Leni Riefenstahl was born on 22 August 1902 as Helene (Leni) Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl. She had one brother, Heinz, born in 1906. The Riefenstahl family lived in an apartment in Berlin. Leni’s father, Alfred, was a successful businessman in the heating and ventilation industry. Her mother, Bertha, was a seamstress before she married.
Leni and Heinz had a comfortable, sheltered middle-class upbringing. Leni’s memoirs contain very little information concerning Germany’s defeat in World War One or the social, economic and political unrest of the early Weimar years. Riefenstahl tells us that she learnt how to read at a very young age and enjoyed writing poems and acting out her own plays. She also liked sports and participated in swimming, rowing, sailing, gymnastics, roller skating and ice skating.
While Alfred provided the family’s physical needs, emotionally he was a very controlling father who held conservative views. He felt that artistic pursuits such as dancing and acting were only fit for lower class women and he made sure that as a teenager Leni never went out with young men. In fact Alfred would burst into anger if she looked at a man in the street. Leni was not even allowed to go to the cinema without her parents present.
Luckily for Riefenstahl her love of dancing and the theatre was supported by her mother Bertha. She attended the Grimm Reiter School for dancers at the age of sixteen. Alfred soon discovered Leni’s secret following a successful performance where she had to replace Anita Berber (a dancer and fashion model who often performed nude). He was so furious that he threatened to divorce Bertha! Alfred sent Leni to the Lohmann School in Thale with strict instructions for the Headmistress not to allow her to indulge in any artistic pursuits. The headmistress ignored these instructions and Leni continued to perform in plays.
Eventually Leni and her father settled their differences. Riefenstahl agreed to work in her father’s company and in return she could take dance lessons but was not allowed to appear on stage. She obtained lessons from a Russian ballerina Eugenie Eduardova and attended the Jutta Klamt School for dancing. Soon Riefenstahl became a successful interpretative dancer coming to the attention of theatrical director Max Reinhardt. She signed a contract with him to perform several dances in his theatre.
Riefenstahl’s first solo dance performance was in the Munich Tonhalle in October 1923. She then began a tour across Germany and around Europe. Although successful, Leni was described as a competent dancer more renowned for her physique than any exceptional ability. Her solo dance career ended in less than a year. In June 1924 she injured her knee while performing in Prague.
Leni’s first exposure to the film industry occurred in the 1925 Ways to Strength and Beauty, a documentary which promoted healthy lifestyle. The film was controversial because women including Riefenstahl were shown nude to the waist. Leni long denied being a part of this film. Instead she wanted her entry into the film industry to be regarded as fate.
According to Riefenstahl, while she waited for a train to take her to a medical appointment at a subway station, she saw a poster advertising a Bergfilm by Arnold Fanck called Mountain of Destiny. Leni apparently decided to skip the medical appointment and went to see the film at a nearby cinema instead. She then decided to find Fanck and insist on being in his next Bergfilm.
Fanck cast her in Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain, 1926). Her experiences in this movie saw Riefenstahl develop a deep interest in climbing, cross-country skiing and cinematography. The storyline centred on a love triangle involving two men seeking the love of the same woman played by Riefenstahl. The film received good reviews and Leni’s career as a successful actress was underway. During the movie Riefenstahl’s love life became complicated. She became a lover to both her co-star Luis Trenker and a cameraman called Hans Schneeberger.
After The Holy Mountain, Riefenstahl starred in many more movies. In 1927 she appeared in what was considered an average rated short comedy called The Great Leap. Next she played the role of Baroness Marie Vetsera in The Fate of the Hapsburg (1928) which told the tragic story of the Austrian Archduke Rudolf. During this film Leni suffered from diphtheria. The film was not a great success, quickly fading from the public mind. It was not until the 1980s that extracts were found.
In 1928 she took time away from acting to write articles for the Film Courier at the Winter Olympics in St Moritz, Switzerland. Leni took the opportunity to learn about the art of directing from Fanck who was filming a sanctioned International Olympic Committee (IOC) documentary called The White Stadium. The skills she learnt from Fanck would prove invaluable to Leni’s future film industry career.
Riefenstahl then starred in The White Hell of Piz Palu (1929) directed by Fanck and the internationally recognised Georg Wilhelm Pabst. The film also starred a World War 1 flying ace named Ernst Udet. Leni’s performance is regarded as a fine piece of acting and the movie was judged by many to be the best German film of the year. Despite the successful nature of the film, Leni’s personal life was deeply affected by her breakup with Schneeberger at this time.
By the late 1920s Leni sought to change the direction of her career. This was brought on by the amount of dangerous mountain climbing she had endured while making Bergfilms. As a result, Riefenstahl considered a move into a safer area, directing rather than acting. Her ambition however was curtailed by a lack of necessary funds. Instead Leni made another film with Fanck and Udet called Storm Over Mount Blanc (1931). In this film Leni put in a good performance in what was her first talkie.
Next she starred in a ski comedy called The White Frenzy (1930-31). Riefenstahl did not like this film although it did provide her with funds to become a director. Leni then hoped to star in a film called The Blue Angel with the director Josef von Sternberg. Sternberg however preferred Marlene Dietrich. After this, Riefenstahl always expressed a real disdain for Dietrich describing her as a crude woman.
Riefenstahl’s last film as an actress rather than director was SOS Eisberg (Iceberg) in 1933. Against his wishes, Fanck was forced by Universal Studios to have Leni as the film’s star. The film had two versions with two different leading men. One version was made for the German market and the other for the English-speaking market. Riefenstahl met Hitler before joining the crew to make this film. At the premier in Berlin on 30 August 1933 she chose to give the cheering audience a Nazi salute.