Women Screenwriters: Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003)

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Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, edited by Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl, or Leni Riefenstahl, was a German film director, producer, editor, actress and dancer whose career spanned and reflected the major cultural and political shifts of the twentieth century.

Prior to her work behind the camera, Riefenstahl acted in seven films. Most of these pictures featured Riefenstahl as the beautiful lead actress in the highly successful mountain genre films (Bergfilm), such as The Holy Mountain (1926), directed by Arnold Fanck, and The White Hell of Pitz Palu, directed by Fanck and G. W. Pabst.

Yet, to a modern audience, Riefenstahl is noted for her pre-war documentary work with the Nazi party, especially Victory of the Faith (1933) and Triumph of the Will (1935), and her filming of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games with the documentaries Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations (1938) and Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty (1938).

In terms of scripting or directing the Nazi party films, when Riefenstahl was asked in an interview if she had been involved in their meticulous organization, she replied, ‘I had nothing to do with it. […] I just observed and tried to film it well’ (see Müller 1993). To understand how Riefenstahl may have created a theatrically heightened story in her documentary work, one might consider her theory that, in addition to ‘a sense of dynamics, construction and rhythm’, ‘an absolutely sure sense of style is the most important quality a film director should have’ (Riefenstahl 1992: 245).

Riefenstahl co-wrote and directed two feature films, The Blue Light (1932) and Tiefland (1954). However, she also wrote treatments and scripts for many potentially fascinating films that were not realized for political, financial or cultural reasons. Riefenstahl’s first script was titled Maria, and was written as early as 1927, while acting in Fanck’s The Great Leap. Riefenstahl described Maria as ‘a love story with a tragic ending’, which she ‘had written [for herself], showing it to no one’ (Riefenstahl 1992: 63), ensuring, therefore, that the film was never developed.

Riefenstahl’s next script was…


The full 2,000 word version of this article is published in Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, edited by Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo, published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

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