Part I. Denazifying Leni
After World War II, Leni Riefenstahl couldn’t escape the Fuhrer’s shadow. Arrested first by American, then French troops, her property and money seized, she endured interrogations about her ties to the regime. Riefenstahl argued she’d been coerced into making propaganda and wasn’t aware of Nazi atrocities. The image stuck: three denazification tribunals acquitted her (one cautiously branding her a “fellow traveler”), and Riefenstahl began the road to rehabilitation.
More diligent investigators challenged her self-portrait. In 1946, American journalist Budd Schulberg interviewed Riefenstahl for the Saturday Evening Post. Riefenstahl claimed she didn’t know about Nazi concentration camps. Later, asked why she made Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl claimed Joseph Goebbels threatened her with a concentration camp. Disgusted with Riefenstahl’s self-serving contradictions, Schulberg labeled her a “Nazi Pin-Up Girl.”
Then the German tabloid Revue published a damning article in May 1949. Using photographs and eyewitness testimony, it detailed Riefenstahl’s procuring interned gypsies for Tiefland. The article exaggerated facts (claiming that she cast Franz Eichenberger from a literal parade of thousands) but its broad outlines were accurate. No longer was Riefenstahl the apolitical artist overwhelmed by history; Revue painted her as an amoral monster, cynically exploiting genocide.
Riefenstahl sued Revue, initiating a sensational trial in Munich. Revue’s attorney called Riefenstahl “the devil’s own director” and wondered whether “people… will want to see a film when they know some of your extras were gassed at Auschwitz?” “I didn’t have anyone gassed; that’s outrageous!” Riefenstahl snapped. One Gypsy witness claimed Riefenstahl treated the extras worse than the SS; Riefenstahl rose to her feet, shouting the witness down. Spectators laughed, hooted and applauded at these exchanges.
Riefenstahl eloquently defended herself, supported by assistant Harald Reinl and actors Franz Eichenberger and Bernhard Minetti. Then Revue’s key witness, Johanna Kurz, testified that the Reinhardt family died at Auschwitz. Riefenstahl’s attorney obtained a letter from Antonia Reinhardt, demonstrating she was alive. Kurz was convicted of perjury, and in November 1949 the court found Revue guilty of libel.
Other attacks continued. Around the same time, Eva Braun’s purported diaries emerged, claiming Hitler and Riefenstahl were lovers. Quickly dismissed as forgeries, they nonetheless spotlighted Riefenstahl’s closeness to the Fuhrer. Then she fought a renewed effort to confiscate her property in 1951. Revue struck again in 1952, publishing an article on Riefenstahl’s presence at Konskie; only legal action forestalled an article on her financial success under the Nazis.
“Others lurked in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to harm me,” Riefenstahl concluded. While fighting for her reputation, Riefenstahl never lost hope of finishing Tiefland.
The French Army confiscated Tiefland‘s negative, along with her other property, in Kitzbuhel in 1947. This news, along with her divorce from Peter Jacob (who proved less gallant soldier than footloose womanizer), led Riefenstahl into a nervous breakdown. Upon recovery, she battled for return of her film between interminable legal battles.
In fall 1947, Riefenstahl met a French film producer named Jean-Pierre Desmarais. He’d found Tiefland at the Paris Cinematheque Francaise, and arranged a private screening by bribing a guard. Desmarais offered to secure its return in exchange for a profit share and control of her film projects. “I hope to bring you freedom and rescue your Tiefland film,” he announced dramatically.
Through his attorney, Desmarais negotiated Riefenstahl’s release from house arrest in February 1948. But Tiefland was slow in coming, even after Riefenstahl’s denazification allowed her to work. She flitted between West Germany, Austria and Italy, pitching a new project – a skiing drama called The Red Devils – with little success. The Finnish Olympic Committee asked her to film the 1952 Summer Games; she declined, because “I didn’t want to make a weaker picture” than Olympia.
