Part I. A Filmmaker’s Apotheosis
April 20th, 1938 marked Adolf Hitler’s 49th birthday. In the past five years, he’d rebuilt Germany from destitute anarchy into a burgeoning war machine, repudiated the Versailles Treaty and, that March, incorporated Austria into his Thousand-Year Reich. In Nazi Germany, fantasy co-mingled with ideology, expressing an obsession with Germany’s mythical past through propaganda and art. Fittingly, Hitler celebrated at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin, Germany’s most prestigious cinema.
There, Nazi officials and foreign diplomats joined dignitaries of German kultur. Present were Wilhelm Furtwangler, conductor of Berlin’s Philharmonic Orchestra; Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and confidante; actor Gustaf Grundgens, transformed from Brechtian Bolshevik to director of Prussia’s State Theater; and movie star Emil Jannings, Oscar-winner of The Last Command and The Blue Angel, now an Artist of the State. Also Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who nationalized German cinema in 1937 and considered himself the Reich’s David O. Selznick.
The evening’s star, however, wasn’t Goebbels or Jannings or even Hitler, but a filmmaker premiering her documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She arrived with her parents and brother Heinz, her brown hair cropped short, wearing a gown and jacket, covering skin sunburned from overzealous tanning. She found the Palast adorned in swastikas and Olympic rings, with Germany’s Olympic team greeting her. Most gratifyingly, her name glowed from the marquee: LENI RIEFENSTAHL.Only 34 years old, Riefenstahl had enjoyed a remarkable rise. Through the ’20s she pursued a dancing career, until a knee injury sidelined her; strikingly beautiful, she became a film extra. Then Arnold Fanck cast her in The Holy Mountain, initiating a series of alpine epics that captivated Weimar Germany. But Riefenstahl longed to make her own pictures: in 1932, she directed The Blue Light, an ethereal fantasy where she played a persecuted witch. Among its fans was Adolf Hitler, who told Riefenstahl “When I come to power, you must make my films.”
Brilliant and ambitious, Riefenstahl rebuked the hyper-masculine Nazis. She was an avid sportswoman, posing on skis for Time Magazine, and an exacting artist. Male colleagues resented her success. Cameraman Emil Schuneman, hired for Triumph of the Will, complained that working for a woman was “beneath my dignity.” Riefenstahl responded: “If the Fuhrer does not feel it beneath his dignity to give me overall artistic responsibility for this project, it is curious… if Herr Schuneman feels it beneath his dignity to recognize that fact.” Riefenstahl’s preeminence so confounded her detractors that they labeled her Hitler’s mistress.
Regardless, Riefenstahl became the Third Reich’s premiere director. Her depiction of the 1933 Nuremberg Party Congress, Victory of Faith, was suppressed the following year when Hitler murdered his costar, SA chief Ernst Rohm, in the Night of the Long Knives. Riefenstahl returned with Triumph of the Will, showcasing the next year’s rally in a form that revolutionized documentary (and propaganda) filmmaking. Unlike Victory, featuring formless Brownshirt mobs and Hitler whipping his hair about, Triumph features a nation in lockstep to its god-like savior, who descends on Nuremberg like a Deity visiting Earth.
Then, Olympia. Filming the Berlin Olympics with 130 crew members, she dug camera pits, built special tracks for track-and-field competitions, attached cameras to zeppelins for aerial footage and created underwater camera housing for aquatic events. She feuded with Goebbels, whose sexual advances she’d rejected, and her obsessiveness annoyed athletes and judges alike. Nonetheless, the results were impressive: a four hour documentary in which “athletes are transformed into mythical archetypes who are beyond time” (Jurgen Trimborn).
At the premiere, Hitler’s birthday audience interrupted Olympia several times for applause. The Fuhrer congratulated Riefenstahl: “You’ve created a masterpiece, and the world will be grateful to you.” Even Goebbels agreed: “One is electrified by the power, the depth, the beauty.” The director was moved most of all: “I shut my eyes and experienced again the labor it had cost to put all this into shape, and I couldn’t hold back the tears.” It was the pinnacle of her career.
Riefenstahl followed Olympia with an international tour. European leaders toasted her, and she received numerous awards. Then, French leftists protested Olympia‘s Paris premiere by singing “The Internationale.” Britain banned Olympia outright. When she reached America in November, Hollywood studios boycotted her visit, while newspapers labeled her “Hitler’s delegate in a dress.” She responded by calling Hitler “the greatest man who ever lived” while denying reports of Kristallnacht. For the first time, Riefenstahl incurred the cost of fascist myth-making.
After Olympia, Riefenstahl formed her own company, Leni Riefenstahl Film, to shoot the Trojan War epic Penthesilea starring herself. Hitler promised financial support; Italy’s Marshal Balbo offered military extras and Libyan locations. Riefenstahl spent months writing the script, scouting locations and mastering horseback riding. Then Hitler invaded Poland, and reality interrupted.
