Leni Riefenstahl's Tiefland
Luc Deneulin, PhD
For the subtitles in Tiefland click here
As a filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) is best known for her documentaries Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1934) and Olympia (1936). But she started her career as an actress in a typical German film genre, the "mountain film", and the first movie she directed (together with Bela Balazs) belonged to that genre: Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932). For decades it would seem that Riefenstahl had ended her career as a filmmaker with her second mountain film, Tiefland (Lowlands, 1954), until in 2002, at the age of 100, she surprised the world with a documentary Impressionen unter Wasser.
After having toured with Olympia almost the entire world, in 1939, Riefenstahl wanted to make a film called Penthesilea, based on a play by the romantic playwright Heinrich von Kleist. Yet, in September 1939, the war broke out and the quite ambitious plans for this film, which included filming in different countries, had to be put aside.
Leni Riefenstahl started a career as a war reporter in Poland a few weeks after the war broke out, but after having witnessed a war massacre, she went back to Germany.
Looking for an idea for a film that could be made in war-time, she remembered her project from 1934 to make a film called "Tiefland" and decided to realize it, hoping the war would be rapidly over so she could finally turn to making her beloved Penthesilea.
In 1934 Leni Riefenstahl had planned to make Tiefland, a few months after the release of the first party rally film she made for the nazi party, Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). She had already written a script and contracted actors to make this mountain film in Spain, but shelved the idea when Hitler asked her to make another party rally film, which was to become Triumph des Willens.
The story of Tiefland is based on the libretto of an opera with the same title that was quite popular in the twenties in Germany, composed by Eugen d'Albert in 1903, on a libretto by Rudolph Lothar based on the Catalan play Terra Baixa by Angel Guimera. Although nowadays the opera is rarely performed it is available in different versions on CD. It was not the first time that the story of d'Albert's opera was brought to film: a silent movie, also called Tiefland, premiered in 1922, directed by Adolf Licho and starring Lil Dagover, who was to become one of German's biggest stars of the screen.
Leni Riefenstahl had by no means the intention to turn a performance of the opera into a film, yet, while she used the story as a plot, she asked Herbert Windt (who had composed music for her Triumph des Willens and Olympia) to write the film music, but based on Eugen d'Albert's music.
In the beginning of 1940 all was ready to start with the shooting and the German press published the film's first stills in the spring of 1940. For the main parts, Riefenstahl could count on two very well known figures of German film at that time, Bernhard Minetti (playing Don Sebastian) and Maria Koppenhöffer (Donna Amelia), while she herself trained for Pedro's part Franz Eichberger, who had no previous experience at all of movie acting. More complicated was to find someone for the role of Martha: as all suitable actresses were involved in other projects at that moment, Riefenstahl decided to play the role herself. This decision she regretted many years later, when the film was premiered, considering her self too old (she was around forty during the filming).
The action of Tiefland taking place in the lowlands of Catalonia and in the Pyrenees ("the mountains"), the duality between mountain and lowland is strikingly similar to the one in Leni Riefenstahl's first feature Das blaue Licht. Another correspondence is the fact that one of the main characters lives in the mountains, in Das blaue Licht it is Junta, in Tiefland, Pedro.
This Pedro, a young shepherd, herds his sheep there in complete harmony with nature. He owns a little hut but nature, his flute and his sheep seem to be his only interests.
Right at the start of the film we witness how a wolf attacks his flock. Pedro manages to kill the wolf with his bare hands while none of his sheep is killed. The famous zoologist Bernhard Grzimek supervised this rather dangerous scene.
This first part of the film has no dialogues, and could be isolated from the film as a highly aesthetic short film.
Don Sebastian, marquis of Roccabruna and ruler of the whole region, is also an animal lover: he breeds "the best bulls" of Spain. For them Don Sebastian has the water of a village at the feet of the mountain diverted to his private lands. This proves a disaster for the local peasant population whose crops wither and who end up with water shortage even for their private use. In turn it leads to financial problems for Don Sebastian himself, as the peasants cannot pay him rent because of the bad harvests.
He shows his innate cruelty when peasants come and beg him to let the water stream freely again: his bulls are more important than people.
