Hitler's Leni, the Film Maker Who Gave Nazis Glamour; RIEFENSTAHL, MAKER OF TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, DIES UNREPENTANT AT THE AGE OF 101

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 9, 2003 | Go to article overview

Hitler's Leni, the Film Maker Who Gave Nazis Glamour; RIEFENSTAHL, MAKER OF TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, DIES UNREPENTANT AT THE AGE OF 101


Byline: ALEXANDER WALKER

Cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl has died at her Munich home at the age of 101. Here is an assessment of her life by ALEXANDER WALKER, the Evening Standard's film critic who died in July

SHE was Hitler's filmmaker. No art can ever erase that indictment. Though she never joined the Nazi party, or sought favours from its leaders, no one did more to create its charisma than Leni Riefenstahl.

While Albert Speer's grandiose architecture put Hitler's vision into marble, the elegant, athletic, greatly attractive Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl enshrined the Aryan dream in material that has endured longer: celluloid.

With two films, she sealed the Nazi ideology - and herself - into history.

Her heady documentary Triumph Of The Will, made barely 18 months after Hitler took office, and still needed to consolidate his power, opened with the F'hrer descending from the clouds, like Odin, in his aircraft to celebrate the might of his troops at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally.

With his amateurish devotion to art, Hitler had ordered Riefenstahl, an apolitical outsider, simply to make an art film. He trusted Goebbels, his propaganda minister, to make newsreels but not a cinema classic.

Riefenstahl's skills turned his commission into a political coronation.

Triumph Of The Will is a greater endorsement of the F'hrer's will and glamour than either perhaps anticipated.

Riefenstahl's four-hour collage of Berlin's Olympic Games in 1936 is a scrupulously fair record, even including black sprinter Jesse Owens romping past the aggrieved F'hrer on the tribunal.

But it is more than a visual hymn to the body athletic. In its fetishistic worship of purity of movement, it subtly projects the power of the body politic - the "Strength Through Joy" of Nazi Germany.

Unlike Speer, Riefenstahl never apologised for what she called art but many others called propaganda. Such works, such a woman, set post-war prosecutors and historians a problem: can art born out of evil escape the taint of its totalitarian nexus? At her death, it is still an unresolved question.

A notable actress in pre-Hitler times, Riefenstahl starred in movies that mythologised the German love of the high outdoors, those mountain peaks that the F'hrer loved to set eyes on from his "Eagle's Nest". The F'hrer and the filmmaker already spoke to each other's Nietzschean souls.

When he enrolled her as his personal moviemaker - "Hitler's Pin-Up", detracters called her - it was easy to substitute the jackboot for the mountain boot. …

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Hitler's Leni, the Film Maker Who Gave Nazis Glamour; RIEFENSTAHL, MAKER OF TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, DIES UNREPENTANT AT THE AGE OF 101
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