Riefenstahl led a newsreel team into Poland, witnessing a massacre of Jews at Konskie. She later claimed “I never saw a corpse, not of a soldier, not of a civilian” but a photograph exists of Riefenstahl reacting to the atrocity. Riefenstahl protested the shootings, and left Poland after Hitler’s entry into Warsaw. She retained her enthusiasm for Hitler (“You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive,” she wrote him after Hitler captured Paris) but avoided the war as best she could.
With Penthesilea shelved, Riefenstahl dusted off an older project. Eugen d’Albert’s 1903 opera Tiefland, based on a Spanish play, depicted a love triangle between a cruel aristocrat, Don Sebastian, Pyrenean peasant Pedro and gypsy dancer Martha. It became perennially popular in both Germany and Austria. Hitler saw Alfred Roller’s legendary production in 1908 Vienna, then commanded a performance in the newly-annexed city thirty years later. It was filmed twice, in 1914 (as Martha of the Lowlands) and 1922 with Lil Dagover.
Riefenstahl considered Tiefland in 1934, shortly after completing Victory of Faith. She spent months developing the project, scouting locations in Spain and casting Heinrich George as Pedro (Riefenstahl, of course, would play Martha). Days before shooting began, the German crew arrived without film for their cameras. Terra Studios postponed Tiefland, after which Riefenstahl developed a circulatory collapse. With director incapacitated and budget already strained, Terra cancelled the project.
By 1940, Riefenstahl wasn’t enthusiastic about revisiting Tiefland. She considered it “an easy job, requiring only a few months.” She revised that opinion after reviewing her 1934 script, at her cottage in Kitzbuhel, Austria. She discarded it completely, rewriting it with assistant Harald Reinl. “We inserted a social theme,” she recalled, “the uprising of the serfs against their lord.” They decided to adapt Tiefland as straight melodrama, discarding d’Albert’s music.
Hitler’s blitzkrieg into France vindicated Goebbels, and Tiefland‘s crew relocated to Krun, a village in Germany’s Karwendel mountains near Salzburg. Art director Isabella Ploberger asked her set designers to work off her sketches of Spanish architecture. The result was a full-scale, Spanish-style village, which didn’t match Riefenstahl’s vision: she ordered it destroyed and rebuilt. “The sinfully expensive sets were unusable,” she wrote, “but far worse than the waste of almost half a million marks was the waste of time” – six weeks. Shooting finally began in August 1940.
Focused on Tiefland‘s visuals, Riefenstahl courted other filmmakers for its acting. G.W. Pabst, who directed Riefenstahl in The White Hell of Piz Palu (1929), was to direct Riefenstahl’s scenes. Pabst agreed, until Goebbels offered him a two-picture contract. She also approached her mentor, Arnold Fanck, who clashed with Riefenstahl. He lambasted her script, performance (“This is supposed to be a gypsy?”) and direction. Their relationship dissolved while filming in the Italian Dolomites.
Fanck spent a month preparing the opening scene, where Pedro strangled a wolf menacing his flock. Riefenstahl was dismayed by the rushes: “Fanck had shot over 30,000 feet, but… none of the footage was usable.” Then came a missive: “Wolf dead, [handler Bernhard] Grizmek desperate – must stop shooting.” Riefenstahl’s wolf, named Genghis, had choked to death on its food. Afterwards Fanck left the production, complaining loudly about Riefenstahl’s egomania.
“Tiefland without a wolf was out of the question,” Riefenstahl said, “yet we could not cancel the film.” She re-shot the opening with a trained dog, along with spectacular vistas of the Dolomites, though at considerable cost. Needing a lake for one scene, she had crew members dig an artificial lake. She used a dowser to locate water, then hired fifty Italian workmen to carry water and fill the lake by hand. Filling and refilling the lake became an arduous task, as sheep used by the production constantly drank the water.
Riefenstahl lost four months, one million marks and miles of footage by the end of 1940. Then she suffered a physical breakdown, caused by a chronic gallbladder infection. And things were just beginning.
Riefenstahl needed “Spanish-looking” extras for the gypsy scenes. With Spain unavailable, she turned closer to home. A few miles outside Salzburg was Maxglan, a transit camp housing 200 Roma bound for concentration camps. In October 1940, Riefenstahl negotiated a contract with SS Sturmbannfuhrer Anton Bohmer, and over the next two years, sixty-eight Roma joined the production.
Riefenstahl gave the gypsies gifts and pocket money, earning their affection and the nickname “Aunt Leni.” But the production didn’t pay them; Riefenstahl housed them in stables, while SS guards patrolled the set. They implored the director for help: “Maybe she can do something to get us freed,” Josef Reinhardt recalled thinking. Riefenstahl gave vague assurances, but did nothing when the SS relocated them to Auschwitz. Of the sixty-eight Roma, mostly children, who worked on Tiefland, only twenty survived.
