Posted Saturday, December 11, 1999

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A California newspaper's views on a famous Third Reich filmmaker; and our own, having met her (below)

The Orange County Register

[Los Angeles] Orange County, California, December 7, 1999

Jodie FosterMaking a Riefenstahl biopic: Why bother?

By Chris Hastings


Last week, it was reported in the Hollywood trade press that Jodie Foster [above] has begun developing a film based on the life story of Leni Riefenstahl.

One of the most controversial figures in film history, Riefenstahl, now 97, is probably most-infamous for directing "Triumph of the Will," a propagandistic documentary of a huge Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934.

Despite serving four years in Allied prisons after World War II, Riefenstahl was cleared of war-crime charges by a German court in 1952 and has always denied that she was either a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer. She has also always denied persistent rumors that she slept with Hitler.

What's kept the filmmaker from being just another footnote in the history of totalitarian filmmaking has been her obvious talent. An excellent photographer with a flair for the dramatic, Riefenstahl began her career as a dancer and then moved into movies, first as an actress, then as a director.

Her admirers like to point to her documentary of the 1936 Olympics, "Olympiad," as an example of her supposedly ideology-free ability to celebrate the human body in motion. In her famous essay "Fascinating Fascism," Susan Sontag successfully demolished the idea that somehow these images are free of political content. But there's no denying both that they are arresting in and of themselves and are dynamic in Riefenstahl's editing.

Still, it's "Triumph" that remains her most-influential film. George Lucas mined it for the ending of "Star Wars," while "Triumph's" opening sequence, a cockpit-eye view of a plane descending from the clouds, is one of the most-copied in film history.

I suppose that these images make their way into popular contemporary films harmlessly enough, though I have to admit to going white in the knuckles whenever I see a "Triumph" image suddenly turn up in one action movie or another.

The most reliable inoculation against Riefenstahl's overtly Nazi work -- or any other Nazi film -- is that it's so boring. Sure, it's shocking at first to see thousands of Germans hailing Hitler and marching in uniformed lock step to Nazi bugles. But then you realize that it's Riefenstahl's technique that is pumping up the imagery of ordinary men and women who, in many cases, one presumes, were soon mere fodder for Allied guns and bombs. Then, after it's pathetic, it's dull. The long parade of Nazi banners is, after all, just a parade, albeit an inordinately long one.

After the initial shock of "Triumph" wears off, all that's left are its rather tired aesthetics. Only a film scholar or a neo-Nazi could watch it more than a couple times. Which leaves one wondering why make a film about Riefenstahl at all if, in no particular order, she's just a Nazi, a liar, and a bore.

Related story: Jodie Foster to star in film about one of the world's most controversial figures




David Irving writes:-

I HAVE seen Triumph of the Will only twice, which is twice more, admittedly, than Schindler's List. On the first occasion it was shown in its original German in the cinema of the National Archives building in Washington one lunchtime; I had expected the cinema to be empty, or at least to empty out, once the audience realised that the soundtrack was in German. Not so: 600 people packed in, and not one left until the end -- a testimony to the film maker's talents. Of course many of its most famous scenes are well known, having been pirated ruthlessly by US television producers making their own documentaries ever since.

I confess that with a colleague, Sally C., I met Leni Riefenstahl on one or two occasions ten years ago, before I was permanently banned from German soil in November 1993 "in the interests of the German People". She gave me a private showing of the whole film; she explained that the opening sequence (with the Junkers-52 descending to dreamlike music through the clouds over mediaeval Nuremberg) was not her choice of opening -- she would have preferred the following shot, of the rooftops-view out of an attic window with a flag outside flapping to and fro. A BBC television producer had asked me to try to secure a full length filmed interview with her, on her life; but she sold the rights in that to a Japanese company soon after. This is the entry from my diary of that day; I had spent the previous day with an American telvision team ("Hard Copy") filming Herta Schneider, Eva Braun's closest friend:


 July 14, 1989 (Saturday)

... Phoned Herta Schneider to say thankyou. She was very pleased.

At 12 out at Pocking to see Leni Riefenstahl (Frentz arranged the contact). After a two hour conversation she suggested (or I asked) that we see a reel or two of Triumph des Willens. We went down to her cutting room and her friend Horst set it up. The film truly is spectacular (we watched the whole film, reel after reel, with Sally engrossed beyond words). After one speech by Hitler, in which one chest-thumping, heartrending appeal about Deutschland had followed another, he stepped off the podium, and Hess murmurs something to him. I "lip-read" his words for Sally's benefit: "Well done, mein Führer. One of your best. I particularly liked the bit about Deutschland."

It turns out they have no copy of the Bill Jones' BBC film The Fatal Attraction of Adolf Hitler (which includes several extracts from Triumph); I loaned them my BBC copy[*] for her 30 years younger friend Horst to duplicate while we went for supper. 6:30 supper at Starnberg; typed an interview note. At 8:30 back to Riefenstahl's again. Another two hour talk with her.

She is unwilling to be filmed today, but perhaps in the future I shall persuade her. I dictate a letter to Bill Jones of the BBC in this vein, during the drive back to Munich.

Took some 16mm silent film of Leni Riefenstahl at sound speed.


Watch this next shot, she said, after we viewed the opening sequence. "It is fifteen minutes, without a word of commentary." We are behind Hitler in his open car, looking over his shoulder as he salutes endless cheering masses. I asked Leni if she had been the cameraman. No, that was Walter Frentz, she said. "I was with Walter all day yesterday!" I exclaimed. "He never mentioned that he worked on Triumph with you." "Mr Irving," said Leni, "I spent four years in jail for that film. People do not volunteer the information that they worked on it." Upstairs, she had denied incidentally that she made it for the Party -- it was purely for herself. As I watched the opening frames come up, downstairs, the screen displayed words, hewn out of gigantic rocks of MGM-proportions, which rather belied her claim: "Im Auftrag des Führers." ("At the Führer's Command"). She also denied getting Party funding, but in Goebbels's ministry files in the Soviet Zone archives in Potsdam I found the balance sheet which showed how much money she had received from the propaganda ministry.

* Email us for a research copy of Bill Jones's film | Pictures by Walter Frentz | free download of Goebbels. Mastermind of the Third Reich.
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