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Film Group Honors Leni Riefenstahl

Arts: Controversial movie maker, 95, accepts award in Glendale. She is both admired and reviled for 1934 Nazi propaganda piece 'Triumph of the Will.'

August 31, 1997|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose 1934 documentary on the Nazis is considered one of history's most notorious pieces of propaganda, was honored Saturday night in Glendale by a little-known but well-respected national organization of motion picture buffs devoted to restoring and showing old films.

The Cinecon organization flew in Riefenstahl, 95, from her home in Germany to present her with one of the group's annual film achievement awards. Group officials said the announcement that Riefenstahl was among this year's honorees was kept under wraps until the last minute in an effort to circumvent some of the anti-Nazi protests that usually occur at her appearances.

Making her first public trip to the Los Angeles area in nearly 60 years, Riefenstahl stood amid the applause of some 1,000 people gathered at the Red Lion Hotel. "Thank you, thank you so much," she said.

Treated as a celebrity among the group of self-proclaimed cinephiles, Riefenstahl signed dozens of autographs and posed for pictures.

"It's too much honor," she said.

Riefenstahl made "Triumph of the Will" in 1934 at the request of an admiring Adolf Hitler. The film exalts the Third Reich by showing massed banners and hundreds of Hitler's followers marching by his podium at the elaborate Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg.

Although the scenes have chilled generations since, the work is universally regarded by film critics and historians as a highly manipulative work utilizing a brilliant array of cinematic techniques in glorifying Hitler and his newly established regime.

Riefenstahl's appearance was expected to generate outrage among Los Angeles' Jewish community. Because of the Sabbath, community leaders could not be reached for comment.

Cinecon President Kevin John Charbeneau said the group opted to honor Riefenstahl because she "represented all facets of filmmaking."

"She was a dancer, a choreographer, an actress, a cinematographer and a director," said Charbeneau, who heads the group of about 500 film buffs. "She fit every aspect. She had been in front of a camera and she had been behind a camera. She had been in the silent era and in the sound era."

Cinecon has a tradition of presenting surprise guests at it awards banquet. The decision to honor Riefenstahl was made by the group's board of directors, Charbeneau said.

Often simultaneously admired and reviled, Riefenstahl is likely to remain always at the center of debates regarding the relationship between art and morality. She defends "Triumph of Will" as purely a documentary.

Saturday's reception was far different from her last public visit to the Southland, when she arrived in Hollywood in the wake of the horrors of the Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass.

On Nov. 9-10, 1938, the Nazis throughout Germany and Austria unleashed a pogrom in which synagogues and other Jewish institutions were burned, Jewish stores were destroyed and their contents looted. About 35,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.

Walt Disney was the only studio head to receive Riefenstahl, giving her a tour of his studio and showing her his sketches for his upcoming "Fantasia." Riefenstahl held a private screening of her latest work, "Olympia," a documentary on the 1936 Olympics, about which a Times critic wrote: It "was a triumph of the camera and epic of the screen. Contrary to rumor, it is in no way a propaganda movie."

When Riefenstahl was honored in 1974 at the Telluride Film Festival, she provoked an anti-Nazi demonstration.

Riefenstahl, who turned 95 on Aug. 22, began as a modern dancer and then became a silent film star of greater magnitude than her contemporary, Marlene Dietrich. Making her film debut in 1926, she became a star of a series of "mountain films" made primarily with her mentor, filmmaker Arnold Fanck, extolling the beauty and mysticism of nature and mankind's conquest of it.

She made her directorial debut in 1932 with "The Blue Light," in which she also starred--and which became the definitive "mountain film." It was this film that brought her to Hitler's attention as a filmmaker.

Riefenstahl followed "Triumph of the Will" with the also dazzling "Olympia" (1938), which many consider the standard by which all sports documentaries are measured.

In her person, the regal Riefenstahl embodied the Aryan ideal of vigorous female beauty, and her films are steeped in the heady German romanticism that Hitler sought to appropriate for the Third Reich.

Riefenstahl has adamantly claimed over the decades that she was so caught up in her work as a filmmaker that she was slow to awaken to the Nazi horrors. Although she managed to begin another film, in the vein of "The Blue Light" called "Tiefland," in 1944, it took her 10 years to complete it.

The end of World War II effectively ended her career as a filmmaker, and she spent four years in a French detention camp as a Nazi sympathizer. Indomitable, Riefenstahl began a new career as a still photographer, winning acclaim for her work in Africa. She photographed the Munich Olympics in 1972 for the Times of London, and at age 72 took up scuba diving to photograph undersea life.

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