Leni Riefenstahl: Opportunist or Swept Along by Events?

Updated on April 24, 2020

Leni Riefenstahl: Nazi Era Film Director

From the earliest accounts of Leni Riefenstahl’s career, it is clear that she was prepared to use others to benefit herself. She had become acquainted with a young Jewish banker, Harry Sokal, in 1923, who manipulated exchange rates. Riefenstahl acknowledged his wealth and while she had no desire to satisfy his ongoing matrimonial pursuit continued their relationship. Riefenstahl used Sokal to finance her dance debut where he paid for the hall, the advertising, and the musicians. In an attempt to gain positive reviews, Sokal also paid critics to be in the audience. For Riefenstahl it may not have been a difficult decision to exploit Sokal and other men, as opportunities for women were limited. Riefenstahl acknowledged that she needed to allow Sokal to finance her or risk not achieving success. Therefore, she took advantage of Sokal when it suited her best. He had established her dance career and then, without notice, she resolved to banish him forever. This, however, was not the last time Riefenstahl sought to exploit Sokal and his money. On the other hand, Riefenstahl considers she had the feeling of being bought. This may be true, however, while she allowed Sokal to finance her movements she was clearly being opportunistic.

Riefenstahl exploited many people to establish her career in German berg, or mountain, films.
Riefenstahl exploited many people to establish her career in German berg, or mountain, films. | Source

Film Career Beginnings

With her clear intentions to succeed within the creative arts industry, Riefenstahl, after seeing the film Mountain of Destiny, sought out film director Arnold Fanck in an attempt to establish a career as an actress. Riefenstahl again turned to the man who established her dance career. Financed by Sokal, she traveled to the Dolomite Mountains in order to find Dr. Fanck. It was there that Riefenstahl met the film's actor, Luis Trenker, claiming “I’m going to be in your next picture. Someone being swept along by events doesn’t, as Riefenstahl had prophesied and plan future actions. On news of Fanck’s whereabouts, Riefenstahl departed the next day in search of him in Berlin. Even though she was not in a relationship with Sokal, she continued to exploit his money in order to find Fanck and would again turn to Sokal at times convenient to furthering her career. Historian Audrey Salkeld (1996) offers a different account of events. She doesn't mention Riefenstahl traveling to the Dolomite Mountains using Sokal's finances; rather it was a sightseeing tour that turned out to be her "destiny." She suggests that this was Riefenstahl being swept along; opposing the more credible argument that Riefenstahl exploited Sokal in order to find Dr. Fanck.

"Mountain of Destiny" (1924) featuring Lewis Trenker, who Leni would use for her own personal gain.
"Mountain of Destiny" (1924) featuring Lewis Trenker, who Leni would use for her own personal gain. | Source

Riefenstahl as Opportunist?

However, this early relationship with Fanck also credits her claims of being swept along by events. Riefenstahl was not reluctant to exploit tennis pro Gunther Rahn, who was “hopelessly in love" with her. She used him to her advantage in arranging the meeting with Fanck that would catapult her into the film industry. Fanck instantly admired Riefenstahl’s beauty—and just three days later, according to Riefenstahl, he visited her in hospital with a script titled The Holy Mountain, "written for the dancer, Leni Riefenstahl." Riefenstahl once again called upon Sokal to finance the film. This contained the same sort of calculation that characterized the start of Leni's dance career, and it would be repeated at every major turning point in her life. In Riefenstahl's defense, however, Salkeld (1996) suggests the extent of Fanck's fascination with her was not within her control. He considered himself her "Pygmalion," or sculptor, who hoped to make her the "most famous woman in Germany." Without Fanck's dedication, she would never have been successful in her acting career and would not have learnt how to direct films, thus never being projected to Hitler's attention. In this way Riefenstahl was swept along by events.

Differing Historical Perspectives

Riefenstahl exploited scriptwriter Bela Balacs, Fanck as editor, and again Sokal in order to finance. Sokal was naively forthcoming once more, even after Riefenstahl had taken advantage of him and his money several times in the past. Before she acquired his support, in a calculated move to ensure all creative control was with her, Riefenstahl created Leni-Riefenstahl-Studio-Film GmbH. By making the film through this newly established company, Riefenstahl was ensured all copyrights and credit. Then, while admitting she could not pay him, she sought the work from film theorist Bela Balacs to write the script.

Balacs was not immune to feminine charm or beauty, which Riefenstahl never hesitated to use to achieve her goals. When Balacs threatened to sue her over debts, Riefenstahl referred the case to the vehemently anti-Semitic Julius Streicher. Her letter to the district administrator transferred "power of attorney in the matter of the claims of the Jew Bela Balacs" (Bach, 2007, p. 79). This shows that Riefenstahl was opportunistic by playing on the fact that Balacs was Jewish. It ensured she would never have to pay him.

