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London, January 7 1999 EUROPE


Hitler's beloved film-maker comes in from the cold


LENI RIEFENSTAHL, Hitler's favourite film-maker, is on the road to rehabilitation. The formidable 96-year-old who filmed Triumph of the Will -- depicting Hitler as an almost divine presence addressing the 1934 Nazi party rally -- and the 1936 Berlin Olympics has been shunned by Germans since the war.

Now, retrospectives of her work are opening in Potsdam and Cologne and many Germans are for the first time catching a glimpse of her controversial genius. The central question is whether Riefenstahl is a true artist or merely a gifted propagandist.

Leni Riefenstahl is still spry -- though she was recently treated for pneumonia -- and dedicates her time to underwater photography. This, and the filming of Nubian tribesmen, has been her artistic mission since the 1970s. However, her most important works -- the films which determine whether she ranks in the pantheon of European directors -- are Triumph of the Will and the two films that make up her Olympic documentary.

She had just turned 30 when she came to Hitler's notice. She had tried to escape the clutches of a tyranical father by becoming a dancer. A knee injury forced her to turn to acting and she became a star of the 1920s genre known as "mountain films". In 1931 she set up her own production company and directed her own mountain film.

Part of the venom against her must be because she is a woman and open to accusations that she had an exploitative love affair with Adolf Hitler. Riefenstahl credibly denies this. Like many Germans, she says she found out about the extermination of the Jews only after the war was over. She was shown pictures of corpses and from that moment her love for Hitler turned to hatred.

She offered a more plausible explanation for her conduct: committed to independent film-making she needed protection from the very top to avoid party hack work.

The revolutionary technique used in Triumph -- cameras running on tracks, subtle and spectacular lighting -- were expanded for the 1936 Games. Watching this film, one is struck by its lack of aggressive propaganda.

Two hundred and fifty miles of film were shot. Riefenstahl cut it, edited it, controlled every frame. It remains her film, not Hitler's.


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