Where There's a Will

Last summer's Cliffhanger elicited gasps from audiences as macho action-movie hero Sylvester Stallone scaled up and rappelled down sheer mountain walls. Stallone's biceps bulged, his deltoids popped, and his face contorted like a world-class athlete's from the strain. Stories appeared in the press portraying Stallone as fearless as a Wallenda and as sure-footed as a goat. What a hero. What a man.

Ten minutes into The Great Leap a smiling, beautiful young woman scampers effortlessly up a similar peak in the Dolomite Alps, the same daunting mountain range conquered by mighty Sly. The year is 1927, and the woman is working without benefit of nets, ropes, stunt doubles, or camera tricks. Unlike the heavily muscled Rambo-meister, she is slim and about as powerfully built as your average Vogue model. Oh, and one other thing. She's barefoot.

Fast-forward 65 years or so. Somewhere off the Maldives Islands, under 100 feet of water in the Indian Ocean, a giant stingray sweeps by a cameraman on the ocean floor. The creature's lethal, whiplike tail swishes back and forth behind it, deadly as a downed power line. A second scuba diver approaches the ray from above and, ingenuously as a child, strokes the animal's back. If she is the least bit afraid of being stung by the toxic appendage, she doesn't show it. When the divers surface you realize that this underwater adventurer is no child. On the contrary: At 90, she is probably the world's oldest scuba diver.

But then, as the stunning cinematic biography The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl makes abundantly clear, taking chances is nothing new for this remarkable woman. From Alpine nymph and alluring daredevil to controversial Third Reich propagandist to Greenpeace member and underwater documentarian, Leni Riefenstahl's legend is larger than life. She is one of the Twentieth Century's greatest enigmas, and while this film never really solves the many riddles that have swirled around her A How much did she know about Hitler's agenda and when did she know it? If she understood what was going on, why did she cooperate? Was she Nazi-propaganda boss Joseph Goebbels's lover? Were her two greatest films, 1934's Triumph of the Will and 1938's Olympia, conscious attempts to glorify the Third Reich or merely the result of a visionary artist struggling to make the best films possible? Does all of her work espouse, consciously or unconsciously, a "fascist aesthetic?" And what exactly are the moral responsibilities of an artist? A it provides a riveting, unprecedented look at her extraordinary life.

As a teenager Riefenstahl just wanted to be a dancer. She left home and, defying the odds, quickly became a popular sensation. While at the peak of her dancing success, Riefenstahl viewed one of the mountain films of German director Arnold Fanck and was awestruck. In typically brash style, she walked up to Luis Trenker, Fanck's favorite leading man, and announced, "I'm going to be in your next picture." Trenker had good reason to be skeptical; after all, Riefenstahl was neither a mountain climber nor an actress. But after one look at the striking 23-year-old's photograph, Fanck started writing a featured role for her. Move over, Luis.

Riefenstahl was no pampered leading lady. Fanck insisted on authenticity and routinely placed his actors in dangerous situations. Wonderful Horrible offers clips from several of these early films, scenes that attest to Riefenstahl's athletic prowess and tenacious spunk. In addition to goading her into the above-mentioned barefoot rock climbing, Fanck talked the erstwhile hoofer into allowing him to suspend her by a few thin ropes over a sheer precipice while pounding her with an avalanche of snow and ice. The avalanche, one of several that Riefenstahl would endure for Fanck's cameras over the years, was supposed to be a small-scale, man-made affair. Instead, it roared out of control and nearly killed the actress. A star, as they say, was born.

While several of her German film contemporaries -- notably, Dietrich and Von Sternberg A emigrated to the U.S., Riefenstahl stayed in Germany and parlayed her fame into the formation of her own production company, an unheard-of accomplishment for a woman. The outfit released its first picture in 1932, The Blue Light A written, directed by, and starring Riefenstahl. Among the film's admirers was Adolf Hitler.

So began an association that would result in Riefenstahl's groundbreaking documentary on the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will. The filmmaker and the future dictator were mutual admirers. "He radiated something very powerful," she remembers in Wonderful Horrible. "As a man he did not interest me at all. [But I sensed] a kind of demonic power of suggestion that frightened me. I did not want to lose my own will and freedom." For his part Hitler saw in Riefenstahl the flesh-and-blood embodiment of all the superhuman ideals -- physical beauty, strength, athletic prowess, intelligence, artistic talent -- that he desired for himself and for his master race.

Third Reich architect Albert Speer designed and stage-managed the Nuremberg rally. The entire spectacle was mounted with Riefenstahl's cameras in mind. The director perfectly harnessed Hitler's peculiar star power; her film provided the first closeup glimpse most Germans had of their leader. The result was devastating. Triumph of the Will became the most powerful propaganda movie ever made. Riefenstahl's innovative artistry and technical prowess elicited comparisons to Griffith, Welles, and Eisenstein. But perhaps the most amazing thing about Triumph was that Riefenstahl, a woman and a non-Nazi, had been tapped to film the Party's holiest hour.

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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