Born in 1902, Leni Riefenstahl grew up in Germany with her brother Heinz (1905–1944), who was killed on the Eastern Front in World War II. A talented swimmer and artist, she also became interested in dancing during her childhood, taking dancing lessons and performing across Europe.
After seeing a promotional poster for the 1924 film Der Berg des Schicksals (“The Mountain of Destiny”), Riefenstahl was inspired to move into acting. Between 1925 and 1929, she starred in five successful motion pictures. Riefenstahl became one of the few women in Germany to direct a film during the Weimar Period., when in 1932, she decided to try directing with her own film called Das Blaue Licht (“The Blue Light”).
In the 1930s, she directed Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”) and Olympia, resulting in worldwide attention and acclaim. The movies are widely considered two of the most effective, and technically innovative, propaganda films ever made. Her involvement in Triumph des Willens, however, significantly damaged her career and reputation after the war. The exact nature of her relationship with Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler remains a matter of debate. However, Hitler was in close collaboration with Riefenstahl during the production of at least three important Nazi films, and a closer friendship is claimed to have existed. When in 2000 Jodie Foster was planning a biographical drama on Riefenstahl, war-crime documenters warned against a revisionist view that glorified the director. They stated that publicly Riefenstahl seemed “quite infatuated” with Hitler and was in fact the last surviving member of his “inner circle”. Others go further, arguing that Riefenstahl’s visions were essential to the success of the Holocaust. After the war, Riefenstahl was arrested, but classified as being a “fellow traveler” or “Nazi sympathiser” only and was not associated with war crimes. Throughout her life, she denied having known about the Holocaust. Besides directing, Riefenstahl released an autobiography and wrote several books on the Nuba people.
Riefenstahl died of cancer on 8 September 2003 at the age of 101 and was buried at Munich Waldfriedhof.