The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993)

Dir. Ray Müller

By the early ’90s, Riefenstahl had had a long time to think about the answers to questions like those posed by Müller throughout the movie. She “regrets” making Triumph of the Will, was never a member of the Nazi Party, never infused her work with anti-Semitic language or “race theory,” was out of the country for Kristallnacht. By her telling, she was horrified by the Holocaust, which she claimed to know nothing about, although one should be deeply skeptical of all such claims. When asked if Triumph of the Will didn’t “seduce” people, she calls that a stupid comment. (This happens at a different point in the film, but Riefenstahl badly miscalculates when she calls out Susan Sontag’s article about her as similarly idiotic; it’s one of the rare times when she chooses to engage in a battle and cannot even withdraw from the field.) She notes that she won a film prize in France for that movie just two years before the invasion of Poland. Even a glowing telegram that she sent Hitler on the occasion of the conquest of France—it’s so complimentary and joyful that I was genuinely unsettled hearing the translation—has an answer. I thought the war was over, she said. Everyone thought the war was over. It wasn’t about France or Paris or Hitler, but peace. People were kissing in the streets, etc. It is as unconvincing on screen as it is written out.

Unsurprisingly, we learn more about her when she’s answering questions she’s not prepared for. She is angry when Müller asks about her history with Goebbels, but perhaps as much because there are diary entries which might contradict whatever story she has to cover for it; somehow her friendship with Hitler seems less troubling to her than the implication that she and Goebbels got along with each other. When she thinks she is being led into talking about a documentary she doesn’t want to talk about, she gets testy and fractious. She has no good cover story for the Roma lent to her for Tiefland from a concentration camp, for which Müller has the receipts. Above all, Riefenstahl contradicts herself about Triumph of the Will, or at least minces her words with the skill of a lawyer. I don’t doubt that she regretted Triumph of the Will, but she was not ashamed of it. Müller makes that abundantly clear as she watches her film, pointing out the unprecedented technical bravura that such a document required, smiling as she remembered the ambition of filming. As befits Riefenstahl, she is transparent down to a little opaque nub. She is willing to be seen basking in her own glory, and even after decrying the heft of any political statement the movie made, she seems completely unmoved by swastikas in a telephoto lens or in front of a lift. Hitler in his Wagnerian splendor does not trouble her. And even knowing how this will end—eleven years later, with the world still smoldering—she is still cheerfully serene.

It is possible to believe everything about Leni Riefenstahl over three hours. (If one wanted to get this down to two hours, one could conceivably get rid of the second and fifth acts, eliminating the majority of her origin as an actress in mountain films and perhaps all of her final chapter as a scuba diving photographer. I don’t know why one would feel any need to do so, though, as the mountain actress section in particular is the closest thing to an origin story Müller gives her.) It is possible to believe in Riefenstahl the Nazi chronicler, who hardly needed to be a member of the Nazi Party to do work favorable and sympathetic to them. It is possible to believe in Riefenstahl the naive artist, who put in her oar at exactly the wrong time and for exactly the wrong people, and whose art should be art first. (Incidentally, this also encourages a reading of Riefenstahl as “Half-pint Dietrich who could direct, too.”) It is possible to believe in Riefenstahl as foremost the lover of masculine physical beauty, evidenced in Olympia and her films of the Nuba as well as her more standard Nazi propaganda. Two of those three leave Riefenstahl as a person who is either blameless (option #2) or basically so (#3), and to hold to those conclusions would be incredible and historically indefensible; to believe those two options by the end of the film (or after even a smattering of independent research) is to believe that Riefenstahl is absolutely truthful and the historical record is essentially untrue.

After watching The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, the kindest interpretation of Riefenstahl’s life is to grant her that she was never a “Nazi” in the literal sense, and perhaps one can even grant that she would never have participated in Kristallnacht or any other pogrom. (One recalls that Oskar Schindler was a Nazi, and look at what happened to him.) She was fascinated and captivated by Adolf Hitler, became friends with him, made pictures which put him in a relentlessly positive light, and helped to expand a particularly fascist form of aesthetics. Once the war ended and it was no longer fashionable (or safe) to align oneself with Hitler, she dropped him like a hot potato and spent the rest of her life deflecting responsibility; where she differed from the average German citizen who glorified the Fuhrer was that her fame made it impossible for her to sink into anonymity. This, again, is the most generous possible interpretation, and it falls well short of the most likely truth. Müller is cleverly evenhanded in the film. He refuses to ever let us get too comfortable with Riefenstahl, even when he gives her room to speak without many contradictions or interruptions. If we were swept up in her return to dance in Tiefland, as Riefenstahl presumably wants us to be, he ensures that we know that she used extras from a concentration camp and shows us the document to prove it. Riefenstahl on the other end of an interview is frequently calm and amicable, but we see enough shots that Müller had in his back pocket to see her feisty, argumentative, or even nostalgic. While chatting with some of her former cameraman during a sequence about Olympia, we overhear some good ol’ days talk about the Fuhrer.


The fictional mountain films are tales of longing for high places, of the challenge and ordeal of the elemental, the primitive; the Nazi films are epics of achieved community, in which triumph over everyday reality is achieved by ecstatic self-control and submission. The Last of the Nuba, an elegy for the soon-to-be-extinguished beauty and mystic powers of primitives, can be seen as the third in Riefenstahl’s triptych of fascist visuals.

For this reason it is essential to include the whole of Riefenstahl’s moviemaking career. All of it, in some way, speaks to what Sontag will refer to as a fascist aesthetic (which she defines a little broadly, in my eyes, but she was a lot smarter than me and I’m probably wrong). Fascist moviemaking praises submission to a greater power, the making of objects from people, the absolute idolatry of the idealized human form. It’s all there in the mountain films; Müller coaxes more than one conversation out of Riefenstahl in which she discusses how she survives an “avalanche,” and a narrator mentions that Riefenstahl took pleasure in mountain climbing when very few women participated in the sport. The grandeur of Fanck’s Mountain of Destiny is the film which, according to Riefenstahl herself, led her from dance to cinema. Aside from the masses of flags and the swelling of lights and the oceanic movement of distant flesh in a stadium, Triumph of the Will includes close-ups of men in the prime of life. No film of Riefenstahl’s is so obsessed and so enamored of the muscular form as Olympia, which in its portrait of marathon runners huffing and puffing recalls the risky exertion of mountaineers pulling themselves up sheer faces. One of the pictures that Müller returns to of the Nuba features a few of them on top of an interesting rock formation brandishing their spears; he chooses to overlay the javelin thrower from Olympia, but he might just as well have intercut shots from The Holy Mountain or The Blue Light. There is a continuum in her work, one that prizes physical might and its ultimate pleasure in competition ending, ultimately, in conquest.

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