‘Terrible wonder’ of Leni Riefenstahl’: Hitler’s favourite director who ESCAPED punishment

The ‘terrible wonder’ of Leni Riefenstahl’s life: Actress who became Hitler’s favourite director ESCAPED punishment and became ‘feted as a feminist pioneer’, as her story inspires a new novel

She may have been a famous actress, director and photographer – but history is more likely to remember Leni Riefenstahl as the individual Adolf Hitler once described as the  ‘perfect German woman’. 

Having initially trained as a ballet dancer in the early 1920s, Leni – who passed away in her sleep at the age of 101 in 2003 – caught the eye of the Nazi party leader thanks to her motion picture films which celebrated Aryan looks.

In 1934, she was commissioned by Hitler to make a documentary about the Nazi’s Nuremberg rallies in a thinly-veiled attempt to showcase beloved the political party had become among the German people.

The two-hour feature film Triumph of the Will would later be dubbed the ‘ultimate Nazi propaganda movie’. 

Leni Riefenstahl started out her career as a dancer and actress in the 1920s before then venturing into directing

Leni Riefenstahl started out her career as a dancer and actress in the 1920s before then venturing into directing 

But despite working alongside Hitler and his chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, Leni always denied that she was a Nazi supporter and claims she was ‘naïve’ to the regime’s persecution of the Jews.

Earlier this week, Fionala Meredith’s hotly anticipated debut novel The Stamp of Beauty hit shelves – and the Irish journalist says her book’s protagonist was inspired by the ‘terrible wonder’ of the historic figure.

Here Femail delves Leni Riefenstahl’s rise and fall from grace – and how she managed to escape punishment and re-invent herself as an artistic ‘feminist pioneer’ in later life.

Born in August 1902, Leni grew up in Berlin with parents Alfred – who owned his own heating company – and mother Bertha, a part-time seamstress.

Leni (pictured as a young actress) passed away at the age of 101 in 2003. She always denied knowing anything about the Nazi's plans to persecute the Jewish race

Leni (pictured as a young actress) passed away at the age of 101 in 2003. She always denied knowing anything about the Nazi’s plans to persecute the Jewish race

Leni on the set of her 1940 movie Tiefland

Leni pictured filming a project during WWI

Left: Leni on the set of her 1940 movie Tiefland. Right: Leni pictured filming a project during WWI. Her 1935 film Triumph of the Will was later dubbed the ‘ultimate Nazi propaganda movie’

Despite Alfred wanting Leni to follow in his footsteps, Bertha was adamant that her daughter – who reportedly starting writing poetry at the age of four – should pursue a career in the performing arts. 

Leni’s mother enrolled her at the Grimm-Reiter School dance school in Berlin behind her husband’s back. 

According to the University of Washington‘s biography of Leni, her father threatened to divorce Bertha when he found out.

However, he then encouraged his daughter to audition for the city’s most exclusive dance institution – the Russian Ballet School – in the hope that this would crush his daughter’s confidence. But his plan had the opposite effect.

Leni pictured in her 1932 movie The Blue Light, which she also starred in. The film caught the eye of Adolf Hitler, who then commissioned her to make Triumph of the Will

Leni pictured in her 1932 movie The Blue Light, which she also starred in. The film caught the eye of Adolf Hitler, who then commissioned her to make Triumph of the Will

Leni pictured in 2000 at the age of 98. On her 100th birthday, Frankfurt prosecutor's office opened another investigation into claims Leni was a Holocaust-denier. However, the case was dropped shortly after due to lack of evidence

Leni pictured in 2000 at the age of 98. On her 100th birthday, Frankfurt prosecutor’s office opened another investigation into claims Leni was a Holocaust-denier. However, the case was dropped shortly after due to lack of evidence

After making a name for herself as a teenage dance prodigy, Leni suffered a knee injury when she was 22 – which led to her going down an altogether different career path.

In 1924, Leni was so moved by the silent movie Mountain of Destiny that she sought out the director Arnold Fanck, who then went on to cast her in seven of his films.

Eight years later, she directed and starred in her first movie The Blue Light, which Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was a fan of. In her 1995 memoir, Leni recalled seeing Hitler speak for the first time at a Nazi rally.

She wrote: ‘I heard his voice: `Fellow Germans’. ‘That very same instant I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. 

‘It seemed as if the earth’s surface were spreading out before me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth. I felt paralyzed.’

Afterwards, she wrote to the Nazi leader to tell him how ‘impressed’ she was by his speech and asked if they could meet in person.

Leni pictured behind-the-scenes on set in the 1930's. A knee injury in the 1924 dramatically altered the course of Leni's life and inspired her to become an actress and director

Leni pictured behind-the-scenes on set in the 1930’s. A knee injury in the 1924 dramatically altered the course of Leni’s life and inspired her to become an actress and director

Leni pictured during the Triumph of the Will filming in 1934, which documented the Nazi party's annual Nuremberg rallies

Leni pictured during the Triumph of the Will filming in 1934, which documented the Nazi party’s annual Nuremberg rallies

KRISTALLNACHT: THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS

On November 9. 1938, the Nazis began their campaign to destroy the Jewish race.

