Leni Riefenstahl! What a name! What a (long) life! What a subject!

Av Aleksander Kwiatkowski

Leni Riefenstahl! What a name! What a (long) life! What a subject!

I am, however,going to dissappoint you. I will refrain from 4 major points, which are decisive in today’s evaluation of Leni Riefenstahl. I will not touch

  1. her allegiance to Nazism, as presented in her outstanding documentaries Triumph des Willens and Olympia
  2. her participation in most of theBergfilme (Alpine films), directed by Arnold Fanck, which are also supposed to be a link to Nazi ideologyand treated as a protofascism
  3. her activities from a gender perspective, i.e. a career of a woman in a patriarchal world dominated by men
  4. her alleged or real, more or less intimate, relations with several film-makers and politicians

My text will instead concentrate on her relation with a Jewish, Hungarian born, marxist film theoretician, screenwriter and critic, Béla Balázs (our hosts would say Balázs, Béla) and their brief encounter during the script writing and production of Leni’s directorial debut – Das blaue Licht.
Balázs Béla

Béla Balázs

Although her documentaries made in the mid-30s are consideredto be the most important imprints she left in the history of film art, her feature film debut is still regarded as a masterpiece by many film historians and is given separate chapters in several monographs. Das blaue Licht lies within the tradition of German Bergfilme, but is less ”muscular” than films by Fanck and Trenker, whose ideological ties with Nazism could be more discernible. On the other hand her film was enthusiastically appreciated by the Führer himself.

According to LR:s memoirs, the idea of the script derived from her childhood reminiscences of an old legend. It could be also connected to one of her dancing successes, called The Blue Flower, the source of which was a classical motif of German romanticism in Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802). When she combined the theme of the dance with the beauty and hazards of the mountains, the result was the initial script.

The moon has always cast a great spell on me even in my youth (Riefenstahl 1992, 614)

When I filmed The Blue Light, the moon played the leading part in the fantasy – the blue light coming from the moonbeams refracted in mountain crystals. (Riefenstahl 1992, 5)

On the other hand, her mentor and director of her first film successes in Bergfilme, Arnold Fanck, maintained that this idea was fundamentally based on a short story Bergkristall, written in 1930 by a Swiss writer, Gustav Renker.

Béla Balázs was invited to contribute on the screenplay.

I find in Béla Balázs, apart from Schneeberger, my best collaborator, (who) transforms my outline into poetic scenes. (Riefenstahl 1933 p. 69)

LR remembers their co-operation in her memoirs:

Bela Balazs visited me in St.Anton to work with me on scripting my fantasy film, and I found this very inspiring. We complemented one another ideally. While he was a master of dialogue and scene distribution, I could translate everything visually. In less than four weeks we completed a remarkable screenplay. (Riefenstahl 1992, p.91).

Balázs – having some experience in stage mise-en-scene – would also take some partin directing – in particular the supervision of scenes which required Leni’s acting.

I was very lucky that he could take off three or four weeks to be present and in control for the most important scenes in which I acted – Riefenstahl told in an interview for Filmkritik, August 1972 (quoted after Infield, 1978).

In Early August (1931-AK), Mathias Wieman arrived; two weeks later came Béla Balázs, who wanted to supervise a few of the scenes that I acted in. It was an ideal collaboration. There were never any bad temper or argument (Riefenstahl 1992, 96).

But Balázs may have also claimed that initial idea could be connected to his childhood’s fairy tales and was compatible to his kind of imagination. (see H. Loevy, 1999, Medium und Initiation. Béla Balázs: Märchen, Ästhetik, Kino, Frankfurt am Main, MS/diss, quoted by Rother, 1980).

In 1925 he published The True Skyblue, a volume of three tales. The adolescent hero of the title one, who possesses a picture with a miraculous real sky in it – a thing of beauty for the boy, which others want to take away from him – is actually a dreamer. The magical blue flower with whose juice the boy paints the sky azure is clearly a symbol of longing, like the mystical flower of Novalis. (Zuffa 1987,p. 133).

Das blaue LichtDas blaue LichtDas blaue Licht

Das blaue Licht

(At the end of this post you will find a Youtube clip from ”Das blaue Licht”)

The storyline of Das blaue Licht can be rendered as follows:

Junta is hated by the people in the village where she lives, especially by the women, who suspect her of being a witch.She is the only one who can climb the nearby Monte Christallo to a cave high up, whence a mysterious blue light glows when the moon is full. Many young men of the village have died trying to follow her. She is driven out of town, and takes to living in the mountains. Vigo, a Viennese painter, a newcomer to the village, befriends the outcast woman, becomes her protector and falls in love with her. Following her one blue-lit night, he discovers the way to the cave. Believing that the safe passage to the grotto will serve in the best interest of both Junta and the villagers he shows them the way. The villagers plunder the valuable crystals and celebrate their newfound fortune. With no light to light her climb, Junta plunges to her death.

