In the last years of his life, after he had suffered a cerebral
H.L. Mencken would refer to his own reduced capacity derisively as
if he were deceased.
''Before I died . . . '' he would idly begin a sentence about
something in the past.
Leni Riefenstahl is remarkably hale for 83. Her hair is an
ingenue's strawberry blonde, and she flirts with as much proficiency
as ever. Her eyes are clear, a fawn brown with a ring of gray-green
fringing the iris. Her mind is a well-lighted room, her will as
unyielding as it was down all the interrogations and trials. She
will not give an inch, growing testy now, then rude, to snoopers who
would dare to trespass on those olden times she shared with evil
Only her hip, injured in a skiing accident, troubles her. For
therapy she swims, diving with a camera as far as 50 meters down,
alone amid the rocks and the coral and the sand. ''Underwater, I
have no pain,'' she says.
Above the water she works ceaselessly, carving out her memoirs,
hating to finish them, for they are, she dreams, the one last proof
of her innocence. For all the courts that cleared her, American and
French and German alike, there was no public absolution for her and
certainly no redemption in the world of film. Still, some consider
her the greatest female director who ever lived, the creator of the
greatest sports film ever made. It is 50 summers now since she shot
Olympia and, like the athletes, won a gold medal for it. But after
that there would be only one more movie, a fairy tale, named
Tiefland. It's ironic; all Leni Riefenstahl ever wanted was to tell
She looks at a photograph of herself, one taken a half-century
ago. In it she is peering over folded arms, her shoulders are bare,
her delicately beautiful face luminous--Germany's Garbo, she was
called--the woman at her most gorgeous. Riefenstahl taps the
photograph. ''They killed me then,'' she explains. ''I am a
ghost.'' Before I died. . . .
When World War II ended and the true horror of the Nazi
regime--Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau--was revealed to the world,
thousands of Germans were called to account for their associations,
great or small, with the fascist government: There was execution for
some, imprisonment for others, self-exile for a few, living ghosthood
for Leni Riefenstahl. Has anyone else ever posed the question of an
artist's justification quite like Riefenstahl? The celluloid
artifacts from the '30s and '40s cannot tell us for sure how much it
was that she served herself or served art or served Adolf Hitler.
Riefenstahl was a fine athlete, a dancer first, then a mountain
climber. A decade ago, when she wanted to get into underwater
photography, she took a diving course. She lied about her age.
Students couldn't be accepted if they were over 55; she was 72 at the
time. But then, she has been accomplished at whatever she attempted.
''I only wanted to be a dancer,'' she says now, but after she
mastered dancing she became an internationally acclaimed actress,
director, producer, photographer. Riefenstahl has, it seems, managed
to succeed at all she has ventured, save the one thing. ''My name is
beschmutzt,'' she snaps. Besmirched. Indeed, her many critics claim
she has gotten off easy, that at the least she should have been stuck
behind bars like Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, and the others who
buffed Nazism with their cuffs and made it shine. But Riefenstahl,
they say, was too wily, too much the she-devil. As Amos Vogel wrote
in Film as a Subversive Art, she could ''inspire impressionable men
to smooth her into an innocent, apolitical artist.''
Still, she could never get another film to direct. Half a dozen
times after the war it appeared she had firm offers, but on each
occasion the deal fell through. ''They would tell me,'' she says,
''that they had heard: If you make a film with Leni, you will never
get another film from Hollywood.''
In the mid-'50s she was able to start work on a movie about the
slave trade in Africa, but shortly after her arrival in Kenya, the
car she was traveling in swerved to avoid a dwarf antelope and
crashed, and Riefenstahl's magnificent lapidary face was thrown
through the windshield. She was taken to Nairobi, where they patched
her up with a darning needle. It was six weeks before she could walk.
The money ran out and the film had to be abandoned.
But from that experience came Riefenstahl's affection for
Africa--''It means more to me than any country''--and her career as
a still photographer. In 1962 she rented out her apartment in Munich
to pay bills for her aged mother and, with less than $1,000, departed
for the most primitive parts of Africa, photographing the Nuba tribe,
recording a world that had been rarely revealed. Though her
photographs were published and her books were best-sellers, and
though she became acknowledged as a top professional photographer,
she could not get credentials for the '72 Olympics, which were held
in Munich. The Germans didn't like to be reminded of Riefenstahl.
