Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) is perhaps best known as ‘Hitler’s film-maker’, but a closer look at her later life adds another perspective. Having worked as a dancer, actress, director and photographer for half a century, she discovered a passion for the underwater world while snorkeling in the Indian Ocean with her partner and eventual second husband Horst Kettner (who was 40 years her junior) at the age of 71. In order to be accepted into a scuba diving course and obtain a license, she had to fake her age by 20 years, pretending she was 51.
While the film she is most remembered for as an actress might be the hugely successful silent film The White Hell of Piz Palu (1929) – an American sound version produced by Universal Pictures in 1930 was the first German film ever shown in the US – Riefenstahl’s work for the Nazi Propaganda Ministry in the Thirties has made her controversial. Although she was never a member of the NSDAP, films like Victory of Faith-The Film of the National Socialist Party Rally (1933), Triumph of the Will (1935), Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces (1935) and Olympia (1938) aestheticise fascism, and although she later claimed the films had a mere documenting purpose, they became forceful vehicles of Nazi propaganda.
During her ‘underwater period’, Riefenstahl produced two critically acclaimed illustrated books, Coral Gardens (1978) and Wonders under Water (English edition 1991), and a film, Impressionen unter Wasser (2002). Although the aestheticising and idealising strand of her former films and photographs is still strong, these works strive towards scientific accuracy (image captions providing the correct scientific names of the specimens were supplied by marine biologists) and conservationist impact.
The following images and quotes by Riefenstahl are from Wonders under Water.
Diving is addictive. Once you have tried it you will be under the spell of the underwater world. Nowhere else will you get closer to the mysteries of Life than here, where all life came from. But most of all it is the experience of floating and weightlessness, of sinking into a mysterious and unknown world, that brings about in a diver a totally unexpected feeling of exquisite happiness. And then there is the boundless silence, surrounding one completely, sheltering one from the outside world, removing all problems and worries.
(The feeling of weightlessness gave Riefenstahl relief from the intense back pain she suffered following a skiing accident in 1980.)
Every time I dive I discover anew a world full of wonders. The variety of shapes and forms, colours and living organisms is so fantastic, it creates visions in a dreamworld.
(While Riefenstahl’s underwater photography demonstrates her ongoing interest in beauty and form, one cannot help but wonder if her engagement with the natural world represented a path to redemption.)
I would also like to think that my pictures might help a little to protect this wonderful underwater world from the increasing destruction which our civilisation causes. I therefore urge all those who are concerned about Nature to play a part in saving these last remaining corners of paradise. Let us prevent the pollution of waters; let us not use the seas as dumping grounds, and let us not permit divers to harpoon on coral reefs.
(Her concern for the natural world led Riefenstahl to join Greenpeace, where she was a member for eight years. This was the first and only time she joined an organisation.)
All information, images and quotes from Angelika Taschen (ed.), Leni Riefenstahl: Five Lives, and Leni Riefenstahl, Wonders under Water.