European Times: Potsdam, Germany - Hitler's film-maker is back on show

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST entry in the visitors' book is succinct: "At last." Another gushes: "A great exhibition in the time of political correctness." "How much injustice was inflicted upon this ingenious artist in post- war Germany," fulminates a third.

Judging by the opinions expressed by punters who trekked out to the Film Museum in Potsdam, the exhibition that all Germany is talking about was long overdue. There is not one dissenting remark in the book, yet outside the museum a debate is raging. There are many who have vowed never to set foot in Potsdam, because they are appalled and even a little frightened.

For the person honoured in her first retrospective as a cinematographer is Leni Riefenstahl: Nazi pin-up, purveyor of propaganda films of the Third Reich, and latterly a photographer of naked Africans and fish. That, admittedly, is too flippant a description of her oeuvre. Riefenstahl is a remarkable woman who has tried her hand at five different careers in her 96 years, and can never be discounted from launching a sixth, once she recovers from her recent bout of pneumonia.

She has seen a lot and done it all, including having her bottom pinched by Goebbels and Hitler, who both pursued her relentlessly, and might even have bedded her. Mussolini was also a great admirer of her art. But does she deserve the accolade heaped upon her now, ask the sceptics? And if so, why now?

"We are of the opinion that Leni Riefenstahl has played an important - if not the nicest - role in German film history," explains the museum's Dorett Molitor. "It was a very courageous decision to put on this exhibition," she continues. "We wanted a discussion."

That they certainly got. But it is one that is being waged by those who have decided to be enraptured by it in advance, and those who will spit at it, unseen, from a great distance. Neither side will convince the other, because both sides are already convinced.

It is an abiding cliche, according to to the catalogue, that Riefenstahl made nothing but stirring Nazi films commissioned by Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. To set the record straight, several of her movies are played on monitors placed side by side.

In a long, narrow room, Hitler is screaming from one screen. That is Triumph of the Will, the best of the genre, according to the critics. Despite the monotonous subject - a little Austrian addressing in a rasping voice motionless crowds - the film is mesmerising. Its potency is such that it remains banned in Germany to this day, for fear of raising unhealthy political passions. Olympia, Riefenstahl's film about the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, plays to the left. The special effects are more advanced, but the subject matter even more tedious. There is only so much one wants to see of discus throwers. But back in those days, this film was ahead of its contemporaries in technique. Riefenstahl was showered with prizes, and not just in fascist countries.

These are displayed in the company of Riefenstahl's other stabs at entertainment. While Hitler is yelling from one screen, and the swimmers take a dive on the other, some excruciating melodramas are unfolding just a few feet away. There is the Blue Light, a film whose supernatural plot is too embarrassing to relate. Or Tiefland, the Spanish romance in which the Pyrenees meet the Tyrol in a universe of kitsch, populated by happy peasants and heart- broken gypsy girls. Riefenstahl picked the gypsies from a camp. No more can be said on this subject, because Riefenstahl has lavished much of her Propaganda Ministry earnings on expensive lawyers. She has spent the past 50 years suing anybody who dares to mention where those gypsies might have ended up during the Holocaust.

So let us hastily move on. The point is that, apart from the two stirring films paid for by Goebbels, Riefenstahl's works are plain silly. They put into sharp focus her claim that, had she not been put out of the film- making business after the war, she might have been another Fellini. Her films are so bad, they deserve cult status.

As for those muscle-bound, glinting bodies she photographed in Africa in her later years, the less said the better. They have much in common with the fascist representation of discus-throwers of Olympia, and little to do with the human race, presented as they are in the manner one would admire a splendid race-horse. In other words: bestial.

All this has been said and written before about her work, which is why Riefenstahl has had to wait until now for her first full retrospective. She has helped to provide the exhibits, ensuring they present her in a favourable light. She has waited more than 50 years for rehabilitation, so it is ironic that it should come from an east German museum run by left-leaning feminists.

They have their own reasons. They are trying to fill the void left by communism, and in the process are finding it hard to distinguish between taboos ordained by the wicked state and those imposed by conscience. "We want a new treatment of our history," says Ms Molitor. Leni Riefenstahl, an expert at new treatments, is happy to oblige.