Leni Riefenstahl Propagandist Essay

SOURCE: Tegel, Susan. “Leni Riefenstahl's ‘Gypsy Question.’” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 23, no. 1 (2003): 3-10.

[In the following essay, Tegel provides a factual account of the legal proceedings surrounding the question of Riefenstahl's use of gypsy concentration camp victims as extras in her film Tiefland.]

Leni Riefenstahl's 100th birthday celebrations on 22 August 2002 were marred by an announcement from the Frankfurt Prosecutor's Office. That day was chosen to make public the decision to launch a preliminary investigation into claims that she had denied the Holocaust. This was for comments she made about the fate of the Gypsy extras whom she used in her second and last feature film, Tiefland (The Lowlands). In an interview published in the colour supplement of the Frankfurter Rundschau on 27 April 2002 she had claimed: ‘After the war we have seen again all the Gypsies, who worked on Tiefland. Nothing has happened to a single one’1. In her memoirs, first published in 1987, she wrote that after the war she had ‘bumped into many of my Tiefland Gypsies’2. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2000 when asked what was the greatest lie perpetrated against her, she had replied: ‘That I was in a concentration camp and there engaged Gypsies for my film’. She even had letters from the Gypsies recalling that this had been ‘the greatest time of their lives’3. From ‘many’ to ‘all’ was a leap too far. ‘Few’ would have been more accurate and those few she is unlikely to have ‘bumped into’.

Tiefland (Riefenstahl Film, 1954) was Riefenstahl's second and last feature film. Set in Spain, it was based on Eugene d'Albert's eponymous opera of 1903. A favourite opera for Hitler, he first saw it as a young man in Vienna in 1908 and requested its performance for his official visit to the Vienna Staatsoper seven months after Anschluss4. This has led to recent speculation that the film may have been at Hitler's ‘suggestion’ or even his ‘wish’5. Herbert Windt, composer for Triumph of the Will, provided the music, based on motifs from the opera. Plans to film in Spain had to be abandoned once France was invaded. It was then, Riefenstahl claims in her memoirs, that she decided to use Gypsies, in the belief that their physiognomy closely resembled that of Spanish villagers6. Tiefland was a film she not only directed but, like Das blaue Licht, also scripted and starred in. Furthermore, she also danced, taking the role of Marta, a Gypsy-like character, and performing a woeful Flamenco. A mock Spanish village was built in Krün near Mittenwald in the Bavarian Alps. Shooting began in late summer 1940 and continued on and off for most of the war. Outdoor filming also took place in the Dolomites and briefly in 1943 in Spain itself. Indoor filming took place in Berlin and in 1944 in Prague. Sound synchronization was nearing completion as the war ended, while editing, re-editing and resynchronization continued after the war. The premiére finally took place in early 1954.

Shot in black and white, Tiefland was the third most expensive film produced during the Third Reich—the first and second both being in colour7. Goebbels, though not directly involved in the financing, complained about the cost, recording in December 1942 that a total of over five million has already been ‘frittered away’8. As a director, Riefenstahl was never an employee of a film company. She always had her own company though after 1933 she worked closely with the state. By a subterfuge, her Olympia company was funded by the state and once that film was completed she set up a production company in her own name, Riefenstahl-Film GmbH9. Funding for this most likely came from Hitler's Kulturfond, itself amongst other things the recipient of royalties for Mein Kampf10. Shortly before the outbreak of war Riefenstahl was in negotiations with Albert Speer about a giant studio to be built for her at the cost of the state, on land donated by the state, in Berlin-Dahlem, near to her home11. When Riefenstahl experienced difficulties with Tiefland in 1942, Martin Bormann, head of the party chancellery and ‘secretary to the Führer’, made it clear that no obstacle should be put in her way. He also thought it would do well financially.

As you know the founding and promotion of the Riefenstahl company was on the express orders of the Führer. The costs of the Tiefland film, which has been in production for two years is, on the Führer's instructions, to be administered by me12.

She enjoyed other financial benefits: foreign exchange, hard to come by during wartime, was made available to her when she filmed in the Italian Tyrol in 1940, 1941 and 1942, and in Spain in 194313.

