Leni Riefenstahl, 101; Nazi Propagandist

Times Staff Writer

Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose propaganda masterpiece “Triumph of the Will” glorified an ascendant Adolf Hitler during the Third Reich and forever tainted her as a Nazi hireling, died Monday. She was 101.

Bedridden in recent weeks, Riefenstahl died peacefully in her sleep just before 11 p.m., longtime personal assistant Gisela Jahn told German media on Tuesday. No cause of death was reported.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 11, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Leni Riefenstahl obituary -- The obituary of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in Wednesday’s California section incorrectly said her film “Olympia” won best film honors at the Venice Film Festival in 1936. The film was not released until 1938.

One of the most controversial cultural figures of the 20th century, Riefenstahl was recognized from her earliest work as a gifted filmmaker and artistic genius. But her fascination with Hitler and collaboration with his regime cost her credibility and acceptance for the rest of her long life, despite her claims to have known nothing of the Holocaust and to have worked for the dictator for only a few days.

A timeless beauty and intrepid artist, Riefenstahl continued to refine her skills and interests through the decades, moving from dance to theater to filmmaking and photography, not so much by choice as by accident and the necessity of abandoning earlier passions.

Although Riefenstahl had drawn broad cinematic acclaim before World War II with “Triumph” and an artistically brilliant documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics titled “Olympia,” Hollywood filmmakers who dominated the postwar industry shunned her because of her association with Hitler. Her claims of ignorance about Nazi atrocities never rang true with many of those producers and directors.


Stubbornly defiant of her lifelong censure, Riefenstahl worked doggedly until nearly the end. She celebrated her 100th birthday 13 months ago with a star-studded gala at her home in Poecking, in the Starnberg Lake area south of Munich, releasing an underwater documentary on the occasion.

European editions of Vogue magazine noted her centenary with an 18-page retrospective, including images of her working with Hitler and the 1938 cover of Time magazine on which she was featured as “Hitler’s Leni Riefenstahl.”

“I always admitted that, yes, in the beginning I was fascinated by Hitler,” she asserted in her 1987 memoirs, as she did in numerous interviews. “I never denied that. But I had no idea what Hitler was doing.”

Never a member of the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl contended throughout her professional exile that “Triumph,” filmed at the 1934 Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg, wasn’t intended to glorify Hitler and his henchmen but to capture the drama and emotion of the event in documentary style.

She insisted that her meetings with Reich architects were few and always focused on her work. In her memoirs, she contended that she initially tried to resist making “Triumph,” but Hitler insisted.

In interviews given in the last years of her life, Riefenstahl said she only worked for the Nazi dictator for six days -- the duration of the 1934 party rally. “Triumph,” described by critics as the greatest propaganda achievement in filmmaking history, portrayed Germany as an inspired and invincible nation and Hitler as a godlike figure leading adoring countrymen to their rightful place as a world power.

Two years later, Riefenstahl attracted even broader accolades with “Olympia,” in which innovative camera work and the artistic presentation of the human body at the peak of perfection and performance established her as a cinematic genius.

The four-hour documentary authorized by the International Olympic Committee and financed by the Berlin government was created from more than 200 hours of footage taken by cameramen on roller skates, in riverboats, hot-air balloons and towers and atop flagpoles to present the athletes from unusual angles. Riefenstahl was credited with inaugurating cinematic techniques with that film, including slow-motion and zoom photography. Some of the most impressive images came from the diving competition, with competitors seemingly flying against a cloud-speckled sky.

Many of the more dramatic images from “Olympia” were made into photographs and sold by Riefenstahl over the years to finance her later work in underwater photography.

Riefenstahl dismissed as “rumors and lies” the many contradictory accounts of her life and association with Hitler’s inner circle. German historian Juergen Trimborn used the occasion of her 100th birthday to present compelling new evidence that the filmmaker knew more about early Nazi atrocities than she ever acknowledged. While filming German troops in occupied Poland in 1939, she witnessed a massacre of Polish Jews, Trimborn contended in “Riefenstahl: A German Career.”

He also provided documentation of accusations she long denied that she used prisoners from concentration camps as extras for her film “Lowland,” about a Gypsy dancer, played by herself, who is seduced by an evil but powerful aristocrat -- a story that some postwar reviewers contended was an allegorical rejection of Hitler.

Born Helene Amalia Riefenstahl in Berlin on Aug. 22, 1902, Riefenstahl was the oldest daughter of a successful businessman and studied classical ballet and modern dance in the early 1920s. She made her dancing debut in 1923 and won praise throughout Central Europe under the stewardship of impresario Max Reinhardt. But her dance career ended barely a year after it began after she suffered a knee injury.

