Most people assume Leni Riefenstahl’s success as a filmmaker stemmed from her relationship with Adolf Hitler, who admired her undeniable artistic talent. The dictator funded Triumph of the Will, the epic documentary capturing the Nazi party’s 1934 congress. The film, a propaganda masterwork, featured innovations such as dramatic silhouetting and panning as Riefenstahl’s lens washed over the Sieg-Heil-ing faithful. In truth, years of apprenticeship in front of the camera spawned her success.
The journey began when Riefenstahl, a dancer, watched her first “mountain film,” made by pioneering German director Arnold Fanck. Captivated, she sought out Fanck, who found her a role climbing cliffs in her bare feet. In a second film, Riefenstahl portrayed a novice skier, taught by Hannes Schneider, the father of modern ski instruction. Four more films followed, with Riefenstahl performing pratfalls and jumps, as well as elegant turns. In 1931’s Der Weisse Rausch (“White Ecstasy”), Riefenstahl starred opposite Schneider in a comic chase on skis. (The film is commemorated in St. Anton, Austria, every April with the Weisse Rausch downhill.) Soon after, she stopped acting to become a director and quickly earned critical acclaim.
Schneider, an open critic of the Nazis, did not fare as well. His ski school was taken away from him, and he was later detained for 25 days. American connections allowed him to flee to North Conway, N.H. (Mount Cranmore). Riefenstahl appears to have been indifferent to her co-star’s fate and lived out her days tarnished as a Nazi sympathizer and propagandist. Riefenstahl died two years ago in Bavaria at the age of 101, amid a blaze of obituaries, most of which ignored the master filmmaker’s origins on the ski slopes.