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The Untold Story of Scientology Founder L. Ron Hubbard’s Secret Pact With Nazi Propagandist Leni Riefenstahl

·24 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

It’s an odd footnote in the lives of two notorious 20th-century figures.

In 1960, Leni Riefenstahl and L. Ron Hubbard briefly collaborated on a screenplay that was to be a remake of her popular 1932 film directing debut, Das blaue Licht (‘The Blue Light’).

Since then there has been very little written about this unusual meeting of the minds.

There’s a brief mention of it in Riefenstahl’s 1987 memoir, and somewhat less in the English-language translation of it. In 2007, The New Yorker devoted a single sentence to it as an example of how Americans, after memories of World War II had begun to recede, increasingly wanted to work with Riefenstahl. And in the otherwise excellent 2007 biography Leni, author Steven Bach describes the collaboration briefly but gets Hubbard wrong, saying that his days as a science-fiction writer and Scientology leader had not yet happened when he met Riefenstahl in 1960.

In fact, Hubbard’s days as a sci-fi author were mostly behind him by then, and Scientology was already a worldwide phenomenon. Hubbard was introduced to Riefenstahl as Scientology’s leader when they met in London that March.

Other than those brief mentions, not much has been said about the actual work that these two colorful characters got up to in Hubbard’s London apartment, where Riefenstahl ended up living for a while.

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Now, however, an actual copy of the script they wrote together has turned up in the U.K. archives. And after we obtained a copy of it, we contacted the family of the person who made this meeting happen, and learned more about the collaboration.

And it turns out that Scientology was very much central to this unlikely and short-lived partnership.

Both Leni Riefenstahl and L. Ron Hubbard went into World War II as artists, but then endured arduous war experiences they would spend the rest of their lives trying to suppress.

Riefenstahl, of course, was known for her pre-war Nazi-propaganda films: 1935’s Triumph of the Will, which turned a Hitler rally into a spectacle of high art, and 1938’s Olympia, that did the same for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

She was born in 1902 and had been a celebrated dancer and then a silent movie actress before directing The Blue Light in 1932. That same year she saw Adolf Hitler for the first time at a political rally, and then enthusiastically became his go-to filmmaker as Germany prepared for war.

Once hostilities began in 1939, and after Riefenstahl worked briefly as a war correspondent in Poland, she spent the rest of the war years trying unsuccessfully to complete a movie, Tiefland, not about Nazis but based on an opera taken from a Catalan play. When the war ended, she was still struggling to finish it.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Adolf Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Library of Congress</div>

Adolf Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl

Library of Congress

After Germany surrendered, Riefenstahl was arrested and held for three years in various internment camps while the U.S. military decided what to do with her. She claimed to have been naive about the Nazis and spent her remaining decades trying to rewrite the record of her work for Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Hubbard, meanwhile, was already a fairly well-known pulp fiction author by the beginning of the war, and had been writing adventure stories about men and daring deeds for many different publications. He saw the war as an opportunity to prove himself as more than a teller of tales, and had got himself a commission in the U.S. Navy with the help of his father, a Navy lieutenant.

Years later, Hubbard would boast that he had fought in every theater of World War II, had been “the first [American] casualty” in the Pacific, and that he had survived being machine-gunned and set adrift for hundreds of miles in a raft. The truth was less flattering. New reporting on Hubbard’s time in Australia suggests that his bungling actually cost several lives when he sent a ship in the wrong direction around the continent and it ran into a Japanese patrol. Later in the war, he ordered his gunners to open fire on a Mexican island for target practice, causing an international incident. It cost him his second command. Depressed and suffering from hemorrhoids and pink eye (he was never injured in battle and in fact never saw actual combat), Hubbard spent the final months of the war in a California hospital.

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Riefenstahl spent her post-war years suing newspapers that wrote about her association with Hitler, and she struggled to get her career going again. In 1954, Tiefland was finally released, but her performance on screen was criticized as weak.

