Leni Riefenstahl's Das blaue Licht

Luc Deneulin, PhD (Brussels)


(For the dialogues in Das blaue Licht 1932 and 1952: click here)


At the end of World War I, film was a new, yet quickly developing medium. In 1919, Leni Riefenstahl had had some dance experience and she made an audition for a part as a dancer in Opium (Robert Reinert, 1919). She was not chosen,, but this was not to discourage her: she took lessons with teachers as Eugenie Eduardova and Mary Wigman. In 1923 she became one of the most promising dancers of Germany and gave numerous solo shows, some of them backed by Harry Sokal, a businessman with interest stage and film ­ and in Leni Riefenstahl. Making a bad movement in the middle of 1924, she had to undergo medical surgery, which prevented her from dancing. In the meantime, she had become movie fan. One film made a very big impression on her, a mountain film made by Arnold Fanck, Der Berg des Schicksals (1925). She contacted this director and eventually she would play a part in his next film, Der heilige Berg (1926).

She decided to stop her career as a dancer and to become actress. More mountain films with Fanck followed of which the most successful was Die weisse Hölle von Piz Palü (1929), co-directed by G. W. Pabst.
Yet, the acting in Franck's films were too limited for Leni Riefenstahl: she wanted dramatic roles but nobody seemed really interested, by that time she had the label of the superwoman of the mountains and who was considered more of a mountain climber and acrobat than a real actress.

In 1931 Leni Riefenstahl started to think about a film in which she would act, also a mountain film but without snow and ice, and in which not the mountains would play the main role but the actors. She tried to find a producer, but nobody seemed interested.

She decided then to produce the film herself, and in order to save money to direct it. Her financial resources were not sufficient but she could count on Harry Sokal, who had backed her as a dancer and who had produced some of Arnold Franck's films. They would become co-producers. Riefenstahl wrote a story that she called "The blue Light, a legend of the Dolomites".
She contacted Bela Balazs whom she had met through Arnold Fanck. Balazs was a pioneer of European film theory. He had made films himself, written scripts for e.g. G. W. Pabst and Alfred Abel, he also wrote libretto's for opera's, like the still often performed Bluebeard's Castle composed by Bela Bartok.
Balazs was enthusiastic with the story Riefenstahl presented as one she invented herself, and agreed to write a script. He got help of one most talented scriptwriters of the film industry in Germany in the twenties, Carl Mayer, to help him. Riefenstahl knew him vaguely; he had also worked for Fanck. In a few weeks a script was ready. Both Balazs and Mayer had agreed to be paid later, when the film would raise some money.

In fact, the story of the film is based not on an idea by Riefenstahl, but on a novel written by the Swiss writer Gustav Renker, Bergkristall.
The story of Das blaue Licht is set in a religious village Santa Maria. An outcast of this village is Junta, who lives outside the village but sometimes comes to try and sell a few things. The villagers hate her because it seems that only she can find the way to the grotto where at full moon the moonlight becomes blue. Young guys of the village all try to reach this grotto, but they fall of the mountain and die.
When a painter comes to the village, he's interested by this blue light and one day, just after full moon and the appearance of the blue light, another young man is found dead, he has fallen of the mountain. Junta is in the village when a woman points at her and shouts: "She at the origin of all this". Then starts a real hunt to catch Junta, and probably kill her. Vigo who prevents this and Junta can escape. Later Vigo visits Junta and stays with her. One night it's again full moon and Vigo sees how junta climbs to the grotto. He follows her and discovers the secret of the blue light: mountain crystals cause it. He thinks that it would be good for all if the people of the village would see the crystals in the grotto that cause this blue light, it would show that Junta is no witch. He goes back to the village, explains to the men how to reach the grotto. The villagers go immediately on their way. They take away the mountain crystals, which are precious stones and can be sold easily. When Junta discovers this, it's as if the world has stopped turning, and she falls of the mountain.

From the script to the film was still a long way to go, but Leni Riefenstahl succeeded in convincing a whole team of extremely talented artists, all of whom she had met during her work with Fanck to work with her.

The film was made on three different locations: the Brenta Dolomites with its Crozzon di Brenta (which became the Monto Cristallo in the film), Ticino in Switzerland (were the scenes with the waterfall were made) and the village Sarentino near to Bolzano, (which became "Santa Maria" in the film).

In August 1931, Leni Riefenstahl and her team went to the Brenta Dolomites and the work on the film was started.

Very important for the film was the collaboration of the inhabitants of the village of Sarentino: they served as extras.
The blue Light refers to a blue light that can be seen by full moon. This meant filming during the night. Leni Riefenstahl had seen Arnold Fanck doing that with magnesium torches, very expensive and with an average result. For this film the night scenes were in fact filmed during the day, this was possible using a certain kind of emulsion combined with several filters. The use of red and green filters, which gave the best result, seems to have been Riefenstahl's idea. So when the moon is seen in the film, it is actually the sun. Filming night scenes during the day was not new, F. W. Murnau had done in 1928 for his film Sunrise.

Leni Riefenstahl played the main part in this film. Bela Balazs directed most of the scenes in which she acted, Hans Schneeberger a few. Riefenstahl directed most of the other scenes. Bela Balazs influence on the film in general can hardly be overestimated: he realized in this film most of the elements of his film theory about sound film as published in his Der Geist des Films in 1930. Das blaue Licht is an exceptional one from its time, the dialogues do not lead to good communication, but to a very dramatic misunderstanding between the main characters Junta and Vigo; Junta speaking only Italian (like everyone else in the village), while the painter Vigo who comes to stay a while in the village only speaks German.

