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German filmmaker Riefenstahl dies at 101

Leni Riefenstahl, who did more than any other artist to shape the image of the Third Reich, died in her sleep Monday night in Berlin. She was 101. Although her 1934 documentary "Triumph of the Will" was the most dramatic and influential visual treatment of Nazism and the cult of Adolf Hitler, she maintained until the end that she was not a Nazi.

Not everyone agreed. She was declared to be a Nazi sympathizer by an Allied tribunal after World War Two, and essentially disappeared from public view for 20 years. Then she attempted to rehabilitate her image through interviews, film festival appearances, a 1973 book of photographs about a threatened African tribe, a 1992 autobiography, and her appearance in an extraordinary 1993 documentary by Ray Muller named "The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl."

I wrote in my review of that film: "If Leni Riefenstahl had done nothing notable before the age of 60, what a wonderful life we would say she had lived since then." Then in her early 90s, she was the world's oldest active scuba diver, and at the end of a day of diving, we see her walk down a pier with two men--the captain, and Horst, her younger companion and cinematographer--and "the body language says everything. The two men walk ahead, carrying gear, engaged in conversation. She walks behind them, alone, carrying her own gear and oxygen tank. They don't lend her a hand, or offer to carry the tank for her, and what this says is that, at 91, they do not think she needs special consideration. She's one of the guys."

But being in great shape at a very old age, while admirable, does not erase the stain of her association with the Nazi movement. As Hitler began his rise to power, Miss Riefenstahl was already a famous German actress, best known for a group of "mountain films" in which idealized Nordic characters posed heroically against the sky. In "The Blue Light" (1932), which I once saw at the Telluride Film Festival, she is accused of being a witch, but finds truth and deliverance in the secret of a blue light which shines from a cave high on a mountainside.

By 1934, she was a favorite of the Nazis, and was chosen by Goebbels, the propaganda minister, to film the party's rally at Nuremberg. Given many cameras and unlimited film, she also benefitted because much of the rally was deliberately staged with the film in mind. The result, "Triumph of the Will," is one of the most important documentaries ever made, and by general consent one of the best: important at the time for the way it painted Hitler and his followers as idealized supermen, important now because it helps explain how Nazism was not only a political movement but an exercise in mass hypnotism drawing on fetishistic imagery. Miss Riefenstahl's other important documentary was "Olympia" (1938), a record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which took place on the eve of Hitler's war.

Again she had unlimited resources at her disposal to create heroic images of muscular athletes conquering space and time. The buried message praised the cult of the body, particularly the Nordic body, and it was a considerable embarrassment for Hitler that the African-American runner Jesse Owens won four gold medals and set three Olympic records at the Berlin Games. There was one other important film directed by Miss Riefenstahl, the little known "Lowlands," partly filmed in Spain in 1944 and using gypsies in a parable that she said was intended as a criticism of Nazism. Post-production was interrupted by the end of the war, and the movie was not finished until 1954.

Only last year Miss Riefenstahl was sued by gypsy death camp survivors who said she used them as slave labor; they objected to her statement that none of her gypsy extras died, since some did, in Auschwitz.

After her public reappearance in the 1960s, Miss Riefenstahl often defended herself against charges that she was a Nazi. She was an artist, she said, interested in film, not politics. In the 1993 documentary, she is questioned strenuously about her association with the party, and we see that she has rehearsed over the years an elaborate explanation and justification for her behavior. There is no anti-Semitism in her films, she points out. She did not know until after the war about the Holocaust. She was naive, unsophisticated, detached from Nazi party officials with the exception of Hitler, her friend -- but not a close friend, she insists.

But the very absence of anti-Semitism in "Triumph of the Will" looks like a calculation; excluding a central motif of Hitler's speeches must have been deliberate, to make the film go down more easily as propaganda. Nor could a film professional working in Berlin have been unaware of the disappearance of all of the Jews in the movie industry. In the 1993 film, Miss Riefenstahl is seen visiting the site of the 1936 Olympiad with the surviving members of her film crew. They talk about some of their famous shots -- from aerial techniques to the idea of digging a hole for the camera, so that athletes could loom over the audience. We sense Miss Riefenstahl's true passion for filmmaking. But there are candid moments, when she is not aware of the camera, when she shares quiet little asides with her old comrades, which, while not damning, subtly suggest a dimension she is not willing to have seen.

The impression remains that if Hitler had won, Leni Riefenstahl would not have been so quick to distance herself from him. Her postwar moral defense is based on technicalities. Understandably, she was not eager to face conviction or punishment as a war criminal. But ironically, if she had confessed and renounced her earlier ideas, she might have had a more active career. It was her unconvincing, elusive self-defense that continued to damn her. This article incorporates material from my review of the 1993 documentary "The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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