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Posted March 01, 2012 in Nazis, Hitler, and the Holocaust
Alan Riding, "Leni Riefenstahl, Filmmaker and Nazi Propagandist, Dies at 101," NY Times, September 9, 2003

Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose daringly innovative documentaries about a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1934 and the Berlin Olympics of 1936 earned her both acclaim as a cinematic genius and contempt as a propagandist for Hitler, died Monday night at her home in Pöcking, south of Munich. She was 101.

After the defeat of Germany in 1945, she was pronounced a Nazi sympathizer by the Allies and never again found work as a movie director. But her revolutionary film techniques deeply influenced later generations of documentary makers and television commercial makers, keeping alive the debate over whether her talent could be separated from her prewar political views.

For many students of her life and legacy, Ms. Riefenstahl was both propagandist and genius. A popular dancer and actress before becoming a movie director in 1932, she enthusiastically put her talent at the service of the Nazis.

Yet, without her exceptional artistic vision, her two most famous documentaries, "Triumph of the Will" and the two-part "Olympia," would neither have caused a sensation at the time nor be considered classics today.

Ms. Riefenstahl never denied her early conviction that Hitler could "save" Germany. She also said that her idealized image of him fell apart "far too late," near the end of World War II. But, amid widespread skepticism, she insisted that she was never a Nazi and that "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia" were apolitical, inspired only by her desire to create works of art.

Still, while her documentaries continue to be studied in some film schools, Ms. Riefenstahl remained trapped in the shadow of her association with Hitler. Her repeated attempts to find financing for a new film always ended in failure, while public screenings of her movies and exhibitions of her photographs invariably prompted protests. As recently as last year, she was briefly investigated in Germany for purported race-hatred crimes.

She nonetheless worked hard to shed her image as the Nazi regime's most persuasive propagandist. After the war, she spent 20 years in relative isolation, living in her mother's apartment in Munich. Then, in the late 1960's, perhaps out of frustration, she reinvented herself as a photographer and, within a decade, she had made her name in a new visual art form.

A tiny woman of great physical courage and fierce determination, she next took up scuba diving, claiming to be only 51 — when she was actually 20 years older — in order to obtain a diving license. Two collections of her underwater photographs, "Coral Gardens" and "Wonders Under Water," were published in the United States and she continued diving in the Maldives until she was in her late 90's.

Last year, to coincide with her 100th birthday, she released her first movie in almost half a century, a 45-minute documentary of marine life called "Impressions Under Water."

But it was her photography that stirred most controversy. Inspired by George Rodger's famous image of a muscular Nuba wrestler carried on the shoulders of another fighter, she made several trips to southern Sudan to photograph the Nuba. She worked alone at first, then later with Horst Kettner, 42 years her junior, who became her companion and lived with her until her death. (In March 2000, while making a return visit to the Nuba, the 97-year-old Ms. Riefenstahl was severely injured in a helicopter accident in Sudan. She was flown back to a hospital in Munich.)

Her first Sudan book, "Last of the Nuba," published in the United States in 1974, won her recognition as a photographer and to some extent rehabilitated her as an artist. But while even in Germany it became acceptable to praise Ms. Riefenstahl as the most important female movie director ever, both her role in celebrating the Third Reich and what the critic Susan Sontag described as the "fascist esthetics" of her work also came under new scrutiny.

Writing in The New York Review of Books in 1975, Ms. Sontag said there was a common "esthetic" running through what she called Ms. Riefenstahl's "triptych of fascist visuals" — her early work as an actress in Arnold Fanck's "mountain films," her two principal documentaries and her photographs of the Nuba.

"The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets," Ms. Sontag wrote. "Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, `virile' posing."

In the early 1990's, when Ms. Riefenstahl was more than 90, she once again found herself at the center of heated debate when she was the subject of a three-hour documentary, "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl," by the German filmmaker Ray Müller. Coincidentally, she also published her own 669-page autobiography, "Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir."