The Blue Light was done in the style of early sound films, using sound only as an accompanying feature rather than as an integral element of the film. The dialogue is sparse and, curiously enough, spoken in the Italian dialect of the region. Like in Fanck’s films, the plot is carried along by the interaction of the visuals rather than by the words spoken by the characters. (Hinton, 2000, 13)

There are some differences between several versions of the film:

  1. the one premiered 1932 runs 86′
  2. the one re-premiered 1938 (with Balázs’s name omitted, along with equally Jewish producer Sokal’s)
  3. two different new shorter versions (running 73′) of Das blaue Licht was shown in 1951-2: one in Italy and Austria as Die Hexe von Santa Maria, the other in West Germany, edited from leftover negative material (the original was then lost), which dispensed with the framework plot (see Rother 2002, 136-7)
  4. the original 1932 version reconstructed for airing at TV-channel Arte
  5. two different versions (1932, 1952) reconstructed 2005 for a DVD disc.

Version nr 1 has a narrative frame, with the action taking place in the present time. A couple of tourists are visiting a mountain village, and presented an old book which unfolds to a central story, taking place in 1866. The primeval society of this time is living with and by superstitions, and without perception of the value of money or commercialism. This conflict between old and new, sociologically valid, is however absent in the new versions, revived in 1952, with no frame story.

On the level of authorship, version 1 was the product of a cooperation between 3 artists, as the credits read: A mountain legend of the Dolomites transformed into pictures by Leni Riefenstahl, Béla Balázs, Hans Schneeberger. Version 2 omits in its credits (”Jew”) Balázs altogether, relegating Schneeberger to his function of a cameraman.

Das blaue Licht was produced on a shoestring budget, with rather limited financial backing. Leni Riefenstahl could muster cooperation from her (and Fanck’s) former associates like cameraman Hans Schneeberger, executive producer Harry Sokal, production manager Walter Traut and assistant cameraman Heinz von Jaworsky, among others. They all agreed to take part in the production on the basis of participating in its future revenues, when the movie turned a profit. It mostly paid off with at least one important exception of Béla Balázs, whose later claims from his exile in Moscow were never satisfied. (see Trimborn, 2002, 77,164; Riefenstahl screened 2008 p.108).

LR claimed in her memoirs that ”to my delight Belazs (sic) was so excited about the outline that he was willing to co-author the script without a fee.” (p.90). But in a letter of 11 December 11, 1933 she granted

…to Herr Gauleiter Julius Streicher of Nuremberg – publisher of Der Stürmer – power of attorney in matters of the claims of the Jew Béla Balács (sic) on me.

Leni Riefenstahl

(Riefenstahl file, Berlin Document Center; quoted in Infield 1976, p. 64)

Adding insult to injury, Riefenstahl not only misspelled his name wrong twice, but also never paid for his script.

Riefenstahl (and Schneeberger) experimented with various colour filters and Agfa raw stock, which gave unexpected, novel results in her b&w movie. The same experiments followed in Tiefland, a movie which in many ways showed a continuity in her artistic development, apart from her better known documentaries. (see Trimborn 2002, 70, 209, 214; Bach 2007, 198)

Production limitations forced Riefenstahl to avoid sets expensive to build and to shoot outdoors or in natural surroundings like Runkelstein Castle around Bolzano. This, among other things, brought her an appreciation from none less than Roberto Rossellini, who claimed she was anticipated neo-realism. (Trimbourn 2002, 268).

In her directorial debut Leni Riefenstahl showed for the first time her ability of working with groups of people, a technique perfected in her propaganda documentaries made in and for Nazi Germany and once more tried in her last feature film, Tiefland, which was produced during the WWII, not reaching its premiere until 1954.

In Das blaue Licht she was looking for a group of interesting local inhabitants, living in their own environments, habits and culture, apart from civilisation around the corner. She succeeded in finding such a group in Sarentino hamlet in Sarntal/Sarn Valley (while climbing scenes were made at Crozzon, in Brenta Dolomites), with interesting, sculptured faces and heads that appear to be drawn by Dürer, a social force opposed to nature-child, Junta. After some initial difficulties, Riefenstahl won their confidence.