In editing, Riefenstahl turned to Dr. Fanck in order to “save the film." He argued that she had made a mess of the editing herself and that “of about six hundred splices, none were done right” (Bach, 2007, p. 75). Salkeld (1996) offers a different perspective of events, presenting Riefenstahl in a different light. When writing of Balacs' employment, she comments "so enthusiastic he was that he offered to help develop the screenplay—for no immediate fee, nor prospect for one" (Salkeld, 1996, p. 67). Salkeld also suggests that Fanck had voluntarily edited her film without her consent, "mutilating it." Salkeld's argument establishes that the voluntary actions of those around her were not within her control; however, it is more likely that Riefenstahl exploited whomever she could for her own personal gain.

Leni Riefenstahl with Dr. Arnold Fanck
Leni Riefenstahl with Dr. Arnold Fanck | Source

Riefenstahl and Anti-Semitism

The "democratic" Berliner Tageblatt labelled Riefenstahl's film The Blue Light "inwardly sick," to which Riefenstahl considered “they have no right to criticize our work" (Bach, 2007, p. 77). Although Riefenstahl disputed allegations of anti-Semitic vindictiveness, she is reported to have commented during a radio interview in November 1932 that "as long as the Jews are film critics, I'll never have a success. But watch out, when Hitler takes the rudder, everything will change" (Bach, 2007, p. 77). Riefenstahl argued until the day of her death that she was purely apolitical and never supported Hitler and the Nazis. However, she was seen a short time after receiving poor Jewish critiques reading Hitler's Mein Kampf. Heinz von Jaworsky, an assistant cameraman on The Blue Light, recalled Riefenstahl's comment on a train while reading the virulently anti-Semitic book: "I'll work for them" (Bach, 2007, p. 81). Such remarks “may have struck a chord with Leni when she stewed over unfavorable reviews.” Conveniently for Riefenstahl, if Hitler were to come to power she would no longer have problems with Jewish critics. Her support for such a movement is a clear example of her opportunism even if she remained apolitical to the Nazi agenda.


Riefenstahl and Hitler

Upon attending one of Hitler's rallies, Riefenstahl found him intriguing, and described the experience “like being struck by lightning” (Bach, 2007, p. 89). Salkeld suggests that "without following much of his argument, she was fascinated by the man himself" (Salkeld, 1996, p. 81). While Riefenstahl claimed she "rejected his racial ideas," she in fact wrote to him just days before an important press event on her film S.O.S Iceberg. Aware that she might well be risking her career, Riefenstahl then agreed to meet with Hitler on May 22 at Wilhelmshaven, three days before she was due in Greenland.

This eagerness to meet with Hitler supports the idea that she saw within the Nazis an opportunity, whether it was based on anti-Semitic ideals or purely artistic. Riefenstahl remembered that during the meeting, Hitler announced “once we come to power you must make my films” (Bach, 2007, p. 91). Although Riefenstahl claimed she denied the request on the basis of his racial prejudices, it’s extreme to suggest that Riefenstahl would “put in jeopardy a film role she had fought—and seduced—to get,” if she would walk away without a benefit to her (Bach, 2007, p. 91). Salkeld, on the other hand suggests it less extraordinary “when you consider the pattern she established early in her life. Whenever anyone made an impression on her, she had to meet him." Salkeld doesn't dispute, however, that Riefenstahl was being an opportunist as this stage, commenting "she had the ability to create opportunities for herself, to fashion her own destiny" (Salkeld, 1996, p. 82). However, Salkeld offers professional and artistic motives, rather than the anti-Semitic motives implied by Bach.

In addition, the legend of the "orator-as-hypnotis" serves as an example of Riefenstahl being swept along by events. As William Shirer observed "it did not matter so much what he said but how he said it" (Salkeld, 1996, p. 90). This suggests that Riefenstahl was caught up in the euphoria of the Nazi movement, but also exploited the momentum to establish her position within the Nazi realm for the time when Hitler would take power.


Guest of the Nazi Party's Inner Circle

Riefenstahl had been Hitler’s personal guest at political meetings and attended the Sportpalast in Berlin on November 2. She was also a personal guest of Joseph Goebbels where she met many of the Nazis most important members. Therefore, it is hard to validate her claims that she was purely apolitical. Furthermore, Goebbels’ personal diaries show Riefenstahl’s collaboration as early as June 11 on “a Hitler film,” where “she was over the moon about the idea” (Bach, 2007, p. 108). In addition to the fact that the 1933 Nuremburg Rally was not to be held until late August her enthusiasm would indicate she was not forced to create the film. Riefenstahl took advantage of the opportunity to establish herself within the inner circle of the Nazi Party, where she would continue to show her opportunism, creating a film that would become known as Victory of Faith.

