What kind of antisemite was Leni Riefenstahl?

She claimed to be ignorant of Hitler’s plans, but is that true? And if it is, how do we judge her work?

Jacob Shamsian
Oct 5, 2014 · 8 min read

By Jacob Shamsian

After the Holocaust, the common excuse given by German soldiers was “I was just following orders.” Leni Riefenstahl, a German director who made films for Adolf Hitler, argued her case along different lines – that she was unaware of Hitler’s atrocities towards the Jews. After the Holocaust, she defended her movies as factual documentaries without any perspective, saying that they were not propaganda films that glorified Nazis. It’s unlikely, however, that her claims of ignorance about the situation with the Jews were truthful. If she was ignorant, it was by choice, but more likely she knew about the situation and chose not to act on it.

Riefenstahl defends her movies Triumph of the Will and her two-part Olympia as works of art, not propaganda films. Triumph of the Will, released in 1935, is a purported documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, featuring footage of troops, speeches from Nazi party leaders, and excited reactions from the German citizens present. Olympia, nearly four hours long in its entire length (it was released in two parts in 1938), covers the 1936 Berlin Olympics and internationally broadcasts an image of a strong, modernized Germany. In a 1965 interview with French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Riefenstahl called her style “cinéma vérité,” or pure, direct cinema, without any voiceover. “Everything is genuine. And there is no tendentious commentary for the simple reason that there is no commentary at all. It is history — pure history” (Sontag). In her autobiography, Riefenstahl says that no shots of Triumph of the Will were staged for the camera, and all of it was simply captured during Hitler’s rally (Riefenstahl 148). This is supported by the verdict of the post-World War II French government, who tried her in 1948 for Nazi collaboration. Riefenstahl never officially joined the Nazi party, so she could not be tried for being a Nazi. The French ruling decided that

Riefenstahl steadily and persistently refused to accept the assignment of the party rally film and made it eventually only at Hitler’s express and unyielding instructions. She had neither the intention nor the awareness to execute this project as propaganda for the National Socialist Workers Party … The maker of this film cannot be blamed for the fact that it subsequently proved to be an effective means of propaganda.

This interpretation posits that Riefenstahl was an unwilling cog in the propaganda machine controlled by Hitler and Goebbels. Here, she is someone who meant only to create documentaries of a propagandistic event, not propaganda itself.

Susan Sontag in her 1975 essay Fascinating Fascism makes several notes that contradict Riefenstahl’s version of events. She points out that the rally in Triumph of the Will was staged and was created with the intention of filming it. Riefenstahl, in fact, was herself involved in planning the rally. Characterizing the film a natural record of historic events, then, is incorrect. When some footage of Nazi speakers was spoiled, Hitler had the scenes reshot. The reality of the film is a constructed one. Sontag further argues that Riefenstahl frequently says that fiction films comprise most of her filmography and she only made two documentaries. Sontag says that she actually made four to six Nazi documentaries, but the footage from the ones other than Triumph of the Will and Olympia didn’t survive and Riefenstahl chose not to bring them up in interviews later in her life (Sontag). For instance, one of Riefenstahl’s 1933 movies, Victory of Faith, thought to be lost, was rediscovered in the 1980s. That movie is also a documentary of a Nazi rally, a kind of forerunner to Triumph of the Will (Falcon). Riefenstahl responds to Sontag’s essay briefly in her memoir, calling it “absurd” without really discussing the specifics. She speculated that Sontag wrote it as a favor to one of Riefenstahl’s enemies and gets the publication in which the essay was published wrong – it was The New York Review of Books, not The New York Times (Riefenstahl 625).

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The story behind Victory of Faith is tied to Riefenstahl’s personal relationship with Hitler. After listening to one of his speeches in 1932, Riefenstahl wrote an admiring letter to him requesting a meeting. She was unable to meet him that year because she was traveling to promote her movie The Blue Light. In the 1933 March elections in Germany, Nazis consolidated power and began their official anti-Semitic campaign, boycotting Jewish businesses and banning Jews from working in the film industry. “Jews not welcome here” became a commonplace sign throughout Germany. At that point, Hitler commissioned Riefenstahl to make Victory of Faith (Falcon). It’s highly unlikely that Riefenstahl did not realize that her work was to be part of a larger Nazi media campaign, and that the goal of that media campaign was to convey Nazi power and antisemitism. It’s also unlikely that she didn’t realize that all the Jews were kicked out of the film industry she was working in.

