Fine Art Photography Series
Leni Riefenstahl

Nazi Propaganda Film Director, Photographer.

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Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)


Life and Career
Post-war Denazification and Photography
Other Famous Photographers

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The German film director and photographer Leni Riefenstahl was best known for her documentary photography and films of the 1930s: notably her propaganda masterpieces "Triumph of the Will" (1934) and "Olympia" (1936) which dramatized, respectively, the pageantry of the Nazi party rally at Nuremburg and the "Jesse Owens" Berlin Olympics. The international success of these two works of Nazi art (as well as her friendship with Hitler) brought her a lifetime of controversy, which was unrelieved by her award-winning photography of the Nubian tribe, during the 1970s. In fact her life is best summed-up in the title of the biographical film - "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" - (1993) by Ray Muller, who commented: "Her talent was her tragedy". (If her propagandist films hadn't been so effective, she might have been forgiven.) Thus despite being one of the greatest photographers and filmmakers of the 20th century, Riefenstahl remained a pariah until her death at the age of 101. See also Holocaust art (1933-present), which includes several other types of Nazi-approved modern art, notably architecture and anti-semitic poster art.

For an introduction to the aesthetics of camera art, see our article: Is Photography Art?


Life and Career

Born Helene Bertha Amalie "Leni" Riefenstahl, into a prosperous Protestant family in Berlin, she grew up alongside her younger brother Heinz, who later died in the war. Athletic as well as artistic, she showed a particular talent for dancing - becoming a star pupil at the Grimm-Reiter Dance School in Berlin - and gave public performances in Munich, Berlin, and Prague (1923-26). In 1926, while suffering from a knee injury, she was inspired by a street poster (for "Mountain of Destiny" directed by Dr. Arnold Fanck) to start a career in motion pictures. Accordingly, with the support of Fanck whom she buttonholed, she starred in several "mountain films", eventually becoming a director in the genre. In 1931, she founded her own film company "Leni Riefenstahl-Produktion", and in 1932 scripted, directed, produced and acted in the film "The Blue Light" (Das Blaue Licht).

For the work of another German photographer born in the early part of the 20th century, see Helmut Newton (1920-2004).

In 1933, one of Riefenstahl's admirers - a rising political leader by the name of Adolf Hitler - commissioned her to produce a 60-minute film documentary of his party's rally in Nuremberg. Extolling the values of Aryan superiority, the film "The Victory of Faith" (Der Sieg des Glaubens) proved to be a major success. The following year she was asked to produce a second Nuremburg documentary - her masterpiece "Triumph of the Will" (Triumph des Willens) - which played a major role in introducing Hitler and his cohorts to the German people, and Nazi power to the international community.

Following her success in promoting the Nazi party, Riefenstahl was given the task of filming the 1936 Berlin Olympics - an important event which would showcase German unity and organization to visiting delegations from around the world, as well as a worldwide radio and cinema audience. Employing a crew of just 60 people, she shot more than 1.3 million feet of film (over 248 miles), pioneering many of today's photography techniques - such as slow motion sequences, underwater diving shots, panoramic aerial shots, and tracking systems for filming fast races. Entitled "Olympia", the film - which consisted of two parts: "Festival of the Nations" (Fest der Volker) and "Festival of Beauty" (Fest der Schonheit) - is still regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. The year 1936 represented the apogee of Riefenstahl's fame, both at home and abroad. In America, for instance, she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine (February 1936). But as war approached her association with the Nazis began to cause public controversy, which led to a disappointing promotional tour of America in 1938.

Post-war Denazification and Photography

After the war she was put on trial four times by the Allies on charges of being a Nazi, or a Nazi sympathizer. This convoluted denazification process ended in partial exoneration when she (probably like many Germans) was judged to be a fellow-traveller who only sympathized with the Nazis. However, despite considerable support from backers and film professionals, her Nazi propaganda films ensured that she was blacklisted for the remainder of her life. Unable to make films she quit cinematography and took up photography. In the process, around 1962, she began a lifelong friendship with cameraman Horst Kettner - 40 years her junior. (Note: in 1944 she had married Peter Jacob whom she divorced in 1946.)

In 1974, she published "The Last of the Nuba" (1974) and "The Nuba People of Kau" - a series of colour photographs of the Nuba tribes living in the Sudan. Although these books won her a gold medal from the Art Director's Club of Germany for the "best photographic achievement of 1975", other art critics like Susan Sontag claimed that her shots were further evidence of Riefenstahl's "fascist aesthetics".

In 1978, Riefenstahl produced "Coral Gardens" (Korallengarten) a book of sub-aquatic photographs, followed in 1990 by a second set of photos entitled "Wonder under Water". In 2002, coinciding with her 100th birthday, she released "Underwater Impressions" (Impressionen unter Wasser) - an idealized documentary of ocean life.


According to film director, producer and critic Mark Cousins (b.1965), in his book "The Story of Film": "next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented Western film maker of her era".

Another expert, Elisabeth Bronfen (b.1958), Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Zurich, summed her up as follows: "Riefenstahl poses a problem insofar as, despite the fact that her film aesthetic can be morally and aesthetically rejected, there can be no denying that her visual thinking has consistently influenced our zeitgeist. Her impact alone clearly makes her one of the most important visual artists of the 20th century, and her visual language is both quoted and further developed in the most diverse media: from Johann Kresnik's contemporary dance theater to the Pop-art of Andy Warhol, and from George Lucas's "Star Wars" to sports films and advertising aesthetics."

For other forms of camera art, see: Animation and Video Art.

Other Famous Photographers

Eugene Atget (1857-1927)
Documented the architecture of Paris.
Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
Recorded the industrial might of the American car industry.
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Famous for her documentary-style portraits of the Depression.
Walker Evans (1903-75)
Like Lange, best known for his Depression-era portraits.
Robert Capa (1913-54)
The first major war photographer noted for D-Day shots.
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Documented the marginal people of New York.
Larry Burrows (1926-1971)
Leading war photographer, notably of Vietnam.
Bernd/Hilla Becher (1931-2007)
Noted for their photos of old industrial factories and power stations.
Don McCullin (b.1935)
Arguably the greatest documentary photographer of war and conflict.

Photographs by Leni Riefenstahl have been shown in some of the best galleries of contemporary art in Europe.

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