It wasn’t until December 1952 that Tiefland reappeared. Riefenstahl learned through Otto Lantscher, a former assistant, that the French government planned to destroy Tiefland’s negative. She traveled to Vienna, petitioning Austrian Finance Minister Reinhard Kamitz. Kamitz promised to help if Riefenstahl could prove the Nazis hadn’t financed its production. Riefenstahl convinced Kamitz she had, through selective documentation and a claim with the Bavarian Restitution Office. Somehow, she managed to conceal Hitler’s personal involvement in Tiefland.
Riefenstahl received the film in spring 1953. Her euphoria vanished when she discovered that “Tiefland was in a bad way.” One-third of the negatives were missing, along with four entire reels of footage (mostly Spanish footage). Even the surviving footage was in poor shape, “the extant material [was] dusty and scratched.” The soundtrack was also missing; Riefenstahl realized that she’d have to start preproduction from scratch.
With her films banned in West Germany, Riefenstahl didn’t expect help from the moribund German studios. She sold her house in Austria to fund the post-production, hiring four editors to sort through the surviving footage while redubbing the soundtrack and score. As her assistants worked, Riefenstahl traveled to Paris to locate the missing reels. Unfortunately, despite sympathetic contacts in the Austrian and French governments, she never did locate the lost footage.
Finally, in February 1954, Tiefland was ready for release. The press revived Revue‘s charges of slave labor and Nazi complicity; theaters balked at showing it. The film’s distributor, International Film Distribution, arranged a meeting with a delegation of Holocaust survivors to smooth over resentment. Despite initial animosity, Riefenstahl won them over in a frank discussion. She toured Austria promoting the film with costar Franz Eichberger, finally feeling vindicated.
Yet as its Stuttgart premiere approached, Riefenstahl worried: “Were the sacrifices worth it? Would it hold its own in front of the audience, and what would the critics say?”
Part III. The Film
Sadly, Tiefland is a creaky, artificial bore. One could blame its tumultuous production or the missing footage, but it’s possible that the hoary, simplistic story never could have worked. Like The Blue Light, it pitches a simple story at fairytale level, using striking imagery to redeem a flaccid story. Unlike The Blue Light, it’s too ponderous to take flight.
One problem is the star. Riefenstahl is at least a decade too old for Martha, and she isn’t a substantial enough actress to carry the difference. Curiously, Riefenstahl – such an assertive personality offscreen – makes Martha a passive nonentity who barely reacts to the story’s upheaval, or her placement in a tragic love triangle. She dances, leers suggestively and occasionally furrowing her brow, never achieving depth or sympathy. Her male costars fare better, especially Bernhard Minetti, who gives Don Sebastian shades of humanity redeeming his stereotype status.
Tiefland contaisn incredible photography, especially Riefenstahl’s vistas of the Dolomites. The film plays almost like a silent movie: it’s almost ten minutes before we hear dialogue, allowing viewers to absorb the idyllic landscapes and picturesque flocks of sheep. Despite these scenic delights, Tiefland never achieves depth beyond atmosphere: the story’s too thin, the characters too detached to engage viewers. It only catches fire in fleeting moments: Martha’s gypsy dances, Pedro’s rabble-rousing, the climactic knife fight between Pedro and Sebastian.
Later, many labeled Tiefland a belated response to Nazism. Helma Sanders-Brahms called it a “film about tyrannicide,” a coded protest by Riefenstahl against Hitler, detailing her seduction by and rebellion against the Fuhrer. Riefenstahl endorsed this reading, calling Tiefland an “inner emigration.” But the story’s too clichéd to carry such a burden: its simplistic dramaturgy could make a Marxist parable (peasants vs. evil landowner), a Western (ranchers vs. homesteaders) or a Nazi evocation of Blut und Boden (pure, rural volk vs. bourgeois decadence) with equal validity.
More likely, Tiefland tries to recapture lost innocence. Riefenstahl always identified with Junta, the persecuted heroine of The Blue Light: she kept a photograph of herself in the role until her death. Tiefland‘s airy, artistic style evokes the earlier film, as does casting herself as a wronged innocent. But Riefenstahl is too old, and too morally compromised, to recapture Junta’s naivety: instead, it’s an unconvincing put-on.
