Leni meeting Adolph Hitler, 1934
After performing in two joint German and American films, both of them successes, Hitler contacted Riefenstahl again with a directorial offer. Riefenstahl attended several National Socialist (Nazi) Party rallies and was mesmerized by Hitler’s powerful rhetorical style. Through Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, Riefenstahl received funding to make a one-hour film of the Nuremberg Rally of 1933, titled “The Victory of Faith” (Der Sieg des Glaubens).
Riefenstahl and her film crew in front of Hitler’s car during a parade in Nuremberg
Hitler liked the results and conceived a plan for a major picture based on the same rally, the following year. Riefenstahl and Hitler’s friendly relationship resulted in her most powerful work Triumph des Willens, “Triumph of the Will.” More than a million people attended the Nazi rally and Riefenstahl captured it all—the hundreds of red and black flags, the marching cadences, the music, the sharp uniforms, the adoring crowds, and, of course, the stem-winding nationalistic speech by the Fuhrer himself. Not a few historians consider the film the most successful and grandest propaganda film in history. It sold the Nazi brand to the world. It gave Riefenstahl international status reserved for the very few.
Riefenstahl behind the camera while filming Triumph of the Will
In 1935 she made a twenty-eight-minute film on the German Army, who believed she had short-changed them in Triumph of the Will. The propaganda value boosted their morale and helped bring in new recruits. Hitler invited Leni to film the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where he hoped that his Aryan super-men and women would dominate the world in athletics. Her film Olympia became an international smash hit, and, although Germany won the most medals, the film included American sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owen, winning four gold medals. Although the Olympic Committee commissioned Riefenstahl to make the film, it was secretly paid for by The Third Reich.
Riefenstahl receiving congratulations from Adolph Hitler at a showing of her film, Olympia, documenting the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games
Riefenstahl embarked on a grand publicity tour of the United States, and in an interview with the Detroit Free Press stated that “Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived.” She negotiated with Louis B. Mayer, the Hollywood impresario, was wined and dined by Henry Ford, an admirer of Hitler also, and given a tour of the studios by Walt Disney.
Riefenstahl in uniform and wearing a pistol, speaking with Nazi troops during their campaign in Poland, September 1939
Leni was on hand when the German army marched into Poland on September 1, 1939, dressed in a uniform and carrying a pistol. She witnessed the execution of Polish civilians and later claimed she was shocked, appalled and threatened when she tried to intervene. She filmed Hitler’s triumphal motorcade in Warsaw, the last Nazi film she ever made, though she tried to shoot other films during the war years but unrelated to politics.
Riefenstahl directing the filming of Olympia, 1936