Hubbard struggled too, falling into a deep depression and in 1947 begged the VA for psychiatric help. But then he had a rather miraculous turnaround, telling his friends that he had discovered a new way to cure human ailments, which he claimed were nearly all psychosomatic, not physical. He said he had developed a new sort of talk therapy, which was somewhat like—but vastly better than—psychoanalysis, and thought it so potent he told one friend in a 1949 letter that he would put the Catholic Church out of business.

In 1950, Hubbard published a book about his new approach, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, and it quickly caught on. Around the country curious Americans started up Dianetics clubs and tried out Hubbard’s method, which called for getting into pairs and helping each other remember what it had been like to be a fetus in the womb and then to re-experience childbirth.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Portrait of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in the 1960s</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Mondadori Portfolio/Getty</div>

Portrait of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in the 1960s

Mondadori Portfolio/Getty

Hubbard soon added “Scientology” to Dianetics, which sent adherents much further back than childbirth, to previous lives that had occurred millions of years ago and on other planets. But by 1959, he was feeling enough heat from the U.S. government over his health claims for Dianetic counseling that he abandoned a headquarters in Washington, D.C., for East Grinstead, England, about 30 miles south of London, where he purchased the former estate of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Scientology was growing, and by 1960, Hubbard was looking to expand in various parts of the world.

Riefenstahl, meanwhile, was searching for ways to resurrect her film career when an unlikely figure entered her life.

Philip Hudsmith was a 35-year-old English film editor who materialized and began pitching the idea of remaking The Blue Light to Riefenstahl, who was 57.

In her memoir, Riefenstahl wrote that Hudsmith seemed like a “nutcase.” But he was also “tall, slender, all arms and legs, with blond hair,” and she quickly took a liking to him.

“He told me that The Blue Light had haunted him since his childhood; for years, he had been yearning to remake it and at last had found a solid basis and backers to make his dream come true,” Riefenstahl wrote.

Das blaue Licht was Riefenstahl’s directorial debut, and starred her as Junta, a 19th-century woman who lives in a cabin in the Italian Dolomites. The residents of the nearby village of Santa Maria have decided she is a witch, and she does appear to have a special power: the ability to scale a sheer peak that casts a spell on the town every full moon with a mysterious blue light, which lures the young men of the village to their deaths when they try to climb it.

A German artist named Vigo then arrives at the Italian hamlet, and he falls for Junta but also discovers her secret about how to safely reach the blue light—which is actually a grotto filled with valuable crystals that catch the moonlight—and then informs the village, which plunders it. After Junta discovers that her secret cave has been looted, she falls to her death.

The film has very little dialogue and a thin plot, but its strength, particularly for its time, was Riefenstahl’s attention to the landscape, time-lapse photography, and stunning Alpine climbing sequences.

Das blaue Licht, released in 1932, was immediately acclaimed,” Frank Deford wrote for a 1986 Sports Illustrated interview marking the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Games. “Riefenstahl proved to be a pioneer; she improved on close-up techniques and was almost revolutionary in her use of lighting. Sound was new, but she kept it to a minimum.”

On the other hand, historian Eric Rentschler points out, the film’s reception was actually not all immediately positive: “The film found mixed reviews and lackluster box office returns upon its initial run in 1932. Riefenstahl blamed Jewish film critics for the failure, railing against their inability to understand things German. She felt vindicated by foreign responses to the film, especially by the silver medal awarded her at the Venice Biennale in 1932.”

Hudsmith, the young English editor, was convinced a new version of The Blue Light would be a sensation, and for Riefenstahl, of course, the original film had the advantage that it came out a year before Hitler came to power and before her association with him.

And Hudsmith seemed to have put a lot of work into the project already, claiming that he had convinced W. Somerset Maugham to write the screenplay. Riefenstahl was stunned when Hudsmith showed her that he had a letter from the celebrated 86-year-old playwright to prove it. She was “astonished” at Hudsmith’s ambition, and that he somehow intended to raise enough money to pay for a 70 mm, full-color production.

