Theater of Cruelty

Hitler's favorite director Leni Riefenstahl

FALSE OF HISTORY? / Nina Gladitz challenges the notion that Leni Riefenstahl was an ingenious artist with poor political views. Her documentary about the filmmaker has been hidden in the German WDR archive since 1982. The reactions to Gladitz's book also show how difficult it is to seek truth and give the weakest in society a voice.


Nina Gladitz's (1946–2021) book about the famous Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) challenges the notion that Riefenstahl was an ingenious artist with poor political views. The book is the result of an almost lifelong research work that Gladitz began in connection with the TV documentary she made about space and synthesis survivors from the Holocaust – which was broadcast by WDR in September 1982: Time of silence and darkness.

Josef Reinhard, his relatives and other Roma and Sinti families, most of whom were mothers with children, were recruited by Riefenstahl in a Nazi camp near Salzburg and forced to work as extras during the filming of Riefenstahl's film. Tiefland (Lowlands). They were then killed by the Nazis. Those who appeared in Gladitz's documentary were a few who survived.

Riefenstahl made a great effort to eliminate the traces of her commitment to the National Socialist regime she celebrated in the films.

Gladitz was the first to give the survivors the opportunity to tell the public about the horrors they had experienced and how cruel Riefenstahl was. But Riefenstahl sued Gladitz and claimed during the trial [which ran from 1984–1987, ed. note] that it was "a lie, all of it". Although Gladitz won the case on all counts except one, and a single change to the film would have been sufficient to show it again, the film remained in the archives of the important German public broadcaster WDR – and remains there to this day.

BOOK Leni Riefenstahl, Karriere einer Täterin Author Nina Gladitz Orell Füssli, Switzerland

Gladitz did not want to change anything in the film, but continued his research and published his findings in the book Leni Riefenstahl, career of a perpetrator (2020) – some of the discoveries and especially the chapter "The Riefenstahl renaissance as revival of Nazism" are sensational. Considering how relevant Gladitz's book is to current societal issues, from fake news spread through social media to the growing popularity of Nazi ideas within the alt-right and similar groups, the silence surrounding Gladitz's book release is an ominously troubling sign.

One of the reasons for this silence is perhaps that Gladitz, because of the investigations she did, was herself put under scrutiny. Riefenstahl went to great lengths to eliminate traces of her commitment to the National Socialist regime she celebrated in her films, and to create an image of herself as the most successful female film director of the last century.

The search for the truth

The work of the well-known German documentary film director Gladitz has been anything but simple. She would hardly have been able to write the book without a very special personal commitment and effort. Yet her determination to find the hidden evidence of Riefenstahl's role and deeds gets more attention than what she was actually able to uncover – as the suspicion struck Gladitz herself.

En article in The Guardian in December 2021 with the title "Burying Leni Riefenstahl: one woman's lifelong crusade against Hitler's favorite filmmaker" tries to find motives for Gladitz's investigations into her childhood and her relationship with her mother. [The article describes Gladitz as "obsessed" with Riefenstahl. The Guardian journalist first met Gladitz in 2002, and they had contact over several years, editor's note.]

Gladitz searched through national and regional archives, in Germany, France, Poland, the United States and Switzerland.

Like the general perception of Julian Assange, the reception of Gladitz's work shows that seeking the truth beyond one's personal interest or comfort zone can give rise to distrust – rather than being a journalist's or a documentary filmmaker's professional duty. Ironically, Gladitz's book contains plenty of examples that show how serious the consequences of this "shoot-the-messenger" attitude are.


Riefenstahl's neighbors from Kitzbühl, where she lived towards the end of the war, recall that just before the Allied forces arrived, they could see huge clouds of smoke and flames, with black, thin flakes the size of coins swirling into the air near Riefenstahl's home – most likely bits of burnt celluloid film. We will thus never know the whole truth.

But Gladitz brought out this information, which otherwise would not have been known or perhaps not understood. She searched through several national and regional archives, not only in Germany, but also in France, Poland, the USA and Switzerland: she studied various types of documents, from doctoral theses to newspaper articles, biographies, diaries and memoirs, she also consulted various experts. Her work was more and more like a criminal investigation where she also used her film knowledge and interviewed several people with knowledge of other relevant matters. Among Riefenstahl's victims were people from Riefenstahl's inner circle, such as Horst Ebersberg, the son of Riefenstahl's longtime female lover.

