7 Women of Classic Foreign Cinema Who Never Gave A F*ck And Leni Riefenstahl
By Alex Cranz
When talking about women’s contribution to film it’s incredibly easy to be a bit myopic and only really acknowledge Hollywood women–those who moved there and those who became famous there.
BUT film isn’t just sunny and incredibly comfortable temperature wise California. Until the Nazification of Germany that country had a more prolific and higher quality output of films than even the United States. More than one historian has posited that if Hitler never came to power it would be Berlin and not Hollywood that was synonymous with film.
Japan, England, Italy and Mexico all had great golden eras of cinema that rival Hollywood in 1939 and 1976. And during these moments of extraordinary creative output women were crafting and participating in some of the best films of the era.
These seven particular women standout. While one had incredibly questionable ethics (I wanted to include Thea Von Harbou on this list but felt that more than one Nazi was enough) they all shattered barriers, gave the finger to the status quo and truly did not give a f*ck what anyone thought.
First up is the only Nazi on this list and the one who doesn’t get a number because of the Nazism. To ignore her would be a crime, but to put her in the same company as the very excellent list of women here would be just as criminal.
Leni Riefenstahl didn’t give a f*ck what anyone thought ever. This was disastrous in the long run and up until her death she battled well founded rumours that she was a Nazi. But even as she fell under Hitler’s reportedly charismatic spell she managed to create a film so important to the language of cinema that to this day it’s considered one of the greatest films of all time.
It’s also the best example of propaganda ever.
Oh and it’s about the 1933 rally of the Nazi Party.
Riefenstahl was a German actress during the Golden Age of German cinema. Known primarily for her work in the films of Arnold Fanck, she became a poster girl for a very specific version of Germany. She was happy, healthy, and a mountaineer. A clean and pristine image of what Germany was—a counterpoint to the industrial behemoth Hitler and company were transforming the country into.
As her films became more popular she became more powerful and after losing out to Marlene Dietrich for the lead role in The Blue Angel she started focusing on her real passion.
Going back into the mountains that made her famous (and where she became a very accomplished mountaineer) Riefenstahl made the dreamy fantasy film The Blue Light. It was completely different from the rest of the mountain film genre and a huge hit in Europe.
But while filming The Blue Light she started reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf and became a HUGE fan. She wrote him a gushing fan letter and in return he asked her to make a documentary covering the 1933 Nazi rally. That film would be Triumph of the Will and it would cement her reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Between it and her follow up, Olympia, Riefenstahl created the crane shot, the dolly shot, exploited the use of long lenses in a way never before seen and revolutionized the way music was used with dialogue.
Unfortunately when it became clear Germany was the worst and would be going to war with the rest of the world? Leni hung out. She was good friends with Hitler and maintained a descent working relationship with Joseph Goebbels and both men, not being stupid (just evil) knew it was crazy to lose their filmmaking treasure. So they gave her money, access to their “work camps” for work crews and cheap actors and sent her off to make lots and lots of Nazilicious films.
Instead she spent the entirety of the war working on one film, Tiefland. Because it was made with concentration camp workers, using Nazi money, and espousing Nazi ideals it is not considered her best work. (Valid.)
After the war Riefenstahl’s career was kaput, but unlike other famous Nazi film lovers, Thea von Harbou and Emil Jannings, Riefenstahl enjoyed a Polanski pass. She was such a fantastic artist that fellow artists loved to ignore her various transgressions (she once blamed all her bad reviews on Jews). She managed to eke out a living as a documentary filmmaker and photographer after the war and avoid trial and even won a number of libel cases against people calling her a Nazi.
Her later years were quiet (except for that time she survived a helicopter crash at the ripe old age of 97 and that time she became the world’s oldest scuba diver at the age of 100). She remarried on her 101st birthday and passed away a few weeks later still happily willing to fight anyone who suggested she supported Hitler’s concentration camps or anti-Semitic ideals.
So, yes, she did not give a f*ck what anyone thought of her and because of it became one of Germany’s best known directors–but, you know, she also was a Nazi. Thanks Leni.
7. Mary Queeny
Egyptian cinema may not possess the academic accolades of other nations. Likely because most Egyptian cinema from its Golden Age was delicious melodrama and romance and critics aren’t crazy about those. But for nearly twenty years Egypt churned out entertaining and wildly popular films that dominated the film markets in the Arab world.
Producing these films was a whole slew of actresses/producers who weren’t content to simply star in the films they made. And one of the most popular of these actresses was Mary Queeny. Born to a Christian family in Lebanon she moved to Egypt with her mother and her aunt (Assia Dagher–another actress and producer) and by the age of 16 was starring in films. Queeny’s popularity stemmed from her European appearance and her tendency to choose films that were extremely Hollywood in nature but adapted for Egyptian audiences. As the industry grew leaps and bounds in the 30s through the late 40s Queeny grew with it. She was one of the first women to appear in Egyptian cinema without a veil and after learning from her aunt (who produced one of Egypt’s biggest epics ever) she launched her own production company with her husband and produced over twenty films. Then, still needing something to do, she built a film coloring laboratory.
