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Travels with Leni

Juvenile Erotic Fantasy in 20th Century German Culture

Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz 2011 48 Seiten

Kunst - Kunstgeschichte




Beauty as Rhythmic Motion: Coral Fish in the Tropical Oceans

The Origin of Life and Beauty: Sex in Inner Africa

The Essence of Beauty: Male Bodies in Berlin

The Blue Light: Union on anItalian Mountain Top

Berlin Origins: Leni’s Magic Dream Theater

Nuremberg: The Triumph of Eroticism





This essay is a revised and expanded version of alecture-seminar for students of the Hong Kong Baptist University and the University of Hong Kong (24 September 2010). The topic is an implicitly familiar one for Chinese audiences: an artists’s attempt to stay ‘true to herself’ in changing cultural and social environments - and even when this entails dramatic compromises with political power.The outcome may be aesthetically spectacular. But as the somewhat bizarre life of Leni Riefenstahl shows, that may be possible only if the artistic vision of the self is rather limited and inconsequential.

The films discussed here (see filmography at the end of this essay) are widely available on DVD and also (fully or in parts) on the World-Wide Web.


This essaylooks at the long life of Leni Riefenstahl (1902 – 2003 ) , arguably one of Europe’s most controversial artists of the 20th century. Riefenstahl worked first as a dancer and actress, then as a film director and producer, finally as a photographer, writer and crafter of her own legend.Contemporaries saw her as ‘the first, most ambitious, most talented, and most importantly, the toughest […] female filmmaker of her generation’[1]. When she died at age 101, she was the longest-working director in motion picture history, having completed her last film at the age of 99[2]. Her longevity and never-flagging vitality had made her a myth already during her lifetime[3], greatly aided by a 900-page autobiography, which became a bestseller worldwide (Riefenstahl 1987). Her impact on modern visual culture is considered enormous, stretching from ‘Star Wars to […] The Lion King to every sports photographer alive to the ubiquitous, erotically charged billboards and slick magazine layouts to media politics that, everywhere in the world, remain both inspired and corrupted by […] Leni’[4]. As an icon of 20th century pop culture[5], the use of Riefenstahl motifs in music videos and live rock performances can nonetheless still shock (or excite) the public today[6]. When she passed away on the 8th of September 2003, a blogger made the following online entry: ‘She was a disgrace to her sex, a disgrace to Germanic peoples, a disgrace to photography. Long may she rot in hell.[7]

The comment points to a period in her past the memory of which Riefenstahl could never escape as long as she lived. Through a series of films in the 1930s, shehad created an‘imagistic patois’[8] of German Fascism that still informs our contemporary understanding of Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’. In clips or stills from her legendary Triumph of the Will (1934), for example, widely incorporated as they are in school books, documentaries or any other material dealing with Nazi Germany, we instantly seem to ‘recognize’ the true nature of totalitarianism – while in fact, we look to a considerable degree at a ‘chimera’[9] of Riefenstahl’s personal making. Despite (or because of) the cinematographic brilliance of such films, the post-war public everywhere shunned Riefenstahl,and vicariously punished her for ideological blindness and opportunism (which were, after all, rathercommon in 1930s German society). She became the ‘whipping girl for a national collective of perpetrators and fellow travelers of National Socialism’[10]. The criticism was undoubtedly made easier by her own steadfast refusal to concede her share of ‘guilt’ for the disaster of the Third Reichor of ever having been a ‘Nazi’ herself[11].

Riefenstahlthe artist rose to prominence again in the 1970s and 1980s, but the controversy about her involvement with a murderous political system has never stopped.All her work before and after the Nazi films has often been interpreted as either a preparation or a follow-up to her fascist period. The most eloquent critic in this regard has been the American writer Susan Sontag. In a 1975 article in the New York Review of Books, she spectacularly butchered Riefenstahl’s post-war photography as yet another version of ‘Fascinating Fascism’, where outward aesthetic brilliance simply camouflages an unchanged and seemingly unchangeable totalitarian mindset (Sontag 1975). To like any Riefenstahl work of any period,therefore,would even today come dangerously close to professing one’s own, hidden and subconscious affinities to ‘fascism’.