Leaving the problems concerning documentary treatment of SA-men, SS-men, Hitler Jugend, Deutsche Arbeitsfront, Wehrmacht, and other massive groups of people directed by her in Triumph des Willens on one hand, and the sportsmen in Olympia on the other, let us proceed to Tiefland,that has a story in many points similar and corresponding to that in Das blaue Licht. It became visible in the finished product as well. As David B. Hinton observed:

Close-up shots of rugged peasant faces are reminiscent of similar shots of alpine villagers in The Blue Light. (…)The peasant faces in The Blue Light and Tiefland are real peasant faces, but through Riefenstahl’s careful selection (much like Eisenstein’s typing, but more realistic) they became more representations than individuals. (…) Pedro (in Tiefland – AK, like Vigo in Das blaue Licht) arrives in the village. Like Junta … he is jeered by the villagers and tainted by the little children (Hinton 2000, p.68, 88, 70)

For Tiefland, Riefenstahl was seeking a group of extras,to impersonate Spaniards living beneath the mountains, first during abortive shootings in Spain 1934, then during the war in Tyrolean Alps. The most convenient solution turned out to be the use of slave labour, Gypsies, living then (1940-41) in a concentration camp in the vicinity of Salzburg. This move brought Riefenstahl some rather unpleasant proceedings after the war, with press accusations and litigations,but which finally resolved itself in her favour.

The last and final time Riefenstahl encountered comparable problems was during her photography shooting in Sudan 1955-72 of the Nuba tribes,which were presumably living at a primitive level, but felt a growing pressure from the oncoming civilisation, which forced the photographer into a situation similar to Robert Flaherty’s, when shooting in the 20s his Eskimo/Inuit – Nanook of the North – as a primeval or noble savage.The contemporary Nuba, as the mountain people in Tyrolean Sarn Valley before them, experienced the destructive hand of civilisation, bringing all new habits that money can buy. (see Rother, 1980, 146-7, Trimborn 2002, 276, 285).

Some recent critics have, though, lauded the film’s ethnographic intensity and linked its sympathetic handling of the Sarn Valley peasants to that of Riefenstahl’s affectionate treatment of the Nuba (see Riefenstahl screened 2008, p.162).

All her new endeavors brought a forceful vigilance toward Riefenstahl, again and again accused of fascist tendencies in her film (or photo)making, as well as justified questions of continuity in her work from Das blaue Licht on to Tiefland and photos of Nuba (see Rother, 1980, 163).

The most comprehensive distillation of all important strands of thought on The Blue Light can perhaps be found in

Eric Rentschler’s seminal work from his 1996 The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife, reflected anew on his contention that Riefenstahl’s aesthetic in this film anticipates fascism’s combining of the antimodern with the technological. … Rentschler explains how it is indeed the cornerstone upon which the filmmaker crafts her own biography as legend. (Riefenstahl screened 2008, p.5)

After its opening night at the UFA Palast am Zoo on March 24th 1932 Das blaue Licht was reviewed with some degree of serious appreciation. There were though several critical voices, which later made possible for Leni Riefenstahl to present generalizations on a conspiracy of Jewish clique, dominating film criticism. More than 4 years later, on November 27th 1936, all art criticism – for having typically Jewish traits of character – was in Germany abolished by Joseph Goebbels’s decree. (Trimbourn 2002, 234).

There was however one voice from a ”Jewish critic” which Leni seemed to cherish more than any other, namely the opinion of director Joseph von Sternberg who allegedly told her in private conversation (Riefenstahl 1992, p. 131) : It’s a beautiful film, and you are wonderful”.

Negative voices could be heard after the war, despite the fact that Das blaue Licht was produced before Hitler’s Machtübernahme. A German sociologist of Frankfurter School fame, Siegfried Kracauer, published in American exile his influential survey of psychologically treated German film history – From Caligari to Hitler (1947). A typically German film genre of Bergfilme, along with romanticism, Volkism and several other isms he considered proto-Fascist. Generally he assesed that

…this kind of heroism was rooted in a mentality kindred to Nazi spirit. … the idolatry of glaciers and rocks …was symptomatic of an antirationalism on which the Nazi could capitalize. (Kracauer 1947, 112)

The surge of pro-Nazi tendencies during the pre-Hitler period could not be better confirmed than by the increase and specific evolution of the mountain films. (ibid, 257) In clouds displays in Bergfilme and Der Triumph des Willens he sees…the ultimate fusion of the mountain cult and the Hitler cult (ibid, 258)

But his altogether convincing presentation of Das blaue Licht is marred by a rather simplistic tendency to blame everything on Nazi influence, when he writes on Junta:

…this mountain girl conforms to a political regime which relies on intuition, worships nature and cultivates myths (Kracauer 1947, 259)

His stance remained unopposed for many decades, even supported by others.

