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London, Tuesday, September 9, 2003


Times obituary: Leni Riefenstahl

LENI Riefenstahl, film-maker and photographer, was born in Berlin on August 22, 1902. She died in Pöcking, Bavaria, on September 8, 2003, aged 101.

Riefenstahl is the only woman who by general consent has achieved absolute greatness as a film-maker. But that is the only thing about her on which there is agreement.

For she has been portrayed as an arch-villain and a selfless heroine; as a liar, a cheat, a dupe, a racist, a victim of a patriarchal society and a triumphant model of the artist-for-art's sake.

Perhaps Liam O'Leary, the film historian, summed up the contradictions best when he said "Artistically she is a genius, and politically she is a nitwit."

The politics were those of Nazi Germany. Riefenstahl's most famous and durable films are Triumph of the Will, the official commemoration of the 1934 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, and its successor, Olympia, a visually ravishing, even erotic, record of the Olympic Games held under the Nazi aegis in 1936.

Triumph of the Will was a technical breakthrough, using unprecedented high camera angles and sequences shot by cameramen on rollerskates.

The political objections to it were as slow to emerge as the resolution to stop Nazism, but within five years it was regarded as beyond the pale.

"In the beginning I admired Hitler," she admitted, and yet even such a leftwing Nazi-hater as Paul Rotha found himself forced to admit in his magisterial book The Film Till Now that Riefenstahl was comparable with Eisenstein and superior to just about everybody else in her understanding of what makes disjunct pieces of celluloid into a work of art.

The touchy balance between art and reducible content was an issue almost throughout Riefenstahl's long working life. Even when she was producing photographic books about the Nuba tribes of the southern Sudan after the war, when she was virtually barred from making further films, it was often said that her attitude to physical strength and beauty remained deeply Nazi, even though none of the heroic figures in those works was Aryan.

It was perhaps not entirely coincidental that she finally transferred her photographic interests to the coral gardens on the bed of the Red Sea, to which she was still diving well into her nineties: pictures featuring no humans or human artefacts whatsoever could scarcely be construed as political.

Riefenstahl always firmly defended herself against charges of having been a Nazi, or even the unwitting tool of the Nazis. She correctly stated that both Triumph of the Will and Olympia were made for her independent company, and were by no means dictated by the Nazis - least of all by Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, who emerges from his published diaries as her rooted enemy.

All the same, she made the films with full official co-operation because of her special relationship with Hitler, and she never denied having found him impressive, particularly in his early days of power.

Hitler regarded her, in her acting days, as close to his ideal of Aryan womanhood: rumour at the time claimed that she was his mistress, but she always denied this. What she did not deny is that when she explained to Hitler her ambition of making great films, he replied: "Make them for me."

She had begun her career as a dancer, and it is evident, looking at her films, that her great interest is in spectacle. She made films almost as an extension of dance.

A number of sequences in the supposedly documentary Olympia, notably that devoted to the high-diving competition, become less and less concerned with record and more and more abstract : some of the divers never hit the water, as the visual interest of patterns of movement takes over.

Significantly, one of the influences that Riefenstahl most happily admitted to was that of Busby Berkeley's elaborate musical numbers in early Hollywood musicals. So it is conceivable that she was as uninterested in politics as she always claimed.

There is little reason to think that she was aware of the concentration camps and the ultimate applications of the Final Solution, and there is much evidence that she used what influence she had on behalf of Jewish colleagues and associates.

After the war she was arrested and briefly held in a lunatic asylum, but she was rapidly de-Nazified by the tribunals set up in 1945 , and was not charged with anything.

And yet, perhaps because the idea of a woman as a Nazi collaborator was found particularly abhorrent, she was prevented from making further films, even while such men as Veit Harlan, maker of the virulently anti-Semitic Jew Suss, were welcomed back into the film industry. Her films, indeed, were banned in Germany for many years.


THERE can be no doubt that Riefenstahl was obsessive about her creations from very early on. Christened Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl, she was born into a prosperous and cultivated family: her father was the successful owner of a plumbing and engineering firm, while her mother was on the fringes of showbusiness and had artistic ambitions for her daughter.

Her father wanted her to be trained as a businesswoman, but her mother had her start secret dancing classes at the age of eight. Her mother's plans triumphed, with the help of the determination of Riefenstahl herself, and very soon she was enrolled with her father's support in the Berlin Russian Dance School, where she rapidly became a prize pupil.