But after she signed a contract with Hudsmith, there was trouble. A Belgian weekly ran a cover story about her entanglement with Nazi leadership. As was her custom, she filed a libel suit and got the publication to run her rebuttal. But the flap resulted in the British Film Institute rescinding an invitation to have her speak.

Hudsmith was sufficiently concerned about it that he asked her to round up some good publicity in the English press, and a prominent film critic, John Grierson, agreed to speak up for her.

“Leni Riefenstahl was the propagandist for Germany. Yes, and I was a propagandist on the other side,” Grierson said in a radio broadcast. “I took Leni Riefenstahl’s own films and cut them into strips in order to turn German propaganda against itself, but I never made the mistake of forgetting how great she was.”

Riefenstahl made a trip to London to meet columnists, and after Grierson’s broadcast she and Hudsmith were both optimistic. But the damage had been done by the controversy, and they learned that Maugham had decided to step away.

She then describes what Hudsmith did next:

Philip wrote he had found a gifted American author to collaborate on the script. “This American,” he enthused, “is a brilliant and famous writer, who has written many screenplays for Columbia in Hollywood. He is also the head of a great international organization that is spread across the entire globe and has over a million members. His name is L. Ron Hubbard, he is a psychologist and Scientologist.”

Hudsmith’s description of Hubbard’s Hollywood history was exaggerated, and the work Hubbard actually did there was more than 20 years behind him.

In 1935, after Hubbard’s pulp fiction career had begun to take off, he sold a story, “The Secret of Treasure Island,” that was turned into a 15-part serial in 1938. But he would rather dubiously claim that he secretly contributed to many more projects, including the 1939 John Ford film Stagecoach.

When the war began, Hubbard largely gave up fiction writing altogether, and then, after the war, had turned to saving the world with Dianetics.

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So, in March 1960, as Hubbard turned 49 years old, he was as far removed as he ever would be from fiction writing, and his “legendary” time as a Hollywood scriptwriter was mostly an invention.

Why then had Hudsmith thought to turn from Maugham to Hubbard? Riefenstahl offered no clue in her memoir, and none of the other previous mentions of the collaboration have had anything to say about Hudsmith and why this English film editor might have thought to bring together these two unusual figures.

It was only after reaching out to Hudsmith’s family that we learned the answer. Hudsmith, they told us, was a passionate early adopter of Dianetics.

The Hudsmith family member we talked to told us they had grown up in Scientology, and were wary that it might retaliate against them for leaving it. They asked us not to use their name.

“The whole family was in it. As a kid I talked to Suzette and Arthur and Diana,” the family member says, referring to three of L. Ron Hubbard’s children.

They say that Philip Hudsmith, who spent his later life in Canada, was originally from England and had been involved with Scientology at Saint Hill Manor, the Hubbard headquarters in East Grinstead, south of London.

Hudsmith was gaining a reputation as a skilled editor, and had a bright future in film. The family member even claimed that Hudsmith and Hubbard at one time had some kind of film enterprise in England together, though we haven’t found evidence of it.

But if Hudsmith did have a promising film career ahead of him, his obsession with The Blue Light proved to be its undoing.

“It was his connection to Leni that destroyed his career. She was the plague.”

Riefenstahl herself wrote that Hubbard invited her to use his London apartment where the three of them could work on the screenplay, but then Hubbard was “unexpectedly summoned to South Africa.”

Riefenstahl stayed in Hubbard’s flat, which came with the use of a housekeeper, and Hudsmith visited her each day to work on the film.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Philip Hudsmith</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Handout</div>

Philip Hudsmith

Handout

Despite Hubbard’s absence, Riefenstahl called the script that they had completed “outstanding.” Only the obstacle of obtaining a British work permit was keeping her from filming it, she said, but more attempts to “smear” her kept surfacing. She wrote that she had to sue a publisher to keep a book from coming out in Germany that would claim she had shot film in concentration camps for Adolf Eichmann and then had suppressed the footage. It wasn’t true, but she said she had stopped the book from coming out just two days before it was scheduled to be published.