During filming, ten year old Rosa Winter escaped Maxglan before SS officers recaptured her. Riefenstahl confronted her, demanding an apology. When Winter refused, Riefenstahl warned her “You will end up in a concentration camp, too.” Days later, Winter and her mother were sent to Ravensbruck camp. Rosa survived; her mother didn’t. She remembered: “I can never forgive her for the fact that although it was totally in her power to save her extras and knowing the fate they faced, she did nothing.”
This brush with genocide perversely fit Tiefland‘s nightmarish production. Still recovering, Riefenstahl used physicians, homeopaths and painkillers to relieve her suffering: “I didn’t under any circumstances want to cancel the film.” So weak she directed from a stretcher, Riefenstahl retained full control of Tiefland. Her main concern was the postponement of her acting scenes; she could barely walk, much less dance or perform.
She also retained Adolf Hitler’s confidence. Filmmaker and Fuhrer met in May 1941, where Hitler discussed writing films together after the war. Afterwards, Riefenstahl used Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, as her lobbyist. Bormann wrote a disapproving official that “the Fuhrer has instructed that the costs of the Tiefland film… be born from the funds managed by me.” Bernhard Minetti added “if there was something [Riefenstahl] she couldn’t get, she threatened to go to [Bormann’s] superior.”
Shooting slowed to a crawl. Actors Minetti and Maria Koppenhofer, contracted to Gustaf Grundgens’ stage company, left for a theater season; Economics Minister Walther Funk blocked a request for funding, forcing Bormann’s intercession. Finally, Riefenstahl suffered another breakdown in 1942, delaying production for nine months. Cast and crew scattered to other projects. It seemed that Tiefland was finally dead.
Even now, Riefenstahl refused to quit. She romanced Peter Jacob, a Wehrmacht lieutenant working as a stuntman, and mastered her dancing with choreographer Harald Kreutzberg. This reinvigorated her: Tiefland began again in 1943 with a fresh infusion of funds, courtesy of Martin Borrman. Riefenstahl finally filmed in Spain, including a bullfight and several scenes with Bernhard Minetti. “Coming to a land at peace after four years at war” proved a pleasant interlude.
Returning to Berlin, Riefenstahl found the city under heavy bombing. Taking her footage, equipment and negatives of her other films, in November 1943 Riefenstahl relocated to Kitzbuhel, setting up a makeshift studio at Seebichl House. Filming continued over the winter, but Riefenstahl found the facilities insufficient. In March 1944 she relocated to Prague’s Barrandov Studios. Even here, bureaucratic clashes continued; Riefenstahl battled other filmmakers for studio access, and appealed to government officials to retain cinematographer Albert Benitz, now contracted with UFA.
Now, Riefenstahl found the war inescapable. She last met Hitler in March 1944, struck by his “shrunken frame, the trembling of his hand” and otherworldly ramblings. That month she married Peter Jacob, now a Major; then her father Alfred and brother Heinz (serving on the Eastern Front) died, within days of each other, in July 1944. Riefenstahl attended Alfred’s funeral on July 20th, the same day Hitler escaped Claus Von Stauffenberg’s bomb. Shooting wrapped in October 1944. Now came cinema’s scut work: post-production, dubbing and editing. Riefenstahl again battle for studio time and crew members. She appealed to government officials, claiming her editors, dubbers and actors constituted “indispensable” artists immune to conscription. Official Walter Hinkel acidly suggested that “Riefenstahl-film should… be combed” for artists shirking their duty, or else their contracts.
Decades later, Riefenstahl admitted “It is completely incomprehensible to me why we insisted on completing Tiefland while everything was collapsing around us.” Others shared her madness. Veit Harlan’s Napoleonic epic Kolberg filmed through January 1945, using tens of thousands of Wehrmacht extras. Goebbels showed Kolberg to Hitler’s General Staff and gave its release top priority. When Soviet troops captured Kolberg in March 1945, Goebbels ordered the news suppressed “in view of the powerful psychological implications for the Kolberg film.”
Allied troops devoured Germany, and Riefenstahl soldiered on. Now ensconced in Kitzbuhel, she edited frantically, fighting for technicians and actors, even taking leave to visit Peter in Italy. In April 1945, with Soviet troops entering Berlin, she negotiated with Gustaf Grundgens to release Bernhard Minetti and Maria Koppenhofer for a dubbing session. Finally, she finished editing Tiefland just weeks before Germany’s surrender – a hollow victory.
Shipping her negatives by car to Bolzano, Riefenstahl finally left Kitzbuhel with her mother and several friends. She slipped into Mayerhofen, a village in Tyrol, where she encountered a hodgepodge of army deserters, starving refugees – and, inevitably, an UFA film crew finishing their own movie. Here she learned of Hitler’s suicide on April 30th. She tried seeking refuge with the Schneebergers, family members of an old colleague, who turned her out as “a Nazi slut.” Finally, in early May, American troops arrested Riefenstahl on the road outside Mayerhofen.
It took eleven years and 8.5 million Reichsmarks to produce Tiefland, making it the second-most expensive film in German history. Now, with World War II ended, its sponsors dead, its director imprisoned and the negative missing, it might never be shown.
End of Part One; continue reading here
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.