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Germany: Controversial Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl Turns 100

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany's most controversial filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, is celebrating her 100th birthday today. In many parts of the world, she is respected as a brilliant director and photographer, but in Germany, she is best remembered for her early fascination with Adolf Hitler. Riefenstahl admits to the attraction, but says millions of other Germans felt the same in the early 1930s.

Munich, 22 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Controversial filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl, best known for the film "Triumph of the Will," which depicted the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, is celebrating her 100th birthday today at a luxury hotel on Lake Starnberg, just outside Munich.

Her 180 guests range from Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger to the popular German film actress Uschi Glas and the country's most prominent feminist, Alice Schwarzer. But none of Germany's leading film directors or producers will be present.

Riefenstahl summed up her role in modern Germany recently by telling a newspaper, "You know, I don't have too many friends in Germany," she said. "Most of my friends live in other countries."

Riefenstahl looks 20 years younger than her 100 years. Her hair is blonde with a touch of red, and those who talk to her say she is exuberant and full of plans for new films and books of photographs.

In Germany, her 100th birthday has prompted a new round of newspaper and magazine articles examining her career and her relationship with Adolph Hitler. Even reviews of her new 45-minute film on underwater life off the coast of Papua New Guinea, called "Underwater Impressions," are dominated by comments on her political past. It is her first film since 1954.

The past has also come back to haunt her in the form of a court case filed this month by Roma and Sinti organizations. They charge that Riefenstahl collaborated with the Nazis in 1940 to obtain 60 Roma and Sinti from an internment camp to play background roles in the film "Tiefland." It is the second time such charges have been heard in court. In 1948, she was cleared by a court of falsely promising to rescue Roma and Sinti actors from deportation. Some 500,000 Roma and Sinti people died in concentration camps.

One of those allegedly forced to act in the film, 16-year-old Rosa Winter, survived four years in a concentration camp and now lives in Austria. She told German newspapers that most of those forced to act in the film later perished at Auschwitz, including her own mother, father, and 11 siblings.

But Winter offers a complex view of Riefenstahl. "Frau Riefenstahl was a wonderful woman," she told the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." "We girls admired her. She treated us well and was always very courteous."

But she also said Riefenstahl could have done more to help the imprisoned Roma. "If she had made an attempt to help, we Roma would hail her as a saint today," Winter said.

Riefenstahl's notoriety rests largely on "Triumph of the Will," her film about the 1934 rally in Nuremberg attended by about 30,000 Nazis, including Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy.

After the war, critics looked at the film not as art but as a brilliant work of propaganda. Her use of camera angles, lighting, music, and other effects presented Hitler and other Nazi leaders as heroes. She used 130 antiaircraft searchlights to illuminate thousands of Nazi banners around the arena and the huge German eagle above it. The film was awarded a gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937.

Her reputation grew with "Olympia," a two-part film about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She was personally chosen by Hitler to film the Olympics and was given every resource necessary. Many experts credit her with inventing or improving many of the techniques of sports photography now taken for granted. The film was officially released on 20 April 1938, Hitler's birthday.

Riefenstahl met Hitler for the first time around 1932 and does not deny that as a young woman she was fascinated by him. But she argues that millions of other Germans were also fascinated by Hitler in the 1930s. She has always rejected the label often used by the media that she was "Hitler's filmmaker," and she vigorously denies allegations that she was his lover. She was never a member of the Nazi party.

After the war, Riefenstahl found it almost impossible to obtain film work. Riefenstahl's role as a virtual "nonperson" in Germany ended with the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The "Sunday Times" of London hired her as a photographer and opened the way for her return to the public eye.

After the Olympics, Riefenstahl went to Africa and spent a year living with an African tribe and photographing their life. Her book on the Nuba people has become a collector's item. At the age of 72, she also took up scuba diving and began photographing underwater life.

Throughout it all, however, she has found it difficult, if not impossible, to escape her past. An exhibition in Hamburg in 1997 of Riefenstahl's movie stills and her African and underwater photography brought out a new generation of protesters. They demonstrated in front of the gallery with placards reading, "Now Showing: Nazi Exhibition."

For Riefenstahl, it was a continuation of the problems she faced after the war. She was cleared by an American de-Nazification court as early as June 1945, but that did little to recover her reputation. She was arrested and imprisoned when she moved to France shortly thereafter. It was not until 1949 that she was formally cleared by a French tribunal of any Nazi associations.

In a recent statement about her 100th birthday, Riefenstahl said such unpleasantness is behind her and that she looks forward to living for several more years and making more films.