Happy birthday, Leni Riefenstahl

Hitler's favorite filmmaker turns 100 -- and still says she didn't do anything wrong.

Topics: Movies,

Happy birthday, Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl celebrated her 100th birthday on Aug. 22. The milestone earned a few headlines as Hitler’s favorite filmmaker and the last living member of the Führer’s inner circle welcomed journalists from the world press to her Munich home and Riefenstahl Produktion film studio. Riefenstahl was spirited and sharp, her white hair curling crazily, her eyebrows delicately penciled, her lips painted as red as the flag of the Third Reich.

If reporters, however, were expecting a candid interview with the woman most famous for making propaganda films such as “Triumph of the Will,” they were disappointed. Although Riefenstahl marveled playfully about becoming a centenarian, she kept the discussion focused on her latest film, “Impressionen Unter Wasser” (“Impressions Under Water”), released in April in Germany. The silent film is a series of shorts of tranquil oceanic scenes. Riefenstahl became fascinated with sea life in her 70s, when she said she was 20 years younger in order to get certified as a scuba diver.

The film met with lukewarm reviews. Some critics called it meaningless, images without impact. Some found it just plain weird, no doubt a reaction inspired by the camera’s quick pans to Riefenstahl wearing scuba gear and smiling wide at the camera. Others, recognizing Riefenstahl’s allegiance to beauty — exemplified best in “Olympia,” her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics — thought that “Impressionen” might reflect her ultimate pursuit of purity.

On her birthday, the filmmaker hosted an elaborate party at which some of Germany’s most famous celebrities attended, including the flashy magicians Siegfried and Roy. Attendees were reminded that Jodie Foster was working on a project about Riefenstahl’s life.

The day after her party, Riefenstahl suddenly fell ill, according to her assistant and confidante of 38 years, Horst Kettner. “Ms. Riefenstahl is in great pain,” he told Salon. “She has become very weak and is taking painkillers.”

Also that day, Aug. 23, Frankfurt prosecutors announced that they were investigating Riefenstahl for “racial incitement” and “disparaging the diseased.” According to a German law, denying the Holocaust is a crime punishable by a fine or jail time.

The probe was launched after Rom, a 76-year-old Cologne-based Gypsy group, alleged that Riefenstahl lied when she told a German magazine that she did not know the doomed fate of 120 Gypsies who appeared as extras in her 1942 film “Tiefland” (“Lowlands”). Riefenstahl was quoted as saying that she had no knowledge that the extras were concentration camp prisoners from camps in Salzberg and Berlin, or that they were subsequently shipped to Auschwitz and other camps after shooting wrapped.

The denial deeply offended members of Rom, who matched the names of extras in the film with Berlin and Salzberg camp victims.

“We have documented these people who went to the ovens after she was done with them,” Rom director Kurt Holl says. “For her to say that no one was harmed during her film is true. They were sent to their deaths afterward. These statements are just Leni Riefenstahl being Leni Riefenstahl, rewriting her own history.”

You Might Also Like

Twice acquitted by Allied courts of any legal wrongdoing during World War II, Riefenstahl issued a statement through Kettner that her remarks were a “misunderstanding” and that she “regretted” the persecution of Gypsies.

Kettner, who has worked closely with Riefenstahl on her lesser-known documentaries after 1945, is outraged about Rom’s claims. “This is like someone disturbing your defenseless grandmother,” he says. “Hasn’t she suffered enough?”

After denying repeated requests to talk with Salon, Riefenstahl finally agreed. But the interview was more revealing for what the filmmaker would not say. She refused to talk about Hitler or other high-ranking Nazis she worked with, including Josef Goebbels, the murderous propaganda minister who, photographs show, was a frequent guest at her home and with whom she met — a week after the infamous May 1933 Opernplatz book burning — to discuss “film projects,” as she called them in her 1987 memoirs.

“I met the Führer in 1932 and I cannot blame or be angry at people for wanting to know more,” she said. “It is not unfair to be interested. That is all.”

Riefenstahl, who has for decades maintained that she was a passive artist simply doing what was commissioned of her, also refuses to talk about the most expensive, aesthetically breathtaking documentaries of their time. “Triumph,” especially, is a difficult topic, a film solely used by people, she says, to attack her character. “I will always be asked to defend ‘Triumph of the Will’ forever,” she says. “The circumstances of its production will linger forever.”

“Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius,” a book by Rainer Rother, the German Historical Museum’s cinema program director, was released in English in September. It traces Riefenstahl’s career from her successful beginnings as a ballet dancer (a pursuit her father forbade and her instructors were not optimistic about) to a dramatic moment when, standing on a train platform on the way to see a doctor about a career-threatening knee injury, she saw a film poster for Germany’s hottest director, Arnold Fanck.

Riefenstahl wrote an adoring letter to Fanck, and nine months later she starred in his next film, which required the still-injured young woman to climb snowcapped mountains, endure sexist remarks from her male costars, be pelted with snow, and look beautiful through it all.

Audiences loved her. But she was unsatisfied with acting and worked her new contacts to find funding for “The Blue Light,” her first feature film — a commercially successful work still lauded as one of the best movies of all time.

That was May 1932, the same year she wrote a letter to Hitler professing her devotion to the candidate running for the German presidency with campaign slogan of Freedom and Bread. By January 1933, he was appointed Reich chancellor. Four months later, Riefenstahl went on a picnic with Hitler and Goebbels. They were trying to woo her into making a film about a new kind of Germany.

“It was a critical point because for all the ambition and creative ability she had, as a female director, there were obstacles in a male-dominated industry,” says Rother. “She had been told her whole life that she could not do anything, but here were two men who believed in her talent and were offering an endless supply of funding and manpower. I think, in a great way, Leni saw this as a way to advance her career.”

The controversy over “Tiefland,” an apolitical love story, is not new. Since early 1948, using the archive of the Reich Chamber of Commerce, reputable German press outlets have been publishing Riefenstahl’s old pro-Nazi letters, which she always denies writing.

For 20 years, the trade publication Revue fought Riefenstahl in court. In 1949 she sued it for printing accounts from witnesses who claimed to have personally seen her select interned Gypsies at camps in Salzberg and Berlin to be “Tiefland” extras.

Riefenstahl won her legal battle but lost the public one. Journalists wrote that she had a “sharp and cold birdlike” presence during court proceedings, much of which recounted instances of slaughter. Though it was not exactly her fault, she became a symbol of a country that, at the time, was failing to decently acknowledge complicity.

In the early 1950s, when Riefenstahl wasn’t producing any films and her artistic life was almost entirely eclipsed by her political past, Revue accused her of the worst: witnessing the killing of 20 Polish civilians by German soldiers in 1939.

Indeed, in her memoirs, Riefenstahl says she “heard gunfire,” but did not witness any murders. She says she complained to the German government about “the mishandling of Polish citizens.” Did she do less than a war correspondent would have done? What kind of influence did she truly have?

Enough, answers Rom’s Holl. “She had a say when no one did and if it did not work during Hitler’s time, all right … But today is different. She has a chance to at least recognize what she was involved in and to show a conscience,” he says. “Today, it is hard in Germany to convince people that Gypsies suffered during World War II. They are stereotyped as criminals. She did not credit those extras, some with speaking parts in her film, so perhaps considering their fate, she might honor their memory rather than think of herself first.”

Ashley Fantz is a staff writer at the Memphis Flyer. She writes frequently about crime and justice issues.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>