Toronto, December 15, 2000
by this website]
98, Leni's will still triumphs
By Adam Tanner
-- At the age of 98,
controversial filmmaker and photographer
Leni Riefenstahl is still going
strong. Call it a triumph of the will.
After surviving a helicopter crash in
Africa earlier this year, she spent two
weeks scuba diving in the Maldives in
August. Now she has developed an interest
in the Internet, and is setting up a home
"I have so many plans and projects that
I'd like to do I could live another 100
years," she said in a rare interview.
Rocketed to worldwide fame in the 1930s
as Adolf Hitler's favourite
filmmaker, Riefenstahl has not made a
feature film in half a century because of
her links to that era -- a blacklisting
she has long said was unfair.
"There were so many attacks against me.
The main accusation was that I made the
film Triumph of the Will," she said,
referring to her documentary of the 1934
Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Critics said the
film helped create the myth of the
all-powerful Hitler -- exactly what the
"But it was a documentary film after
all. I was commissioned to do it and had
to make this film. And I made it without
any commentary. I didn't make it as a
political movie, but more as an artwork.
That was my misfortune."
Her 1938 film Olympia, a documentary on
the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, helped
cement her reputation as one of the most
innovative German filmmakers.
Postwar efforts to revive her film
career met continued setbacks, and finally
she switched her focus to photography,
especially of the Nuba tribe in the Sudan,
and to underwater photography. Only in the
past few years does she sense that public
sentiment has changed.
"In the last two or three years I have
had a very good press and great success,"
she said, referring to showings of her
work in Germany.
Her name is in the news again following
the publication of a retrospective book,
Lives,highlighting her careers
as dancer, actress -- her first film was
in 1926 -- director, photographer and
Riefenstahl may yet receive another
burst of publicity if Hollywood star
Jodie Foster succeeds in making a
film on her life. "I'm not sure that she
can make what she wants to make. She wants
to make a very fair film. . . . I have met
her, we have spoken together, and she
wants it. But it is very difficult,"
The reason, she said, is that some
powerful people in Hollywood still dislike
her and may attempt to block funding.
Riefenstahl's remarkable energy nearly
led to her demise in February, when she
returned after 23 years to Sudan to
revisit the Nuba tribes she had
photographed starting in 1956.
"We flew back with a Russian helicopter
from the Nuba to Khartoum, and in a midway
stop the helicopter crashed," she
recalled. "We had the great luck that none
of us were killed, but were only injured.
The cameraman was very severely wounded.
He lost his eye and is still not healed
today. I had broken ribs which went into
my lungs and I had to stay four weeks in a
Even that experience did not temper her
lust for adventure, and in August she set
off for the Maldives, the Indian Ocean
setting of some of the world's most
spectacular underwater scenery. After
three operations in the past year, she
said diving wipes away the physical pain
she often feels on land.
Asked to describe her greatest
surprise, Riefenstahl spoke about her
notorious patron. "The most deeply
upsetting thing that I have experienced
was the terrible things that Hitler did,"
she said. ". . . When we were living then,
we had no idea, we did not know what
terrible things would happen."
Yet it was Riefenstahl who originally
sought out Hitler, in 1932. "Back then,
Hitler had such a charisma that everyone
wanted to see him. I was just curious,"
she recalled. "I wanted to make a judgment
Today Riefenstahl lives in a small
village an hour's drive south of Munich.
Age has slowed her somewhat in recent
months. Following her operations, she must
visit the hospital daily for
But she is confident she will recover
to take on her next project -- a movie
highlighting her underwater filming of the
past two decades.