The French court ruling clearing Riefenstahl also says that there’s no evidence that she was close to Hitler personally, but that’s since been widely disproven. Riefenstahl herself brags about frequently being with him throughout her memoir. Goebbels, in his diary, recorded numerous instances where he, Hitler, and Riefenstahl all spent time together (Culbert and Loiperdinger). Riefenstahl has frequently said that she would not have made Triumph of the Will or Olympia had she foreknowledge of Hitler’s atrocities. However, she read Mein Kampf in 1932 (Simon). Furthermore, in the speech covered in Victory of Faith, Hitler went on a long tirade against the Jews. She must have heard it even if she didn’t include it in her movie (Trimborn 215). By 1936, Jews were banned from swimming pools and sports facilities, so she must have known that when filming Olympia (Trimborn 217). And prior to the Holocaust, during the rise of Nazism, numerous German intellectual luminaries fled the country – it’s unlikely that she didn’t notice and pay attention to why they were doing so. Even if Riefenstahl was unaware of the persecution of the Jews, she certainly supported Hitler’s militaristic exploits. When Germany conquered Paris in 1940, she sent a congratulatory telegram to Hitler (Riding). It’s important to consider Riefenstahl’s closeness to Hitler because if she claim ignorance about his antisemitism, it supports the claims of innocence of millions of other Germans who were not as close to the Fuhrer.

Riefenstahl’s closeness to Hitler is also important because it was essential to her unique position in the Nazi bureaucracy. She didn’t work under Goebbels, and Riefenstahl often pointed out that she was artistically independent from the propaganda system (Simon). She says she was interested in art alone, not in politics. Sontag argued that Triumph of the Will is obviously aesthetically similar to many other Nazi propaganda movies. Furthermore, Olympia was made through the German government with a crew they supplied, it wasn’t an art film given a budgetary carte blanche, as Riefenstahl says it is. A dummy company was set up in Riefenstahl’s name through the Ministry of Propaganda for that movie (Sontag). It’s true, though, that Riefenstahl was not so influenced by Goebbels’ directives. Because she had a close relationship with Hitler, she could always appeal to him to overrule Goebbels and sustain her own artistic freedom (Simon).

Riefenstahl took pains to characterize herself as not antisemitic regardless of her cinema career. In the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, she said “No antisemitic word has ever crossed my lips. I was never antisemitic. I did not join the party. So where then is my guilt? You tell me. I have thrown no atomic bombs. I have never betrayed anyone. What am I guilty of?” But she did say some antisemitic things. When she was told about Kristallnacht while on a 1938 tour of America, she thought the event was a lie fabricated by the American media, a plot “by the Jewish moneymen.” She also once wrote a letter to her friend Julius Streicher, the editor of the antisemitic paper Der Stürmer, and asked for help with the “demands made upon me by the Jew Béla Balázs.” Riefenstahl had removed Balázs’ name from a movie he wrote for her so that a “judenrein,” or Jew-free, version of the movie could be released. Balázs asked to be compensated and Riefentahl wanted Streicher to publicly criticize him so she wouldn’t have to (Thurman).

Yet there are also instances where Riefenstahl shows compassion to the Jews in Germany. A friend’s father, Eduard Kunneke, was a famous Opera composer and director. His wife was labeled a “half Jew,” and he was forbidden to work because he did not divorce her. After the friend wrote to her, Riefenstahl intervened and got the ban lifted. When she was filming Olympia, Riefenstahl protected the Jewish wife of Robert Herlth, a set designer, from being arrested by the Gestapo. She even arranged for the wife of her friend Ernst Jager, who was Jewish, to be released from a concentration camp. She was also criticized by Nazis throughout the 1930s for going to a Jewish doctor and shopping in Jewish stores (Trimborn 216–217). That does speak to her kindness, but it also renders her claims of ignorance as dishonest. In her autobiography, Riefenstahl tells a story about the end of the war, when she’s arrested by Americans and taken to an army headquarters. She says she saw piles of Jewish corpses and was horrified. She reproduces a conversation with an American guard, presented as if it’s by memory, with him asking specific questions that seem suited for her denial of knowledge of events. It reeks of fabrication – in once instance, when asked what happened to her Jewish friends, she said she thought they just emigrated elsewhere (Riefenstahl 311–312).

When Riefenstahl said that she was more interested in making art than being involved in politics, she probably wasn’t lying. She sincerely believed that the best way of doing things was to create beautiful works of art and be willfully ignorant, not asking too many questions and deflecting the information available to her. But as much as she tried to be ignorant, she wasn’t, and what actually happened was willful apathy. Riefenstahl saw what Hitler was doing and decided to make the best of her lucky, powerful situation, instead of doing what was just.

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Works referenced

Culbert, David and Martin Loiperdinger. “Hitler’s Handmaiden.” The New York Times 31 October 1993. Newspaper.

Falcon, Richard. “Leni Riefenstahl.” The Guardian 9 September 2003. Newspaper obituary.

Riding, Alan. “Leni Riefenstahl, 101, Dies; Film Innovator Tied to Hitler .” The New York Times 10 September 2003. Newspaper.

Riefenstahl, Leni. Leni Riefenstahl. New York: Picador, 1987. Book.
Simon, John. “The Fuhrer’s Movie Maker.” The New York Times 26 September 1993. Newspaper.

Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” The New York Review of Books 6 February 1975. Magazine.

Thurman, Judith. “Where There’s a Will.” The New Yorker 19 March 2007. Magazine.

Trimborn, Jürgen. Leni Riefenstahl: A Life. New York City: Faber & Fabe, 2008. Book.

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