In the released version, which is also now available on video and runs to 97 minutes, the extras appear in four (possibly five) sequences, approximately 6 minutes in total14. They came from two camps. At least 51 were taken came from Maxglan, a Gypsy internment camp or collection camp (Sammellager) on the outskirts of Salzburg which had been set up in the autumn of 1939 when many Gypsies were being rounded up. They were used for filming in Krün in the autumn of 1940 and again in the summer of 1941. In 1942 indoor filming took place in the Berlin-Babelsberg studios with approximately 66 extras, taken from the Berlin Marzahn Gypsy internment camp, first set up at the time of the Olympics to ‘clean up’ Berlin. It is possible that some Marzahn Gypsies were also used in Krün in 1942. This is based on statements of surviving extras or relatives of those who died but is not apparent from the extant documents. These camps can best be described as SS special camps, special places of internment which had elements of protective custody and at the same time were embryonic ghettos15. In the postwar period Gypsies have experienced difficulty in obtaining compensation, given the unwillingness of the authorities to designate these places of internment ‘concentration camps’16.

In March 1943 Maxglan was liquidated; most of the inmates were sent to Auschwitz. The large Reinhardt family or clan, for an unknown reason, were sent instead to Lackenbach, set up in 1940 in the Burgenland (in the east of the Ostmark as Austria had been renamed) for the numerous non-itenerant Gypsies in the area17. This accounts for the survival of some individuals who have played a role in the postwar period in calling Riefenstahl to account. Almost all of the Marzahn inmates were despatched to Auschwitz in March 194318.

It is not difficult to establish the fate of the extras once they arrived in Auschwitz. Lists of the Maxglan extras are available, thanks to the fastidiousness of the Criminal Police, who dealt with the Gypsies as a-socials, while the Gestapo looked after the Jews19. Names, dates and places of birth appear on a number of lists which detail exactly when each extra was taken from Maxglan and returned. This was stipulated in a contract drawn up between the Labour Office (with the approval of the Criminal Police) and Riefenstahl's company20. For Marzahn we have a list of extras because by the time they were used for filming in Babelsberg a social equalization tax (Sozialausgleichsabgabe) for Gypsies-had been introduced which Riefenstahl's film company was obliged to pay21. Like the Jews and the Poles previously, the Gypsies were now expected to pay a 15٪ surtax on their income tax on the grounds that they did not pay dues to the German Labour Front22. A list from Riefenstahl's film company dated 6 April 1943 provides the names of 66 extras, taken the previous year from Marzahn, for whom this tax had been paid from 27 April 1942 onwards. The total was RM (Reichsmark) 3060.45—that is 15٪ for 66 adult Gypsies, taken out of their earnings, with the number of days worked indicated. Some individuals were paid marginally more than others for the same number of days worked. All were paid more—approximately RM 17 or 18—than the daily rate of RM7 which had been paid to the Maxglan extras, but for the latter the company also bore the costs for food and lodging23. By the time the tax list was produced most for whom this tax had been paid were in Auschwitz. This list is less detailed than the Maxgian Criminal Police list: there is no first name, merely an initial, no birth date, nor place of birth. Nevertheless, it is still possible to show that many died in Auschwitz. Death lists from Auschwitz have been published24. The extras' names from both camps can, in many cases, be matched against the names on the death lists. This has been done for 4825. One problem is with ascertaining the legal last name and with navigating one's way through the way in which the Auschwitz lists have been compiled. Not every name has so far been traced, but this is no reason to assume a higher survival rate of the 116 extras listed.

One of the last surviving Gypsy extras is Zäzilie Reinhardt, now age 76. She went from Maxglan to Lackenbach. With the support of Rom e V, a Cologne-based local Gypsy association, it was decided to take civil action against Riefenstahl for stating a blatant untruth that all the extras had survived. Once Riefenstahl got wind of the planned action, her partner, Horst Kettner, on behalf of her production company, issued a press statement on 7 August to the effect that she had never meant this, that she regretted the persecution and suffering of the Gypsies during the National Socialist period, but only now had learned of the terrible fate of her extras. He added that at the time of filming she had not known that they would be deported to concentration camps or to Auschwitz, that many witnesses confirmed the courteous treatment accorded to the extras during filming, and that after the war a number of extras expressed themselves very positively about the experience.

A press conference was called in Cologne on 16 August to announce the civil action. A deadline had been set for noon the previous day for a written retraction to be issued. A fax arrived just in time. The faxed letter, dated 14 August, was signed in a very firm hand. Riefenstahl gave an undertaking never to assert again or allow to be asserted again that all the extras had survived. She had received good legal advice, for she was in no position to deny her words: they had been taped, she had authorized the interview, and signed the transcription as a true record. She had chosen to retract rather than be taken to court.

