'I have more steel in my body than bone,' says the 98-year-old former Nazi film-maker propagandist

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The Independent Culture

She entered like a true diva, sweeping into the conference room on a wave of applause, propped up ever so gently by female helpers. "She looks like Marlene Dietrich," an elderly German colleague sighed, devouring the sex symbol of yesteryear with his eyes.

She entered like a true diva, sweeping into the conference room on a wave of applause, propped up ever so gently by female helpers. "She looks like Marlene Dietrich," an elderly German colleague sighed, devouring the sex symbol of yesteryear with his eyes.

For someone approaching 99, Leni Riefenstahl, the once beautiful actress and film- maker who might have rivalled Marlene had she not sold her soul to the Nazis, certainly did not look bad. "I have more steel in my body than bone," she complained, citing the many fractures and operations that have interfered with her labours. She is still working on an undersea documentary, in what her new book describes as her fifth life.

But she had not come to the Frankfurt Book Fair yesterday to bore the public with medical reports or slides of sea slugs and corals. In the year the world's greatest literary gathering salutes Poland, the Nazis' leading visual ideologist was here to set the record straight.

Everybody had been lying about her; that was the central message of the book and of yesterday's rare press conference. "Fifty per cent of what appears about me in the press is not true," she said. "I have conducted more than 50 lawsuits to establish the truth."

Judging by the reactions of the audience, her message is getting through. This was no mere press conference; it was adulation by sections of the German media for whom Riefenstahl embodies the sufferings of their deeply misunderstood nation. Asked about Triumph of the Will, her hypnotic film portraying the Nuremberg rallies, Riefenstahl was showered with applause when she said: "I merely made a film which won many prizes."

Asked why she should have been so unfairly persecuted, her reply brought an ovation: "Because we lost the war in which we perpetrated terrible crimes. A scapegoat had to be found. I was the perfect victim, because I made the perfect film."

Modesty was never Riefenstahl's strong suit, but few would dispute her claim that Triumph of the Will is one of the most potent pieces of propaganda created. Watching the geometrical patterns of SS columns saluting the Führer,one is almost compelled even today to surrender to its rhythmic foot-stamping and rush to the nearest National Socialist recruitment centre.

Riefenstahl was not a member of the Nazi party, as she constantly reminds us, but she hitched her wagon to the cause a year before Adolf Hitler came to power, and remained the Führer's intimate friend to the bitter end. How intimate cannot be speculated upon, for fear of unleashing another lawsuit.

She was in even closer contact with Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister and notorious womaniser, who liked to place his hands on the derriÿres of actresses. The book claims Goebbels did not like her at all. I confronted her with a quote from Goebbels' diaries, in which he expresses his admiration for Riefenstahl: "She is the only one of the stars who really understands us."

"Goebbels lies," Riefenstahl retorted. Just like everybody else. What is the greatest lie perpetrated against her, she is asked. "That I was in a concentration camp and engaged Gypsies there for my film Tiefland." Pure invention. "The Gypsies that worked with me wrote me letters afterwards to say that was the greatest time of their lives." She is certainly telling the truth here. Working on her set, having been selected from a "reception camp", was better than Auschwitz, which is where many of her cast ended up after the filming.

Her former political leanings she has repudiated, her artistic credo she has not. "I prefer motives that are positive... ideal," she said. And the Germans applauded her for that.

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