Nina Gladitz During the Trial In 1984 With Lawyer Albrecht Götz Von Olenhusen.
(Photo: Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg)

Incorrect information

Gladitz's research showed that the myth of Riefenstahl is based on two main points: The first is inaccurate or erroneous information. Almost everything today's public knows about Riefenstahl's life, from her amazing dancing career to her insistent denial of any knowledge of the Nazi persecution of Jews, is wrong. Not only did she know about this – Gladitz reconstructs the atmosphere showing that Riefenstahl feared for her life when Goebbels discovered her supposed Jewish origins, and claims that this in itself is good evidence that Riefenstahl knew about the persecution of the Jews.

FILM Zeit des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit (Time of Darkness and Silence) Director Nina Gladitz WDR, 1982

Riefenstahl was anti-Semitic, claims Gladitz. She lists a number of indications, for example Riefenstahl's anti-Semitic reactions to negative press reviews of her own films. Her feature film, Tiefland, was first screened in 1954 after she removed the most obvious signs of Nazi ideology from the film. However, it still contains symbols from the forged document Zion's protocols appear and highlights "the final solution," Gladitz claims.

Information about the film production itself is also incorrect: For example, contrary to the claim that the final film version of Tiefland missing some material that was filmed in 1934 in Spain and later lost, documents provided by Gladitz show that Riefenstahl was there on a private visit scouting filming locations with a cameraman – who was her companion at the time. And exactly the opposite of the oft-repeated argument that Riefenstahl financed Tiefland himself, the financing of this – one of the most expensive feature films in Nazi Germany – was done by Hitler himself, who also took care of the practicalities. Hitler even changed the law so that in 1944 a house near the Schwarzsee lake in Kitzbühl, at the time a rest home for Wermacht officers, was given to Riefenstahl. The house had a newly built film studio with the latest and most advanced equipment, where she could finish editing Tiefland.

Credit for other people's work

The second point is that Riefenstahl took credit for other people's work. the blue light (The Blue Light, 1932), a film starring Riefenstahl, was one of the first sound films to be shot largely on location.

She always took the opportunity to present herself as a pioneering filmmaker. But the documents dealing with the first screenings show that in the original version of the film, Béla Balázs, a Hungarian communist, screenwriter and theorist, was listed as the film's director while Riefenstahl was listed as a collaborator. Only later, when Balázs was in exile and Das Blaue Licht was hailed as Hitler's favorite film, Riefenstahl changed the credits so that the roles of screenwriter, director and picture composition (Buch, Regie, Bildgestaltung) were attributed to her.

Prologue to Olympia was in reality the work of the talented Willy Zielke.

Not even in the documentary Olympia, the film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, considered the source of a new genre of Olympic films and Riefenstahl's greatest film achievement—is everything it seems. Gladitz's research revealed that the most startling part of this film, the prologue, which connected the present with the ancients and was filmed in advance in Greece, was in fact the work of the talented Willy Zielke. According to Gladitz, it was Riefenstahl, who, with knowledge of Zielke's earlier work and his talent, used her privileged position in the Nazi regime to have him confined in a psychiatric hospital, where he was forcibly sterilized and kept confined from 1937.

The reasons for this are partly circumstantial, but the basic facts are undisputed. A medical examination of Zielke after the war confirmed that all his psychiatric diagnoses were false. During her hospital stay, Zielke was allowed to leave the hospital whenever Riefenstahl requested, for example to work as a cameraman on Tiefland. His supposed illness enabled Riefenstahl to remove Willy Zielke's name Olympia and get hold of the negatives of the pictures Zielke took – while she was working on the prologue and presented them as her own.