In view of the retraction, the civil action had to be dropped but the press conference still went ahead. It took place at the Nazi Documentation Centre for the City of Cologne in El-De Haus, previously Gestapo headquarters for Cologne. The panel included investigative journalist Günther Wallraff, and Ralph Giordano, writer and filmmaker, who recalled the powerful effect which Riefenstahl's documentary films (Triumph of the Will and Olympia) had once made on him when a Jewish schoolboy in Hamburg, and also on his ‘Aryan’ classmates. Reinhardt was interviewed by the chairman of Rom e V, Kurt Holl, and questioned by journalists. Her memory was very sound.

The evening of the press conference a 7-minute film went out on a programme, Aspekte, on ZDF, made by Nina Gladitz, who in the 1980s had had her own legal run-in with Riefenstahl for an earlier documentary on the subject of the extras. It began with the press conference, the dispute being characterized as one between David and Goliath, for until now no one had dared to take legal proceedings against Riefenstahl, much less accuse her of Holocaust Denial. The film moved quickly to two interviews with surviving extras—Reinhardt and another extra, Anna, who wished to remain anonymous26. Both mentioned for the first time a new story about one of the extras. It was Anna's story which Reinhardt confirmed. Riefenstahl had been injured and the then 20-year-old Anna had doubled for her in a riding scene. Wanting to reward her for doing so well, Riefenstahl told her that she would be granted a wish. At a loss, the girl consulted her mother who suggested that she ask that her two brothers be released from Dachau and Buchenwald and her sisters from Ravensbrück. But Riefenstahl replied that she could only arrange for one release. The mother decided on the one son, Matthias Krems, who had a heart condition. Approximately 2 weeks later he appeared in Salzburg. He never worked as an extra. Brother and sister were later deported to Auschwitz; only the latter survived. The voiceover comments that this Buchenwald release can be verified in the documents.

In an Open Letter published the following week in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Riefenstahl's birthday the Anna story was repeated27. Also, in the Open Letter the daughter of another extra, Rosa Winter, referred to her mother's brush with Riefenstahl. Winter had previously published her story in 198728. Fearing that her family was to be deported, she had run away from the film set. She was arrested and kept in a Salzburg prison, where Riefenstahl visited her. She refused to go back to the set and was then sent to Ravensbrück which, miraculously, she survived. Riefenstahl has often referred to her Gypsy extras as her ‘darlings’. Such stories suggest a different relationship.

Riefenstahl has won many lawsuits against media allegations about her past, though she has not won every case. Twice she has gone to court over the Gypsy extras. On the first occasion in 1949, and with legal aid, she won against Helmut Kindler, the publisher of a Munich mass circulation journal, Revue. A one-page spread entitled ‘The “unfinished” of Riefenstahl: what is happening with Tiefland?’ included five photographs—three were of the extras—and a small amount of text. Riefenstahl objected to several statements: that the film had cost over RM7 million, when normally a film cost RM200,000; that she only had to ask for money for it to be given; that for the role of the shepherd she had selected a Viennese bank teller from 2000 mountain troops who had filed past her several times; and finally—and most damaging—that the 60 [sic] Gypsy extras from Berlin and Salzburg were ‘film slaves’ taken from a concentration camp. Some of Kindler's evidence came from Erika Schmachtenberger (subsequently Groth-Schmachtenberger), a very fine ethnographic and nature photographer, who on a walk in the Alps had come upon the film set in September 1941 and stayed to take a number of stills, especially of the Gypsy extras in Spanish costume29. She photographed the young Zäzilia Reinhardt. Greatly enlarged, it served as the backdrop for the press conference. Schmachtenberger not only provided Kindler with some of her photographs but also her notes made during filming30.

Revue did not actually claim that most of the extras had subsequently died in Auschwitz; it merely posed the question as to whether they had survived. The article appeared a week after the acquittal in Hamburg of Veit Harlan, the director of Fud Süss, on the charge of ‘crimes against humanity’—the only Third Reich film director to be so charged. His use of Jewish extras in that film was an issue31. Revue's purpose was to remind readers of Riefenstahl's previous powerful role as director, her lavish funding, perfectionism and treatment of the ‘film slaves’. The Gypsies were described as being taken from

concentration camps in Berlin and Salzburg, who initially were excited at the prospect of exchanging work in munitions factories with film work. Yet Leni did not let them off easily. Scenes, which other directors would shoot six or seven times, were repeated twenty-five to thirty times. Also her treatment lacked a feminine tenderness. In the evening the Gypsies were escorted by gendarmes back to their camp. How many will have survived the concentration camps32?