British director and film historian Paul Rotha wrote on Riefenstahl in 1949:

Her fascination for the mystique which the Nazis used so subtly and so devastatingly was apparent in her close association with the Arnold Fanck mountain films and strongly in her own The Blue Light, both pre-Third Reich. Her work was saturated with that hypnotism by the elements which formed such a part of Nazi mythology. (The film till now, 1949, quoted from Salkeld 1996, p.259)

The most devastating opinion on Riefenstahl came in 1975 from Susan Sontag in her essay Fascinating Fascism.

Mountain climbing in Fancks’s films was a visually irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspirations toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führer-worship (Sontag 1980, 76)

She counted Das blaue Licht as a part of

…Riefenstahl’s triptych of fascist visuals. … All four of Riefenstahl’s commissioned Nazi film … follow directly from the films of Fanck…and her own The Blue Light (ibid 1980, 86-7)

…the mountain is represented as both supremely beautiful ansd dangerous, that majestic force which invites the ultimate affirmation of and escape from the self – into the brotherhood of courage and into death. (ibid, 77)

But in the early 30s such opinions weren’t shared by many. Béla Balázs, for one, was rather enthusiastic about films from the Fanck-Trenker school, which is witnessed in his preface to Fanck’s screenplay to Stürme über dem Montblanc, published in 1931. According to Balázs:

Dr.Fanck is the greatest film portrayer of nature. For the first time he showed in motion pictures the pathos of strange monuments of nature. Pictures with beautiful landscapes in background were shot before him, but his mountains become full of drama and play along in the film.

Dr. Fanck directs with glaciers and avalanches and snow storms*) above Mont Blanc. He transforms the elements of nature into dramatic elements that decide people’s fates. Thus nature itself acquires in Dr. Fanck’s films its own face. And there the art begins.

Those who admire Dr Fanck’s natural pictures and observe its lyrical importance for human senses, they admire as well how there dramatically active characters are formed in a dramatic action.

Is there something more fantastic than the nature itself, whose secrets we can not grasp? What we see is the true, unfalsified nature. And it is at the same time quite unnatural, for it is not ready for human eye. It is not obvious to observe hurricanes, snow storms, impossible to endure for a living creature. It is not obvious to experience one’s own death.

Balazs considered Fanck to be the first to make nature in film a „living entity”, endowing it with a „cosmic monumentality”. He refuted the critics’ usual accusations against Fanck’s films; the allegations that their mountains dwarfed human lives, that Fanck preferred type-casting over acting ability, and that he employed odd, improbable stories with superficial love interests. Balazs also pointed out the fallacy of those overanxious „negative romantics” who wanted to reduce everything to the level of dry objectivity and were afraid that the pathos of nature films, with their alluring beauty, might be diverting from the social struggle. They have no right to monopolize one’s feeling toward nature, Balazs declared.

(Zsuffa 1987, 203)

Also in later periods some analysts disagreed with Kracauer. David B. Hinton sees German mountain films as ”decidedly antinationalistic” and deeply human.

To conclude that the mountain films were fascist in nature means to overlook the historical antecedents of the films, namely, the German Romantic movement, which revered the mountains as symbols of beauty and purity that were free from the corruptions of man. (…) Riefenstahl introduced the evil nature of humankind as as counterforce to the purity of nature. The mysterious blue light … is an idealized beauty; it becomes deadly only because of human curiosity and greed. (…) Mountains are constantkly depicted throughout the genre as a unifying force that transcends national boundaries. The action can just … take place in the Italian Dolomites (as in The Blue light), … (where) Italian, not German, is the spoken language… (Hinton 2000, 14-15)

One Riefenstahl-biographer though underlines some differences between the more realistic Fanck mountain films and Das blaue Licht. According to Trimborn (1980, 71) she succedeed to raise these motifs to something symbolic, fairy tail-like, mystical, thus giving this film genre an altogether new and unique direction (1980, 71)

Already before the production of Das blaue Licht, Balázs’s leftist persuasion called him to seek another place to live and proceed with his creative endeavours. After Hungary, Vienna and Berlin, Moscow became his next place of residence. He went there for the first time in 1931 but returned couple of times, to take part in the production of Das blaue Licht for instance. He was finally forced to avoid Germany after Hitler’s coming to power. He presented to Leni Riefenstahl a possibility to continue her film career in the Soviet Union. According to a witness in a Hungarian documentary Béla Balázs’ emigracion years (Balázs Béla emigrációs évei, dir. István Tényi, 1994) there was an intimate relationship between the two. Leni packed her suitcase and came to a railway station to meet Balázs. When he presented her to his wife, she turned around and get home. Se non e vero, e ben trovato…

In the Soviet Union he counted on promises to work as a screenwriter and director but most of his projects misfired, because of the communist bureaucracy’s critical relation to his work. He was never treated as he deserved there, although he could proceed with his theoretical and pedagogical activities. His projects were either prohibited for exhibition after production accomplished (Tisha burns) or never went to production. Nevertheless, some short fiction films were made based on his scripts, witnessing of Balazs’s fascination of mountains.

