Rare look at Nazi-era filmmaker:
Retrospective examines Leni Riefenstahl's cinematic propaganda, other works

by Annie Thompson, Associated Press

POTSDAM, Germany – For the first time in Germany, a museum has organized a retrospective of the controversial work of Leni Riefenstahl, filmmaker, photographer, and Nazi-era propagandist.

The show has brought record numbers of visitors to the Film Museum, which was crowded on a recent weekday with people of all ages checking out he stages of Riefenstahl's life and career: Her early obsession with mountain climbing. Her fascination with Adolf Hitler's charisma. Her artistic innovations and quest for visual perfection, which reached a high point with the Nazi masterpiece, "Triumph of the Will," renowned and despised as the best propaganda film ever made.

Riefenstahl was a pariah after the war but regained respect with her photographs of the African Nuba tribe, Now 96, she remains under scrutiny for her past. Was she a fascist or a visionary, an artist ignorant of politics, as she claims, or a knowing aide to the terror of the Third Reich?

Fifty years after the war, enough time has passed for a comprehensive exhibition that lets Germans decide for themselves.

Other German exhibits have showcased Riefenstahl's work, mostly alongside other Nazi propaganda or art from the Nazi period. A private art gallery in Hamburg last year mounted a show of her Nuba photos without reference to her work for Hitler, drawing protests from Jewish groups that the gallery was glorifying a Third Reich criminal.

So far, the show at the Film Museum in Potsdam, a city on the outskirts of Berlin, has been protest-free – apparently because of its bald presentation of Riefenstahl's Nazi films in context with her entire career.

Some observers see the exhibit as part of a discussion going on in Germany about how the nation can be "normal," conscious and reflective of its fascist past without feeling defined by guilt. Centered mostly on plans for a national Holocaust memorial, the discussions got louder with the recent election of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the first leader too young to be burdened with memories of World War II.

"It has become normal to deal with the Nazi period the way historians do – neither pointing to the guilt nor making it a perverse, sensationalized attraction," says Bernhard Schulz, cultural editor of the daily Berlin newspaper Tagespiegel.

Organizers of the Film Museum show say it gives older Germans a chance to consider Riefenstahl anew while at the same time introducing her to younger generations that might know her name but not her work.

The rarely seen "Triumph of the Will," for example, is one of four Riefenstahl films being shown from start to finish on televisions at the beginning of the exhibit.

Her idealized depiction of the 1934 Nazi party rally at Nuremberg – with its tremendous goose-stepping parades and round-cheeked children giving flowers to Hitler – is banned in Germany unless presented with the facts of the Holocaust. The museum offers one of the first public viewings of a film until now seen almost exclusively in postwar Germany in university classrooms or excerpted in documentaries.

Show coordinator Ines Walk says she was looking for ways to explore the relationship between art and politics when she started planning the Riefenstahl exhibit two years ago. She also was thinking of the year 2000 and how Riefenstahl's extraordinary life reflects the passing century.

Riefenstahl was a dancer – with swooping, Isadora Duncan-like moves – when she saw one of Arnold Fanck's silent films set in the mountains. She presented herself to him as his new star, and he accepted, as much for her high-cheekboned beauty as her daredevil spirit. She climbed rocks barefoot for the camera and was buried in an avalanche for the death scene in the 1926 film "Mountain of Destiny."

Soon, she was making her own films, fairy tales celebrating Germany's Alpine mystique in which she was star, screenwriter and director. She heard Hitler speak for the first time in 1932 and wrote to him – again, offering her talents to a powerful, inspirational man. She believed, almost until the end, that he was helping the country.

As the Fuehrer's filmmaker, she was the only woman to help shape the rise of the Third Reich. And yet she insists, against all plausibility, that she knew nothing about the Holocaust while it was happening. This has always been her claim: She was an artist, not a Nazi.

She made "Triumph of the Will" only because Hitler asked her; she tried to resist, but how could she? She also made "Olympia," about the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, a gorgeous meditation on muscle and movement suggesting the athletic master race of Hitler's fantasies. It also presented the Nazis to the world as peaceful and tolerant.

Riefenstahl says she regrets those films, largely because they made her life miserable. She never made another film after the war, turning instead to still photography in Africa and under the sea, taking up scuba diving at age 72. The allies and eventually Germany cleared her as a Nazi, yet she is widely held responsible for helping Hitler seduce the German public with her hypnotic films.

Despite – or perhaps because of – her notorious image, Riefenstahl has a certain pop star status outside of Germany. She photographed the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and his wife, Bianca, in the 1970s. Clips from "Olympia" appear in music videos. Leni Riefenstahl computer screen savers can be found on the Internet. She attended time magazine's 75th anniversary gala earlier this year and has received several honors for lifetime achievement.

With 500 visitors a day, the Film Museum show could signal that Riefenstahl's popularity is growing in her native country. Some visitors say the exhibit's many historical documents and photos from the war increased their empathy for Riefenstahl.

"It's so easy for us to judge today, but you really have to try to put yourself back in those time," says Uta Kutzer, 60, of Berlin. "How do you know you'd have done any better? How do you know you wouldn't have done the same as Leni Riefenstahl?"

Today, Riefenstahl lives just outside Munich but has not yet seen her first German retrospective. Her health is poor, and she wanted to make sure the show was well-received by the public before coming to Potsdam, show coordinator Walk says.

For now, she appears at the Film Museum in the 1993 documentary about her life, "The Power of Pictures: Leni Riefenstahl," which is on view. (Shown in the United States, it's called "The Wonderful, Terrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.")

At the end, documentary-maker Ray Mueller tells Riefenstahl he thinks the German public is still waiting for her to apologize, to admit guilt for her role in the Third Reich.

"What am I guilty of?" she asks, angered. "No words of anti-Semitism ever passed my lips, nor did I write any. I was never anti-Semitic and never joined the Nazi party. So what am I guilt of, tell me that?"

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