Leni Riefenstahl was 32 when she directed Triumph of the Will, not just a record of the Nazi Party’s annual rally in Nuremberg in September 1934, but a film that oozes with the ethos of Nazism. She had grown up in an upper-middle-class family in Berlin, and her ambitious mother had encouraged her to take up a career as a dancer.
In 1924, she changed direction, persuading Dr Arnold Fanck, a film director, to cast her as the lead in his new movie. Fanck was the most prominent director of the then very popular genre of mountain adventure films, and Riefenstahl, still in her 20s, starred in six of these, including The Holy Mountain (1925), The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929), and The White Frenzy (1931).
Riefenstahl became obsessed by the mountains, and entranced by film-making. Ever ambitious, she directed her own first mountain film, The Blue Light, in 1932. Hitler saw this film, and was hugely impressed by it. In that same year she attended her first Hitler rally, and was overwhelmed by the impact it had on her. She asked to meet Hitler, and they soon became friends. A year later he asked her to make the film of the 1933 party rally in Nuremberg that became Victory of the Faith (1933) – the film that was later withdrawn.
After this, Riefenstahl became Hitler’s favourite film-maker. She was promoted above all the male directors who had been working in the industry for years and had become key players in Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda.
Hitler knew what he was doing in picking her out, and in Triumph of the Will (1934) and later in her official film of the Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia (1938), she served Hitler well. It is a measure of her prodigious talent that she ended up as one of the very few women to play an important role in the otherwise exclusively male world of the Nazi leadership.
One of the key questions often asked about Leni Riefenstahl is was she Hitler’s lover? Rumours of an affair were common at the time, and were given as the reason for her dramatic promotion by Hitler over so many skilled male directors in Germany.
Riefenstahl had acquired a considerable reputation as the leading player in many of the popular mountain films of the late 1920s, as well as further plaudits as the director of her own feature film The Blue Light. It did no harm to the new chancellor for him to be associated with a glamorous young film-star, and it certainly seems as though some of Hitler’s entourage actively encouraged the relationship, hoping that taking a lover would in some way humanise him.
Riefenstahl was invited to many party events, and it seems that after one of these in 1932 she did try to seduce Hitler when he visited her sumptuous flat in Berlin. An affair with Hitler would clearly have done her career no harm.
If, however, she had tried to start a relationship, it seems very unlikely that she succeeded. Hitler thrived in the all-male atmosphere of the barrack room, the beer cellar, and the Nazi Party. He never felt totally at ease among women, and at the time was still in mourning after the mysterious suicide of his niece Geli Raubal. He liked to surround himself with pretty women like Eva Braun, whom he finally married hours before his death in the bunker in Berlin in April 1945.
But there is no evidence that he ever had a sexual relationship with Leni Riefenstahl, although he did admire her greatly for her film-making skills, and at one point called her the ‘perfect German woman’ – a label she found embarrassing to live up to at the time, and impossible to live down afterwards.
This is an article from the November 2015 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.