Finally, the director of the International Olympic Committee,
Monique Berlioux, who had helped the French Resistance during World
War II, obtained photographer's credentials for Riefenstahl.
But there would never be another film. Of course, every four years
there would be another Olympics, and Olympia would be revived and
people would ask about Leni Riefenstahl, but there would never be any
more films for her. So she went underwater.
''I only want fairy tales,'' she says. ''They are still my life.
And to me, now, the world under the water is my fairy tale.''
Her first dreamland was the family's weekend house, outside
Berlin. There, Berta Helene Amalia Riefenstahl would play by herself
in the gardens, watching the birds, picking flowers, skipping after
small frogs, chasing the butterflies that flitted in the shafts of
sunlight. ''I am not interested in the normal things, in the
quotidian,'' she says now. ''I am only interested in the fascinating
and the beautiful.''
Riefenstahl's father, Alfred, was a prosperous merchant who owned
a plumbing supply business that allowed the family--there was also
her younger brother, Heinz--the comforts of two homes, servants and a
chauffeured automobile. Besides, Riefenstahl grew up at a moment in
Germany's history that was unlike any other. The country had been
pulled together barely a generation earlier, fashioned by Otto von
Bismarck, financed by a forest of smokestacks, and it was bursting
its buttons, a new power astride the Continent, an authority
throughout the world. The German tradition of hard work was honored
no less than the cultural legacy of Goethe and Beethoven, Handel,
Schiller and Wagner. Hitler and his cronies, a decade or so older
than Riefenstahl, grew to maturity during this flowering of Teutonic
Riefenstahl's father wanted her to be a classical artist. Perhaps
he was too autocratic for his daughter, whose mind bounced after
the dragonflies in the gardens. By the time she was five, Leni was
writing poetry. She painted pictures and pressed the flowers she
picked, and read her Marchen, her fairy tales. She took to dancing,
As with everything in her life, it happened so quickly. At 20,
before her strict father would even allow her to date, she was
dancing for one of Germany's greatest impresarios. Schooled in
formal ballet, she became famous for her own inventive style. She
played the finest theaters of central Europe, earning $300 a
performance--thousands in today's currency--at a time when Germany,
defeated in World War I, couldn't pay its bills or feed its people.
Riefenstahl has a playbill tucked away that shows she danced in
Berlin one night in the same hall where Lenin spoke--and on the same
Despite the deprivation in Germany, though, the Communist party
never became especially popular. The fascists also had little
success at first. In 1923, Hitler's beer hall putsch in Munich
failed, and he was sent off to jail, surely never to be heard from
again. About the same time, the young dancer, Fraulein Riefenstahl,
injured her knee; while recuperating she saw a movie entitled
Mountain of Destiny, directed by Arnold Fanck. Promptly, Leni
decided that she would be a movie star while she healed sufficiently
to return to dancing. She wangled a meeting with Fanck, who was so
taken with the young woman that he wrote his next film specifically
for her. In 1926, Riefenstahl emerged as a star in The Holy
Mountain. It was always so easy. ''It was just the mountains and the
men,'' she says. ''I only had to be a mountain girl.'' She never
The German cinema was already famous and many of the country's
directors had been snapped up by Hollywood. Fanck's string of
''mountain movies'' had carved out a special niche in Germany, where
they became something of the equivalent of the American Western, and
Riefenstahl was so beautiful and so athletic that she became the
female fixture of the genre.
Soon the young actress was getting itchy to take charge herself,
and around 1931 she started raising funds for her own film. The
story she chose to make was a fairy tale, not an easy movie to
finance--even though the rookie director could guarantee that Leni
Riefenstahl would be her star. Finally Riefenstahl mortgaged all her
belongings and began shooting, confident (as ever) that she would
do so well that financing would be attracted as the film progressed.
And (as ever) she was right.
The movie was entitled Das Blaue Licht, and it was about a girl
who is the only person in a mountain village who knows the secret of
a mysterious blue glow that emanates from a nearby peak. Das Blaue
Licht, released in 1932, was immediately acclaimed. Riefenstahl
proved to be a pioneer; she improved on close-up techniques and was
almost revolutionary in her use of lighting. Sound was new, but she
kept it to a minimum. ''Film is a special art. What you can show, you
must not say,'' she said, the director as actress. ''These are moving
pictures. Keep the cameras moving.''
