University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Leni Riefenstahl: Took advantage of events or swept along
People are swept along by events. Some individuals use events to advantage. This is evident with Leni Riefenstahl as from the earliest accounts of her career it is clear that she was prepared to use others to benefit herself, although while at other times such advancements were not within her control. Historian Steven Bach argues in his book, ‘The Life and work of Leni Riefenstahl’ that Riefenstahl was obsessed with her career and moulding her image. He believes she knew more about Nazism than she would have liked people to believe. Riefenstahl was so driven to be worldly famous and recognised that she didn’t care what the cost. Through the exploitation of people and their money and the use of her beauty and charm Riefenstahl would never have been so artistically successful and innovative.
Riefenstahl was willing to do whatever it takes in order to achieve success and accomplished this by exploiting people for their money. In 1923, Riefenstahl acquainted herself with a Jewish banker, Harry Sokal, who manipulated exchange rates. Sokal continually asked Riefenstahl to marry him, but she had no desire to although she acknowledged his wealth and continued the relationship. Riefenstahl used Sokal to finance her dancing career by paying for halls, advertising, and the musicians. Sokal also paid critics to sit in the audience in attempts to gain positive reviews.
In order to achieve success Riefenstahl acknowledged that she needed to allow Sokal to finance her and therefore, she took advantage of Sokal when it suited her best. Sokal financed her dance career, but Riefenstahl wanted to get rid of him. Although this would not be the last time she exploits him and his money. Therefore, while Riefenstahl allowed Sokal to finance her movements she was clearly being opportunistic and used events to her advantage.
Further evidence of Riefenstahl’s exploitation of people is shown with her clear intentions to succeed within the creative arts industry. After seeing the film, ‘Mountain of Destiny’, Riefenstahl sought out famous film director Arnold Fanck in attempts to establish a career as an actress. Once again financed by Sokal, she travelled to the Dolomite Mountains in order to find Dr. Fanck. Riefenstahl met one of the film’s actors, Luis Trenker, and claimed that “I’m going to be in your next picture”. Someone who is swept along by events does not, as Riefenstahl did, plan future actions.
Even though she was not in a relationship with Sokal, she further exploited him for his money in order to find Fanck and would again turn to Sokal at times when it was beneficial for advancing her career. Historian Audrey Salkeld offers a different account of events and she doesn’t mention Riefenstahl travelling to the Dolomite Mountains using Sokal’s finance. She says it was a sightseeing tour that turned out to be her “destiny”. Salkeld suggests that this was Riefenstahl being swept along; opposing the more credible argument that Riefenstahl exploited Sokal in order to find Fanck.
Riefenstahl’s willing independence to seek out Fanck and exploit those around her supports her opportunism, however, Riefenstahl’s early relationship with Fanck also acknowledges Salkeld’s claims of being swept along by events. Riefenstahl was not hesitant to exploit tennis pro, Gunther Rahn, who was “hopelessly in love” with her. She used him to her advantage in arranging the meeting with Fanck that would launch her into the film industry. Fanck instantly admired Riefenstahl’s beauty and, according to Riefenstahl, just three days later he visited her in hospital with a script titled ‘The Holy Mountain, written for the dancer, Leni Riefenstahl’. Once again, Riefenstahl used Sokal to finance the film.
Although in Riefenstahl’s defence, Salkald suggests the degree of Fanck’s fascination with her was not within her control. He considered himself her “Pygmalion” or sculptor, who hoped to make her the “most famous woman in Germany”. Without Fanck’s dedication to Riefenstahl she would never have been successful in her acting career and would not have learnt how to direct films, thus never being projected to Hitler’s attention. Therefore, in this way Riefenstahl was swept along by events.
Some historical perspectives of Riefenstahl, concerning her first project as director on The Blue Light, present her as an opportunist. Riefenstahl exploited scriptwriter Bela Balacs, Fanck as editor and once again Sokal for finance. In order to ensure all creative control was with her, Riefenstahl created Leni-Riefenstahl-Studio-Film GmbH. By making the film through this new company Riefenstahl was ensured all copyrights and credit. Then, while admitting she could not pay him Riefenstahl sought the work from film theorist Bela Balacs to write the script.
Balacs was not resistant to her feminie charm and beauty, which Riefenstahl was never hesitant to use to achieve her goals. When Balacs threatened to sue her over debts, Riefenstahl referred the case to anti-Semitic Julius Streicher. Her letter to the district administrator transferred “power of attorney in the matter of the claims of the Jew Bela Balacs.” (Bach) This shows that Riefenstahl was opportunistic by playing on the fact that Balacs was Jewish and ensured she would never have to pay him. Therefore, Riefenstahl exploited whomever she could for her own personal gain.
Riefenstahl’s willing attendance at a Hitler rally supports her opportunism, discrediting claims that she was swept along by events. At the rally she found Hitler intriguing, describing the experience “like being struck by lightning” (Bach). While Riefenstahl claimed she “rejected his racial ideas” she wrote to Hitler just days before an important press event on her film ‘S.O.S Iceberg’. Riefenstahl agreed to meet with Hitler on May 22 at Wilhelmshaven. This excitement to meet with Hitler supports the idea that she saw within the Nazis an opportunity, whether it was based on anti-Semitic ideals or purely artistic.
Riefenstahl says that during the meeting Hitler announced “once we come to power you must make my films.” Riefenstahl claims to have denied the request, but it is unlikely as she fought and seduced to get the film role. Salkeld says that Riefenstahl was being an opportunist as this stage, commenting “she had the ability to create opportunities for herself, to fashion her own destiny”. Therefore, Riefenstahl was caught up in the exhilaration of the Nazi movement, however, exploited the momentum to establish her position within the Nazi movement for the time when Hitler would take power.
Riefenstahl’s self-interested motives continue to be exposed during her direction of the award winning Triumph of the Will. From Riefenstahl’s first meeting with Hitler in 1932, she claimed she could not make his films because she needed “a very personal relationship with the subject matter. Otherwise she couldn’t be creative”. (Bach) Riefenstahl’s direction of Triumph of the Will would suggest that she did have that “personal relationship with the subject” which is supported by historian Susan Sontag, arguing that “Riefenstahl was glorying Nazism not only from direction of her superiors but from her own personal fondness for the party and their ideals.” This explains why Riefenstahl acted so opportunistically to accept the project months in advance. Walter Traut, production manager on Triumph of the Will, also supports this idea in stating “Leni Riefenstahl was not ordered… She asked to do this picture.” (Bach) Therefore, Riefenstahl used events for her own benefit.
Riefenstahl exploited both Hitler and Goebbels in order to receive the huge budgets she demanded which is presented through her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia, where she negotiated with Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry to secure 1.5 million reichsmarks. Due to her bad book keeping and unnecessary expenditure she spent all of the money before production of the film had concluded. In attempts to secure more money, Riefenstahl exploited her ability to go directly to Hitler himself. She “wept unrestrainedly” to persuade him to give her an additional half a million reichsmarks. Therefore, this shows her using events for her own benefit by exploiting others around her, including the Fuhrer himself.
Varying historians’ perspectives present Leni Riefenstahl in many ways. While many regard Riefenstahl a Nazi propagandist, an opportunist, others see Riefenstahl as a female pioneer, responsible for incredible cinematic innovation. Within her life there are many occasions where Riefenstahl showed opportunism in order to advance herself, while at other times such advancements were not within her control.