The Longest Film Production of All Time: Leni Riefenstahl's 30-Year Road to 'Tiefland'
Thanks to a buzzy Vanity Fair article, people can't stop talking about "World War Z"'s highly-publicized, turbulent production. Numerous rewrites, reshoots, and acts of God occurred in the public eye. It all spells disaster. And yet, the bumpy road to release doesn't hold a candle to the Guinness Book of World Records holder for "longest live-action film production." Proof that things could be worse.
"Triumph of the Will" director and famed Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl took 20 years to finish her harrowing love story "Tiefland" (more on the complex plot, here). Riefenstahl finalized the script for the opera adaptation in 1934, but plans to direct were cut short when Adolf Hitler requested she produce "Triumph" instead. Years passed and the world went to war, but Riefenstahl wasn't giving up (this was also to be a big starring role for the multi-talented woman). In 1940, she began rolling on her decidedly apolitical passion project ... only to see costs and tumultuous on-location filming extend the shoot by almost five years. German weather during the winter turned out to not be the best place to replicate the atmosphere of Spain. Go figure.
Riefenstahl finished the film in 1944 and was quickly arrested by the American occupation in Kitzbühel, Austria. She was taken to the American-run concentration camp in Dachau, undergoing interrogation for her involvement in the Third Reich while her film sat, waiting to be cut. Riefenstahl was exonerated by U.S. troops in 1945. She returned to Kitzbühel to edit "Tiefland", only to see the city undergo French occupation. So Riefenstahl was arrested once again, her American papers meaning squat to the French. The troops took her money, property, and perhaps most excruciating for the filmmaker, the negative to "Tiefland". During her time under French watch, she was summoned to court for a number of potential crimes, one even involving "Tiefland". She was accused of using Spanish gypsies locked up at a Nazi concentration camp as extras. How was she supposed to know that wasn't allowed?! And maybe after they were finished shooting, those gypsies were executed at Auschwitz. Details, details, details. Apparently the French military has never been to Hollywood.
In 1952, Riefenstahl was cleared completely since A): there weren't witnesses who could testify against her and B): people seemed sympathetic to her situation as a masterful filmmaker forced to work under Hitler (it's disputable how much of a "victim" she really was). At the age of 50, Riefenstahl finally finished her edit of the film — starring her 32-year-old self in the lead role. It quietly arrived in theaters that year, critics none too interested in a the latest work from a Hitler confidant.
See, World War Z's production woes aren't so bad. Brad Pitt could have been convicted of Nazi war crimes.
Learn more about Leni Riefenstahl and the production of "Tiefland" in the book Leni Riefenstahl: A Life.