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The Controversial Life of Leni Riefenstahl

September 14, 2003

The labeling of Leni Riefenstahl in the headline of her Sept. 10 obituary simply as a "Nazi Propagandist" only serves to define The Times as equally propagandistic, as well as narrow. "Controversial filmmaker" might have been more appropriate or, heaven forbid, "controversial artist." Even most of Riefenstahl's detractors admit that her best films, despite their disturbed and disturbing nature, are among the greatest examples of visual art ever made. Almost every filmmaker has some kind of agenda. But we only tend to define artists as propagandists when their views oppose our own.

The hypnotic power of the images and editing of "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia" fascinates us not because of any propagandistic mission on Riefenstahl's part but because of her brilliant handling of the medium. Her greatest misfortune was to align herself with one of the most murderous dictators in history. But it wasn't her whole story. And, regardless of how she is labeled, her artwork will survive. Unlike art, propaganda dies a quick death once its immediate purpose has been served.

Douglas McCallum

West Hollywood


The headline on Riefenstahl -- "Nazi Propagandist" -- got it exactly right. Others may refer to her as "controversial filmmaker" (or, perhaps, the "20th century's most astonishing second act"). But there are still those who remember who she was and whom she served.

Ben Pesta

Century City

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