For at least 50 of her 91 years, through court cases and memoirs and, now, a three-hour documentary, Nazi Germany's genius filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has been struggling to clear her name of its Third Reich tinge.
The director of what many consider to be the world's greatest propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will," portrays herself as an unwitting or unwilling adjunct to evil's inner circle: She never wanted to make her brilliant film on the 1934 National Socialists Party meeting in Nuremberg, but Hitler wouldn't take no for an answer.
Riefenstahl says she was either out of town or out of touch during Nazi book burnings, the "Crystal Night" destruction of synagogues and businesses and the daily persecution of Jews, Gypsies and political opponents. Like most Germans of her time, she says she did not learn of the extermination of 6 million Jews until after World War II. American, French and German tribunals exonerated her of Nazi activity.
This is why at the end of Ray Mueller's documentary "The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl," which opens today at the Nuart Theatre, Riefenstahl looks earnestly into the camera and asks, "What am I guilty of?"
She really doesn't know.
During an interview at her home in southern Germany, Riefenstahl insists that her mistake in life has been to tell the truth.
"I would have had it very easy if only I had lied," she says. She was a prisoner of the French after the war. "They said if you write here that you knew about Auschwitz, then you are free, you can make films, everything. They wanted that I lie. They didn't believe that I didn't know this. How can I be guilty if I didn't know this?"
That Riefenstahl ignored infinite evil and served the interests of Nazism in pursuit of her own film career was clear to just about everyone but herself. After the war she became persona non grata and was unable to complete any serious film work again.
Riefenstahl's life is itself something of a triumph of will. She dropped out of sight to photograph the Nuba people in Africa in the 1960s and she went underwater at age 72. The nonagenarian has just returned from nine weeks of scuba diving, five in Tanzania, four in the Seychelles. She has stopped work on an underwater video to stay at her house above Starnberger Lake for a few days, arranging details of a Japanese exhibition of her still photographs.
She bounds down the stairs into a sitting room wearing black leggings, an indigo satin blouse and patent leather shoes. She has the thighs of a 20-year-old, the manicured hands of a woman half her age and tremendous energy. Only a slight curve in her spine hints at the sum of her years.
"Many ask me how it is possible that I am able at my age to make this film," Riefenstahl said. "I think there are several reasons. You know every person who loves their work can do more than normal people. And from the beginning, I always had to fight--and the fight, if you are the winner, makes you strong."
She considers herself a winner, dogged as she is by questions she has answered so many times that her words now spill out as question and answer together.
"In the beginning they said that I was the lover of Hitler, or Leni has taken a Gypsy child (from a concentration camp) or Leni was in Poland and has seen how Jews were shot. Nothing, not a little bit was true," she says.
This much, however, she readily admits in her autobiography, "Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir." In the 1930s, the beautiful young actress from "The Sacred Mountain" and director of "The Blue Light" had intimate conversations with Hitler, who would call her to the Chancellery and other residences when he needed someone to talk to. She had a power struggle with Hitler's Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, who hated her, she says, because she spurned him as a lover.
Riefenstahl wills that the world see things her way: She was never a member of the Nazi Party. She says she is simply honest for admitting what others deny--that she was taken in by Hitler.
"If you look at what Germans said after the war, all were against Hitler. I am the only one who had the courage (to admit my sympathy). . . . There were some people who were against Hitler from the beginning, Thomas Mann, several people. But that was the minority," she says.
Hitler asked her to make a Nazi Party film after seeing "The Blue Light." She made "The Victory of Faith" in 1933 and, the following year, the better-financed and more successful "Triumph," a romantic film about Hitler.
The film begins with Hitler's plane descending from the clouds, and with the text: "Sixteen years after the beginning of German misery, 19 months after the beginning of Germany's renaissance. . . ." The Fuehrer is seen with happy children, with throbbing crowds and goose-stepping troops. Riefenstahl's innovative camera work from below makes Hitler appear a giant, benevolent being.
Critics have called it a passionate film, technically astounding and a masterpiece of propaganda. It is still shown in film schools around the world.
But Riefenstahl is adamant that it was a documentary. She says she knew about making "good pictures, not politics."
"Ach, I didn't even know what propaganda was. I couldn't even make a television ad. . . . The money did not come from the party, because the party was against me. Goebbels was not my friend. . . . Hitler wanted it. Hitler knew that I was gifted. That was my tragedy," she says.
At home, Riefenstahl has catalogued her life in color-coded binders neatly filed in white cabinets next to her editing room. The filing is organized by country--gray for Germany, red for America, orange for England--and by film. From a yellow file on "Olympia," her masterpiece on the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, she has pulled two reviews from 1938 editions of the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Citizen. The writers assert that her film was "a triumph for the camera" and "a magnificent film"--but not propaganda.
"Olympia," for which Riefenstahl received an Olympic gold medal, also has been called the greatest sports film ever made. To get her shots of the strongest and fastest men on Earth, she placed her cameras in pits, on pulleys and poles, setting the standard for sports photography.
Talking to Riefenstahl, one senses that she laments her decisions early in life not because she served a devil, but because they made the rest of her life so difficult.
She has regrets.
"We knew that Hitler was an anti-Semite, but nobody had the idea that he would do such inhuman things," Riefenstahl says. "I wish that I had never made 'Triumph.' I think I would have had the chance after the war to work in Hollywood. . . . Even my enemies say that I am very talented."
Regrets, but no guilt.
* "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" plays today through April 26 at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379. * THE REVIEW: 'The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl' is an engrossing, potent and well-researched documentary. F6