Das Blaue Licht was awarded the gold medal at the 1932 Venice
Biennale, the highest honor in the industry at that time. Curiously,
the film got a better reception outside Germany than within. But
then, perhaps a fairy tale was too fanciful and too melancholy for
the failing Weimar Republic. There was no work, no pride, no future
in Germany, and the Nazis grew in strength. Hitler, an Austrian who
had become a German citizen, nearly won the presidency in 1932.
In Los Angeles, although the Germans sent the third-largest team to
the '32 Olympics, they were barely a factor. There was growing doubt
that Berlin would be able to afford to host the Games that it had
been awarded for 1936.
But Riefenstahl was rolling. She had rounded up financing for her
next film, another fairy tale, Tiefland, which was set in Spain, and
she was already looking beyond that to what would be ''the high point
of my life.'' This would be Penthesilea, adapted from a drama about
the Amazons of Greek mythology, which was based on the writings of
the German poet Heinrich von Kleist. Riefenstahl, of course, would
play the Amazon queen. It would be her masterpiece.
But then one day in 1932, Heinrich Hoffmann, a photographer, went
with a friend to see Das Blaue Licht in Munich. Both men were very
impressed by Riefenstahl's film and when they came out of the
theater, the friend turned to Hoffmann and this is what he said:
''Heinrich, whenever the party needs a film to be made, this woman
must make it.''
Hoffmann's friend was Adolf Hitler.
For several years now, Riefenstahl has lived with a man 40 years
her junior. Horst Kessner is tall and bearded, and he and the lady
share a house in the Bavarian woods, near the town of Pocking, east
Kessner comes into the living room with some cakes and cider and
wine. He doesn't want Leni to talk. He especially doesn't want her to
say anything about the Nazis. When, from the other room, he overhears
the name Martin Bormann, he bellows for her to stop. She tells him
she can handle it herself, thank you, and Kessner stomps off.
Riefenstahl has been reputed to possess all the stereotypical
Teutonic qualities. ''I have a special gift for organization,'' she
declares. ''Like a man.'' Color-coded folders line her walls,
cataloging her 83 years of existence. Film material is in the red
boxes, still photography in blue, her childhood in yellow, anything
to do with lawyers in black. She was so methodical when she shot the
'36 Olympics that within one week after the completion of the Games
she had 1.4 million feet of film filed, labeled and ready for
The best argument advanced that Riefenstahl couldn't have been a
true Nazi supporter is that nothing has ever swayed her from her
work. Henry Jaworsky, a cameraman who worked for her on two films,
once said: ''If Stalin would have taken over Germany, she would have
done it for Stalin, and if Roosevelt had made Germany the 49th state,
she would still have made her movies.'' Words like obsessive and
fanatical regularly pop up to describe her work habits. She labored
18 hours a day for almost a year when she edited Olympia, taking only
a three-week break to go mountain climbing. ''What do you call that
thing a horse has?'' said Jaworsky. ''Blinders. She has blinders. She
looks only in one direction, and that's the project she's on.''
Willi Zielke, who photographed the prologue to Olympia--the torch
being brought from Greece to Berlin--is 83 and lives near Hanover. As
is the case with most people who worked under Riefenstahl, his
feelings about her are ambivalent. At one moment, he says, she would
coo at him and call him a genius, and the next she would scream that
he was ''crazy, your work confused and useless.''
But, says Walter Frentz, now 78, one of her favorite cameramen,
''Leni had a great insight into people. It was only that she was so
wrapped up in her work that she perhaps neglected to observe her
duties as a human being. She sacrificed personal relationships to
Riefenstahl was so tyrannized by ambition that it was often
difficult for her to perceive who her enemies were. It is enough of
an accomplishment that she made the greatest sports movie ever. That
a woman managed that in the all-male province of sport is all the
more impressive. That she pulled it off in the '30s, when few women
in any field were allowed executive status, is amazing. But that
she did so under the Nazis, who were doctrinally sexist, is
''Sexism was not a problem in my life,'' she declares flatly.