Reporting on the controversy over the book, a French magazine, Riefenstahl said, complained she “had not been hanged in Nuremberg like other war criminals.” She sent her French lawyer to ask for a correction and to keep it from showing up in London.

While dealing with the bad publicity and waiting for shooting on The Blue Light to begin, which she believed was imminent, there was a bit of surprising news: Hudsmith had recently gotten married and hadn’t said a word about it to Riefenstahl. She would now get the chance to meet the new Mrs. Hudsmith.

In a passage left out of the English translation of her memoirs, Riefenstahl wrote that she was taken aback when the lovely Agnes Hudsmith mentioned that she was happy that her fortune was going to help Philip produce The Blue Light.

“I was speechless. Did he only marry this woman in order to realize his dream of The Blue Light?” Riefenstahl wondered.

To generate more good publicity and save the project, Hudsmith arranged for the showing of Olympia in London for the first time, and for British journalists. But once again, Riefenstahl’s reputation preceded her.

When Philip introduced me to journalists, one of them refused to shake my hand. With an expression of profound scorn, he said, “I cannot shake hands with a person whose hands are stained with blood.” Another shouted at me, “Why didn’t you kill Hitler?” That was gruesome. The press conference had to be broken off.

And that was the end of any hope of remaking The Blue Light. Hudsmith was so disheartened, Riefenstahl wrote, he decided to leave Europe altogether and went to live with Agnes in the South Pacific.

But the film’s demise wasn’t the end of Riefenstahl’s connection to Hubbard.

In another portion of her memoir that was omitted from the English translation, Riefenstahl describes receiving a letter from Hubbard, inviting her to come to Johannesburg to make a documentary about South Africa, and “money is not a problem.”

“My heart was pounding, the thought was so exciting,” Riefenstahl wrote about the prospect of working again in Africa.

In a previous attempt at a comeback, she had traveled in 1956 to Nairobi to make a film about the modern slave trade. The project had little more than a title, Schwarze Fracht (“Black Cargo”), and then fell apart without funding.

And now she immediately had second thoughts about Hubbard’s offer, saying that she remembered how “our Black boys” were treated by whites when she had researched Black Cargo.

“For me, they were equivalent people,” she wrote. “I also thought of the proud figures of the Masai. How could I live in a country where there would be a dividing wall between me and Black people? I knew I couldn’t work in South Africa, and it was much more extreme then than it is now. I thanked Dr. Hubbard for his generous proposal, but was silent about why I couldn’t accept it.”

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It was probably for the best. On the last day of 1960, Hubbard gave a speech arguing that the apartheid government in South Africa was being distorted by the Western media. Any documentary he might have financed about the country would likely have been an attempt to forward that view. (Both the Church of Scientology and the Riefenstahl estate did not respond to requests for comment.)

Hubbard also spent several months in 1966 in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), and had plans of taking it over to make it the first Scientology-run nation in the world.

Historian Chris Owen recently uncovered a letter sent in secrecy by Hubbard that year to Hendrik Verwoerd, South Africa’s prime minister and a key architect of apartheid. In the letter, Hubbard repeatedly stressed Scientology’s support of apartheid: “I have over and over proven our loyalty to the Rightist cause.”

After about six months in Rhodesia, Hubbard was kicked out of the country and had to make a hasty retreat to England.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>L. Ron Hubbard shown saying good bye to his staff after being told by the Rhodesian Government to leave the country on July 17, 1966.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Bettmann/Getty</div>

L. Ron Hubbard shown saying good bye to his staff after being told by the Rhodesian Government to leave the country on July 17, 1966.

Bettmann/Getty

Riefenstahl never worked with Hubbard again, but she later did go to Africa as she turned to still photography. In 1975, a book of her lush photographs of the Nuba people was published to much acclaim.

In a famous essay, Susan Sontag took apart the book’s promotional material, likely written by Riefenstahl herself, which whitewashed her past.