The authorities watched on as Hitler’s SA paramilitary force and non-Jewish civilians targeted Jewish businesses and homes. 91 Jews were killed in the attacks in Germany and Austria and more than 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. 

Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked and more than 1,000 synagogues were burned down, while thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed.

Historians have long pointed to the two-day campaign of terror as the start of Hitler’s Final Solution – the dictator’s comprehensive plan to exterminate the entire Jewish population in Nazi occupied Europe.

The name of the wave of violence refers to the shards of glass left strewn across cities in the aftermath of the bloody pogroms. 

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Although historians have speculated that the two were lovers, there is no evidence to suggest they had anything other than a working relationship. According to Military History, Hitler would go on to describe Leni as the ‘perfect German woman’.

Hitler would later commissioned Leni to direct Triumph of the Will. In the years that followed, she would expertly dodge questions about the filming of the documentary, being careful not to align herself with the Nazis.

In the 1993 documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, she was questioned by film-maker Ray Müller on whether she agreed with critics who accused her of ‘seducing’ people with her film.

Shutting down all suggestion that it was intended as propaganda, she replied: ‘Okay, a few idiots say that.’ Instead, Leni said she ‘just observed and tried to film [the rallies] well’. 

In total, it took Leni two years to edit the 250 miles of raw footage she had filmed at the Nuremberg rallies – which involved several shots of an heroic-looking Hitler – and she went to win several = German film prizes for it.

Following on from this success, she was then asked to film the 1936 Berlin Olympics by the German Olympic Committee. 

Writing for the Irish Times, author Fionala Meredith describes the four-hour feature film Olympia ‘as much of a propaganda victory for the Nazis as Triumph of the Will’ in how it portrayed Germany as a ‘powerful, peaceful and tolerant nation’. 

While she was promoting Olympia in New York in 1938, Leni dismissed questions by American journalists, who were asking her about Kristallnacht – which historians mark as the night Nazis began their campaign to destroy the Jewish race.

November 1938  photo shows a group of citizens standing outside a Jewish-owned shop in an unnamed German town, after the Kristallnacht

November 1938  photo shows a group of citizens standing outside a Jewish-owned shop in an unnamed German town, after the Kristallnacht

Leni pictured in 1994 following the release of a documentary about her life.  When asked about the filming of The Triumph of the Will, Leni said she 'just observed'

Leni pictured in 1994 following the release of a documentary about her life.  When asked about the filming of The Triumph of the Will, Leni said she ‘just observed’

The authorities watched on as Hitler’s SA paramilitary force and non-Jewish civilians targeted Jewish businesses and homes. 91 Jews were killed in the attacks in Germany and Austria and more than 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. 

Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked and more than 1,000 synagogues were burned down, while thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed. 

In March 1944, Leni saw Hitler for the last time and wrote in a diary that he ‘still had the same magical spell’ as the first time she’d seen him speak, despite his declining health.

What’s more, Leni said she only discovered the full horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime following the end of WWII in 1945.

In the 1993 documentary, she said: ‘I was just appalled and confused to have lived through that period. I’ve never recovered from the horror.’

But in his 2002 biography of Leni, Jürgen Trimborn said that there is ‘no evidence that, due to her proximity to the regime, Riefenstahl knew more than others did about the mass annihilation of the Jews.’

He added: ‘But it is obvious that, like most Germans, she knew enough to be sure that it was better not to know even more.’

In the 1960s, Leni made a dramatic comeback into the art world when she moved to Nuba in Sudan by herself. She went on to release a photography book called The Last of Nuba which was met with critical acclaim.

In the 1960s, Leni made a dramatic comeback into the art world when she moved to Nuba in Sudan by herself. She went on to release a photography book called The Last of Nuba which was met with critical acclaim.

Leni pictured with husband Horst Kettner - who was 40 years her junior - at her 90th birthday party in 1992

Leni pictured with husband Horst Kettner – who was 40 years her junior – at her 90th birthday party in 1992 

After WWII, Leni was reportedly detained by the Allies for four years but was cleared twice for being a Nazi. Instead, the American and French forces deemed her a ‘Nazi sympathiser’.

However in the 1960s, she made a dramatic comeback into the art world when she moved to Nuba in Sudan by herself. She went on to release a photography book called The Last of Nuba which was met with critical acclaim. 

The Stamp of Beauty author wrote: ‘Suddenly she was being feted as a feminist pioneer, one of cinema’s greatest innovative artists. Her own perpetual plea – that all she cared about was beauty and harmony – was accepted and even celebrated, her inglorious past apparently forgotten.’

It was during this period that Leni began a relationship with her cameraman Horst Kettner, who was 40 years her junior and only 20 when they first became romantically involved.

On her 100th birthday, Frankfurt prosecutor’s office opened another investigation into claims Leni was a Holocaust-denier. However, the case was dropped shortly after due to lack of evidence.

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