- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

''It's what you do that counts, not what you say about it afterward" or so an old German saying goes. Applied to Leni Riefenstahl, opinion over the years has remained consistently negative. After all, she was the one who visually enshrined Adolf Hitler and his diabolical regime for all time in her extraordinary documentary "Triumph des Willens" ("Triumph of the Will") on the National Socialist German Workers' Party conference at Nuremberg in 1934.
That "Triumph of the Will" would be regarded for posterity merely as "filmed reality" by a "nonpolitical filmmaker" (as Miss Riefenstahl argued after 1945) is absurd. Her film not only glorified Hitler as a godlike "Fuhrer," it captured the triumphant aura of the new Nazi regime and heightened it in worldwide public attention literally sky high as well.
The same was true with her other documentaries: on the 1933 party conference, "Sieg des Glaubens" ("Victory of Faith"); on the Wehrmacht, "Tag der Freiheit" ("Day of Freedom"); and on the 1936 Olympic Games, "Olympiad."
No one ever surpassed her ability to document the Nazi ideology, its leadership and its ideals.
Miss Riefenstahl, who celebrated her 100th birthday Aug. 22, later swore that she, like most Germans, could not possibly have known the full extent of the Third Reich's perfidies. But wasn't the burning of the books in May 1933 enough of an early warning signal? True, her films opened before the Nuremberg race laws were fully enforced, and as late as 1937 "Triumph of the Will" gained international recognition when it was awarded a Grand Prix at that year's World Exhibition in Paris. After that, Miss Riefenstahl is less credible.
Why did she work as a war correspondent, personally commissioned by Hitler, after the invasion of Poland? Why did she send Hitler a long, rapturous telegram with her best wishes after the occupation of France in June 1940? Why didn't she leave Nazi Germany even later, when she had the chance for instance, during her filming in Spain in 1943?
These are questions to which Miss Riefenstahl does not bother to reply, but there are answers. Despite her lapsing into a standard set of responses in hundreds of interviews after the war, it isn't difficult to conclude why she never changed course. In the same way as she had an exceptional breakthrough as a dancer at age 21, and still another as a film actress, she got a major opportunity as a film director with the movie "Das blaue Licht" ("The Blue Light") at age 30. Success followed success. Suddenly, she was a major star. On stage, on screen and behind the camera, she bewildered and captivated her audiences.
When the most powerful man in the country asked her to make a documentary, she was hardly going to risk her uniquely privileged position in the Third Reich by refusing, especially when she didn't have to worry about the financing of her projects. Funds were always made available, and if there were any production problems, a quick call to Hitler's assistant, Martin Bormann, ensured they were quickly resolved.
She did not have to bother to become a member of the Nazi party and could even risk refusing propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels' request to specialize in more political films without falling into disfavor.
After 1945, Miss Riefenstahl had to pay dearly for her role as the "Liebling" (darling) of Nazi Germany. To make matters worse, she has hardly helped her own cause by stubbornly refusing to take a clear stand against the regime, or even distance herself unambiguously from her past.
"I don't know what I should apologize for," Miss Riefenstahl said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "I cannot apologize, for example, for having made the film 'Triumph of the Will.' It won the top prize. All my films won the top prize."
While she certainly engenders little sympathy as a victim, her admirers say she has often been treated unjustly.
They point out that in strictly legal terms, Miss Riefenstahl was never charged, much less convicted, of any crimes against humanity. She was a Mitlaufer (fellow traveler) like millions of other Germans, and this status was officially confirmed in 1950. But, unlike many prominent, committed Nazis who could continue in their professions after the war as journalists, physicians, academics, artists, lawyers and so forth, Miss Riefenstahl was persona non grata.
Her work was banned everywhere. After a period of internment in a postwar denazification camp, she lived with her aged mother in a one-room apartment in Munich where she concentrated on re-editing new editions of her old films. In 1948, "Olympiad" was awarded a special prize by the International Olympic Committee. Subsequent journeys to Africa changed her life, and in 1962 a meeting with the Nuba tribe in Sudan led to a career as a still photographer.
