Leni Riefenstahl, Interviewed by Die Welt
Jan. 7, 2002
Part 3 of 3
(Translated by Otto Hinckelmann)
Hoffmann: Just as the idyllic drawings of mountains were thought of as "symbols of beauty," which in Blaue Licht, using esthetic means, you were able impressively to translate to the visual, so has the beauty of the human form played a dominant role in all your films. It has been alleged that you exhibit physical beauty, morally elevating its possessors, in order to have them appear all the more valuable. You really do assemble, in your documentary films, only beautiful, or at least attractive, human forms and everything ugly and old is left out. Do you find this reproach unjustified, that your cameras served an esthetic of the elite?
Riefenstahl: I have been attracted to beauty ever since my childhood. In my memoirs I described how, as a child, I busied myself with butterflies, with flowers, with romantic things and how I composed poetry and how dance fascinated me. I was very fascinated by everything that was beautiful. That was what I wanted to capture in pictures. The other, the ugly, greatly moved me when great artists represented it. But I, myself, did not want to create it because in this instance I sympathized with it too much. I wanted to share my own experience of beauty with others so that they could re-experience it. I wanted to capture beauty, which of course is transient. The opposite of beauty makes me sad, and it has occurred to me that when one is ill or sad or feeling negative, that it would indeed be good if one could enjoy beauty. Not everyone likes beauty, but the majority like it more than the ugly which one attempts to overcome. As the sick person strives to become well so does he try to look better, that's entirely natural.
Hoffmann: With that we've arrived at the Olympic Games of 1936. Your double film, Festival of Beauty - Festival of the People, eulogizes the beautiful in its very title. For your ideal of competitive sport you borrowed Platon's concept of beauty whereby the ideal beautiful is understood as the prototype for all earthly beauty. In the prologue you clearly pay tribute to the Hellenic ideal of human beauty established by Polyclitus which has been extended as a concretized myth into the present by statues such as Mylo's Venus or Myron's Discus Thrower-- then, since the Renaissance, the foundation of every idealistic esthetic. Do I see that correctly?
Riefenstahl: Yes, that is correct. My main idea in the Olympia films was less beauty for its own sake, that came sort of from itself. What counted more was to try to record on film the Olympic idea. The means to do so were per se beautiful: The statues of antiquity, the temples-- the root of the Olympic idea was, after all, in Greece. That's why it was entirely self-understood to begin with that. After the Prologue the flame follows, the Torch. After all, the participants in the Olympic games are all healthy people, the elite. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to win any medals. You have reproached me for showing only beautiful people in the Olympia films. Well, I'm not God-- I photographed the people the way they were, the way they looked, but I didn't create them.
Hoffmann: The Prologue of your Olympia films photographed by Willie Zielke is for me a document of your film-esthetic brilliance. By fading flesh and blood German athletes out of perfect marble Greek heroes of Olympus and Elysia you trust, idealistically, in a successful correspondence between the beauty of art and the beauty of nature.
Riefenstahl: That goes without saying because the subjects I had available to make the Olympic idea visible to everyone were beautiful.
Hoffmann: Your Olympic films set standards for all who followed and for athletic reportage in general which to this day remain unsurpassed. Even the advertising industry has guaranteed its message by photographic elegance elevated to high esthetics, for example the use of time lapse photography in line jumping for gel advertising. It was alleged that with this holy praise for the athletic body you diverted attention from the "Fuehrer's" policies who by then (1935) had already promulgated the anti-Jewish laws. Did you, as you once said, have nothing more in mind than to create a timeless document of a great idea, nothing more than a paean to Beauty?
Riefenstahl: No, I can't quite agree to that. I had the desire to make the Olympic idea visible in the film. I was fascinated by the Olympic idea of peace and I wanted to try to convincingly present the Olympic games in the film-- from its roots to the present. Apparently I achieved that.
Hoffmann: How could you succeed in counteracting the proclaimed Nordic ideal by showing champions like the black Jesse Owens in the final stretch? You simply incorporated Owens as powerful beauty in the muscle order of Nazi propaganda.