The same images appeared in 2017 as part of an installation at Documenta 14, the most prestigious German art biennial, which this year introduced a nomadic approach, and besides Kassel as its usual location, it also took place in Athens. Piotr Uklanski, one of the selected artists, exhibited in Athens "Installation with thirty-two gelatin silver prints of photographs by Leni Riefenstahl". This is what today, 11 January 2022, says on the official website The Documenta 14 website although both Gladitz and several German film historians, including the renowned Zielke expert and photographer Dieter Hinrichs, claim that these images are Zielke's work. Correspondingly, the encyclopedia Wikipedia, in its entry in English, the current version, states that The Blue Light was "directed by Leni Riefenstahl". [ed. note IMDB lists Directors Leni Riefenstahl, Balázs Béla (uncredited) for The Blue Light.]

By grace or power

Willy Zielke, Self-portrait, 1932 (Dieter Hinrichs' Collection)

One can find this type of misinformation practically everywhere. Many of them are actually collected in the documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993, Ray Muller). The film won several awards. But experts have revealed that the film "was made at Riefenstahl's request [...] and that she had veto power over who could be interviewed in it". So did noted film writer Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote that "the publicity and most of the press coverage surrounding it has tended to minimize this central fact."

Müller nevertheless achieved one important thing in the film, namely showing how tenacious Riefenstahl was to get what she wanted. When kindness didn't work, she resorted to violence. During the filming, for example, she started screaming.

… more than three million Swiss francs in her two hidden accounts in Swiss banks.

Tiefland, one of the most expensive feature films in Nazi Iceland, was financed by Hitler himself.

But this strategy was not limited to her public appearances, and it had a solid anchor: more than three million Swiss francs in her two hidden accounts in Swiss banks. Where the money comes from is unclear, writes Gladitz, who discovered documents about this in the Swiss National Archives in Bern. But the wealth probably enabled Riefenstahl not only to protect her own history and reputation, but also to garner sympathy. She kept herself in good shape, a living poster child for Aryan superiority, and despite her age sought the romanticized "blood and soil" ideal of primeval life, be it in the African desert or under the sea. And when this did not work, she resorted to legal pursuits.

Basic social need

Gladitz recalls that during the trial of her documentary, Riefenstahl allowed herself to be interviewed by a local radio station, where she said: "We have yet to see who will be unjustly attributed with perjury – me or this handful of vagabonds." According to Gladitz, Riefenstahl mistreated her extras, but denied it simply because she was sure she could rely on the racism and prejudice in society against Roma and Sinti people.

A friend who helped obtain the pirated copy of Gladitz's TV documentary said that Sinti and Roma people were not well enough organized for the truth about the Nazis' crimes against them to be heard. As Gladitz points out, they are victims of the holocaust, and we need to make sure they speak up. This is a basic social need.

Riefenstahl denied everything: the visit to the camp to handpick the extras, that she did not pay them, that she knew about the gas chambers.

A democratic society needs the media and journalists primarily to ensure that those who may not have opportunities to make themselves heard are heard. Gladitz made the documentary and wrote the book to give a voice to Sinti and Roma victims that no one paid attention to. Now she seems to be a victim of the same practice of not being heard that she herself opposed. Of course, concealment can produce different results: For example, one casts doubt on the journalist's credibility, or more directly engages in character assassination – as with Julian Assange.

The fact that Gladitz's book is published in German is an obstacle in itself. The TV documentary Leni Riefenstahl – The End of a Myth (The end of a myth, 2020) by Michael Kloft, produced by Spiegel TV, ZDF and ARTE, is based on Gladitz's book and is also in German. The film is faithful to the book and provides a depiction of several key testimonies and documents. Gladitz's own documentary film is still stored at the most important German public broadcaster WDR, without the public being able to see it. [ed. note Shortly before her death, Gladitz sold the film rights to the book, a planned television series, in which she was involved. Also, a group of journalists is working to get WDR to broadcast her own documentary.]

Original Credit For The Film Olympia (Olympia – Fest Der Völker, Illustrierter Film-Kurier, Berlin, 1938, No. 2792), With Thanks To Thomas Wiegand.

A part of us

Journalist and author Brian Winston once stated that fascism is not a virus but a part of us. It is debatable whether Gladitz's limited reach – and of course also the revelations of many other academics and researchers about Hitler's favorite filmmaker is the result of a deliberate concealment and can be seen as part of the dark side of the European tradition?