In the first of several shifts in her artistic pursuits, she took up acting and appeared in several dramas and comedies set amid mountain scenery before forming her own production company and directing her first film, “The Blue Light,” in 1932. She won the gold medal at that year’s Venice Film Festival, as well as the notice of a rising political zealot named Adolf Hitler.

Married only once, and briefly at that, she had no children and long ago outlived the last of her relatives.

Allied officials arrested Riefenstahl after Hitler’s defeat in 1945 and expelled her from the villa she occupied in Kitzbuhel, in the Austrian Alps. Her camera equipment was also confiscated while war-crimes investigators probed her role in the regime, concluding in 1952 that she had engaged in no political activity and cooperated with the Third Reich only to the degree necessary to practice her profession.

Still, she was to spend the rest of her life branded as the propagandist who helped fan a nation’s fanatic devotion to Hitler.

Riefenstahl insisted in interviews after World War II that she had agreed to film the 1934 Nazi Party rally as a documentary. But critics insisted that only a true believer in the Nazi cause could have fashioned such effective propaganda.

Nazi cultural officials wanted “Olympia” to cast Germans as physically superior to their competitors. But the emergence of black American track star Jesse Owens as the Olympics’ most acclaimed athlete, with four gold medals, served to defeat the film’s racial propaganda motives.

“Olympia” won best film honors at Venice in 1936, defeating, among other contenders, Walt Disney’s “Snow White.” Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1985, “It was, without doubt, the greatest documentary ever photographed.”

Riefenstahl came to Hollywood in the late 1930s to promote “Olympia” but was snubbed by most members of the film industry, who she maintained had been threatened with blacklisting if they worked with her. She refused throughout her life to admit to moral wrongdoing and only conceded regret for the damage her association with Hitler inflicted on her career.

“It’s often said of me that I was a friend of the Nazis, but that cannot be justly maintained. I was neither a member of any political party nor ever expressly sympathetic,” Riefenstahl told The Times in an interview last year at her two-story wooden home, more personal museum than shelter.

“I haven’t had an easy life, but that is natural for someone who was very admired and famous and then falls into a crisis,” she said. “All this happened to me because I lived in a time that also gave the world Hitler.”

In 1944, Riefenstahl married a German army major, Peter Jacob, but they divorced two years later. It was also during the first postwar years that she was briefly imprisoned by U.S. forces investigating her ties to the Nazis and had her property and equipment confiscated.

Freed from Allied detention or house arrest seven years after the war ended, Riefenstahl managed to direct one last film begun in wartime before she was driven from the industry.

She then spent years photographing the Nuba ethnic group in Sudan, living in self-imposed exile among those who had no interest in her past. In 1974, she published “The Last of the Nuba,” a photographic study of a little-known people that became a bestseller and financed her last career.

By the 1980s, she had turned from still photography to underwater filming. Only deep under the sea, from the Maldives to the South Pacific, could she pursue her art unhindered by the persistent criticism that she helped the century’s most heinous dictator propagate evil.

While she saw professional associates involved in publishing her books and photographs as friends, she mostly escaped fellow Germans’ cold shoulders by delving into editing and maintenance of the vast archive of her life’s work.

In dozens of yellow loose-leaf binders, she cataloged every major review, article and editorial to give her mention since her 1923 debut as a ballet dancer, including acclaim for “Triumph.”

In 2000, she came out with a glossy book chronicling her “Five Lives.” It spanned her early years as a dancer, her time as an actress in mountain adventure films, her directorial zenith in the ‘30s, her turn to photography among the Nuba and eventually to scuba diving.

As with all of her autobiographical presentations, “Five Lives” offered images of her work with Hitler with neither commentary nor expressed chagrin. In a visual version of name-dropping, it included shots of herself with famous faces through the century: Marlene Dietrich, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Siegfried & Roy.

She staged an exhibition of her works at a fashionable Berlin gallery in 2000, selling framed stills from “Olympia” for as much as $1,500 and issuing a desk calendar for 2001 with those same 65-year-old pictures.

Riefenstahl traveled widely to follow the subjects that fascinated her until a March 2000 helicopter crash in Sudan that inflicted broken bones and persistent pain on the then-97-year-old artist.

She continued to travel for her underwater photography until last year, when she told The Times that she had never fully recovered from her crash injuries and, for the first time in her life, suffered occasional bouts of depression and had difficulty sleeping.

Funeral services were scheduled for Friday in Munich.