Riefenstahl: That is certainly a proof that I never considered working in a racist-political sense. I was not in the least concerned if he was Asian, White, or Black but directed my lens only at his ability. I proved that with the Black idol Jesse Owens and later with my year of living among the Nuba.
Hoffmann: Speer reported in his memoirs that Hitler was annoyed by the multiple victories of the black miracle runner.
Riefenstahl: I don't know anything about that. But Goebbels was very annoyed. As the film was to go into distribution in Paris, Goebbels demanded by telephone that the distributor cut the victories of Jesse Owens out of the film. It is interesting to note that the distributor then demanded that I cut Hitler out, a request that I, too, avoided.
Hoffmann: At the time it was sarcastically rumored in Berlin, "Leni showed the Fuehrer what German film technology was capable of. He saw there, in the negative, how positively the Negro could run."
Riefenstahl: The cabarettist Werner Finck invented that.
Hoffmann: For this ode to beauty you won the Grand Prix in Paris and then in Venice the Golden Lion. Despite these honors, outside of Tiefland, you received no film contracts. Did your adversary Goebbels hold it against you that, "you put the victorious colored athletes in the foreground?"
Riefenstahl: I can give you some interesting additional information to that. First, that's not the case, it's the opposite. Goebbels himself chose me for the Olympia film-- even though he was against me as a woman-- he had high regard for me as an artist. Goebbels wanted to give me other film contracts too. He absolutely wanted me to make a film for him-- something about the seventh great power-- on the Press, that was important to him. Then he offered me two or three other subjects, which I also declined by referring to Hitler 's promise to me that I would never again have to make a film about the Party or the Third Reich. Hitler kept his word.
Hoffmann: And why not any non-Party feature films?
Riefenstahl: I could have made feature films. I would have started with Penthesilea, but the war ended that project. Because of it I couldn't film the mass scenes with a thousand Amazons that I wanted to shoot in Libya. The only reason I made Tiefland was so I wouldn't have to make any war films, especially no propaganda films. Goebbels wanted me to make a film over this "Maginot Line." I turned all of those down. As I read in the paper that Tobis wanted to produce a film, for which Hans Steinhoff was being considered as the director, I thought to myself: "My God, I'd once started Tiefland in the '30's." If I were to make Tiefland now, I would finally be out of the danger of having to make war films. So I called Tobis and they were thrilled. That's how I got the contract with Tobis for Tiefland.
Hoffmann: You had already had a contract with Tobis, for the Olympia film. From the perspective of more than half a century, how would you characterize your relationship, apostraphized as friendly and trusting, to Hitler?
Riefenstahl: I've never denied that, in the beginning, I was very impressed by Hitler. I was less politically but rather, primarily, socialistically interested-- I would have become a good social democrat.
Hoffmann: You'll have to explain that to me.
Riefenstahl: Now, the interests of the poorer people were closer to my heart. The way Hitler had fought the unemployment, that had impressed me a lot, until I began to dislike some of the things he said. I was never able to judge whether everything he said was quite right. Only after he ventured into the field of art did I, as an artist, feel affected. I thought, "My God, that can't be true, what Hitler says here." That was in 1937 on the occassion of the exhibit of German art here in Munich, when he labeled numerous artists as "degenerate." At that time he condemned important artists in his speech. I thought then that that couldnt be true. Then, for the first time, the idea came to me that if he makes the same mistakes with the same degree of conviction in political matters as he does in art, when he demonizes people like Goya, and most of all my favorite painter van Gogh, as degenerate, then God have mercy on us. From then on I viewed his actions with a more critical eye. I found more and more things which made me stop short, which raised doubts, as a result of which I distanced myself further and further from him. My initial admiration changed noticeably into a critical attitude coupled with anger. Eventually, during the war, I turned away from him more and more.
Hoffmann: Can we conclude from such peripheral skepticism that, had Hitler made film offers to you again, that you would have refused them?
Riefenstahl: Yes, I never wanted to make a film for him again, I would certainly have told him that. I had his word, of course. The fact that I produced Tiefland during the war was due solely to the fact that the material, the opposite of politics and war, was a romantic film. Actually, I was less interested in the film as an artist than as a shield against the danger that I might have to create something political.
