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Who is Leni Riefenstahl?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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Leni Riefenstahl was a German movie director as well as an actress, dancer and photographer. She was born 22 August, 1902 as Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl. She had a career as a dancer at the Max Reinhard's Deutsches Theater, but when a knee injury prevented her from furthering her career in dance, she became an actress who also operated her own film production company. Riefenstahl is recognized as one of the earliest female film directors, and her innovative filming techniques have been highly acclaimed. However, Leni Riefenstahl was best known for her connection to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Leni Riefenstahl made a Nazi propaganda film for Hitler titled Triumph of the Will that was released in 1936. Hitler created the title and the film includes the 1934 rally of the Nazi party. Triumph of the Will shows large swastikas and hundreds of thousands of uniformed Nazi fighters filling up a huge stadium. The effect was done to portray Nazi power and Hitler was shown dramatically descending to the arena from the sky. Leni Riefenstahl was often criticized for promoting the power of Nazism by making the film.

She did refer to Hitler as "a very important person" but she did not follow every Nazi request. For example, Hitler asked Leni Riefenstahl to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics and she accepted, but when she was asked by the Nazis to lessen the importance of the non-white athletes, she ignored that and filmed all of the Olympic victories. Jesse Owens, a black American sprinter who had won four gold medals and set two world records, appeared heavily in her film of the Olympics which was released in 1936 as Olympia. Although Olympia was praised for its amazing footage of athletes in innovative film techniques, Leni Riefenstahl's film career ended when she was accused of being a Nazi.

Leni Riefenstahl was cleared of all charges due to a lack of evidence and was still facing war crime charges up to the year 2002. She was always under suspicion that she knew that people from concentration camps were used in her Nazi propaganda films, yet nothing could be proven to make the charges stick. She also denied that she knew that those films were Nazi propaganda films.

After her film career ended, Leni Riefenstahl worked as a photographer and photographed the Nuba people of Sudan, Africa. Her book of photographs entitled Die Nuba was critically acclaimed. She also photographed celebrities such as Mick Jagger and covered the 1972 Munich Olympics. In 2002, she released a book of photographs she had taken while scuba diving. Leni Riefenstahl died in September of 2003 at 101 years of age.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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