“The line taken by Riefenstahl’s defenders, who now include the most influential voices in the avant-garde film establishment, is that she was always concerned with beauty. This, of course, has been Riefenstahl’s own contention for some years,” Sontag wrote, urging people not to be taken in by Riefenstahl’s attempts to rewrite her past. “Riefenstahl is the only major artist who was completely identified with the Nazi era and whose work, not only during the Third Reich but thirty years after its fall, has consistently illustrated many themes of fascist aesthetics.”

Some critics have included The Blue Light in that assessment as well, saying that although it predated the Nazi assumption of power, its imagery and story displayed a proto-fascism that helped explain why Riefenstahl was so eager to work for Hitler.

Steven Bach, in his 2007 biography of Riefenstahl, details how she continued to feud with historians as more evidence of her wartime activities turned up. He explains how her trip to Poland in the initial days of the war would have made her witness one of the earliest mass killings of Jewish prisoners, something she always denied seeing. And while filming Tiefland, she was accused of taking Romani prisoners from a nearby concentration camp to use as extras, and then had them sent back. Again, she denied it.

She spent decades fighting over her legacy, denying her Nazi involvement, and complaining that she could never make another film.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Adolf Hitler checking plans for the forthcoming parades on the terrain of the Nuremberg rally and Leni Riefenstahl, at right, who was commissioned to shoot the official film about the rally, on Aug 20, 1934.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty</div>

Adolf Hitler checking plans for the forthcoming parades on the terrain of the Nuremberg rally and Leni Riefenstahl, at right, who was commissioned to shoot the official film about the rally, on Aug 20, 1934.

Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty

“They would tell me that they had heard: If you make a film with Leni, you will never get another film from Hollywood,” she said in the 1986 interview with Deford, who pointed out that at 83, she still “flirts with as much proficiency as ever.”

And then, in an observation that recalls the fable told in The Blue Light, Deford added, “It’s ironic; all Leni Riefenstahl ever wanted was to tell fairy tales.”

One of my readers had been searching through the U.K. archives when they found something they weren’t looking for.

It was the 1960 script of The Blue Light.

They took the time to photograph each page of the script, and sent the entire collection to us.

“THE BLUE LIGHT,” it states on the title page. “Original Story by Leni Riefenstahl. Early Screen Version by Bela Belas. Modern Version by L. Ron Hubbard.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Tony Ortega</div>
Tony Ortega

It’s interesting that the name of the screenwriter of the 1932 film (actually spelled Béla Balázs) is mentioned at all. He had not only helped co-write the film, but also helped Riefenstahl direct it. Yet after its initial release (and after Riefenstahl began her association with Hitler), she had his name removed from the film’s credits because he was Jewish.

The cover page is followed by a historical note:

<div class="inline-image__credit">Tony Ortega</div>
Tony Ortega

“The Blue Light” was one of the earliest talking pictures of mountaineering. It was conceived by Leni Riefenstahl from the dreams and illusions of a young girl.

Made in 1931-32 it was shot on its actual location in the Dolomites in ten weeks. Costing only $35,000 to make, it earned over $2,000,000.

Viewed by excited audiences in every land, the picture itself became a legend, won countless honours and applause, and is used to this day in Hollywood director training schools as a model of direction and extreme mood cinematography.

The present version is a modernized script but is faithful to the mood of the original. Many of the unusual village sequences are verbatim from the original film.

One would have to see these scenes to grasp the mood engendered. It is rare and compelling. It has never been duplicated on the screen. One sees at once why "The Blue Light" is ranked as one of the ten greatest pictures ever made.

Wide screen and colour and the talent of the original director cannot help but produce the same compelling grip of the story and even enhance it in a new version...

The present version carefully preserves the fascinating fantasy of the village, the scenes and the story and, adding new and modern acting and story cohesion, should have the same impact on modern audiences as the original in its day...

If played well by its actors, so striking is its technique, “The Blue Light” can earn its new millions and enduring fame for its cast.