Riefenstahl’s Nazi films can therefore be read as the climactic product of a general cultural developmentculminating in the cataclysm of the Holocaust. The corresponding teleological view of German culture was expounded most controversially in Daniel Goldhagen’s bestseller ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’ (Goldhagen 1996) and has its correlate in the debate about the alleged Sonderweg of German history[12]. It would mean that traces of ‘fascism’ could and should be identified already in the early works of Riefenstahl. This view is supported, for example, by Siegfried Kracauer’s extensive and influential analysis of pre-1933 German film ‘From Caligari to Hitler’. It retrospectively identified the seeds of Nazi ideology in Germanfilm productions of the 1920s (Kracauer 2004). Kracauer indeed accused film directors like Riefenstahl of expressing an ‘anti-rationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize’[13].

On the other hand, there have been many attempts to detach the supreme aesthetic qualities of Riefenstahl’s oeuvre from its political functions and messages, most notably by herself[14] but also by scholars like David Hinton (1991)[15] or Charles Ford (1982), who see her as primarily an artistic genius and one of the greatest female film directors of all times[16]. The Taschen Verlag in Köln, her last major publisher, further promoted this view – now by emphasizing her astonishing vitality, physical endurance and artistic creativity even in old age (cf. e.g. Kevin Brownlow’s preface text to Riefenstahl 2005), and mostly overlooking her past political involvements (most blatantly in Five Lives – Fünf Leben – Cinq Vies , a coffee table book collocating splendid Riefenstahl photography from the 1930s to the 1990s[17] ).None of these attempts are, however, ultimately convincing if only because the European collective cultural memory has associated her so closely with the Third Reich for so long. Even a discussion of purely aesthetic aspects unavoidably carries the subtext of Nazi horrors[18], and it cannot be denied that her greatest aesthetic triumphs were achieved because of her undoubted privileged position in Nazi Germany. That does not necessarily mean, however, that her entire work is consistently and exclusively fascist.

Ironically, her spectacular artistic comeback in the 1970s did not come from a public revival of Nazi ideas, but rather the contrary. It came in the wake of the European ‘student rebellions’ of 1968, whose activists understood themselves as decidedly ‘anti-fascist’ and anti-establishment. It is, in fact, embedded into a web of discourse topics dear to the heart of many counter-culture activists, ranging from feminism to criticism of modern consumer culture and to environmental concerns. It is not a coincidence that German radical feminists like the publicist Alice Schwarzer went so far as to celebrate Riefenstahl’s artistic genius throughout the decades[19]. Neither is it coincidental that in the introduction to her last film (see below) Riefenstahl personally professed deep sympathies with Greenpeace and modern environmentalism.

Such issues were apparently close to her heart, and they do show up in various disguises throughout her life, both before 1933 and again from the 1970s onwards.Throughout the entire 20th century, Riefenstahl’s oeuvre displays a highly personal, rebellious spirit andan unwillingness to bend to conventions and rules even when working with seemingly conventional themes and motifs. It sets ‘nature’ in stark contrast to modern, inherently destructive ‘civilization’, and it consistently displays a highly erotic subtext, which intuitively challenged established gender roles. In that she is not altogether original, however, but follows a tradition of early 20th century movements of socio-cultural renewal across all of Europe ( Lebensreform or ‘Life Reform’ movement). From the 1920s onwards, Riefenstahl then projected an eclectic mix of such Lebensreform ideas onto her own subject matters in various art forms andquite regardless of the political complexities surrounding her.It is this continuous rebellious spirit, which eventually appealed very strongly to her audiences from the 1970s onwards.

Seen in a long-term perspective, even fascism apparently (and ironically) became foremost a projection screen for Riefenstahl’s personal obsessions, for her idiosyncratic rebellion (a rebellion of ‘nature’) against a still essentially conservative culture, which did not give her self-fulfillment both as a woman and a highly egocentric individual. Her entire oeuvre can indeed be described as ‘an endless erotic dream, as masked female-phallic desire’[20]. It is undoubtedly this erotic (if not at times soft-pornographic)qualityof her work, which still resonates with us today, and decidedly not her (real or alleged) contemporary sympathies with 1930s fascism. The eroticism provides the ultimate link between the various phases of her artistic career. It is a key to understanding her oeuvre – but also certain continuities of 20th German (and western) cultural development, which have (perhaps surprisingly) little to do with fascist ideology.

In the following, I would like to explore this by looking at Riefenstahl’s works in reverse chronological order. I will try to ‘tease out’ (as it were) main Riefenstahl themes from her late films and photographs and then try to move backwards in time to her early career and its main inspirational sources. Only then will I come back to the notorious Triumph of the Will – which (I believe) is wrongly seen as the ideological centerpiece of Riefenstahl’s oeuvre.