In the book, she was able to give her version of her life. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, John Simon said the memoir did not contain "a single unspellbinding page." He raised the question about the veracity of her accounts of everything from her private meetings with Hitler to her life with the Nuba. But he concluded, "The book must, in the main, be true; it is far too weird for fiction."

In the documentary, while Mr. Müller allowed her to talk at fascinating length about her filmmaking techniques, he also questioned her memory, notably her claim to have had few dealings with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. At the end of the documentary, Mr. Müller also tried to provoke her into admitting guilt for her past.

"What do you mean by that?" she asked, clearly surprised. "Where is my guilt? I can regret. I can regret that I made the party film, `Triumph of the Will,' in 1934. But I cannot regret that I lived in that time. No anti-Semitic word has ever crossed my lips. I was never anti-Semitic. I did not join the party. So where then is my guilt? You tell me. I have thrown no atomic bombs. I have never betrayed anyone. What am I guilty of?"

It was evidently a well-rehearsed response. In an interview with The New York Times last year, she said: "I didn't do any harm to anyone. What have I ever done? I never intended any harm to anyone."

Certainly, in her final years, she never shied from the limelight.

In 1997, when a Hamburg gallery held the first exhibition of her work in postwar Germany, Ms. Riefenstahl agreed to be interviewed by major German news weeklies, even though she knew much of the questioning would be hostile.

That same year, ignoring protests, she traveled to Los Angeles to receive a lifetime achievement award from Cinecon, a group that restores old movies. In 2001 she visited St. Petersburg, where her films were shown in a documentary festival.

Whether out of vanity or naïveté, Ms. Riefenstahl may well have believed that her artistic independence was never compromised, that she did not "sell" her talents to the Nazis who financed "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia." Yet, shaped by the profound romanticism of 19th-century German culture, her monumental vision of beauty fitted perfectly into the National Socialist ideology.

Born into a comfortable Berlin home on Aug. 22, 1902, Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl grew up loving nature and the outdoor life. Her mother encouraged her artistic flair, and although her father, a businessman, was opposed to her working on the stage, she began dancing in an Isadora Duncan-like free style at the age of 16 and soon found work — and considerable recognition — in Berlin theaters.

In 1924, her life changed direction. Recovering from an injury at 22, Ms. Riefenstahl was profoundly affected by seeing Fanck's movie, "Mountain of Destiny," and promptly sought out the director. Entranced by the striking young dancer, Fanck cast her in his next seven mountain films, among them "The Holy Mountain," "The White Hell of Piz Palu" and "S O S Iceberg."

These films gave her the image of a romantic heroine in the Wagnerian cast, in harmony with nature and bent on fighting evil. Her often dangerous roles — she climbed rock faces barefoot and was once almost swept away by an avalanche provoked by Fanck — also showed her to be fearless. In 1932, she directed her first movie, "The Blue Light," another mountain film, in which she appeared as a warm-hearted peasant girl. (The names of her Jewish co-writer, Bela Balázs, and the film's Jewish producer, Harry Sokal, were removed from the credits when "The Blue Light" was reissued in 1938.)

It was also around this time, a year before Hitler's rise to power, that she first heard the Nazi leader speak at a rally. "I heard his voice: `Fellow Germans'," she recalled in her autobiography. "That very same instant I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the earth's surface were spreading out before me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth. I felt paralyzed."

She subsequently wrote to Hitler, noting that "I must confess that I was so impressed by you and by the enthusiasm of the spectators that I would like to meet you personally." Her popularity as an actress made the request seem reasonable; Hitler's appreciation of her role in "The Blue Light" made the encounter possible.

In the years that followed, she met frequently with the Nazi leader. She always stridently denied that they were lovers although, recalling one meeting, she later wrote, "That evening I felt that Hitler desired me as a woman." At their first meeting in 1932, though, she said she was most struck by his informality and she quoted him as telling her, "Once we come to power, you must make my films."

