The story of Leni Riefenstahl has always intrigued me. Although she was a willing and pivotal tool in the Nazi propaganda machine. She did witness crimes and evil but was yet somehow able to distance herself from it.
Leni Riefenstahl (Helene Riefenstahl) was a German dancer, actress, and film director best known for her imposing propaganda films in support of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party.
By her own account, the advent of World War II and the rapid escalation of violence under the Nazi regime had an unfavorable effect on both Riefenstahl and her career. Early in the Polish campaign, an incident seemed to have shaken Riefenstahl’s confidence in the movement she had glorified in cinematic images. While accompanying German troops near Konskie, the filmmaker witnessed the execution of Polish civilians shot in retaliation for a partisan attack on German troops. Riefenstahl apparently left her filming that day in order to make a personal appeal to Hitler against such arbitrary violence. The incident may have planted a seed of doubt in Riefenstahl’s mind, but it did not prevent her from filming Hitler’s triumphal parade into Warsaw just weeks later.
However another side to this story is that she had been filming Nazi rallies since the early 1930’s. Like the 1935 film Triumph of the Will (German: Triumph des Willens). It chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. This film had a global release, it should have been a warning to the world what the Nazi’s were up to, but it was ignored.
After the war Riefenstahl attempted to separate herself from the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, suggesting her duty was to her craft and not necessarily to the Nazi authorities who commissioned her films.
In the postwar years, Leni Riefenstahl was the subject of four denazification proceedings, which finally declared her a Nazi sympathizer (Mitläufer). Although never a member of the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl found it difficult to overcome her association with the propaganda films she had made during the early Nazi period, and encountered difficulties in regaining her position in the German cinematic community. Her experience was quite unlike that of her colleague Veit Harlan, who had directed such seminal Nazi propaganda works as Jüd Süss and Kolberg, but who returned to a flourishing directorial career in the 1950s. Riefenstahl turned to still photography, publishing in the 1970s an illustrated volume on the primitive Nuba tribe of the Sudan; in her late seventies, she undertook a new interest in underwater cinematography.