Leni Riefenstahl – A Great Artist – Part 3

Leni Riefenstahl's Portrait

Leni Riefenstahl’s next film was another work for Hitler and
the Nazi party, filmed and released the same year that Triumph of the Will was
released, 1935. It is another documentary / propaganda piece filmed at the
annual Nazi rally held in Nuremburg, entitled Tag der Freiheit! — Unsere
Wehrmacht! (Day of Freedom! — Our Armed Forces!). It’s a short film glorifying
the German army. It is not quite up to the artistic merits of her previous
works, especially Triumph of the Will, but it is a quality work for what it is;
basically it’s a showcase of the German army and how they operate.

The film was created due to the German army’s lack of
exposure in the brilliant Triumph of the Will. As such they were upset and
wanted a film of their own, they went to Hitler with their concerns and Hitler
accepted their idea and put it through to Riefenstahl.

Sadly the 1935 Nazi party rally in Nuremburg was the point
in which the Nazi ideologies on the Jewish people would begin to further come
to light and be implemented. Known as the Nuremberg Laws, they are one of the
first of many black marks on the history of Leni Riefenstahl and her work,
Adolf Hitler, the Nazi party, and much of the German population. The Nuremberg
Laws were of course some of the first official discrimination laws against the
Jewish people by the Nazi party.

 

Leni Riefenstahl Directing Olympia

Riefenstahl’s next film was Olympia, in which she
brilliantly documents the 1936 Summer Olympics. It is Leni Riefenstahl’s last
groundbreaking work in film (though not her last film). It is another
masterwork, along with Triumph of the Will, Olympia is her greatest work in
film; I can’t quite say for sure which one I enjoy more or which was more of a
breakthrough, both are cinematic masterpieces.

Olympia is a truly brilliant work. Known for its technical
achievements, Leni uses advanced techniques in the process of creating the
film, such as; tracking shots, everyone is aware of tracking shots today, but
they certainly weren’t as aware of them before Leni Riefenstahl; extreme
close-ups, everyone knows what an extreme close-up is now, but very few knew what
it was in 1936; smash-cut editing, which is now commonly used to give the
viewer a quick snap, a wakeup call if you will, they weren’t happening before
Olympia; as well as cleverly angled and designed shots and lighting techniques;
slow-motion techniques; and much more. The film showcases her absolute brilliance
as a director in film and as an artist in general.

Before Olympia the vast majority of shots in cinema were
done from stationary positions, little camera movement was involved and little
variation on top of that. Certainly there were plenty of other great filmmakers
both before and during the time of Leni Riefenstahl’s classic directing works
and I do not mean to discredit them at all. But the fact is that Leni
Riefenstahl truly was a great artist and a cinematic visionary; Leni Riefenstahl
was a pioneer and she should be seen and respected as such.

Leni Riefenstahl – A Great Artist – Part 2

Leni Riefenstahl Standing

During the filming of Das Blaue Licht, Leni read Adolf
Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and in 1932 she attended a Nazi (National Socialist German
Workers’ Party) rally, as a great number of Germans did; and as with a great
number of her fellow Germans, she was enthralled by Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric.
Shortly after she had a meeting with Hitler, who told Leni that he enjoyed her
work in Das Blaue Licht and elsewhere and would like her to film the upcoming fifth Nazi
party rally, in Nuremberg.

Whether she wanted to create the film for herself, or had
some sort of incentive or other motive behind its creation is unknown to me.
Certainly she must have known that it would be used as a propaganda piece for
the Nazi party and for her country; this isn’t something that we should be
upset over though, many great artists have created pieces for their countries
that are seen as propaganda.

Through the opposition of much of the Nazi party and with
the support of Hitler she was able to document the rally. The film that
Riefenstahl created out of the 1933 Nazi rally in Nuremberg was Der Sieg des
Glaubens (Victory of the Faith); which is a film that I haven’t seen personally,
but a film that I plan on seeing at some point in the future.

Shortly after its release the film was hidden away due to
Hitler’s orders to execute Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Sturmabteilung (the SA
or the brownshirts); as well as many of his lieutenants and other people
involved in the initial rise of Nazi power, and the rise of Hitler himself for
that matter. The incident is known as the Night of the Long Knives; during
which, over several days 90 people were murdered by the Schutzstaffel (the SS)
and the Geheime Staatspolizei (the Gestapo). Leni Riefenstahl’s feelings on the
situation are unknown to me, I’m not aware of her speaking a word about it
myself, but I can’t imagine that she was too happy over her work being hidden
away at the time.

