- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

BERLIN — Leni Riefenstahl, whose hypnotic depiction of Hitler’s Nuremberg rally, “Triumph of the Will,” was renowned and despised as the best propaganda film ever made, has died. She was 101.

Miss Riefenstahl died Monday night at her home in the Bavarian lakeside town of Poecking, Mayor Rainer Schnitzler said. Miss Riefenstahl’s companion, Horst Kettner, said she died in her sleep.

A tireless innovator of film and photographic techniques, Miss Riefenstahl’s career centered on a quest for adventure and a portrayal of physical beauty.

Even as she turned 100 last year, she strapped on scuba gear to photograph sharks in turquoise waters. She had begun to complain recently that injuries from accidents over the years, including a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000, had taken their toll and caused her constant pain.

Despite critical acclaim for her later photographs of the African Nuba people and undersea flora and fauna, she spent more than half her life trying to live down the films she made for Hitler and for having admired the tyrant who devastated Europe and all but eliminated its Jews.

Even as late as 2002, Miss Riefenstahl was investigated for Holocaust denial after she said she did not know that Gypsies taken from concentration camps to be used as extras in one of her wartime films later died in the camps. Authorities eventually dropped the case, saying her comments did not rise to a prosecutable level.

“Now that she is dead, we can distinguish between the aesthetic Leni Riefenstahl and her political entanglements,” said Hilmar Hoffman, a former president of the Goethe Institute.

But German Culture Minister Christina Weiss said Miss Riefenstahl’s life demonstrated that “art is never unpolitical, and that form and content cannot be separated from one another.”

Born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin on Aug. 22, 1902, she was the first child of Alfred Riefenstahl, the owner of a heating and ventilation firm, and his wife, Bertha Scherlach.

Miss Riefenstahl’s artistic career began as a creative dancer until a knee injury led her to switch to movies.

She heard Hitler speak for the first time at a 1932 rally and wrote to him — again offering her talents.

Though she said she knew nothing of Hitler’s “Final Solution” and learned of concentration camps only after the war, Miss Riefenstahl said she confronted the Fuehrer about his anti-Semitism, one of many apparent contradictions in her claims of total ignorance of the Nazi mission.

Many suspected Miss Riefenstahl of being Hitler’s lover, which she also denied.

She made four films for Hitler, the best known of which were “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” a meditation on muscle and movement at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Miss Riefenstahl spent three years under Allied arrest after the war, some of the time in a mental hospital. War tribunals ultimately cleared her of any wrongdoing, but suspicion of being a Nazi collaborator stuck. She was boycotted as a film director and sank into poverty, living with her mother in a one-room apartment.

She reclaimed her career in the 1960s when she lived with and photographed the Nuba. She next turned to underwater photography, diving in the Maldives, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and off Papua New Guinea. She learned to dive when she was 72, lying about her age by 20 years to gain admittance to a class.

She said she hoped she would be remembered as “an industrious woman who has worked very hard her whole life and has received much acknowledgment.”

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