The judge decided against Revue: they were wrong about the film's finances and the selection of the shepherd, though we now know that Revue was probably closer to the truth on both counts33. Furthermore, the judge accepted the description of one witness, former SS Major (Sturmbannführer) Dr Anton Böhmer, Head of the Salzburg Criminal Police, and hence also of Maxglan, that Maxglan was a ‘welfare camp’ rather than a concentration camp34. In the last year of the war Böhmer lost his post for disobeying orders and, for a brief period, even became a concentration camp inmate himself35. This may have lent his testimony an element of credibility, but it also tells us something about the context of that trial held 6 months after the establishment of the Bundesrepublik. Fined DM600 plus costs, Kindler was required to publish a retraction in several Bavarian papers. He returned to the fray in 1952 when, 2 days before Riefenstahl's final denazification appeal, Revue published a photograph of her taken while witnessing one of the first atrocities of the war. She had been filming in Poland in early September 1939 and was at Konski36. Shortly afterwards she returned to making feature film37.

On the second occasion Riefenstahl sued documentary filmmaker Nina Gladitz, whose Zeit des Schweigen und der Dunkelheit (Time of Silence and of Darkness) on the Tiefland extras was shown in 1982 on Westdeutsche Rundfunk in Germany and Channel 4 in Britain. Maxglan extras were interviewed in the film, mainly by Zäzilie Reinhardt's cousin, the late Josef Reinhardt. Zäzilie Reinhardt was not interviewed. After first attempting criminal charges Riefenstahl had to resort to civil law, taking out an injunction forbidding further screenings and suing for gross defamation. The case dragged on for several years from 1983 to 1987. The issues were also different from those raised during the Revue trial.

Riefenstahl lost on several counts. The extras interviewed claimed that Riefenstahl had appeared at the camp with two men to select them. Riefenstahl insisted that she had never set foot in the camp. There is no evidence to confirm this one way or the other, though given her interest in physiognomy it is unlikely that she would have delegated the task. In any case, the Freiburg judge did not find this particular assertion damaging to her reputation38. The surviving extras claimed that they were compelled to work on the film and that they had not been paid. Work was compulsory for all adult Gypsies, but filming also included children for whom work was not compulsory. The Gypsies worked under guard and at night were locked in a barn where they slept on straw. Any escapes were to be immediately reported to the Criminal Police. Riefenstahl did pay the extras, a derisory sum, and not the amount she claimed in court. They never saw this money because it went direct to the camp fund. All of these conditions are stipulated in the contract39.

Riefenstahl won on only one point: the statement made by the extras that she knew they were destined for Auschwitz, but did nothing to help them. She insisted that she did not know where they would be sent. Himmler's so-called Auschwitz decree, which led to the deportation of Gypsies to Auschwitz, was issued in December 1942 after both groups of extras had finished filming. Several months later both the Marzahn and Maxglan camps were liquidated. Gladitz's film could be shown but subject to cuts relating to this last point. It was withdrawn.

Once Riefenstahl issued her retraction Rom e V still made several demands: the names of all the extras and their fates should be added to the video; those with small speaking parts should be described as Klein Darsteller, that is, minor actors, rather than as extras; the surviving extras should now be compensated, not only for their labour, but also for the suffering to which Riefenstahl contributed through denying the fate of their murdered relatives. Rom e V also handed over documents to the Frankfurt State Prosecutor to investigate Holocaust Denial §130/3. A few days after the press conference on Riefenstahl's birthday the Prosecutor's Office informed Rom e V that they had decided to begin a preliminary investigation. But just over a month later they decided not to proceed, in that Riefenstahl had given an undertaking not to persist with her incriminating assertion. However, she was found guilty of §189/1—maligning the memory of the dead, but would not be prosecuted given her age and because it was not in the public interest. This decision was subsequently made public on 18 October 2002.

Riefenstahl has escaped being taken to court for the first time. But she has also had for the first time to retract her words or face either civil or criminal charges. Her extras had no ‘happy end’ and she has now been forced to desist from saying that they did. Whether she will accede to Rom e V's demands to pay them and add their names to the credit remains to be seen.


  1. Heribert Fritz and Mareen Linnartz, ‘“Ich bin sehr müde”, Leni Riefenstahl über ein Leben im Schatten Hitlers, ihren ersten Film seit 60 Jahren und die Sehnsucht nach dem Tod’, Frankfurter Rundschau, 27 April 2002.

  2. Leni Riefenstahl, The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl: The Sieve of Time (London, 1992), p. 358.

