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Shadow of evil darkens alluring art

Times Staff Writer

As might be expected for the most controversial filmmaker of our time, the works of German director Leni Riefenstahl get analyzed much more often than they get shown. A series beginning Friday at the UCLA Film and Television Archive is going to change that for Los Angeles audiences.

Put together, the archive is careful to note, “not to rehabilitate or to celebrate Riefenstahl,” the eight-film retrospective won’t be going it alone. A panel discussion on the director will take place Saturday at UCLA, and the Goethe-Institut is hosting a show of Riefenstahl’s photography as well as an evening of reminiscences by two collaborators.

It is Riefenstahl’s connection with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party that makes her work so endlessly notorious. The fact that two of her greatest films were made under Hitler’s patronage, with the support of the party, raises provocative questions about artistic responsibility in a totalitarian society that have no easy answers.

“Triumph of the Will,” Riefenstahl’s most notorious film and a record of the 1934 Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg, is almost impossible to view today without sensing the shadow of the horrors that came in the years afterward. Aside from one official’s speech, in which he insists that “a nation that does not maintain its racial purity will perish,” there is little that overtly foreshadows the Holocaust or World War II, but militarism and the jingoism in the film makes it clear they are coming.

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From the famous opening sequence -- Hitler’s plane descending god-like through the clouds -- “Triumph” displays Riefenstahl’s gift for visual mythologizing. She is also adept at emphasizing the adoration with which the German public viewed their leader in those early days: look for a celebrated shot of a cat seeming to turn its head as the great man drives by. Though some critics credit the film’s effectiveness, in part, to Albert Speer’s genius as a visionary rally organizer, the power of “Triumph of the Will” as a film is difficult to deny.

Watching “Triumph of the Will” is a depressing experience, but the opposite is true of “Olympia,” Riefenstahl’s four-hour record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Though made with state support, this film is more interested in the cult of the body, in celebrating the youth, beauty and grace of athletes in competition.

Functioning as a kind of cinematic ringmaster, Riefenstahl commanded a group of 170 technicians and cameramen who took 250 miles of film -- so much footage that it took 10 weeks just to watch and almost two years to edit.

The results, however, were spectacular. Riefenstahl not only pioneered many of the techniques that are now second nature to sport on film, including candid close-ups, slow motion and montage, she used them with more artistry than anyone has since. And though “Olympia” is nearly 70 years old, its celebrated diving montage is still perhaps the best sports sequence ever put on film.

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The UCLA series also offers a look at the specifically German genre of mountain films that gave Riefenstahl her start, both as a director and star. Titles like “The Holy Mountain,” “S.O.S. Iceberg,” “The White Hell of Pitz Palu” and the Riefenstahl-directed “The Blue Light” showcase stunning mountain scenery and a nature-worshipping ideology that is startling in its intensity.

For Riefenstahl completists, the UCLA series also shows a pair of rarely screened items. “Day of Freedom,” a 1935 short that was discovered only in the 1970s, is a tribute to the German Army that felt left out of the earlier “Triumph of the Will.”

Also available for viewing is Riefenstahl’s ill-fated “Tiefland,” which was shot during World War II but had its unedited footage confiscated by French authorities and was not finished and released until 1954.

The story of a fetching Spanish dancer (played by the director) who is sought after by a nature boy shepherd and a corrupt marquis, “Tiefland” became immediately controversial because of charges that some of its colorful Spanish extras ended up dying in labor camps. For that reason and several others, an air of strangeness and despair hangs over this film, as it does over much of its director’s career.

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Leni Riefenstahl

UCLA Film and Television Archive

Screenings at the James Bridges Theater, 1409 Melnitz Hall, UCLA. Tickets are $8; they can be purchased an hour before the screening, or in advance at www.cinema.ucla.edu. Information only: (310) 206-8013.

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Friday: “The Holy Mountain” and “S.O.S. Iceberg,” 7:30 p.m.

Saturday: Leni Riefenstahl panel discussion, free, 4 p.m.; “The Blue Light” and “The White Hell of Pitz Palu,” 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 20: “Day of Freedom,” “Triumph of the Will” and “Tiefland,” 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 28: “Olympia,” 7 p.m.

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Goethe-Institut

All events at 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Free admission. Information at (323) 525-3388 or www.goethe.de/losangeles.

Exhibition: “Leni Riefenstahl: The Photographer.” Reception today, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 23.

Monday: “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,” the 1993 documentary by Ray Mueller, who will attend. 7 p.m.

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Next Thursday: “Private Leni,” a discussion with Mueller and publisher Angelika Taschen, who also knew Riefenstahl. Also, Mueller’s “Her Dream of Africa” (2001, 58 minutes), documenting Riefenstahl’s last trip to Sudan.


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