Miss Riefenstahl was still not allowed to make films even though the "cinematic genius" (as French writer, filmmaker and philosopher Jean Cocteau described her in 1952) was a living legend in her field. In the 1930s, for example, her movie "Das blaue Licht" ("The Blue Light") was praised by, among others, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Walt Disney.
Her way of working with light and perspective, her way of editing film to give an inner rhythm of its own and her ability to create and conventionalize a total world of imagery influenced other filmmakers, among them Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, George Lucas and Akira Kurosawa. To that could be added her impact on the development of pop art, advertising films and the video clip technique.
But it was not until the interview with the respected French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema (1965) and the English version of it in American film critic Andrew Sarris' classic "Interviews with Film Directors" (1967) that Miss Riefenstahl was treated as an equal among the world's 40 greatest film directors the only female filmmaker to be included.
In Germany, her assistant director on several projects, Harald Reinl, would make 46 popular movies between 1949 and 1970, whereas Miss Riefenstahl was consistently thwarted in her efforts to make a film about Penthisilea, queen of the Amazons (who fought Achilles during the Trojan War), which no doubt would have been a "feminist" film.
Her work during the period of the Third Reich consistently condemned her, most notably the movie "Tiefland," Miss Riefenstahl's and Mr. Reinl's wartime project (which Miss Riefenstahl finalized on her own in 1954) in which 20 gypsies from the Maxglan concentration camp near Salzburg were used as extras. (She has claimed they all survived the war, but some were killed.)
In some 50 trials since 1945 for being a "Nazi criminal," including several serious charges relating to the Maxglan episode, Miss Riefenstahl always has been acquitted although each episode has served to remind the world of her notoriety. (Even now, after her 100th birthday, she faces yet another investigation on charges that she is a Holocaust denier, which is a crime in Germany.)
Miss Riefenstahl labored on despite the obstacles. As she grew older, the ban on her work was partially lifted and she completed several successful projects at an age when most of her contemporaries already had retired.
In 1972, when she was 70, her coverage of the Olympics in Munich for the Sunday London Times was favorably if begrudgingly received, as were her photographic studies of the African Nuba tribe. In 1973, she earned her professional diving certificate (after deducting 20 years from her age to qualify) and went to work on yet another concept: a book of spectacular photographs of the reefs in the Pacific.
These feats contributed to a Riefenstahl renaissance in the '90s, a period when her films were shown in retrospectives to new generations of admirers in many countries. Today she is a cult figure once more a remarkable comeback that perhaps emanates from the contemporary zeitgeist with its focus on outer beauty, a recurrent theme in her work.
Beauty has not been enough to wipe the slate clean for many critics, who claim Miss Riefenstahl persists in reiterating the Nazi philosophy of the "perfect human" in her exquisite photos of the Nuba tribe.
"I always see more of the good and the beautiful than the ugly and the sick," she told AP.
Even her begrudging admirers recognize her cinematic genius, creativity and indomitable willpower. After a serious helicopter crash in Africa three years ago she suffers constant pain, but continues to dive and make underwater films. A month ago, she went mountain climbing. She recently spent hours at the cutting table finishing a new 45-minute documentary on the reefs, "Impressions Under Water," now being shown on ARTE, the German-French art TV channel. Here again, beauty is paramount even in the underwater world, where any mention of compromising environmental issues is avoided.
Miss Riefenstahl is much less controversial outside of Germany, where there is significant polarization between those who accept her and those who consider her every movement a lingering vestige of an evil past. Some of her harshest critics even find expressions of Nazi ideology in her footage of the reefs.
A living legend in every sense of the word, it is perhaps inevitable there are now plans to film her life story. Jodie Foster is being mentioned to produce, direct and star in the title role. Other suggested Lenis-to-be are Nicole Kidman and Sharon Stone.
Such glamorization by Hollywood is anathema to those who worry that personification by a popular actress will not only bestow undeserved sympathy, but may also play into the hands of neofascist political extremists hoping to profit from the acceptance of discredited figures from the Nazi past.

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