Leni Riefenstahl: Triumph of an iron will

Forever recalled for the Nazi propaganda films she made in the Thirties, a living legend is about to mark her 100th birthday - with a new movie
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The Independent Online

She will not go away. Every time Leni Riefenstahl comes back into the news, she is the golden, olden lady. And how are you going to convince the world that an old lady – to be played by Jodie Foster in a bio-pic – was dangerous? Her 100th birthday is this year, and she has made a new movie, on which she worked as a camera-operator, about the spectacular beauties under the water.

Riefenstahl always had an eye for beauty. Her fate was sealed by the fact that in her long-ago youth she saw beauty in unlikely places: in the spectacle of marching men, jackboots and the lone figure of a demonic leader addressing the masses. As far as she is concerned, the spoilsports and fault-finders turned on her and said: "That's not beauty, Leni, that's fascism." As if fascism and the movies hadn't done very well together, all over the world.

It's an odd mixture, the way Ms Riefenstahl still talks about her wretched luck and the misunderstandings she suffered. But no woman ever had quite her opportunity in films, or made the medium sing and soar the way she did. For Leni Riefenstahl was somewhere not far removed from being a genius. Here is the test. Let me take you to a screening of Triumph of the Will, the movie she made about the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg in 1934, and consider its relationship to the party. Triumph of the Will is a work of propaganda, as opposed to a mere documentary record. So now we'll start the film, and I'll keep an eye on you and wait to see how long it takes until your foot starts tapping. Film and fascism are like that; they make you want to march along with those golden men in the black uniforms, the troopers. That's how good Riefenstahl was, and that's how tricky her career story is to evaluate.

Born in Berlin in 1902, the child of a wealthy businessman, she turned out blond, tall, beautiful and athletic. She adored health, dance, movement and the German mountains. As an actress, she served a man named Arnold Fanck who made "mountain films", stories that saw the cruel sharp peaks as metaphors for impossible human striving, and which cast her as a mountain nymph, a superb climber, an ardent spirit. She became not just a strange star, but a film-maker, too: a woman in love with the camera.

No careful biographer of Hitler or Goebbels has ever established that she was romantically involved with either of them. Still, after 1933, she took steps to signal her availability as a film-maker. So she was hired to make Triumph of the Will. Years later, after the war, when she was imprisoned for a few years in France and Germany for aiding the Nazi cause, she said she had been told to make a record of the Nuremberg rally and that it was not her choice or her kind of subject, and certainly nothing she understood.

The greatness of her film shatters that defence. In fact, she had a mass of cameras, cranes, platforms and dollies, and the ability to order the action of the rally for the purpose of filming. You know that as you watch the film. You know that in the first dazzling tracking shot of Hitler in his car, when his hand opens in the infamous salute and the gold of light seems to fill it, that the effect has been precisely calculated. And is exulted in. And so on, time and again, as the magnificent work unwinds. Riefenstahl was not Hitler's lover in the physical or romantic sense, but she loved him and what he promised, and it is palpable in Triumph of the Will that she assents to, and is organising audience assent to, whatever purposes may some day occur to him. It is a film that gives Hitler uncond- itional love. That is the meaning it held for those Germans who could not be at Nuremberg. It does not much matter that she made another film, Olympiad, a celebration of human physique and the 1936 Olympic Games that took place in Berlin. Yes, that was propaganda, too – that aspect is often lost in the artiness of the photography and in Riefenstahl's indifference to the element of competition. Truth to tell, she made a filmic hero of Jesse Owens, the black American sprinter, as much as of any of the Aryan athletes. Olympiad is beautiful, but boring – and people who crave beauty quickly turn mindless if they can't find the spark of passion in their subject.

Nothing was ever the same again. She began to shoot Tiefland, an opera. But 1945 and all the investigations stopped that. She was in prison, and then she was cleared in 1952. But no one would hire her and for decades it was hard even for film festivals to invite her for a tribute without arousing storms of protest. So Riefenstahlwent off to Africa, with her still camera. She lived with Nubian tribesmen and made a few photo-album books about them. Nature was safe, surely. Yet those great naked Africans were noble, just as the Nazi troopers had been once. There was no hint in the books of how the Nubians lived, or what they thought. They were living statues. There is a fascism in the camera, to be sure (glorifying appearance over essence); but there is a fascism in some beholders, too.

In the normal run of events such a lost soul would have died in her seventies. Riefenstahl, living near Munich lately, plainly rejoices in her own survival. In 1993 she published a strange autobiography; there was then a fascinating documentary film. A little over a year ago, a German publisher put out a massive book of her photographs. And now there is the film of that underwater world. No one can detect politics in the coral or the fish. There is another interpretation of her longevity, less kind or sentimental. It is that Leni Riefenstahl may live for as long as the rest of us need to remember Triumph of the Will and what was done in its name.

She can be a genius with a pretty rotten character; we shouldn't rule out such things going together. And sometimes, it's too easy just to enlist the "Holocaust" as a rebuke to one sprightly, if forgotten, old woman. So it was warming to see in the New York Times a letter from a Florida man who was a German child in 1934 when Triumph of the Will was shown. He noted her reiterated complaint about how little she had understood in 1934. He answered her: "When Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film was shown in Heilbronn, my entire high school watched. We were three Jewish students out of about 700. We were forced to sit in the first row, and, while all stood up and sang patriotic German songs, we three had to remain seated. After the performance, and in front of our professors, we were beaten up. One of the professors said: 'The world will learn from this!'" The lesson goes on.