Beauty as Rhythmic Motion: Coral Fish in the Tropical Oceans

In the 1970s and 1980s, at an already advanced age and amidst a storm of controversy about her Nuba photography (see below) and her memoirs (in which she again denied to have ever been a fascist), Riefenstahl turned to filming coral reefs all over the world. This resulted in spectacular photography, several coffee table books ( Coral Gardens 1978, Wunder unter Wasser 1990) and finally a 45-minute film Impressionen unter Wasser ( Underwater Impressions)[21]. The film is devoid of human beings (except occasionally Riefenstahl herself and her cameraman and life partner Horst Kettner) and has no simultaneous commentary. What she wants us to see is just the beauty of fish, wordless and perfect. Set to a synthesizer score by the pop composer Giorgio Moroder, there is an ever-changing harmony of colors and (above all) of movements. These movements are rhythmic, recurring but irregular: The fish seem to follow their own inner, ‘natural’ rhythm.

This is ‘typical Riefenstahl’ : ‘Beauty’ in her definition assumes a numen , i.e. the presence of mysterious, nameless life force, which expresses itself in rhythmic motion. The essence of life, therefore is movement, uncontrolled and indifferent to human action,while the essence of beauty lies in natural motion. We can admire this beauty, but we cannot be part of it, nor can we manipulate it. The moment we tried to do so, the beauty would be lost. Anyone familiar with European culture will recognize this as Romanticism in its specific German variety. The image which most famously illustrates this idea is Caspar David Friedrich’s “ Wanderer above the Sea of Fog ” (1818). It shows a lone man on a mountaintop contemplating the mystery of the ever-changing, ever-flowing beautiful nature below him. He may long to become one with this mystery, but he could do so only by giving himself up completely and stepping into the void below him, i.e. in confronting death ( “Todessehnsucht ”). The man turns his back to the viewer, i.e. to civilization . Real beauty, therefore, is to be found in the sanctity of nature alone – and nature is the means by which the numen reveals itself. Riefenstahl’s moving coral fish clearly stand in this 19th century romantic tradition still powerful today. It is one of the deep undercurrents in the German Green movement to which Riefenstahl appeals explicitly in the introduction to the film. But although she laments its pending destruction by modern civilization, she does not show it – because that would distract from the purpose of the film: the illustration of an abstract idea of beauty in a genuinely Platonic sense.In Riefenstahl’s understanding, ‘ideal nature’ and human civilization remain eternally ‘hyperseparated’[22].

We see Riefenstahl at the end of the film and shortly before her own death: an old sweet lady, tellingly swimming away from the viewer into the endless sea of blue – until she vanishes and thereby unites with it forever. She has gone one step further than Friedrich’s Wanderer . The film is her legacy – an abstract painting and a final demonstration of her alleged artistic goal throughout her long life: beauty. What one does not see is the erotic subtext previously mentioned. But it becomes evident quickly by going back in time.

The Origin of Life and Beauty: Sex in Inner Africa

After WWII, Leni Riefenstahl was for obvious reasons a social outcast, mired in controversies over her Nazi films. She finally escaped this situation by going to Africa. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she took to photographing in southern Sudan. It was this photography, which brought her a worldwide comeback. Photo stretches first appeared in magazines ( National Geographic, Newsweek, Time, Stern, Paris Match and others) to high critical acclaim[23]. They were then compiled into bestselling books, with texts written by herself[24]. What was so special about these photographs?

The pictures focus predominantly on the Nuba , an assortment of tribes who until then allegedly had preserved their original, ‘primitive’ culture. In image and word, Riefenstahl presents them as ‘innocent’, as-yet untainted by ‘civilization’ and therefore still in a state of ‘naturalness’ and ‘natural beauty’[25]. She went to great lengths to photograph them almost always in the nude[26], despite the fact that the Sudanese Islamic government already at that time tried to enforce clothing. Like the coral fish, Riefenstahl’s Nuba are presented to the viewer as a world on the brink of extinction by modernity – which only heightens the awareness of their present beauty. She systematically stages the Nuba as a proverbial Paradise Lost , which she (falsely) claimed to have ‘discovered’ for the first time[27]. As with the fish, beauty and isolation from civilization are (for Riefenstahl) inseparable ideas.