Although the film had to be shelved, Adolf Hitler thought
positively of her and her work on Der Sieg des Glaubens and asked Riefenstahl to create another
film for the upcoming 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremburg.

Leni Riefenstahl Directing

The film that Leni Riefenstahl created from the 1934 rally
was another breakthrough, this time both a cinematic breakthrough and an
artistic breakthrough. That film is Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will).  Riefenstahl shows her masterful control of
the camera here; thanks to her tremendous artistic vision, Leni was able to
create shots that had never been seen or even dreamed of with a camera. The
sheer technical detail and effort that went into making the film is incredible;
Leni used 30 cameras and had 120 technicians at her disposal; she had bridges
and posts built in the center of Nuremburg; all of the camera placements, the movements, the lighting gantries, everything was specifically set up to Leni Riefenstahl’s
exact specifications.

Triumph des Willens is truly a great work, one that Leni
Riefenstahl worked painstakingly to create to the absolute best of her ability,
to fully meet her vision in every possible way. She recorded just over 66 and ½
hours of footage of the rally. Of those sixty-six and one-half hours of footage
she edited the film into the brilliant 2 hour long documentary that we know
today. The film received many awards, including the 1935 Venice International
Film Festival Coppa dell’Istituto Nazionale LUCE award, the National Film Prize for 1934-1935, and the Medaille d’Or &
Grand Prix de France in 1937.

The film was lauded at the time of its creation around the
world and it has been highly praised by film enthusiasts, it is to this day praised by authorities of the cinematic and artistic realm, as it has from
its very first showing. It truly is a masterpiece in documentary and visual
filmmaking; no matter if it is considered propaganda or not, no matter if Leni
Riefenstahl meant for it to be a propaganda piece or not. The facts remain: The artwork and the mastery of Leni Riefenstahl’s work speaks for itself.

Leni Riefenstahl – A Great Artist – Part 1

Leni Riefenstahl


Leni Riefenstahl has been a very controversial figure for many years now. In
this series of articles, I will go over my thoughts and feelings on her life
and her work. This is part. 1, covering her early life and first foray into
film:

Born Helene Bertha Amalie
Riefenstahl
in Berlin, Germany on the 22nd of August, 1902; she
began her professional and artistic career as a dancer, her dancing style was
uniquely her own and widely popular at the time. She continued to express
herself through interpretive dance until she injured her knee in her early
20’s, at which point she began her acting career.

Her acting career began shortly
after the injury to her knee brought her career as a dancer to an end. She had
a couple of undocumented and minor rolls, until 1925 when she was finally given
the lead role in Arnold Fanck’s new mountain film: Der Heilige Berg (The Holy
Mountain) as the dancer Diotima.

Leni Riefenstahl Dancing


The role of Diotima was written by
Fanck specifically for Leni Riefenstahl. It is the first film that I watched in
which Leni Riefenstahl was in front of the camera rather than behind it; it’s a
quality work with a great many interesting shots and scenes, Fanck does a great
job filming the environment. At the time of my first viewing I was not familiar
with Leni Riefenstahl’s acting, as I said; nor was I familiar with Arnold
Fanck’s directing; and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by both
aspects of the film.

Riefenstahl gives a lovely
performance as Diotima; the film also allows us a bit of insight as to what her
dancing style and abilities were, which is wonderfully interesting, and I can
only imagine that she was an even better dancer before her knee injury.

Leni went on to star in many other
mountain films that were also directed by Arnold Fanck, of which I have now seen
several. Generally she played an outgoing young girl, a very entertaining part
and one that she did very well, which perhaps gives us a bit of insight as to
what he personality was like in her youthful days.

Then Leni began her career as a
director when the offer was made to her. Her first attempt at directing
resulted in the breakthrough film Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) in 1932.
With the support of Arnold Fanck, Béla Balázs, the production team at Henry R.
Sokal-Film of Berlin, and many others; Riefenstahl was not only able to direct
her first film, but she also starred in the leading role of the film as Junta;
and not only that, but Leni also co-wrote the film, edited the film, and helped
to produce the film.

The work was an absolute
breakthrough for Riefenstahl. The film launched her new career as a complicated
director. One that would lead her to be both praised and criticized, one that
was undoubtedly one of the most influential in the history of cinema and film
making.