A beggar dancer, Martha, played by Riefenstahl, arrives in the region to earn some money in the local inn. Don Sebastian falls in love with her, but also Pedro, who had just descended from the mountains. Don Sebastian takes Martha to his house castle and she becomes his mistress, although she is not in love with him.
Pedro, high up in the mountains, dreams of Martha: he had never thought about a girl before but now realizes that he cannot live his life without her.
As Don Sebastian's financial problems get worse the only issue seems to him to marry Donna Amelia, the Mayor's rich daughter, who is not in love with Don Sebastian but would love to share his power and nobility.
But he is not willing to give up Martha: while he does marry Donna Amelia, his diabolic plan is to marry Martha off to Pedro, insisting they do not live like husband and wife. He tells Martha he'll come at night to visit her.
But in the meantime Martha has fallen in love with Pedro, and when Don Sebastian arrives in the night, a fight breaks out between him and Pedro. In the following scene, reminiscent of the first sequence, Pedro kills Don Sebastian in the same way as he killed the wolf, bare-handedly strangling him.
Martha and Pedro can now live together in the mountains.
As we said earlier, Leni Riefenstahl had launched her film project in 1934 already, writing a screenplay, casting actors and traveling to Spain searching for locations. Shooting however started in 1940 only, and it would take until 1954 before the film was completed. And yet 1940 press articles had announced the film's premiere for early 1941! All in all, the total time lapse between start and premiere had amounted to twenty years, although in the meantime, in 1934-1938, she had directed Triumph des Willens, Tag der Freiheit (Day of Freedom) and Olympia.
The film's financing was exceptional for the Third Reich. Although Joseph Goebbels was in charge of German film and his control on all aspects of filmmaking became even stronger as the war broke out, Leni Riefenstahl did not depend on him: she got the permission to work in all freedom from Hitler himself, who provided, via the Ministery of Finance, the money for the film. Lots of money, since never in the Third Reich had so much money been invested in a black and white film. Goebbels, who by that time, had come to dislike Riefenstahl, wrote in his 1942 diary: "Riefenstahl has already wasted more than five million marks and the film is far from being ready. I am very happy that I do not have to bother with Riefenstahl's Tiefland". Other directors, forced by Goebbels to make propaganda films, envied Riefenstahl for her freedom.
Riefenstahl had been a successful dancer for a short period in the early twenties, and in Tiefland she dances again. For these dance scenes, Riefenstahl got the help of Harald Reinl, one of her former camera assistants, as a director.
Other co-directors would follow for the scenes in which Riefenstahl played: the actor Mathias Wiemann, who had had a part in Das blaue Licht, and Arnold Fanck himself, who from being in the twenties Riefenstahl's employer and tutor had become her employee, working on short propaganda films for one of her production companies. After he directed a few scenes, Riefenstahl, not quite satisfied, hired G.W. Pabst. This famous director had left Germany when Hitler came to power, but surprisingly returned to Germany in 1943, in the middle of the war, to direct a few films. Riefenstahl couldn't get along very well with Pabst, so she hired two advisors to the director, Veit Harlan and Arthur Maria Rabenalt, both well-established directors in the forties who had started directing during the Third Reich.
Shooting started in Spain with most of the crew present, but as the war front was fast extending to the South the crew moved back to Germany. In the Dolomites, Riefenstahl and her crew built huts and houses attempting to re-create what they had been filming in Spain. Shooting had to be interrupted many times due to bad weather it was hardly possible to film in Germany during the winter when the aim was to get a Spanish atmosphere. Nonetheless, outdoor scenes were finished by the beginning of 1944.
It should be noted that they are of an exceptional quality for a black and white film of that period, bathing in an impressionistic atmosphere, which is more a "painterly" than a photographic effect; this was made possible by a very sophisticated use of filters. Cameraman Albert Benitz, who had worked with Arnold Fanck when Leni Riefenstahl was an actress in his films, was responsible for these effects, as well as Riefenstahl herself. Benitz was a genuine expert of outdoor photography in the German film universe, where films were essentially made in studios.
