Where There's a Will

Olympia, her record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was culled from over 250 miles of film. It took two years to edit and stands to this day as perhaps the greatest sports film of all time. Riefenstahl was the toast of Europe. Throughout 1938 she attended gala premieres for the movie all over the continent, generally before heads of state. Fascist dictators, in particular, were enthralled. Stalin congratulated her, and Mussolini queried her about the possibility of making a film for him. Later that year, at a time when attacks on Jews were on the rise in Germany and the threat of another European war loomed, Riefenstahl visited the U.S. To her surprise, the reception she received was less than hospitable. All the Hollywood studio heads boycotted her. Only Walt Disney, whose anti-Semitic views were no secret, would see her.

While never a member of the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl's fortunes became inextricably intertwined with it. Following Hitler's demise, his favorite filmmaker was arrested and tried by both U.S. and French authorities on charges of pro-Nazi activities. Adjudged to be a sympathizer but not a collaborator, she eventually was released.

But where do you go when you're the director of history's most notorious propaganda film? Away from postwar Germany, for sure. Hollywood was out of the question. In Riefenstahl's case, the answer was to distance herself as far from the madding crowd as possible. Despised throughout Europe, she moved into her mother's attic apartment in Munich, where she laid low for nearly two decades. Riefenstahl finally emerged from one form of seclusion only to embrace another; in the early Sixties she packed her bags and headed for Africa, ostensibly to make Black Cargo, a film about the slave trade that she never completed. She emerged at the age of 60 with an exhibition of stirring, sensual, still photographs of the Nuba tribesmen with whom she had lived. But anti-Riefenstahl sentiment was still high. No less a media critic than Susan Sontag attacked the photos, pointing up what she considered their fascist aesthetic, their glorification of masculine power and strength and the cult of the body beautiful. While Riefenstahl is no shrinking violet -- "Susan Sontag? It's a mystery to me how such an intelligent woman can talk such rubbish," she responds in the film -- the criticism stung.

Smarting from Sontag's and countless other assaults, Riefenstahl once again sought refuge. But this time taking a low profile meant really low, as in underwater. Lying about her age to obtain certification (claiming to be 50 when she was really 70), Riefenstahl embraced scuba diving with the same passion she once had reserved for mountain climbing. With her cameraman-companion Horst Kettner (40 years her junior), for the past twenty years Riefenstahl has been assembling an underwater epic that will, in all probability, be her final film.

The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl scored quite a coup just by getting the tight-lipped legend to tell her side of the story. At 91, she's one feisty interview subject. Writer-director Ray Mller asks the tough questions, and Riefenstahl fields them all, although some of her responses sound as vague and ambiguous as a politician's. You never really buy Riefenstahl's rationalizations for her behavior, even if, as she contends, she was out of the Nazi loop. (George Bush, you'll recall, made similar protestations regarding his role in the Iran-contra mess.) Her stubborn refusal to accept responsibility for her actions is maddening. But Mller leaves no doubt about one important point: Leni Riefenstahl loves making films, and she truly believes that her primary responsibility as a filmmaker is to create the best film possible. Period.

"Whether it was about politics or about vegetables or fruit, I couldn't give a damn," is how she puts it. To Leni Riefenstahl, filmmaking was never about box office and percentages of the gross. Even as she denies taking pride in Triumph of the Will's artistry, her eyes open wide and fairly glow with excitement as she sits behind an editing board and recalls how she mounted a camera on a makeshift elevator attached to a flagpole, or why she always filmed Hitler standing alone. She still can remember the f-stops and filters she used on specific shots 60 years ago. The accusation that riles her most is not that she knew of or condoned Hitler's anti-Semitic beliefs early on. It's that she had more to do with a sloppy pre-Triumph Nazi rally documentary than her professional pride cares to admit. The suggestion that she might have taken part in such an inferior work so riles Riefenstahl that she grabs Mller and tries to shake some sense into him.

"They'd have been happy with any old film, provided it showed swastikas!" she vehemently protests. It's an amazing image, a nonagenarian female filmmaker physically assaulting her strapping thirtysomething male biographer. But after spending Wonderful Horrible's three-and-a-half hours with Leni Riefenstahl, it comes as little surprise. The Nazis might have settled for any old propaganda film, but Leni Riefenstahl would have died before she'd have given it to them.

While never a Nazi Party member, Riefenstahl's fortunes became inextricably intertwined with it.

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