After the 23 July Revolution and the increasing political nature of Egyptian films in early 50s Queeny took a step back from film acting and producing. Her last film, Women Without Men chronicled the lives of women in rural Egypt and was directed by Youssef Chahine, who would introduce the world to Omar Sharif the very next year.
6. Wendy Hiller
Before Julie or Audrey was sucking at the English language and being educated by a jerk there was Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion. An incredible stage actress she didn’t dally in films often but when she did hoo boy. As Eliza Doolittle she was the first British actress in a British film to be nominated for an Oscar, also the first person to say “bloody” on camera.
That’s right. The first person to swear up a storm in English vernacular was a woman.
A few years later Powell and Pressburger were so desperate to get her to appear in their film, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, that they accidentally wrote the Archers’ Manifesto. Those five points would govern all of their films together and kick off the British golden age of cinema. Where the US spent its post war years battling censorship and finding solace in the dark trappings of film noir English cinema embraced realism. Hiller largely preferred the stage but every once in a while some extraordinary filmmaker would beg her to return to the silver screen. She’d get nominated for an Oscar, turn out a fantastic performance then shrug and return to the stage. My personal favorite is her BAFTA winning turn as Dean Stockwell’s mother in Sons and Lovers. The film, directed by Archer Film’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff, is a hallmark of British cinema and a distillation of the nation’s golden age of film.
When she won her Oscar (she was nominated three times out of only twenty-one films total) for Separate Tables she was nonplussed,
[N]ever mind the honour, cold hard cash is what it means to me.
See? Awesome. Like Olivier but much, much better.
5. Kinuyo Tanaka
I was a little concerned about putting her on this list because people like to frame her life in a Pygmalion-like story where Kenji Mizoguchi “discovered” her and then had her star in many of his greatest films, including Ugetsu, considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.
And some of it is true. They did have a long-lasting working relationship that saw them create fifteen films together during the height of Japan’s golden age of cinema. But her career actually started years earlier in the waning days of silent cinema. In fact her big break as a lead actress came in 1931 in Japan’s first talkie.
So she was already a big star having worked for many of Japan’s greatest directors, including Yasujiro Ozu, when she first worked with Mizoguchi in the mid-40s. Then they became lovers and she starred in his best works and the legend of their partnership dawned.
Then in 1949 she took a trip to Hollywood and had her eyes opened. In Hollywood women actresses were contemplating directing films and Tanaka decided she could do that too. She sought out Mizoguchi and Ozu and asked for help. Despite being a super traditionalist director Ozu was delighted at the idea and eager to help her. Her lover though, hated it. He refused to admit her director’s union and declared that women had no business directing films.
He was relentless in his efforts to keep her out of the director’s chair, but in 1953, the same year they made Ugetsu together Tanaka became Japan’s second female film director and premiered her first film at Cannes. She would go on to make five more films–all the while battling against an incredibly sexist film industry (led by her own lover until his death in 1956). While her films weren’t groundbreaking they provided a uniquely feminine voice absent in Japan’s thriving industry.
4. Leontine Sagan
Sagan easily has the smallest filmography of any director, actor, editor or producer on this list. She only directed two films. Three if you squint and tilt you head (the third one was a co-director credit up for debate).
But that doesn’t matter because a good filmmaker is like a good writer and needs only one great work to earn their place as a woman who does not give a f*ck. So what film did Sagan make that earned her place on the list.
Madchen in Uniform.
What makes it so badass? It’s an anti-fascist film made during the rise of fascism in Germany for one.
For two? It’s often considered the very first lesbian film! And the lesbian lives! And she sort of wins!
But really the lesbian lives in a film that debuted in 1931.
The film only grew in popularity over the years. The Nazis banned it and a new ending was shot to be more “yea Nazis!” but even that was too wild and titillating for Germans (I mean it is about a 14-year-old girl infatuated with her teacher).
Sagan fled the country after the film was made. Probably for unrelated reasons–like Nazis. She moved to England for a while before making her way to South Africa where she popularized European style theater. Her one big film then gained massive notoriety when fellow “lady who will stink eye you if you ask about her sexuality”" Eleanor Roosevelt found it and insisted everyone should watch it–both because of the living lesbians and also because any antifascist film made in the 30s in Germany really kind of needs to be celebrated you know?
3. Germaine Dulac
Germaine Dulac was such a radical woman that when she died Parisian newspapers refused to publish her obituary because they felt she was that scandalous.
