Das Blaue Licht was awarded the gold medal at the 1932 Venice Biennale, the highest honor in the industry at that time. Curiously, the film got a better reception outside Germany than within. But then, perhaps a fairy tale was too fanciful and too melancholy for the failing Weimar Republic. There was no work, no pride, no future in Germany, and the Nazis grew in strength. Hitler, an Austrian who had become a German citizen, nearly won the presidency in 1932. In Los Angeles, although the Germans sent the third-largest team to the '32 Olympics, they were barely a factor. There was growing doubt that Berlin would be able to afford to host the Games that it had been awarded for 1936.
But Riefenstahl was rolling. She had rounded up financing for her next film, another fairy tale, Tiefland, which was set in Spain, and she was already looking beyond that to what would be "the high point of my life." This would be Penthesilea, adapted from a drama about the Amazons of Greek mythology, which was based on the writings of the German poet Heinrich von Kleist. Riefenstahl, of course, would play the Amazon queen. It would be her masterpiece.
But then one day in 1932, Heinrich Hoffmann, a photographer, went with a friend to see Das Blaue Licht in Munich. Both men were very impressed by Riefenstahl's film and when they came out of the theater, the friend turned to Hoffmann and this is what he said: "Heinrich, whenever the party needs a film to be made, this woman must make it."
Hoffmann's friend was Adolf Hitler.
For several years now, Riefenstahl has lived with a man 40 years her junior. Horst Kessner is tall and bearded, and he and the lady share a house in the Bavarian woods, near the town of P�cking, east of Munich.
Kessner comes into the living room with some cakes and cider and wine. He doesn't want Leni to talk. He especially doesn't want her to say anything about the Nazis. When, from the other room, he overhears the name Martin Bormann, he bellows for her to stop. She tells him she can handle it herself, thank you, and Kessner stomps off.
Riefenstahl has been reputed to possess all the stereotypical Teutonic qualities. "I have a special gift for organization," she declares. "Like a man." Color-coded folders line her walls, cataloging her 83 years of existence. Film material is in the red boxes, still photography in blue, her childhood in yellow, anything to do with lawyers in black. She was so methodical when she shot the '36 Olympics that within one week after the completion of the Games she had 1.4 million feet of film filed, labeled and ready for editing.
The best argument advanced that Riefenstahl couldn't have been a true Nazi supporter is that nothing has ever swayed her from her work. Henry Jaworsky, a cameraman who worked for her on two films, once said: "If Stalin would have taken over Germany, she would have done it for Stalin, and if Roosevelt had made Germany the 49th state, she would still have made her movies." Words like obsessive and fanatical regularly pop up to describe her work habits. She labored 18 hours a day for almost a year when she edited
, taking only a three-week break to go mountain climbing. "What do you call that thing a horse has?" said Jaworsky. "Blinders. She has blinders. She looks only in one direction, and that's the project she's on."
Willi Zielke, who photographed the prologue to
—the torch being brought from Greece to Berlin—is 83 and lives near Hanover. As is the case with most people who worked under Riefenstahl, his feelings about her are ambivalent. At one moment, he says, she would coo at him and call him a genius, and the next she would scream that he was "crazy, your work confused and useless."
But, says Walter Frentz, now 78, one of her favorite cameramen, "Leni had a great insight into people. It was only that she was so wrapped up in her work that she perhaps neglected to observe her duties as a human being. She sacrificed personal relationships to her obsession."