Leni Riefenstahl--"Hitler's filmmaker"--must have hoped that her 100th birthday this past August would bring that final rehabilitation of reputation for which she has worked with awe-inspiring tenacity since the Thousand-Year Reich collapsed and took her career with it. But the birthday changed nothing: Riefenstahl remains the most important female film director in history, and the most controversial. In Germany, she's a reminder of the unrepentant bad old days--not those of the Reich, for which a simple mea culpa might earn her some measure of the rehabilitation she craves, but of the postwar period, in which confronting issues of guilt and complicity, however imperfectly or painfully, became for Germans a process that was genuinely searching rather than merely defensive.
Riefenstahl's admirers and detractors alike offer as evidence for their views the two works on which her reputation largely rests: Triumph of the Will (1935), her film of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress, and Olympia (1938), her two-part film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Even American writer Susan Sontag, one of Riefenstahl's harshest critics, allows that the films "may be the two greatest documentaries ever made." But they are branded with the stigma of Riefenstahl's sponsor, Adolf Hitler. To her admirers, Olympia and Triumph of the Will are works of auteurist power, innovation, and beauty; to her critics, they are propaganda for a murderous regime. That they might be both seems self-evident, but no such summary evaluation of them has ever taken hold because Riefenstahl has so successfully shifted the focus of the debate to herself--as a seeker of beauty and a political naif.
Anxious that Riefenstahl might not make it alive to August, opinion makers in the German press began scorning or saluting her in January. They need not have worried. Her energy and lucidity remain phenomenal, and she has now added "oldest active film director ever" to her credits. A week before her birthday, the French-German television channel Arte broadcast the world premiere of her latest film, Underwater Impressions, a 45-minute documentary about deep-sea creatures. German critics dismissed it as "a home movie" or "an exquisite slideshow," but at least it was apolitical.
Riefenstahl is frail but loquacious, and as ready as any starlet to pose for the local TV news team or German Vogue, which ran a 23-page spread on her in August. She changes focus as nimbly as any cameraman and defines herself as a woman with five lives. (Five Lives just happens to be the title of a recent (2000) coffee-table book in which Riefenstahl celebrates herself as dancer, film star, film director, photographer, and deep-sea diver.) The newsweekly Die Zeit lamented the "broken record" of Riefenstahl's claims to political naivete and postwar victimization, even as it contributed to the inches of space her claims receive in print. Broken record it may be, but it helps her sell books, calendars, postcards, and videos, including Triumph of the Will (though not in Germany, where the film is legally forbidden). To celebrate her centennial, she's selling deluxe editions of photographs from her work, personally autographed, for $20,000 each. Some of the images are, in fact, not hers; the Olympic photographs, long available in book form and exhibited and sold in galleries under her name, are actually the work of her camera crew on Olympia. Some are stills from the film, and some are photos they took separately.
Riefenstahl vehemently maintains that Triumph of the Will and Olympia are not propaganda, as any good propagandist would. She assiduously cultivates her image as an artist on the high road to beauty, and she fields even hostile questions with ease, her manner ranging from faux-naive to diva-imperious. On her side she has age--no one wants to be rude to an old lady--and the law. She has brought, and mostly won, some 50 libel suits since postwar courts officially labeled her a mere "Mitlauferin" (sympathizer). …