But by reading Gladitz's book one becomes aware of the consequences of the strategies that Riefenstahl mastered. And not least how they have already changed our world, and how circumvention of the truth – for example when it comes to matters such as the covid 19 vaccine – threatens to find a foothold in more academic and presumably safer spheres such as film studies. Some basic facts simply disappeared from film history, and nobody knows about them today, while pure fabrication is considered to be true. We can only wish for more critical sense and more people who – like Gladitz – do not allow themselves to be intimidated into silence.

They forgot the victims

In 1949, Riefenstahl sued magazine publisher Helmut Kindler, who exposed her exploitation of the extras but failed to provide sufficient evidence. After that, according to her own testimony, she initiated about 50 lawsuits against people who tried to publish things she did not like. The fact that the evidence of these trials is hard to find shows how successful she was. In 1984, Riefenstahl sued Nina Gladitz for the documentary Zeit des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit. This time, as in the Kindler case, the reason was the revelations about abuse of the Sinti and Rom extras. Gladitz's film was based on a letter that an acquaintance of hers found in the archives of the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime. The letter was not easy to understand, recalls Gladitz. It was written in 1956 by Josef Reinhardt, who asked the association for financial help for him and members of his Sinti family. Before the war, the family was imprisoned in a Sinti labor camp, Maxglan, near Salzburg, where Riefenstahl personally selected them as extras in the film Tiefland. They were forced to participate in filming on location in 1940 and 1941 and were never paid for their work. Gladitz managed to track down Josef Reinhardt and with his help also make contact with other extras who had survived.

While Riefenstahl persistently claimed that all the Sinti and Roma extras in her film (53 from Maxglan and 78 from a camp in East Berlin) survived the war, at least 80 percent of them were gassed to death in Auschwitz. Gladitz's film is a minimalist, intimate encounter with Sinti and Roma people, the forgotten victims of the Nazis' crimes – who were invited for the first time to tell about their terrible experiences during the Holocaust. Reinhardt stands in the middle of an abandoned, green landscape and points out the now invisible tracks from the prison camp, where he was told to show where the kitchen was located. Reinhardt and other extras who survived sit around a table, ready to share their painful memories and the horrors on and off the set – of both the hunger and the cold, the fear of what awaited them after the recording, and the hope that "Aunt Leni" would save them from the gas chambers. After the documentary was broadcast, Gladitz was praised for his ability to get the Roma and Sinti people to speak so freely while the camera was rolling.

But then came the trial. Riefenstahl denied everything: the visit to the camp to handpick the extras, that she did not pay them, that she knew about the gas chambers. Riefenstahl lost the case on almost all counts. Only the victims' claim that Riefenstahl had promised to save them from deportation to Auschwitz, or that she knew what awaited them there, could not be proven. But if you watch the rare scenes in Tiefland where close-ups of the extras are still included, you can't help but see their warm smiles and wide eyes, revealing joy, love and admiration as they look at Riefenstahl. And exactly this was her game, her cruel game. She made the mothers and children forcibly removed from the camp believe that she was their friend and ally, while treating them as inferior human beings.


The Wonderful Horrible Life of Lenin Riefenstahl (The Power of Images: Leni Riefenstahl, Ray Müller 1993) Leni Riefenstahl: The End of a Myth (Spiegel TV, ZDF, ARTE, Michael
Kloft 2020) Lowland (Leni Riefenstahl, 1954)
Kate Connolly, "Burying Leni Riefenstahl: one woman's lifelong crusade against Hitler's favorite filmmaker, The Guardian", 9.12. 2021:
Robert von Dassanowsky: “Leni Riefenstahl's Self-Reflection and Romantic
Transcendence of Nazism in Tiefland', Camera Obscura 12 (2), 1995, pp. 106-128.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Can Film Be Fascist?", in Reader, 23.6.1994/23.6.2017/XNUMX, see Thomas Wiegand, "Kunst mit realen Nazis", blog post XNUMX/XNUMX/XNUMX, available at

Winston, "The Art of Evil, Leni Riefenstahl's career illustrated the power of the big lie", in New Humanist, 31.5.2007/XNUMX/XNUMX

            Translated by Iril Kolle.
See also

Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Zajc is a media writer, researcher and film critic. She lives and works in Slovenia, Italy and Africa.

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