When she was 17 she was called upon to stand in for Anita Berber, the well-known character dancer, and although she received only non-committal reviews, her resolve was strengthened.

Soon she had become a well-known dancer on the Berlin stage and was noticed by Max Reinhardt, who offered her the role of the Amazon warrior Penthesilea in Kleist's play of that name.

She was fascinated by the role, but already engaged to star in one of the then popular genre of " mountain films", The Holy Mountain, directed by Arnold Fanck. As a result of that she went on to make a succession of similar films for Fanck, including The White Hell of Pitz Palu, co-directed by G W Pabst, the great dramatic director, which carried her fame beyond Germany.

But her ambition went beyond merely acting in other people's films, and in 1932 she managed to set up her own production, The Blue Light, a mystical and ultimately tragic story about a peasant girl (played by Riefenstahl herself) who somehow makes herself the protector of a mysteriously glowing mountain grotto. The film, which won the Silver Medal of the Venice Film Festival, was written and directed by Riefenstahl, with some assistance in both departments from Bela Balazs.

It was The Blue Light above all that attracted Hitler's attention, and when he was elected Chancellor in 1933 he appointed Riefenstahl "Film Expert to the National Socialist Party". At Hitler's request she made a short film, Victory of the Faith, about the 1933 Nazi party rally, and on this basis she was asked to make an epic record of the same occasion the following year.

The term "record" does not give an adequate idea of Riefenstahl's participation: the comparison with Busby Berkeley is exact, in that the whole rally was staged to suit her planned camera angles and movements, and the tone was set by Riefenstahl's prologue, in which the Führer is shown making a godlike entrance by air, the shadow of his plane passing splendidly over the ancient city as he descends from the clouds.

The film was rapturously received in Germany (where it received the National Film Prize), in Italy (where it was awarded the Italian Film Prize), and in France (where it received the Grand Prix at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques in 1937).

As a consequence Riefenstahl was the obvious choice to film the Berlin Olympic Games, where again enormous resources were put at her disposal and she was given essential creative freedom, even to the extent of showing the triumph of Jesse Owens, the Black American runner, in the 100-metre dash, despite the evident displeasure of Hitler.

Again the film had a vast international success, winning practically every important film prize then available.

Riefenstahl's next major film project was Tiefland, a firmly non-political subject taken from the popular opera by Eugene D'Albert, starring Riefenstahl herself as the wild Gypsy heroine and - conveniently, some thought - taking her out of Germany to neutral Spain for much of the war.

At home, her problems with Goebbels grew more acute, and by the end of the war she had completed shooting but had yet to edit and postsynchronise. All the material was impounded while she was extracting herself from the attentions of the de-Nazification tribunals, and she did not regain control of it until 1952, when she completed and released the film to lukewarm reviews.

Other projects foundered for one reason or another. A colour remake in Britain of The Blue Light as a cinematic ballet was stopped by the protests of anti-Nazi groups.

An attempt to make a fictional film about survivals of slave-trading in Africa, Black Cargo, was abandoned because of practical difficulties on location. Much of the material shot for a documentary film about the Nuba tribe of Central Africa was spoilt in the laboratory, but at least her contact with the Nuba in 1973 opened an important new door for her.

Though frustrated as a film-maker, she blossomed as a stills photographer, and her picture book of the Nuba became an international bestseller, like its follow-up The People of Kau.

After this she shifted her attention to the Red Sea, where she dived and photographed its extraordinary underwater life for some 20 years.

In 1987 she published a controversial volume of memoirs, and in 1993 she appeared with former associates in a three-hour television documentary, The Power of Images (1993), in both of which she continued to assert with youthful energy her total, apolitical dedication to her art. Living in a villa by a Bavarian lake, she maintained a certain geriatric glamour by continuing to paint her lips and nails.

In her 97th year, returning from an underwater safari in Papua New Guinea, she cheerfully asserted: "Death does not frighten me. I've known so many peaks and troughs - enough for three lifetimes." The following year she survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan.

Last year she became the only film-maker to release a film at the age of 100, with Underwater Impressions, a 45-minute selection of footage from the previous thirty years.

Riefenstahl was married once, in 1944, to Peter Jacob, a major in the German Army. The marriage was dissolved four years later; there were no children.


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