Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Leni Riefenstahl, dancer, and her "Tanz an das Meer" (Dance to the Sea)

All photographs and videos appearing in this post were obtained from the Internet, their use is informative and referential.

"The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a film was Riefenstahl’s dance on the sea in The Holy Mountain"
Adolf Hitler (1)

Video: "Tanz an das Meer" (Dance to the sea). Leni Riefenstahl in "The Holy Mountain" (1926)

As a child I learned that the scenes of the Nazi era I watched had been created by one woman,, Leni Riefenstahl. I used my memory to store all information about Germany because there was a “mythical” origin of my father’s family: in the early 20th Century my great-grandfather had been part of a wave of German immigrants who had arrived to Mexico looking for fortune and lands (and they got them). Not much more came with the myth about the original land of my ancestors so, 70 years later, any images or tales close to the German idea were essential to recognize my past, and scenes from a mythical Germany, Nazi or not, came with the shots of Leni Riefenstahl. With time I learned of the German defeat in World War II, and I also learned that the artist, the woman who created those images stored in my memory, was banned from the art world due to her contact with Hitler. I could not watch any of her movies because they were banned, a few notes about her appeared in books, always demonizing her for her Nazi past but giving her some importance for the history of world cinema (2). Time and the determination of this wonderful creator blurred those vetoes and bans, and although it was after her death (in 2003, she was 101 years old), Leni and I finally were able to meet (3).

In the 90’s Leni Riefenstahl’s memoirs were translated into Spanish (Lumen published the first edition in 1991); when I went to get the book I found that it had been withdrawn from all bookstores within less than a month. I wrote “withdrawn” because I could not imagine that in Mexico a book of memoirs by a filmmaker "unknown" to most Mexicans, except those inside the film industry, could be sold out before a month. The book had been withdrawn because it had not sold, as simple as that.

It was in 2006 in Beijing that I found, at the legendary pirate DVD shop in the area of Sanlitun, a version of the Japanese edition of her complete works plus some documentaries about her life and latest works; aside from some problems due to the copy quality, the collection was an amazing source about her film production and a part of her life.

I would get to know the other part of that attractive life in my last visit to New York in January 2009, where I discovered her memoirs at the so called "world's largest bookstore", the Strand Book Store, a warehouse full of second hand books, a delight for any enthusiast of reading! This book was the first American edition, published in 1993: "Leni Riefenstahl. A Memoir. "

Those memoirs are a real testament that try to clarify any misunderstanding, legends and lies that have covered the life of this creative filmmaker since her first contact with the most powerful man in the world for 15 years before WW2. Without mentioning my morbid impulse for knowing Riefenstahl’s version of the story, reading this book was a fascinating encounter with the Cinema (edition secrets, lighting and directing), and also an encounter with the history, of the twentieth century; not always do we have at hand those rarely recognizable details from the viewpoint of the "losers" of the great war. It would have been a different story for Leni Riefenstahl’s life and fame had Germany won.

Yes, I discovered Riefenstahl, the film director, but also the photographer, the traveler and, what made me write this post, the dancer.

Beginning her career as a dancer, Leni was introduced to Cinema through dance itself, and her dance was what attracted Hitler. Even when she began late in the world of dance (her studies began when she was 19), she got a certain degree of fame, giving recitals in several parts of Europe with some success, but she remained "isolated" from events of first order in the time. In the history of European dance there are no words for Riefenstahl the dancer (there are also not many words for the stars of the German Ballet who decided to stay and be sponsored by the German Ministry of Culture). However she had contact with theatre director Max Reinhardt, the owner of what was considered the most important theatre in Germany at the time, the "Deutsche Theater" (4); Reinhardt hired Riefenstahl to work dancing "solos " at his theatre; after her successful season he wanted her for his version of Kleist’s Pentesilea (it never happened). And with this pace, dancing with a very personal charm and attitude, she touched Hitler.

She writes in her memoirs how Wilhelm Brückner, Hitler's secretary, contacted her because the Führer wanted to meet her, and according to Riefenstahl and paraphrasing Brückner, Hitler said:

"The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a film is Riefenstahl’s dance on the sea in The Holy mountain" (see note 1)

"The dance to the sea" is a sequence in the film "The Holy Mountain (Der Heilige Berg) directed by Arnold Fanck (5). In it we see Riefenstahl dancing what we would call a 'modern dance choreography’, a kind of dance closer to the style of Isadora Duncan than the expressionist style that was arising in those years in Germany. An ensemble of modern dance that reinterpreted the so believed Greek Classical Dance, with movements that offered and air of freedom and idealism, all with a background of wonderful and powerful images of German sea landscapes. ¿What else could attract the attention of a political leader who loved the idea of a classical revival, this time in art and German culture?

Leni Riefenstahl writes in her memoirs a depiction of that first meeting with Adolf Hitler:

"We walked on the beach, Brückner and Schaub following a short distance behind. The sea was calm and the air unseasonably warm. Hitler looked out the horizon through his binoculars and told me about the various types of boats he could see, and I had the impression that he was quite knowledgeable about them. Soon, however, he began to speak about my films. He made enthusiastic comments about my “dance on the sea” and told me he had seen all the films I had appeared in.(6)

This is a meeting of giants in human history, and an original story was weaving underneath them: he loved her because of her creative work (perhaps because she was strong and beautiful also) and she was astonished by the personality of that man (she never denied it).

In the same film, The Holy Mountain, there are three other dances, "Tanz an das Meer" this time on stage, "Traumblüte" (Dream blossom), and “Hingebung” (Devotion), these three sequences are very interesting documents on a style of dancing and performing in that Germany of 1920s of last century.

A knee injury forced her to work entirely in acting and directing movies, and dance recitals were forgot forever (7); a fortunate decision, at least for the history of cinema.

What would have happened to Leni Riefenstahl if she had continued dancing? Maybe not much, prone to injuries her career would definitely end in a few years; she had no evolving dancer body, her movements, except for some lucky moments, were generally heavy and without agility. We can attribute these points of view to the film material of the time, but I really think that we have an example of a successful career as a dancer due to a great personality rather to technical ability and creative skills. The filmed scenes of dancing have a big impact on those who observed, but we have to consider that the beauty of this "Dance on the Sea" is a combination of edition skills and camera games with the force, true, emanating from Leni’s dance. It is a mythical dance appearing shortly before some of the most convulsive years of the history of mankind.

The creativity, beauty and character of Leni Riefenstahl, dancing perfectly or not, arrived to hit the history of Art.

(1) Adolf Hitler's remarks. Leni Riefenstahl paraphrasing Wilhelm Brückner, Hitler's assistant. Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir. St. Martin's Press. New York, USA, 1993.
(2) "Olympia" could be seen in “movie clubs” and some public institutions, but never during my childhood and adolescence. Their shots could be seen separately in news, especially when referring about the Olympics and the Nazi era.
(3) Leni Riefenstahl worked photographing and filming African tribes and, at the end of her life, filming corals in the Caribbean and the Maldives.
(4) Reinhardt, a Jew himself, had to leave Germany during the Nazi persecution.
(5) "Der Heilige Berg" 1926. The sequence is called in German "Tanz an das Meer”.
(6) Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir. St. Martin's Press. New York, USA, 1993.
(7) Her last scene as a dancer was in her film "Tiefland”, where she dances a flamenco choreography.


  1. Hello. I am interested in using one of the images you posted in a forthcoming book we are publishing and i was wondering if you could tell me where you got it. Thank you. ataylor@nybooks.com

    1. I put it at the beginning of the post, all photographs were obtained from the Internet; as simple as a search through Google in German and English. (Sorry for not being very helpful)


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