I first came across Leni Riefenstahl whilst doing my undergraduate degree in Milan, which focused on the work of Luis Trenker, an alpinist and film director of the 1920´s and 30´s who was briefly involved with Riefenstahl. From the moment I read about the German filmmaker and photographer, I started to be both scared and fascinated by her at the same time. My Master´s dissertation, in fact, is going to be about her probably most famous documentary “The Triumph of the will”- according to some scholars, the most famous documentary film of all time. It is largely due to Riefenstahl`s documentaries about the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg in 1934 that most people have a similar, at least visual, perception of Nazi Germany. The images of marching Nazi´s as well as Hitler speaking to the crowd taken by Leni Riefenstahl have become part of popular culture.
The reason I have chosen Riefenstahl for this entry is because she is considered to be a highly controversial figure that helps to understand that extremism is not simply black and white but more complicated. Leni Riefenstahl was never an official member of the Nazi party, although she obviously gained certain privileges due to her position as Hitler´s favorite director. At the end of the Second World War, she faced legal consequences for her role within third Reich ad was ultimately condemned of being a follower of the regime but not responsible for any crime. As Riefenstahl stated herself in the documentary, “The wonderful horrible life of Leni Riefenstahl” by Ray Müller, she didn´t know about the criminal activities in Germany at the time and ultimately hasn´t killed anybody. At the same time, the film director was accused of using gipsy´s from a concentration camp as statists for her film “Tiefland”. Whether Riefenstahl knew about concentration camps and millions of Jews being killed, is very difficult to answer but she clearly did enjoy the privileges her special position provided her.
The most interesting part for me, however, is that Leni Riefenstahl never publicly admitted to being aware of any responsibility. Yes, it´s true that she might not have killed another human being but trough her films she clearly paved the way for Hitler and his regime. It is this lack of critical understanding, of guilt so to speak, that is missing. Neither in her almost thousand pages log autobiography nor in any of her interviews did she express any sorrow; on the contrary. When asked by German television journalist Sandra Maischberger in 2002 about any regrets, Riefenstahl, 100 years at the time, claimed that she would have done the same work she did for Hitler, for Stalin or Churchill. This opportunistic behavior was one of the major points of criticism Riefenstahl had to face. For all her life, she never got rid of the title of “Hitler´s favorite” film director, which stopped her career as a filmmaker by the end of world war II. Even her photographs of the Nuba tribe in Africa led Susan Sontag to write her famous essay “Fascinating Fascism” in which she accused Riefenstahl of having created a fascist astaticism. As far as I am concerned, Leni Riefenstahl serves as a good example of how easy it is to fall for extremism of any kind. Her lack of consciousness and glorification of Hitler through her movies make not a war criminal out of her but certainly a very ambiguous personality.