Was it her sexual proclivities? Did she murder people? Did she say inappropriate things?
No! She was a raging feminist and pioneer of avant garde cinema.
Her career as a writer and filmmaker often fueled one another. Like Scorsese and Jean Cocteau she was a passionate film critic and theorist. She penned thousands of words on the nature of cinema and its future as an art form. She learned her craft writing for French feminist magazines as a general writer then drama critic and editor.
In 1914 she and her friend travelled to Italy where they had a crash course in filmmaking. She returned from her trip inspired and convinced her then husband to fund a film company. Many of her early films have since been lost but are collectively considered some of the most influential films of the decade–inspiring the filmmakers of France including Jean Cocteau and Jean Renior.
After meeting with D.W. Griffith in 1921 Dulac further distilled her film theory and grew more and more experimental and influential. All the while instilling a strong sense of feminism in her work.
The most well-known of those films would be La Souriante Madame Beudet, in which a husband keeps playing a joke on his wife and puts and empty gun to his head. Annoyed she then fills the gun with bullets.
When sound became popular in France Dulac left experimental and narrative film to work as a newsreel filmmaker. She also spent her time teaching filmmaking and serving a president of an organization that championed young filmmakers.
She worked straight up until her death in 1942.
2. Dolores del Rio
Wait a minute! You’re saying. del Rio is a very well-known figure in American cinema!
Yes she is. Now days she’s known as one of the victims of the Hays Code, but in the early 30s she was a force of nature. She was the lead in the film that accidentally made Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire stars, Flying Down to Rio. No one at RKO thought the film would do well and it accidentally made them a fortune after they fired del Rio believing her to be unmarketable.
Warner Brothers picked up her but ran into Hays Code problems. Then they ran into a del Rio problem when she told them the racist Viva Villa was anti-Mexican and she wouldn’t star in it.
So they just cast Fay Wray instead. Really.
By the 1940s Hollywood thought del Rio was poison and she felt the feeling was mutual. After a two-year affair with Orson Welles that ended when he went crazy in Rio De Janiero del Rio took her still considerable clout as a former major Hollywood star and moved to Mexico to champion film there.
She arrived in Mexico around the same time that the film industry there was reaching it’s zenith. In 1943 they were creating more Spanish language films then any other country and saturating the Latin American market. They were also creating Maria Candelaria starring del Rio and written and directed by her then boyfriend, Emilio Fernández. It is considered a classic of Mexican cinema and won the Cannes Grand Prix that year, being the first Latin American film to do so.
del Rio didn’t waste her success in Mexico. She continued to pour money and her own clout as a Hollywood star into the industry while she maintained her contacts in Hollywood. After being denied a visa to work in the US due to fears of communism (yea McCarthyism!) she eventually made it back to star with Elvis Presley and a young Barbara Eden in Evening Star.
Presley was reportedly star struck by her appearance.
del Rio did not care.
She spent the rest of her life making films in both America and Mexico–proving that you could be a victim of the Hays Code and McCarthyism and still have a career.
It feels almost disingenuous to put anyone at the top of this list other than the grand dame of Indian film and one of the best actresses to ever live. Born to a Muslim thumri singer and an aspiring Hindu doctor she got her start when she was only 6 years old. In order to capitalize on her adorable looks the production company used the stage name Baby Nargis rather than her birth name Fatima Rashid.
She effectively grew up on-screen becoming more and more popular and staring in a huge rash of hits in the 40s when she wasn’t even twenty. Together with Raj Kapoor she became Indian cinema’s golden couple.
In the early 50s on the set of Do Bigha Zameen she was still in her relationship with Kapoor when she met a young student and part-time actor, Nargis-Sunil Dutt. They hit it off and stayed friends. When his sister got sick and he was having trouble affording the medical bills the famous and wealthy Nargis arrived and took her for medical treatment.
Later Dutt was cast as Nargis’s on in Mother India. A fire broke out and he saved her life. They realized they were more than just friends and married soon after. Just in time for their film to be the first Indian film nominated for an Oscar. Nargis’s was singled out for her performance as a struggling mother who must balance what is right with what is necessary to keep her family alive.
It was her biggest hit and, indeed, one of the most successful films of all time.
And right afterwards she married Dutt and left the film industry to raise a family.
Because Nargis did not give a f*ck about society’s expectations she did not just sit around raising her three sons. No, she became super involved in ADAPT (then known as the Spastics Society of India) and turn to social work. Then after the Indo-Pakistani war she took a group of actors in the dangerous and newly formed Bangladesh to entertain soldiers.
When she passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1981 her family, in accordance with her wishes, used much of her wealth to create the Nargis Dutt Memorial Cancer Foundation. So now she fights Cancer from beyond the mortal world.