Nothing here is really new. It conforms to the stereotype of the ‘noble savage’ virulent in European culture at least since the 16th century. For authors as diverse as Michel de Montaigne,John Dryden , James Cook , Antoine de Bougainville or Jean-Jacques Rousseau , the constructed ‘innocence’ and ‘naturalness’ of the ‘noble savage’ has served as a counter-image to, and criticism of corrupt modern man[28]. The stereotype also appeared, for example, in the enormously popular 19th century Winnetou novels of the German writer Karl May, of which Riefenstahl must have been aware in childhood. While she was still a teenager, a bestseller of the ‘noble savage’ genre was The Papalagi by Erich Scheurmann (1920), purportedly a record of critical speeches by a Samoan chieftain about his visit to the confusing civilization of modern Berlin. A similar success was Hans Paasche”s Die Forschungsreise des Afrikaners Lukanga Mukara ins innerste Deutschland [ The Expedition of the African Lukanga Mukara to the Interior of Germany ], published in 1921 but written in 1912-13 at the height of the early Lebensreform movement. By taking the perspective of a ‘noble savage’, Paasche relentlessly satirizes the madness of modern German society (‘Wasungu’) and its hypocrisies in nine extensive ‘letters’ to his fellow tribesmen back in ‘Kitara’ (Rwanda)[29]. The functional juxtaposition of ‘natural’ ways of life against the corrupting and oppressive influence of civilization has survived until today, for example in Hollywood movies like Tarzan,The Blue Lagoon (based on a 1908 novel by Henry De Vere Stacpoole) or (most recently) the blockbuster Avatar . Both Scheurmann and Paasche were re-issued in the 1970s to much public acclaim, at the same time as Riefenstahl’s Nuba photographs appeared in print. The photographs fulfill the same function as the books. They can be read in the context of a deep-felt anxiety about the course of development of modern civilization. That they were made, edited, and published at the height of the global counter-culture and student movement of 1968 partly explains their phenomenal success.

Like all ‘noble savages’, however, the Nuba are a product of external, foreign imagination. They represent not so much reality but a European dream of ‘Africa’ painted in a sketchy, impressionist manner[30]. This is Riefenstahl’s account of her first encounter with one of the tribes, the Masakin Nuba :

“The blacks were led by a number of men covered in snow-white ashes, who were naked and wore strange headdresses. They were followed by others whose bodies were painted and adorned with white ornamentation. At the end of the procession were women and girls, likewise painted and decorated with white pearls. They walked straight as candles and carried calabashes and large baskets on their heads. There was no doubt about it; these could only be the Nuba we were searching for.’[31]

To Riefenstahl, the Nuba appear to be foremost a living embodiment of her romantic concept of beauty. She was so fascinated by them that (as she wrote) ‘(they) come to me in my dreams, not as human beings, but as strange impalpable creatures fashioned by artists’[32] . In her photographs, she consequentlyarranged them geometrically in the form of living tableaux, with a keen sense of perspective and a preference for majestic, stately postures. She holds them together visually by the use of warm, ‘earthy’ colors (predominantly shades of brown-red, grey and orange-yellow), only rarely highlighted by an accent of green, blue or white. The coherent color palette links the Nuba to the earth they live on, i.e. to ‘naturalness’. But it also helps to seal them off from external influences. Riefenstahl’s images thus create a hermetic world: There is no reality of ‘her’ Nuba[33] outside the carefully composed frames, and very rarely does anything in the pictures distract from her vision of unspoiled beauty. The staged ‘naturalness’ of the Nuba is the artistic invention of a myth.


[1] Majer-O’Sickey 2008:264

[2] Trimborn 2003:501. The fact that she had directed it personally under water also made her probably the oldest scuba dive.r in the world; cf. Salkeld 1997:254.

[3] Trimborn 2003:456. An impressive record of this old-age agility is given in Ray Miller’s film Leni Riefenstahl. Ein Traum von Afrika (2000), documenting her last trip to south Sudan in the year 2000. It ended abruptly with a helicopter crash, which Riefenstahl survived at the age of 97.