Part IV. After Tiefland
Tiefland evoked mixed responses. One enthusiastic booster was French director Jean Cocteau, who unsuccessfully lobbied the West German government to enter it in the Cannes Film Festival. Critics were mostly scathing: one German reviewer called it “a textbook case of masterly and refined boredom.” Despite pans, protests and boycotts, Tiefland proved successful enough to turn a profit.
Riefenstahl herself dismissed Tiefland. She commented that “I felt the subject and style were long outdated.” On another occasion, she said that “I cannot recognize myself… in that film, because it is simply dead.” There’s no reason to doubt Riefenstahl’s frustration: twenty years of work, suffering and controversy for mediocrity?
Tiefland was Riefenstahl’s last feature for forty-eight years. The Red Devils never came off. She enlisted L. Ron Hubbard, not yet the founder of Scientology, to help remake The Blue Light, but that project foundered too. As did an epic about the African slave trade, Black Cargo. The latter project, however, brought her in touch with the Nuba in Sudan, leading to an astonishing collection of photographic books in the ’70s. She mastered scuba diving and marine photography; her final documentary, Impressions Under Water, came out in 2002.
Riefenstahl’s photographic endeavors revived her reputation. Lauded by cineastes and directors, Riefenstahl befriended artists as diverse as Vittorio de Sica, Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger. Critics laud her movies as groundbreaking, despite their ideological toxicity. Gary Morris deemed her “One of the great formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles”; Charles Moore called her “the most talented female cinema director of the 20th Century.”
Yet many resisted her rehabilitation. Wilhelm Bittorf slammed Riefenstahl in Der Spiegel, equating her fetishizing the Nuba with her Nazi epics in an article called “Blood and Testicles.” Susan Sontag savaged Riefenstahl in “Fascinating Fascism,” an essay for The New York Review of Books. Equating Riefenstahl’s work with lurid Nazi dramas like Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), she claimed Riefenstahl defined a fascist aesthetic: “Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.”
To Riefenstahl’s chagrin, controversy over Tiefland continued long after the film vanished into obscurity. In 1982, A Time of Silence and of Darkness, a documentary by Nina Gladitz, spotlighted the Roma extras, interviewing Josef Rienhardt and highlighting Riefenstahl’s contracting with the SS for extras. Riefenstahl sued the filmmakers, preventing the documentary’s release.
The issue arose again in 2002, just before Riefenstahl’s 100th birthday. Riefenstahl’s comments, in her memoirs and elsewhere, that “We saw nearly all of [the Gypsies] after the war,” provoked an indictment for Holocaust denial. Rosa Winter’s daughter complained that “the whole of Germany is celebrating the birthday of this Nazi heroine, while my mother is still awaiting compensation for her internment.” Riefenstahl responded with a bland statement: “I regret that Sinti and Roma had to suffer during the period of National Socialism.” Riefenstahl died in 2003, the controversy unresolved.
Perhaps if Leni Riefenstahl acknowledged regret for her complicity with Nazism, whether enthusiastic or coerced, the Tiefland controversy would have faded. But through six decades of interviews, memoirs and documentaries she never changed her defiant tone, claiming to stand above mere politics. “I am an artist, through and through,” she proclaimed. “That is Leni!”
Sources and Acknowledgments:
Books: Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (2007); Peter Longerich, Goebbels: A Biography (2014); Leni Riefenstahl, Memoirs (1993, US edition); Ranier Rother, Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius (2003); Jurgen Trimborn, Leni Riefenstahl: A Life (2007).
I also consulted Peter Muller’s documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993), while Kate Connolly’s article from The Guardian, “Gypsies’ fate haunts film muse of Hitler” (August 18th, 2002; available here), provided useful background on the Roma controversy. Also, Kevin Brownlow provided valuable guidance and research suggestions.