Hitler’s “perfect German woman”

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Leni Riefenstahl and friend

Last week we began looking at several German cultural figures who served as useful stooges for the Third Reich. Better known than any of these stories of Nazi collaboration is that of Leni Riefenstahl, director of the films Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938). She may well have been the greatest female film director of all time, but to hear her name is to think, first and last, of Hitler – for unlike, say, Walter Gropius or Richard Strauss, she was actually an intimate friend of the Führer’s, and her famous Nazi-era films were the products of direct consultation with him and were produced under his government’s auspices. 

“My perfect German woman,” he called her. She socialized with him frequently. “At times,” writes Jonathan Petropoulos in Artists under Hitler, “they dined together several times a week.” Repeatedly, she articulated her passionate support for him in private notes and telegrams cheering his military victories. (In one of them, addressing him as “my Führer,” she gushed: “You exceed anything the human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind.”)

Riefenstahl was a demanding woman, and whenever one Nazi functionary or another rejected her demands, Hitler came through. Denied by Goebbels a request for additional funds to complete Olympia, she turned – successfully – to her beloved Führer. In 1939, he even approved of plans to build Riefenstahl her own massive film studio, a project that failed to come to fruition only because of the war. Riefenstahl wielded remarkable power: at her word, the Jewish wife of Olympia‘s production designer was saved from the death camps. Also at her word, a recalcitrant extra on her her film Tiefland was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. (Other extras on that film were gypsies who, after doing their job onscreen, were murdered at Auschwitz.)

Interrogated by Allied officials after the war, Riefenstahl repeatedly contradicted herself. She was tried by four different denazification courts; ultimately, in 1952, she was exonerated on charges of collaboration. She went on to make National Geographic-type films about the Nuba trime in Sudan and about undersea life, and, as Petropoulos puts it, “battled for respectability,” desperate to be seen not as a Nazi propagandist and former pal of Hitler’s but as a great cinematic artist. Many famous people obliged her. During the 1970s, she chummed around with such pop-culture heroes of the day as Mick and Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, and photographer Helmut Newton.

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Riefenstahl and Mick Jagger

Decades after the war, public curiosity about Riefenstahl remained so intense that her 1993 memoirs made the New York Times bestseller list; a 1994 documentary about her life, which challenged her own self-exculpating account of her relationship to the Nazi regime, also gained widespread attention. She finally died in 2003 at the age of 101. Petropoulos notes the influence of her two famous Nazi films on pop culture: George Lucas borrowed from her in Star Wars; Olympia became a model for TV sports coverage around the world; the impact of her production design can be observed in the staging of concerts by such artists as Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Jagger. In addition, Petropoulos might have pointed out that a great many music videos, by performers ranging from Madonna to the Pet Shop Boys, feature imagery right out of Triumph out of the Will. 

Nor does Petropoulos mention another development – namely, the decades-long effort by major Hollywood players to make a Riefenstahl bio. We’ll look at that effort tomorrow.

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