[4] Bach 2007:357-358. See also Thiele 2008:235

[5] cf. Sesslen 2008

[6] cf. Weinstein 2008

[7] [online 20/5/2011]

[8] Bathrick 2008:74

[9] Strathausen 2008:46

[10] Kansteiner 2008:103

[11] cf. e.g. Rother 2002:166, 179, Trimborn 2003:371-377; Kantsteiner 2008:121

[12] cf. Wehler, Hans-Ulrich (1987). Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte . 4 vols. München: Beck. For a criticism of the hypothesis, cf. e.g. Blackbourn, David / Eley, Geoff (1984). The peculiarities of German history : bourgeois society and politics in nineteenth-century Germany . New York: Oxford University Press or Clark, Christopher (2006). Iron Kingdom. The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600 - 1947. Cambridge: Belknap Press

[13] Kracauer 2004:112. For a criticism of Kracauer’s ‘anticipationist’ hypothesis, see Leonardo Quaresima’s introduction to the 2004 edition (Kracauer 2004:xxxix, xl-xlii)

[14] cf. Rother 2002:180

[15] As Anthony Slide writes in his foreword to Hinton: ‘Of course, one cannot argue that Riefenstahl’s propaganda is acceptable, but any student or scholar of the cinema must try and separate the propaganda from the art. And Leni Riefenstahl is a supreme artist of the cinema’. (Hinton 1991:x)

[16] cf. Trimborn 2003:452-453; Rentschler 2008:152

[17] Taschen (2005). See the criticism in Trimborn 2003:494; about Kevin Brownlow’s apologetic Riefenstahl characterizations, cf. Bach 2007:333-334

[18] cf. Salkeld 1997:138: ‘It [=Triumph of the Will] is almost impossible to approach unemotionally; we cannot divorce it from the horrors we know happened afterwards.’

[19] cf. Trimborn 2003:489-490

[20] Sesslen 2008:12

[21] for the German-French TV channel Arte; Bach 2007:351

[22] Narraway2008:227

[23] Cf. Bach 2007:320. One French critic even acclaimed her as ‘the modern Plato and Michelangelo of the Leica’; ibid: 326)

[24] Riefenstahl, Leni (1973). Die Nuba. Menschen wie von einem anderen Stern (1973); Die Nuba von Kau (1976); Mein Afrika (1982); Afrika (2005). See also Narraway 2008:220-221 for a discussion of Riefenstahl 1973 and 1976. The discussion below refers to images compiled in Riefenstahl 2005.

[25] cf. Narraway 2008

[26] Narraway 2008:224

[27] cf. Bach 2007:321. See also ibid: 321-323 for a criticism from an ethnographic point of view.

[28] I am as free as nature first made man, / Ere the base laws of servitude began, / When wild in woods the noble savage ran. (John Dryden, The Conquest of Granada, 1672)

[29] Excerpt from the ‘Second Letter’: […] ‘ I said the natives wear clothes even when they work. It's like that and I wonder about it again and again. All the natives walk about dressed and even when they bathe they wear a thin dress. Nobody has the right to walk nude. Nobody thinks it is revolting and offensive to wear clothes. Even the King of the Nation submits himself to the compulsory clothes. On his body he wears thick sewed material. He covers his head and he wraps his feet in sewed calfskin. How beautiful and elevated you are, O Mukama, compared to him. Your dress is straw string on which two carved horns of an antelope hang, and a striped goat skin covers the left side of your hip. Free breathes your breast, the sun shines upon your smooth skin, and your naked foot touches the fertile soil. […] If you think a strong, beautiful and smooth body comes to be enhanced by such a dress, you are mistaken. The dresses of the men are made in such a way that every weak man looks the same as a strong man, so that no man has the wish to improve his body or to take care not to disfigure it, the dresses cover every weak point. Even the women do not look at the beauty and strengths of a man's body: they look at the design and value of the dress and the hat. These women don't know how a beautifully built body looks. They marry the suit and at the same time the man who is stuck in it. The immorality of wearing clothes also means that the men and women of the Wasungu marry without knowing how they look naked. Such a thing would be condemned in Kitara as a shame and low infamy, if it ever happened. It would be a crime against the future of the people. But in Wasunga it is taken to be decent.’

Full text available online: [online 20/5/2011]

[30] She indeed refers to ‘Impressionist painters – Manet, Monet, Cezanne’ as inspirational for her photography (Taschen 2005:11).

[31] Riefenstahl 1993:635, cf. Brownlow 2005:11

[32] cf. Bach 2007:318

[33] Riefenstahl frequently used the possessive pronoun when describing Nuba culture; cf. Bach 2007:321)


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travels leni juvenile erotic fantasy century german culture Riefenstahl Triumph of the Will German film German photography Fascism Weimar Republic Third Reich




Titel: Travels with Leni