As witnessed by Zsuffa:

We may recall the prominent role of mountains in Balazs’s own life: one of his ancestors had come from the mountains; he lived most of his adolescence in a mountain town and started mountaineering when still a child; he loved exploring the ice and dripstone caves of the Carpathian Mountains; his father lay buried in a Jewish cemetery on a mountain top; as a young man he had a mystical experience in the Dolomites, when he recognized in the violet-green sky above Monte Cristallo the weird color of the sky of his haunting dreams; his poetry makes frequent references to the majesty of the mountains; during his exile in Austria and Germany he liked to hike in the Alps…(Zsuffa 1987, 203)

His scripts on antifascist struggle are proof of these fascination. The script for a short film Black Mountains – shot 1941 in Caucasus by a Georgian director Nikolai Shengelaya – depicted activities of Serbian partisans against Nazi occupants in the mountains of Yugoslavia. The culminating scene of blowing-up mountains to bury the German tank column under the avalanche of rocks reminds of the allegedly proto-Fascist drama by Luis Trenker and Kurt Bernhardt – Der Rebell (1933). In both films, the mountains, otherwise the symbols of beauty, turned into the device of active fighting. (Zsuffa 1987, p. 301).

At the same time, Balazs published a novel on his youthful anti-Nazi hero Karl Brunner, who finally ends up in Spain, fights during the civil war in the International Brigade and joins in Sierra of Aragon a ski-detachment in a death-defying action.

In 1948 in Bratislava Balázs signed a contract for the screen adaptation of a Slovakian novel and began working on it at once. ”The Dragon returns” is about a wanderer who goes back to his village in the Tatra Mountains from where he was unjustly ostracized years before to overcome the villagers animosity. Sensuous love, social conflict, superstition, and hard life amid the harsh beauty of the mountains characterize the story. ”I will continue, in a better way, the style that I began with Das blaue Licht ” Balazs wrote in a letter to his wife Anna, his words reflecting his preoccuppation with The Blue Light. (Zsuffa, 1987, p.353-4).

Leni Riefenstahl was once, in 1960, negotiating another remake of her début, this time as a screen ballet, mainly in the same style as The Red Shoes (1948), a very popular British film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This aborted project, once again, allows us to think of Béla Balázs’s script to the original version, taking into account his numerous librettos to ballets composed by Béla Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly.

Balázs himself was approached in 1948 about another abortive project of a remake, which would be directed by a certain Mr Weiss, on mountain locations in the Tatra Mountains, more accessible at the time to Balázs. who would again contribute a script. (Zsuffa 1987, p.353)

As late as ”on the day of Balazs’s funeral, Harry Sokal, co-producer of The Blue Light, unaware of his death, wrote him from Paris: he wanted to remake the film and hoped to obtain Balazs’s cooperation as scenarist for the new script.

It was the call of the blue, of the ”true skyblue” crystallized in the nocturnal radiance of the mountain cave, of the glittering azure womb of the earth ready to receive him. Balázs the symbolistic poet and advocate of symbols in the cinema perhaps would have found in this coincidence a symbolic meaning. (Zsuffa 1987, p.378).


*) Fanck chose this line for the title of his memoirs: Er führte Regie mit Gletschern, Stürmen und Lavinen


Bach, Steven (2007): Leni: the life and work of Leni Riefenstahl

Ford, Charles (1978): Leni Riefenstahl

Hinton, David B. (2000): The films of Leni Riefenstahl

Infield, Glenn B. (1976): Leni Riefenstahl : the fallen film goddess

Riefenstahl, Leni (1933): Kampf in Schnee und Eis

Riefenstahl, Leni (1992/1987) The sieve of time : the memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl screened : an anthology of new criticism (2008))/ ed. by Neil Christian Pages, Mary Rhiel

Rother, Rainer (2002): Leni Riefenstahl : the seduction of genius

Salkeld, Audrey (1996): A portrait of Leni Riefenstahl

Trimborn, Jürgen (2002): Riefenstahl – Eine deutsche Karriere

Zsuffa, Joseph (1987): Béla Balázs : the man and the artist