Innovative filmmaker and Nazi propagandist, Berta Helene Amalie Riefenstahl was born into a prosperous, cultured family who began her artistic career as a dancer. Although she was highly regarded on the Berlin stage, a knee injury put an end to her aspirations.
In the 1920s she turned to acting, taking part in the 'mountain films' of Arnold Fanck. By the time of Adolf Hitler’s ascendance, she had directed a mountain film of her own, 'The Blue Light', breaking boundaries for women in that period.
Her great opportunity to make a breakthrough came in 1934, when she was invited, with a limitless budget, to photograph the annual Nazi rally. From this came 'Triumph of the Will', one of Riefenstahl’s seminal pieces, and a key work in history of film, in terms of technical innovation.
'Triumph of the Will' was also a crucial component of Hitler’s propaganda campaign, fuelling accusations, which Riefenstahl consistently denied, that she was a Nazi sympathiser.
Her next great film, 'Olympia', a visually enchanting documentary of the Olympic games, held under the Nazi dictatorship in 1936, was hailed by film lovers for its use of revolutionary techniques, while drawing criticism for her perhaps fascist obsession with physical strength and beauty of the human form.
After World War II, Riefenstahl spent four years in a French detention camp. She was investigated by postwar authorities several times but convicted neither for her alleged role as a propagandist nor for the use of concentration camp inmates in her films. Riefenstahl claimed she wasn't aware of the nature of the camps and later maintained that she was "fascinated" by the Nazis but politically naïve and ignorant about any war crimes.
While a post war ban on film making in Germany hindered her career somewhat, Riefenstahl’s artistic ambitions were not thwarted by age. At sixty, she began a series of trips to Africa, where she lived with, and documented through photography, a number of African tribes.
At the age of seventy, she became a scuba diver and underwater photographer. She continued this well into her nineties, releasing 'Underwater Impressions', a selection of footage, at the age of 100.
This complex and impressive figure married once, but had no children. She passed away in her sleep at home in Bavaria, aged 101.