Promotional material for "Victory of Faith," which was a precursor film to her most famous film, "Triumph of the Will"
Promotional material for "Victory of Faith," which was a precursor film to her most famous film, "Triumph of the Will" | Source

"Triumph of the Will"

From Riefenstahl’s first meeting with Hitler in 1932 she claimed she could not make his films because she needed “a very personal relationship with the subject matter. Otherwise she couldn’t be creative” (Bach, 2007, p. 91). When Triumph of the Will was released, the film won gold medals in Venice and Paris. Riefenstahl’s masterful direction of this film would suggest that she did have that “personal relationship with the subject.” Historian Susan Sontag (1975) supports this, arguing that “Riefenstahl was glorying Nazism not only from direction of her superiors but from her own personal fondness for the party and their ideals.” This explains why Riefenstahl acted so opportunistically to accept the project months in advance in April of 1934. Walter Traut, production manager on Triumph of the Will, furthermore supports this idea in stating “Leni Riefenstahl was not ordered… She asked to do this picture” (Bach, 2007, p. 131). Furthermore, on agreeing to “artistic and technical responsibility for the film Riefenstahl insisted that production credit go to her Leni-Riefenstahl-Studio-Film GmbH, thus establishing copyrights in her name and ensuring she received a percentage of the profits. Riefenstahl would try to collect profits “until the day she died” (Bach, 2007, p. 125), highlighting her selfish calculation of events even after promoting a vehemently anti-Semitic regime.

Exploiting the Nazi Party to Secure Film Funding

Riefenstahl exploited both Hitler and Goebbels in order to receive the huge budgets she demanded. This is effectively presented through her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia, where she negotiated with Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry to secure 1.5 million reichsmarks. Such a budget was three times the size of any blockbuster film at the time. Furthermore, her poor bookkeeping and unnecessary expenditure ensured she used the full 1.5 million reichsmarks before production of the film had concluded. In a calculated attempt to secure more money, she exploited her ability to go directly to the Fuhrer himself. She “wept unrestrainedly” to persuade Hitler to give her an additional half a million reichsmarks. Riefenstahl said, while speaking of her successes on Olympia, “if I had of been a man I wouldn’t have gotten it” (Bach, 2007, p. 156). This shows her calculated attempts to secure more funding by exploiting others around her, including the Fuhrer himself.

Riefenstahl's "Olympia" focused on the cult of the body, an idea Hitler emphasized frequently. This adds to the claim that Leni and Hitler shared similar ideas.
Riefenstahl's "Olympia" focused on the cult of the body, an idea Hitler emphasized frequently. This adds to the claim that Leni and Hitler shared similar ideas. | Source

Massive Budges and Cinematic Innovation

Without such massive budgets, Riefenstahl would never have been so artistically successful and innovative. Her exploitation of huge budgets shows her opportunism to project her career forward. Riefenstahl’s Olympia showed incredible cinematic advancement and innovation, where her use of the newest technology ensured its regard as the greatest sport documentary ever made. Her never-before seen innovations included the use of the world’s fastest cameras, longest telephoto lenses, as well as innovation in camera placement. Trenches were dug into the ground to capture low angle images of athletes, while planes and balloons were used to film aerial shots. In collaboration with Hans Ertl, Riefenstahl captured the first underwater images during the diving event. Although it was Ertl who built the apparatus to capture these images, Riefenstahl claimed it was entirely her own work. This further exemplifies the idea of her using others to her advantage. Riefenstahl exploited her massive budgets to which she owes her successes whether they are considered propaganda or purely art.


A Final Judgment?

Different historians have various perspectives regarding Leni Riefenstahl. While many regard her as a Nazi propagandist, responsible for the projection of Hitler during his reign, others see her as a female pioneer, responsible for incredible cinematic innovation. Within her life there are many occasions where she showed opportunism in order to advance herself, whereas at other times such advancements were not entirely within her control.


Bach, S. (2007). Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl. Knopf.

Bonnell, A. (2001). Leni Riefenstahl: Sources and Debates. In Teaching History.

Mason, K. (2007). Republic to Reich. Sydney: Nelson.

Salkeld, A. (1996). A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl. London: Pimlico.

Sontag, S. (1975). Fascinating Facism. New York.

Webb, K. (2008). Leni Riefenstahl 1902-2003. Get Smart Education.

Was Riefenstahl an opportunist or was she swept along by events?

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