When filming was over, all was agreed that Balazs, Riefenstahl and Schneeberger had had their share in directing the film and in its visual aspects. The credits of the film do not contain a director's name, but "a mountain legend told (naverteld?") in images by Riefenstahl, Balazs and Schneeberger". The film program also mentioned no director, but: "A collective work by Riefenstahl, Balazs and Schneeberger"

When the team was back in Berlin, the film had to be edited. Riefenstahl was confident that she could do this. Yet, things did not work out so easily. It seemed impossible for her to edit the film in such a way that the story could be understood. In the meantime, co-producer Sokal got impatient, because he was hoping to have the film premiered before the end of 1931. Balazs send Carl Mayer to assist Riefenstahl but she and Mayer couldn't get along. She continued alone while time by, Harry Sokal came to watch the result, which he found quite bad. He then asked Fanck to help editing the film. In January 1932 Fanck started editing the film, in February it was ready. Riefenstahl was not very happy that she hadn't been able to do the editing and she got a nervous breakdown. Giuseppe Becce who had been waiting for over two months, could then start to compose the music, which was inspired by Italian folk themes. Later than foreseen, in March 1932, the film was premiered.
Nobody was given credit for the editing, while the name of co-script writer Mayer didn't appear on the credits; he had moved to England in the meantime. A few months later, Bela Balazs moved to the Moscow, where he was offered a job at the Film institute.

Leni Riefenstahl hadn't had very good reviews as an actress in the twenties, Fanck films generally got good reviews, but all of the actors didn't get much attention, after all, the main character in his films was the mountain. It was new that a woman starred in such films ­ before Riefenstahl, no woman had been eager to stay weeks in the mountains under extreme conditions and so different from the comfort of the studio's ­ and she got attention as such, admiration for what she dared to do. When she was mentioned as an actress, it was mostly in a rather negative way. Now she had acted in a film according to her own standards and she was of course curious.

There were a few very positive reviews about the film but without especially mentioning Leni Riefenstahl's acting. In such reviews Das blaue Licht was praised for it's visual effects, sometimes, Riefenstahl was described as looking very beautiful.
But most reviews were rather negative for the film as a whole. Although Balazs was known to be a convinced communist, for the extreme-left press it was not even a film, since it didn't contain any political message. In other newspapers one could read that the film was old fashioned.
The national-socialist party had already their own film magazine, but they didn't write one word about Das blaue Licht, understandably: the film was not made completely in Germany, not in the German language and Jews had been involved in the making of it.
A few reviews were heart breaking for Leni Riefenstahl, and to some extend for other members of the team: one could read in the Berliner Tageblatt of March 26th "The film is a failure, there is nothing spontaneous in it, everything is artificial and fake, Leni Riefenstahl can climb mountains but knows nothing about acting. Even Becce's music cannot save the film"

In the mean time, Riefenstahl had met with Hitler and had heard his speeches. As for the bad reviews, she thought the Jews working in the German press .She publicly stated for all to hear that they should be restricted to write in Hebrew caused them. She declared to Rudolf Arnheim in 1932: "You know, as long as the press in Jewish hands, I'll never be successful. But be ware, when Hitler comes to power that will change!"

For Harry Sokal and Bela Balazs, both Jews, Leni Riefenstahl's remarks came as a surprise. Both broke up their friendship with her. Bela Balazs would never be paid for his contribution to Das blaue Licht and, when he insisted once more in 1933, Leni Riefenstahl put the Balazs-matter into the hands of Julius Streicher, the mastermind of anti-Semite propaganda.

The theaters were Das blaue Licht were shown were all but full. In the mean time, Leni Riefenstahl had nothing else to do than, partly due to lack of money and partly to thank him for editing Das blaue Licht - to go with Arnold Fanck to Greenland to play a part in yet one of his other films (SOS Eisberg). When she came back, Hitler was already at power. Harry Sokal from his side fled from Germany in 1933 and having no news from Riefenstahl, took a copy of Das blaue Licht with him to the United States. There he tried to earn his money back by distributing the film in a silent version, the version that was until recently most seen in the USA.
During the Third Reich, Riefenstahl re-released Das blaue Licht; she changed the credits and presented herself as sole director and producer.

The editing failure of Das blaue Licht must have been traumatizing for her: in the beginning of the fifties she reedited the film and, later, started to present this as the original 1932-version. It made Das blaue Licht her own film. Bela Balazs name came back as scriptwriter, together with herself. It took her decades to do justice to Balazs again: confronted with evidence, she added his name on her own website as co-director.

After the war, Leni Riefenstahl was accused by Siegfried Kracauer to have been involved in proto-national-socialists films and by Susan Sontag to have created the first part of her fascist tryptique with her parts in Franck's films and with Das blaue Licht. Both did not take into account that communists and Jews played an important role in the making of the film: following their statements, it would mean those people were accountable for these proto-Nazi or fascist films.

In spite of rather unfortunate production history, Das blaue Licht remains one of the better German films from the early thirties due to its general visual impact, its beautiful landscapes, the almost neo-realistic effect obtained by the spontaneous playing of the peasants of the village, the camerawork and the use of dialogue leading to non-communication.

Based on my PhD "Leni Riefenstahl: van Arnold Fanck tot Adolf Hitler"