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SCREENING ROOM

Riefenstahl: A return to Africa

November 18, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

A dancer and a movie star before turning to directing, Leni Riefenstahl was unable to continue making films after the war -- punishment for her "Triumph of the Will," a record of the Nuremberg Nazi Rally of 1934 that is commonly referred to as the greatest propaganda film of all time. She fled in disgrace to Sudan in the 1950s, where among the Nuba people she discovered a way to resurrect her life and career.

Ray Mueller's "Her Dream of Africa," which will have its U.S. premiere at the Goethe-Institut as part of the "The Five Lives of Leni Riefenstahl" series, chronicles Riefenstahl's return to the Sudan in February 2000, when she was 97.

Even her best friends spurned her after the fall of the Third Reich, she says, but she at once found love and acceptance among the Nuba. She translated their exceptional strength and beauty into remarkable images that launched another career for her, as an internationally renowned photographer.

Riefenstahl made her farewell journey to the Nuba despite the brutal civil war in Sudan. Accompanied by her friend Hans Kettner and Mueller (who made the fascinating 1993 documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl"), she flew to Sudan for a profoundly bittersweet reunion. The older members of the tribe greeted her with love and affection. But she discovered a sad and decimated people whose cultural identity had been destroyed by forced conversion to Islam. Mueller incorporates footage that Riefenstahl shot of the Nuba in the 1950s; that and her photographs stand as a record of a vanished way of life.

Riefenstahl fled Sudan as gunfire started piercing a serene countryside area she was visiting. She was then nearly killed when her helicopter was shot down. Suffering from broken ribs and facial wounds, she nevertheless remained undaunted and at 98 resumed the scuba diving and underwater photography that occupied her final years. She died last year at 101.

During her recuperation Mueller asked Riefenstahl what her last words would be if this proved to be her final interview. Admitting that she had made many mistakes and regretted "being implicated in the Third Reich," she said: "Despite everything, I would say yes to life."

Eva Peron's sibling

Like Riefenstahl, Eva Peron was one of the 20th century's most controversial women. But in Hector Olivera's engrossing "Ay, Juancito," which launches the American Cinematheque's series of Argentine films, the focus is on her brother, Juan Ramon Duarte (Adrian Navarro), a foolish playboy she indulged. Handsome as he is corrupt, Duarte's rise and fall plays against that of the Perons, whose politically progressive vision was undermined by their egotism and ruthlessness.

Olivera imagines Duarte caught between a blond movie queen (Ines Estevez) who truly loves him and an ambitious singer-actress (Leticia Bredice) who is forever trying to make a man of him. Duarte was too shallow to be a tragic figure, but Navarro and the veteran Olivera make his fate moving and revealing of the Perons and their times.

DeMille: Mr. Busy

The Silent Movie will present two of the 13 (!) movies Cecil B. DeMille made in 1915 -- "Carmen" and "The Cheat" -- a notably entertaining double feature.

Adapted by William C. DeMille (Cecil's brother and later a respected director in his own right) from the Prosper Merimee novel rather than the Bizet opera, "Carmen" is a robust romantic adventure. As the press noted at the time, there was a certain irony to casting an opera star, Geraldine Farrar, in the title role of a silent movie of an opera. But Farrar had such vitality and skill that she went on to make five more movies with DeMille. A regal beauty, she threw herself into the role of the Gypsy temptress who distracts a soldier (Wallace Reid) so smugglers can sneak past. Her Carmen is surprisingly contemporary, for ultimately it is she who decides whether to grant her favors.

Amusingly lurid, "The Cheat" is the best known of DeMille's early society melodramas. Fannie Ward plays a Long Island socialite whose spendthrift ways propel her into the clutches of Sessue Hayakawa's handsome, insinuating ivory merchant.

*

Screenings

Private Leni

What: "Her Dream of Africa" and discussion with Ray Mueller

Where: Goethe-Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7 p.m. today

Cost: Free

Info: (323) 525-3388 or www.goethe.de/losangeles

Argentine Cinema

What: "Ay, Juancito"

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

Cost: $9

Info: (323) 466-FILM or www.americancinematheque.com

Cecil B. DeMille

What: "Carmen" and "The Cheat," with live music

Where: The Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Cost: $15; $10 students or seniors

Info: (323) 655-2520 or www.silentmovietheatre.com

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