at the Haus der Geschichte, House of History museum, in Bonn.

‘Hitler’s Girl’

Born in 1902, Leni Riefenstahl started out as a dancer, performing both in Germany and across Europe. Due to a knee injury, Riefenstahl had to leave dancing, and turned subsequently to film. Starting as an actress, she began directing her first films in the 1930’s.

It was her first feature film, “The Blue Light”, which attracted the then political rising star Adolf Hitler’s attention. He was so intrigued by her work that he summoned her to a Baltic seaside resort where he commissioned her with various propaganda films. Her first work, "Triumph of Will", a documentation of the Nuremberg Rally, was later followed by a film on the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

The powerful effects of Riefenstahl’s pioneering film techniques, including lifts installed in the swastika-bearing flagpoles at the 1936 Olympics to enable vertical tracking shots, made Riefenstahl’s documentations both powerful and disturbing glorifications of the repressive Nazi regime.

Riefenstahl claims her film "Olympia" glorified the human form purely for aesthetic reasons, and did not, as critics claim, put the Aryan race on a pedestal. But the press continued to oust her after the war as "Nazi pin-up girl", "Nazi sympathizer" and "Hitler’s girl".

No politics

Leni Riefenstahl has always denied any involvement in politics. She has repeatedly underlined that despite her film-making under the Nazi's rule, she was never a member of the party itself. In addition, she claims she was swept on with the tide of general enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler, and did not realize what he had been doing until it was too late.

Since the end of WWII, Riefenstahl has contested, and won more than 50 libel suits on her invlovement with the Nazis and the films that were made in that era. She was cleared of being a Nazi, but became a pariah in Germany, and left fimmaking for photography.

As a photographer and later – after learning to scuba dive at the age of 70 – as an underwater photographer, Riefenstahl made eventually made her comeback.

Desert sands and coral reefs

In the folllowing years, Riefenstahl travelled to the Sudan to photograph the Nuba tribe in Sudan, documenting the gleaming black, mostly naked bodies of this disappearing tribe in much the same way that she portrayed the athletes’ bodies during the 1936 Olympics.

As an underwater photographer she published two books “The Coral Gardens” and “The Wonders Under Water”, winning various awards and honours for her work.

Intense debate

According to Hermann Schäfer, President of the Haus der Geschichte the decison to hold the restrospective was not made without much intense discussion. The exhibition, which shows more than 300 exhibits ranging from promotional material from Riefenstahl's short career as a dancer to editing equipment used in her films, runs until 2nd March next year.