What did she know and when did she know it? That this question, with its overtones of criminal suspicion, turns out to be a central concern of "The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" is an indication of why the career of this most controversial of film directors makes such a potent and engrossing documentary.
Riefenstahl was a documentary filmmaker herself, as artistic and creative a figure as ever worked in the medium. But her truncated career will always have an asterisk next to it, because her two greatest films were made under the generous patronage of the Nazi Party and her personal friend Hitler.
Both "Triumph of the Will," a celebration of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, and "Olympia," a epochal look at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, are indisputably masterpieces, evidence of extraordinary visual and organizational gifts. Yet, also indisputably, they happened to be made to trumpet the virtues of an unspeakable regime.
Making the obvious questions about artistic responsibility in a totalitarian society that much more complex is the strong personality of the director herself. Still a pariah in Germany, Riefenstahl remains remarkably vibrant in her 90s, improbably going from friendship with Hitler to membership in Greenpeace. Assertive and persuasive, Riefenstahl is, paradoxically, a life force who ended up on the side of death.
German writer-director Ray Muller's aim with "The Wonderful Horrible Life" was to view Riefenstahl, "a legend with many faces, loathed and admired," as much as possible without preconceptions, to make a film that would continue the debate, not end it. The result, three hours long and filled to capacity with extensive clips, newsreel footage and both staged and candid interviews, is prodigiously researched, always fascinating, and completely successful.
It is a life with a reverse fairy tale quality to it, starting out with success and luck and ending with the opposite. A dancer who worked for famed producer Max Reinhardt, Riefenstahl had her life changed in 1924 when she was literally transfixed by a poster for a silent film she saw by chance in a subway station.
The film "Mountain of Destiny," directed by Dr. Arnold Fanck, was the first of a genre that came to be known as Bergfilms , tales of Alpine derring-do that featured actual locations and real-life climbing. Riefenstahl talked her way into Fanck's next film, became a star, and eventually directed herself in 1932's eerie "The Blue Light."
Her association with Hitler began equally accidentally after a friend dragged her to a rally. She was intrigued, wrote him a letter, and found that he was a fan. As a real-life heroic superwoman who had become an expert mountaineer, Riefenstahl embodied the ideology Hitler was exploiting.
Learning from her largely unseen first attempt, "Victory of the Faith," a record of the 1933 party congress of which only a fragment remains, Riefenstahl in "Triumph of the Will" pumped up the dramatic intensity to make what is generally considered the most riveting propaganda film ever. Though she says today she's not proud of it, her eyes do gleam as she screens key segments.
Riefenstahl next embarked on a filmed record of the Olympics. Using 30 cameramen, the director shot 250 miles of film, so much it took 10 weeks just to watch and two full years to edit. The result not only pioneered almost all the techniques used in current sports filming, but in a way that has never been bettered.
Persuasiveness itself, Riefenstahl is not at a loss for explanations for almost everything thrown at her. Art and politics don't mix, she insists, she never thought about ideology, never knew about any of the regime's numerous atrocities until after the war.
Even more intriguing than these formal interviews, where Riefenstahl is on her best behavior, are candid glimpses when she seems to be unaware of being filmed. Here we see Riefenstahl's indomitable will, insisting where the camera must go. And, chatting with some former cameramen, we see what appears to be genuine puzzlement about Hitler.
Even her legendary determination, however, couldn't help her after the war, when she was detained by the Allies for pro-Nazi activities, charges later reduced to being "a sympathizer." She had something of a public renaissance in the 1970s with still photographs of the Nuba tribe in southern Sudan, and then moved on to her current underwater work.
True to his word, Mueller doesn't take sides, but the feeling is inescapable that Riefenstahl's blindness was self-inflicted, the willful looking the other way of someone who had powerful reasons to wish all the bad things would simply disappear. By the time she insists to Muller, "What do I have to regret, where does my guilt lie?" the answer is more obvious than she wants to admit.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes graphic footage of concentration camp horrors.
'The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl'
An Omega Film, Nomad Films, Channel 4 London, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen production, released by Kino International Corp. Director Ray Muller. Producers Hans-Jurgen Panitz, Jacques and Dimitri de Clerq, Waldemar Janusczak, Hans-Peter Kochenrath. Screenplay Ray Muller. Cinematographers Walter A. Franke, Michael Baudour, Jurgen Martin, Ulrich Jaenchen. Editors Beate Koster, Vera Dubsikova. Music Ulrich Bassenge, Wolfgang Neumann. Running time: 3 hours.
* Playing through April 26 at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.