  3. The Independent, 20 October 2000.

  4. Brigitte Hamann, Hitlers Wien: Lehrjahre eines Diktaturs (Munich, 2001), p. 92, cited in Jurgen Trimborn, Riefenstahl, eine deutsche Karriere (Berlin, 2002), p. 319. In English, see Hamann, Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (New York, 1999), p. 64.

  5. Trimborn, Riefenstahl, p. 320.

  6. Riefenstahl, Memoirs, pp. 66-68.

  7. Rainer Rother, Leni Riefenstahl: Die Verführung des Talents (Berlin, 2000), p. 233, note 17. Only Baron Münchhausen (1943) and Kolberg (1945) cost more.

  8. Elke Fröhlich (ed.), Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels (Munich, 1996), Teil 2, Diktate 1941-1945, vi. p. 456 (16 December 1942). This entry also appears in Louis Lochner (trans. and ed.), The Goebbels Diaries (London, 1948), p. 186.

  9. Hans Barkhausen, Footnote to the history of Riefenstahl's Olympia,Film Quarterly, 28 (1974), pp. 8-12. Erwin Leiser, Nazi Cinema, Gertrud Mander and D. Wilson (trans.) (London 1974), quotes (pp. 140-141) a letter of Goebbels to the Charlottenburg court dated 30 January 1936: ‘The Olympia-Film Co. Ltd, is being founded at the government's request and with government funds … since the state is unwilling to appear publicly as the film's producer’. And 1 month later: ‘It is clearly impracticable to have the ‘Treasury itself acting as film producer’. See also Rother, Leni Riefenstahl, pp. 91-93.

  10. Jürgen Trimborn, Riefenstahl, pp. 342-343, 546, notes 122 and 125.

  11. Rother, Leni Riefenstahl, pp. 110-115.

  12. Bundesarchiv, Martin Bormann to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reichs Chancellery, 2 August 1942, BA R 43/II 810b, B1.81. The letter is cited in Rother, Leni Riefenstahl, p. 124. Trimborn, Riefenstahl, p. 325, and appears in the documentary, Zeit des Schweigen und der Dunkelheit (1982).

  13. Trimborn, Riefenstahl, p. 325.

  14. Tiefland

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will Propaganda

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will Propaganda

I am going to discuss whether Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will
(1934) was propaganda, or a representational recording of an event.
Riefenstahl was considered “an intricate part of the Third Reich's
propaganda machine[1]”, yet she claimed that:

"If you see this film again today you ascertain that it doesn't
contain a single reconstructed scene. Everything in it is true. And it
contains no tendentious commentary at all. It is history. A pure
historical film... it is film-vérité. It reflects the truth that was
then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary[2]”

It is clear that there are two very different parts to this story,
with general consensus being that Hitler wanted it to be propaganda,
and with his influence on Riefenstahl he could get what he wanted, but
with Riefenstahl’s wish that there would be no political agenda, she
insisted that she created it to be a record of the events at the

Riefenstahl had been making films for 10 years, and Hitler approached
her to make an artistic film about the Nuremberg Rally, after he had
been impressed by her previous work, which included Victory of Faith
(1933), a short film about the 1933 Nuremberg rally. Triumph of the
Will was to be an extravaganza, with “an unlimited budget, crew of 120
and between 30 and 40 cameras[3]”. Hitler didn’t want anything to
stand in the way of Riefenstahl, and although he gave orders that she
should have unlimited access in Nuremberg, she was not aided by the SS
men in any way. “Once some SS men pushed our sound van into a ditch;
our tracks were dismantled, and I was not allowed into many of the

The Nazi party had got into power in Germany in 1933, and had won over
a lot of German people by capturing their imaginations in a time of
depression, very often through the use of Propaganda which exaggerated
the successes and aims of the Nazi party. “The Germans gave Hitler
full credit for the improvement of the economic situation.[5]” The
fact that Hitler was adored throughout Germany for his apparent
‘rescue’ of their situation meant that he was incredibly influential.
People would listen to his every last word, but Riefenstahl was not
somebody who liked to work to anybody’s tune. “I’ll try it. But only
if I can be free after completing this project and do not have to make
any more films to order[6]” This compromise lead to a lot of tension
between Hitler and Riefenstahl, and Hitler’s idea for the opening of
the film was believed ‘terrible’ by Riefenstahl, due to its lack of
artistic merit

“I [Hitler] would therefore like to make the following suggestion: I
will ask the most important generals and members of the party to come
to a film studio – I will be present too. Then we will line up, and
the camera will...

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