Born in Berlin, Germany, Riefenstahl started her career as a dancer; in a 2002 interview she recalled that dancing was what made her truly happy. After injuring herself she attended a film and became impressed with the possibilities of the medium, and approached a local director, demanding a role in his next film. He consented and Riefenstahl starred in various mountain movies, filming outside in the snow in little clothing, climbing craggy mountains barefoot. When presented with the opportunity to direct Blue Light she took it; her main interest was initially in fictional films.
She heard Hitler speak at a rally in 1932 and offered her services as a filmmaker, because she was mesmerized by his powers as a public speaker. In 1933 she directed a short film about a Nazi party meeting. Then Hitler asked her to film the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg in 1934. Initially she refused, suggesting that Hitler have Walter Ruttmann film it instead. Riefenstahl later consented, and made Triumph of the Will, a documentary film glorifying Hitler and widely regarded as one of the best pieces of propaganda ever produced, even though Riefenstahl herself claims she had intended it solely as a documentary. She went on to make a film about the German Wehrmacht.
In 1936, Riefenstahl qualified to represent Germany in cross-country skiing in the Olympics but elected to film the event instead. This material became Olympia, a film celebrated for its technical and aesthetic achievements.
After the Second World War, she spent four years in a French detention camp. There were accusations of her using concentration camp inmates on her film sets, but those claims could not be proved in court. In the end, being unable to prove any culpable support of the Nazis, the court called her a "sympathizer". In later interviews, Riefenstahl maintained that she was fascinated by the Nazis but politically naïve and ignorant about their atrocities—a position which many of her critics dismiss as ridiculous.
Riefenstahl attempted to make other films after the war, but each attempt was met with resistance, protests, and sharp criticisms; and so she was unable to secure funding for her films. The few films she made were short and personally funded. As a result she became a photographer. She became interested in the Nuba tribe in Sudan and published books with photographs of the tribe in 1974 and 1976. She survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan in 2000.
In her late 70s, Riefenstahl lied about her age to get certified for scuba diving, and started a career in underwater photography. She released a new film titled Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), a documentary of life in the oceans, on her hundredth birthday - August 22, 2002.
Apart from her controversial propaganda movies, Riefenstahl is renowned in film history for developing new aesthetics in her films, especially in relation to nude bodies, and while the propaganda in her early films repels many people, their aesthetics are nonetheless outstanding and cited by many other filmmakers.
In October 2002, when Riefenstahl was 100, German authorities decided to drop the case against her for falsely claiming that "each and every one" of the gypsies which had been drawn from a concentration camp to appear in her film Tiefland had survived the war. A gypsy group had filed the case, claiming that she used them for the film and sent them back when she no longer needed them. In addition to the fact that Riefenstahl had signed a withdrawal of her claim, the prosecutor cited Riefenstahl's considerable age as a reason for dropping the case.
Leni Riefenstahl died in her sleep on September 8, 2003, at her home in Pöcking, Germany.
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