L. Ron Hubbard

One thing was certainly true about the script: It remained extremely faithful to the original. (One significant difference, however, was jettisoning the framing device used in the 1932 film, which begins and ends with a contemporary couple driving to the village of Santa Maria and asking about the local legend of Junta.) The film ends up in the same place as its 1932 predecessor did: with Junta dead and deified.

We showed the script to screenwriter John Brancato (The Game), who confirmed something we suspected—that it’s written in a style that was already outdated in 1960. He noted that it was very similar to the original movie, except in places where the dialogue makes things more explicit, and said the new version had a distinct lack of nuance. Brancato wondered if this was Hubbard’s contribution, and had something to do with what the Scientology leader had been writing recently.

“I wonder if he was conditioned from writing things in order to tell people what to do,” he said, referring to Hubbard’s many Scientology books and policies. “The script reads like dialogue by someone who only writes functional prose.”

Hubbard’s functional prose in Scientology would eventually number in the millions of words, telling his followers what to do and how to think in every possible scenario that could arise. He stopped referring to it as a science and, after 1953, started calling it a religion.

Increasingly, however, after his brief collaboration with Riefenstahl in 1960, Hubbard found himself on the run, doing his best to keep away from the prying eyes of government agents.

While Riefenstahl was reinventing herself with her African photography in 1975, L. Ron Hubbard had returned to land after running Scientology from sea for eight years, giving himself the title “Commodore” as his small armada plied the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and finally the Caribbean between 1967 and 1975. By then, his sophisticated intelligence operation the “Guardian’s Office” was infiltrating government offices around the world in what he called the “Snow White Program,” in order to pilfer any negative information about him that agencies had on file.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Portrait of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in the 1970s</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Mondadori Portfolio/Getty</div>

Portrait of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in the 1970s

Mondadori Portfolio/Getty

The FBI eventually caught on to what was going on and raided Scientology in 1977. Eleven top Scientologists were convicted and went to prison for the government break-ins, including Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue, but Hubbard himself escaped prosecution and went into permanent seclusion in 1980.

And then, oddly, he returned to science fiction after a break of nearly 40 years. In 1982, while still in hiding, he published Battlefield Earth, a massive Scientology-infused tale that was later adapted into a Hollywood film by celebrity Scientologist John Travolta, and then a ponderous ten-part science fiction series, Mission Earth, which contains bizarre tales of explicit sex with children.

Hubbard died in 1986, while the final volumes of Mission Earth were still coming out.

Riefenstahl, although she was nine years older than Hubbard, outlived him by 17 years. And throughout her later life, she remained friends with Philip Hudsmith, his family member says.

After The Blue Light misadventure and a stint in the South Pacific, Hudsmith landed work as an editor in Toronto, remarried, and had several children. He lived there until late in his life when he moved to Montreal. He died in 2012.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Leni Riefenstahl, German photographer and filmmaker notorious for her artistic collaboration with Adolf Hitler, takes pictures on August 27, 1972, in the Olympic stadium in Munich during the 1972 Olympic games. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">AFP/Getty</div>

Leni Riefenstahl, German photographer and filmmaker notorious for her artistic collaboration with Adolf Hitler, takes pictures on August 27, 1972, in the Olympic stadium in Munich during the 1972 Olympic games.

AFP/Getty

He continued to correspond with Riefenstahl to the end of her life in 2003, the family member says. And at one point, they remember that Riefenstahl requested that Hudsmith send her another copy of the book Dianetics.

“She was still communicating with Ron before he died, and she asked Philip about Scientology,” the family member says.

Riefenstahl was known as “Aunt Leni” to the children in the Hudsmith family. But there was no talk about the controversies that involved either Riefenstahl or Hubbard.

It was only later that they came to regret Hudsmith’s involvement with the Scientology leader and the German filmmaker.

“He could have been so much more in his film career if he hadn’t connected with either of them. He was known as the best film editor in Toronto. But his connection to those two sabotaged his career,” the family member tells us. “But he never held it against them.”

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