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Leni Riefenstahl, 101; Nazi Propagandist

September 10, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

POECKING, Germany — Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose propaganda masterpiece "Triumph of the Will" glorified an ascendant Adolf Hitler during the Third Reich and forever tainted her as a Nazi hireling, died Monday. She was 101.

Bedridden in recent weeks, Riefenstahl died peacefully in her sleep just before 11 p.m., longtime personal assistant Gisela Jahn told German media on Tuesday. No cause of death was reported.

One of the most controversial cultural figures of the 20th century, Riefenstahl was recognized from her earliest work as a gifted filmmaker and artistic genius. But her fascination with Hitler and collaboration with his regime cost her credibility and acceptance for the rest of her long life, despite her claims to have known nothing of the Holocaust and to have worked for the dictator for only a few days.

A timeless beauty and intrepid artist, Riefenstahl continued to refine her skills and interests through the decades, moving from dance to theater to filmmaking and photography, not so much by choice as by accident and the necessity of abandoning earlier passions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Leni Riefenstahl obituary -- The obituary of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in Wednesday's California section incorrectly said her film "Olympia" won best film honors at the Venice Film Festival in 1936. The film was not released until 1938.

Although Riefenstahl had drawn broad cinematic acclaim before World War II with "Triumph" and an artistically brilliant documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics titled "Olympia," Hollywood filmmakers who dominated the postwar industry shunned her because of her association with Hitler. Her claims of ignorance about Nazi atrocities never rang true with many of those producers and directors.

Stubbornly defiant of her lifelong censure, Riefenstahl worked doggedly until nearly the end. She celebrated her 100th birthday 13 months ago with a star-studded gala at her home in Poecking, in the Starnberg Lake area south of Munich, releasing an underwater documentary on the occasion.

European editions of Vogue magazine noted her centenary with an 18-page retrospective, including images of her working with Hitler and the 1938 cover of Time magazine on which she was featured as "Hitler's Leni Riefenstahl."

"I always admitted that, yes, in the beginning I was fascinated by Hitler," she asserted in her 1987 memoirs, as she did in numerous interviews. "I never denied that. But I had no idea what Hitler was doing."

Never a member of the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl contended throughout her professional exile that "Triumph," filmed at the 1934 Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg, wasn't intended to glorify Hitler and his henchmen but to capture the drama and emotion of the event in documentary style.

She insisted that her meetings with Reich architects were few and always focused on her work. In her memoirs, she contended that she initially tried to resist making "Triumph," but Hitler insisted.

In interviews given in the last years of her life, Riefenstahl said she only worked for the Nazi dictator for six days -- the duration of the 1934 party rally. "Triumph," described by critics as the greatest propaganda achievement in filmmaking history, portrayed Germany as an inspired and invincible nation and Hitler as a godlike figure leading adoring countrymen to their rightful place as a world power.

Two years later, Riefenstahl attracted even broader accolades with "Olympia," in which innovative camera work and the artistic presentation of the human body at the peak of perfection and performance established her as a cinematic genius.

The four-hour documentary authorized by the International Olympic Committee and financed by the Berlin government was created from more than 200 hours of footage taken by cameramen on roller skates, in riverboats, hot-air balloons and towers and atop flagpoles to present the athletes from unusual angles. Riefenstahl was credited with inaugurating cinematic techniques with that film, including slow-motion and zoom photography. Some of the most impressive images came from the diving competition, with competitors seemingly flying against a cloud-speckled sky.

Many of the more dramatic images from "Olympia" were made into photographs and sold by Riefenstahl over the years to finance her later work in underwater photography.

Riefenstahl dismissed as "rumors and lies" the many contradictory accounts of her life and association with Hitler's inner circle. German historian Juergen Trimborn used the occasion of her 100th birthday to present compelling new evidence that the filmmaker knew more about early Nazi atrocities than she ever acknowledged. While filming German troops in occupied Poland in 1939, she witnessed a massacre of Polish Jews, Trimborn contended in "Riefenstahl: A German Career."

He also provided documentation of accusations she long denied that she used prisoners from concentration camps as extras for her film "Lowland," about a Gypsy dancer, played by herself, who is seduced by an evil but powerful aristocrat -- a story that some postwar reviewers contended was an allegorical rejection of Hitler.

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