In her autobiography, she said she told him that she could not make films on commission. Yet, the next year, with Hitler now Chancellor, she made "Victory of the Faith," a documentary about a Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. She was not happy with the film and the following year she tried again, this time with ample time, money and equipment. The result was "Triumph of the Will."

The film, which took almost two years to edit from 250 miles of raw footage, included such innovative techniques as moving cameras, including one on a tiny elevator attached to a flagpole behind the speaker's podium that provided sweeping panoramic views; the use of telephoto lenses to create a foreshortening effect (for example, when filming a parade of Nazi flags); frequent close-ups of wide-eyed party faithful, and heroic poses of Hitler shot from well below eye-level. The film also used "real sound" but was not accompanied by a commentary.

The film won Ms. Riefenstahl assorted German prizes and, although she again pledged to make no more party films, she then made an 18-minute documentary, "Day of Freedom: Our Army," about the Wehrmacht in 1935. Soon afterward, she was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee to record the 1936 Berlin Olympics. To the end of her life she insisted that "Olympia" was not an official film, but ample evidence exists to suggest it was indirectly financed by Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry.

Still, she made extraordinary use of the 170-member team of cameramen and technicians that she assembled. To evoke the early Greek Olympics in the first part of the documentary, "Festival of the Nations," she filmed near-naked athletes in assorted heroic poses. During the training period, she also filmed close-ups of oarsmen, marathon runners and swimmers that she edited into the final version. When the games began, she had to cover 136 events because, she recalled, "we never knew when a world record would be broken."

And, once again, both her filming and editing techniques broke new ground. To capture the drama of the pole vault and long-jump events, she had holes dug beside the sandpit where the athletes landed.

In the high-diving event, which dominated the second part of the film, "Festival of Beauty," she used four cameras, including one underwater, to capture the movement of divers from all angles. Then, in the editing room, she turned the divers into graceful birds.

"Olympia" was not blatantly propagandistic. Notably, it showed Jesse Owens' moments of victory, while Hitler was seen for only 15 seconds on the single occasion he visited the Olympic stadium. Although the film was widely praised, its reception in 1938 was muted by Europe's gradual slide toward war. She was also met with hostility when she took the film to the United States in November 1938.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Ms. Riefenstahl went to the front as a war correspondent, but she claimed that she soon left in disgust at Wehrmacht brutalities. Yet the next year, when Germany occupied France, she sent a telegram to Hitler congratulating him on seizing Paris. "Everyone thought the war was over," she later explained, "and in that spirit I sent the cable to Hitler."

During the war, she continued to see Hitler sporadically but turned her attention back to filmmaking. Several projects fell through, but in 1944 she was able to complete filming of "Tiefland," or "Lowlands," an adaptation of the Eugene d'Albert operetta in which she also played the role of a Spanish Gypsy dancer. The film was shot in the Tyrol, and its extras included Gypsies interned in a nearby concentration camp.

After the war, Ms. Riefenstahl insisted she had not known that the Gypsies were being detained before their deportation to Nazi death camps. However, when in April 2002 she repeated the claim that none of the Gypsies had died, a German Gypsy Association, Rom, started legal action against her, arguing that at least half the extras were later killed.

On her 100th birthday, the Frankfurt prosecutor's office opened an investigation into charges that she had denied the Holocaust, but the case was dropped two months later for lack of evidence and because of her advanced age.

Ms. Riefenstahl said she saw Hitler for the last time in March 1944 when she visited him in Kitzbuhel, Austria, to introduce her new husband, an army officer called Peter Jacob. She later wrote that Hitler had aged considerably and his hands trembled, but "he still cast the same magical spell as before."

Ms. Riefenstahl's only marriage lasted little longer than her numerous passionate affairs during her time as an actress and filmmaker. At the end of the war, she was detained for almost four years for "de-Nazification," first by the American authorities and then by French forces. She was found to be a Nazi "sympathizer," but she was not banned from working and was finally able to release "Tiefland" in 1954. But her movie career was over.

Category: Nazis, Hitler, and the Holocaust