Besides the actors, extras were used in this film. A first group came from Sarentino, the village where Riefenstahl had made her Das blaue Licht with the peasants from the village as extras. But she needed also extras with a Spanish look, especially children. These were gypsies. In the beginning of the war gypsies had been put into concentration camps because of the alleged "impurity" of their "race", although those camps were not yet extermination camps at that time. It has so far not been clarified who selected the gypsies in those camps nor how they where treated during the film activities.
In point of fact, after the war, in 1949, the tribunal that investigated Riefenstahl's activities during the war concentrated on her relations with Nazi leaders and on the propaganda potential of Triumph des Willens and Olympia. Although the court stated that there had been rumors that Leni Riefenstahl had used gypsies from concentration camps for her film Tiefland which at that moment had been seized by the French and that most of them had been killed in gas chambers, the judges found no reason to believe this and Riefenstahl was acquitted for this point once and forever.
However, no gypsy who had served as an extra was present at that time in the court and with time some started to talk. Indeed, there were few survivors; many stated that family members who had played in the film had been gassed in Auschwitz shortly after having worked with Riefenstahl. Nevertheless, their public statements were extremely different: some found that working for Riefenstahl had been their best time during the war, others stated that they were better off in the concentration camp than under Riefenstahl's control. These contradictions have been shown to be caused by the fact that gypsies from various camps had been used at different times.
Riefenstahl went to court many times herself because she did not agree with statements in articles published in the press about this matter or in documentaries. Having been acquitted for this delicate matter in 1949, she felt strong to win any case she started. Yet each time, Riefenstahl's victories were only half-won: magazines and newspapers had to rectify only certain sentences of their articles, documentary makers had to cut only a few minutes of their films.
The "gypsy question" would continue smoldering until 2002 when Riefenstahl turned one hundred. This time, as she had stated publicly that she had seen all "her gypsies" back after the war, she could be charged with denial of the extermination of gypsies. Due to her advanced age, her illness and her promise never to mention that subject again, no further action was taken against her. At the same time, the surviving gypsies asked for money for their work as well as to be credited on the film.
The peasants of Sarentino and the gypsies were extras for the outdoor filming. Yet, there was still a lot of work to be done in a studio. It was in 1944 that Riefenstahl managed to find a studio in Prague, where the remainder of the scenes was filmed.
With all her footage Leni Riefenstahl went to Kitzbuhel and set off to edit the film in the beginning of 1945. The film was almost finished when the Allies arrested her as a material witness and all her films were confiscated.
After several court cases, Riefenstahl was cleared completely in 1952 and got her films back. Among them was of course also Tiefland, of which she made a new editing to be premiered without much interest from the public or press in Frankfurt in 1954. Some hope for success came from the French filmmaker and poet Jean Cocteau, who admired Tiefland and wanted to show it at the film festival in Cannes. However, as Riefenstahl's name was still too much linked to Hitler, the idea was abandoned.
At the age of ninety, Leni Riefenstahl negotiated a release on VHS of some of her films with Taurus Video in Germany. A Leni Riefenstahl Collection was commercialized, including Das blaue Licht, Olympia and Tiefland. It was for the first time in almost forty years that German audiences could see Tiefland.
Since then the film has been subjected to many interpretations, one of the most original ones being Thea Dorn's. According to her, Leni Riefenstahl intentionally made Tiefland into an anti-Hitler film, with Don Sebastian as a reference to Hitler's actions during the war and the misery he put Germany in.
Still, although one can interpret films according to one's own standards, a few facts related to the making of the film do not naturally lead to that interpretation. Leni Riefenstahl's first conception of and work on the film date back to 1934, just before she made Triumph des Willens, at a time she still believed in Hitler. Furthermore, she has repeatedly admitted to having believed in Hitler almost to the very end, due to what she calls her "political naivety". When confronted in 2002 with this hypothesis of Tiefland as an anti-Hitler film, Leni Riefenstahl was astonished herself. According to her, none of her films have political messages, not even Triumph des Willens. She deplored the over-interpretation of her films, as this would always lead to a moral judgment about her, as being either pro or anti-Nazi.
Based in part on the research for my PhD "Leni Riefenstahl, from Arnold Fanck to Adolf Hitler"
Luc Deneulin, 2006.
Tiefland was released on DVD in 2006 with English subtitles by Pathfinder: click here for the English subtitles