German actress/filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl began her performing career as a dancer in 1920, studying with famed instructor Mary Wigman. In 1926, she was cast by director Dr. Arnold Fanck in the first of her many "mountain films" (a genre peculiar to Germany that had been popularized by Fanck), Peaks of Destiny (1926). The best known and most popular of her athletic starring vehicles was 1929's The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Having learned the whys and wherefores of directing and photography from Fanck, Riefenstahl expressed a desire to direct a film herself. The result was The Blue Light (1931), a true "auteur" effort: starring, directed by, edited by, and co-written by Riefenstahl, it was released through the newly formed Leni Riefenstahl Studio-Film.
The Blue Light impressed many people, including Adolf Hitler, who, upon gaining power in 1933, appointed Riefenstahl "film expert" to the National Socialist Party. Her first effort on behalf of the Nazis was the cheaply produced 1933 documentary Victory of the Faith. The following year, with the full cooperation of Hitler and with 30 cameras and 120 assistants at her disposal, Riefenstahl made a film of the fourth Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will (1934). Observed objectively, the film is an artistic triumph; still, it is blatant propaganda on behalf of the Third Reich, and, as such, has engendered controversy ever since its release. The debate still rages as to whether Riefenstahl was merely recording events that had been staged by the Party (as she has claimed), or whether she alone was responsible for the film's persuasive visual dynamics and production design.
Riefenstahl's next project was even more impressive: Olympia (1936), a filmed record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Though attacked by latter-day critics as being "fascistic" in its celebration of the muscular male physique, Olympia is virtually bereft of proselytizing. To be sure, there are plenty of shots of Hitler and his minions (no one knows to this day if the film was Nazi-sponsored or independently produced), but just as much screen time is allotted to the decidedly non-Aryan athlete Jesse Owens. Many of Riefenstahl's innovations and techniques in Olympia -- the slow-motion shots of the athletes, the telephoto lens used for close-ups of the events, the ground-level shots, the overhead panoramas taken from blimps -- have been utilized by sports documentaries and broadcasts ever since. Olympia would be the last of Riefenstahl's 1930s films; she turned down as many assignments as she received from the Nazis, and attempted unsuccessfully to launch two large-scale historical epics.
Riefenstahl's last feature film, three years in the making, was Tiefland (1943), a magnificently photographed return to the mountain-film genre. She returned to acting in this film as a Spanish dancer, and also utilized gypsy concentration camp inmates as extras (she would later claim she had no idea what fate was in store for these unfortunate souls). When Germany fell to the Allies in 1945, Riefenstahl was arrested and her films confiscated. She spent three years in various allied prison camps, then underwent several more years of persecution on the grounds that she had been a top-ranking Nazi official. In fact, she had never joined the Party (though she was quite vocal in her support of Hitler), and in 1952 she was finally exonerated of all charges. Still, she never made another film in Germany, even though several of the more rabidly pro-Nazi directors -- notably Veit Harlan, who'd helmed the viciously anti-Semitic Jud Suss -- continued making movies without any difficulty.
In 1956, Riefenstahl traveled to Africa to begin work on Black Cargo, a documentary on the modern slave trade made on behalf of the London Anti-Slave Society; this project came to an end when she was seriously injured in a car accident in Kenya. She returned to Africa in 1961 to photograph the fascinating rituals of the Mesakin Nuba tribe. Though this odyssey resulted in an attractive coffee-table book of photographs, Riefenstahl never assembled her film footage into a feature. She was honored with numerous international film awards in the 1970s, though the ceremonies were often interrupted by the protests of Holocaust victims. In later interviews, Riefenstahl allowed that the end result of Nazism was horrendous, but she refuses to apologize for her work; she is fond of quoting a pro-Hitler comment allegedly made by Winston Churchill in the mid-'30s, arguing that if Churchill could not foresee the horrors to come, how could she? Those interviewers expecting to meet an embittered, defensive old woman were often amazed at Riefenstahl's youthful vigor, softspokenness, courtesy, and sense of humor.
In her nineties, Riefenstahl became an enthusiastic scuba diver, hoping to assemble the underwater films that she lensed into one last documentary feature. In 1991, she published her autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, and in 1993, she was the subject of a lively, intriguing British documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. In 2002, Riefenstahl did manage to compile a film of her underwater footage entitled Impressionen Unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), though its running length of 45 minutes seemed short considering the 2,000-plus dives during which she had shot the footage. Leni Riefenstahl died in Berlin on September 8, 2003, her body increasingly pained by injuries she had sustained over the years. She was 101.