Hoffmann: I've often asked myself why no film offers were made to you after 1945. Veit Harlan and Wolfgang Liebeneiner, despite having made propaganda films of the worst kind such as Jud Suess (1940) or the film that legitimized the crime of euthanasia I Accuse (1941), could, by the end of the '40's , cheerfully channel their old Ufa-aesthetic, albeit under democratic auspices, into the theaters. Could it be that the old regime had produced films with fictitious persons while you recorded the National Socialist clique as documented character masks?
Riefenstahl: No, it was much more that, after the war, I was greeted with fabrications and considered as a reject from humanity. Luis Trenker wrote in his book that I had performed naked dances for Hitler. In contrast to Veit Harlan, I was made out to be a monster, maybe because I was a woman, or perhaps because I had made more famous films, so that envious persons came on the scene. The newspapers wrote, "Should we let her live?" or, "Shouldn't she be on trial in Nuremberg too?" I was suddenly slandered as a super-Nazi, as a leader who, like Joan of Arc carrying the flag, marched the troops to victory at Orléans. That's how I was denounced as a monster.
Hoffmann: Does that perhaps have something to do with the fact that in your films Himmler and Hitler, Goebbels and Goering are paraded before people's eyes as genuine Nazi heralds?
Riefenstahl: No, that wasn't it-- it was simply jealousy and blind hatred. Others wanted to de-Nazify themselves by attacking me. By doing that they wanted to say, "I'm not like Riefenstahl, she really was a fanatical National Socialist." And so every little journalist spouted stories about me that were made out of whole cloth. I tried to defend myself and started more than 50 court cases of which I won many. I fought those cases using Legal Aid assistance, also outside Germany against the Daily Mirror and others. They had written that Leni Riefenstahl was Hitler's mistress, that she performed naked dances for him. All fantasy stories. The attacks were written large and the denials very small. Some even considered it a disgrace to even be seen with Riefenstahl.
Hoffmann: When you look at the timing of your incriminated films, you see that they were created in a time frame of only four years. For that you had to suffer for a lifetime. Does the soon-to-be 100 year old Leni Riefenstahl look at it more calmly now?
Riefenstahl: It took decades before the picture changed and before most of the dirt could be washed away. There was simply too much dirt thrown.
Hoffmann: A jump to the present. In your legacy, the book of photographs, Fünf Leben [Five Lives] (Taschen, 2000) you documented the Nuba in your photographic excursion to the rim of the Sudan in photographs never seen before. As you wanted to see old friends you hadn't seen for 20 years your helicopter crashed from an altitude of 30 feet. What new impressions were you able to gather there this time?
Riefenstahl: The whole trip was filmed by [the film company] Bavaria. Ray Mueller was the director. It was highly dramatic to the extent that the Sudanese government didn't want me to visit my old Nuba friends. Almost all of them had been killed. The German Embassy also panicked and demanded my immediate return because they feared political repercussions.
Hoffmann: In that terrible civil war in the Sudan nearly one million people were killed. Were you not able to see your friends, whom you recorded for eternity, again?
Riefenstahl: Most of them had been murdered and the few who survived I was only able to see briefly-- we hugged each other crying and were quickly separated by the police.
Hoffmann: For a good 25 years you have been filming sub-tropical fish in the waters of Papua, New Guinea off the coast of Indonesia, richly populated atolls, and colorful coral banks. Friends who have seen the first samples of your underwater films praise them as being even more impressive than the famous ones taken by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. When was the last time you dove to 150 feet with your camera to visit the beauties of the deep sea? When will your film be shown in theaters?
Riefenstahl: The last time I dove was the year before last. I made a total of more than 2000 dives for this film. As soon as Giorgio Moroder finishes composing the music, the 45 minute film will have its premier showing. The editing of Impressions Under Water is already done. My friend Horst Kettner made the wonderful pictures. The film is supposed to have its movie premier punctually on my 100th birthday.
Hoffmann: My heartfelt thanks to you for this candid conversation.