''Oh, there was always jealousy, but I was independent from the
beginning, and if anything, being a woman made it easier for me. I
could go to the diplomats and bureaucrats, you know, sobbing, and
say, 'Oh, please, Leni needs . . . .' '' That memory of guileful
manipulation draws a smile from her.
Frentz remembers vividly that the way she got the IOC to grant her
a special camera pit near the pole vault was to ''cry terribly.''
''I gave them a sob story,'' Riefenstahl chuckled to her colleagues
when she came back from her mission. She knew precisely how to
overcome the prejudices against being a strong woman by playing the
Of course, it helped that she was absolutely gorgeous. But that
was a double-edged sword, too, for like so many beautiful women who
have achieved success, Riefenstahl had to endure rumors about her
sleeping her way to the top.
Above all, there were the regular reports that she served as an
alternate to Eva Braun as Hitler's mistress. The fuhrer was reported
to have deluged Riefenstahl with bouquets and declared that she was
''the perfect German woman.'' So powerful was this sinister coquette
supposed to have been that, in the most widely circulated story, Paul
Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, became jealous of her
influence on Hitler and decided to destroy Riefenstahl.
According to the story, Goebbels stood up at a large party in 1937
and announced that he and his wife could no longer remain on the
premises because someone with ''non-Aryan'' blood was present. It
was Riefenstahl, who, he charged, was only three-fourths Aryan.
Disgraced, so the story went on, Riefenstahl immediately slunk off to
her residence, only to discover that storm troopers had already
deposited her belongings in a waiting truck. But there is more.
Further stories claimed that Hitler was so enamored of Riefenstahl
that he gave her ''an official Aryan certificate'' and decreed, ''It
is I who will decide who is a Jew and who is not.''
So widely circulated was the rumor of Riefenstahl's supposed
Jewish ancestors that Hitler felt he had to counter it. So he
brought along his photographer, Hoffmann, and ordered Goebbels to
meet them at the Riefenstahl residence in Berlin. He told Leni to
assemble her family, and when they all had gathered, Hoffmann snapped
photos of Hitler and Goebbels chatting away with the Riefenstahls,
Mama, Papa, Leni and Heinz.
Today Riefenstahl swears that this visit in 1937 was the only time
Hitler ever came to her house and that, in fact, she met him on only
a handful of occasions, all for business. She says she received
flowers from him only twice, both times when films of hers were
released--the sort of token a head of state might bestow on an
internationally acclaimed artist.
Hitler has been portrayed as uncomfortable with women and sexually
intimidated; Riefenstahl claims no knowledge of the latter and
disputes the former. ''He wasn't at all terrified of women,'' she
says. ''No, he quite liked beautiful women around him, at parties and
such, and he could be natural and polite enough in their company.''
In fact, she freely acknowledges that she was rather taken by both
the man and his politics in the early going.
''One time, before he came to power, I told Hitler, 'I like your
ideas of socialism, of getting people back to work,' '' she says. ''
'But your ideas of not liking black people and Indians and so
forth--I don't like that.' ''
And what did Hitler reply?
''He just said, 'Wait till you get older, and you'll see why I
feel this way.' ''
Riefenstahl was also reputed to have conducted a Nazi salon at her
abode in Berlin's West End. She and Luftwaffe commander Hermann
Goring's wife, a former stage actress named Emmy Sonnemann, were
labeled ''the du Barrys of the Nazi empire,'' and, as an account in
the New York Daily News of 1935 had it: ''In her lavish apartment,
the inner circle of the Hitlerites gather. Invitations to her
receptions are sought by everyone in Berlin, German and foreign.''
Riefenstahl now says that all these stories are the same lies that
keep dogging her. Colleagues support her denials of political
involvement. The luxurious ''apartment,'' where she is supposed to
have entertained Hitler in bed and the flower of Nazism in her
parlor, was, in fact, says Frentz, ''a nice house, tastefully
decorated, but nothing flashy.''
And he goes on: ''Leni was a man-eating plant, as we used to say.
Whenever she had the opportunity to meet an important man, she went
for it. But it wasn't because of her female charm or because she was
politically attached that she got to make those movies. Difficult
as it was, she was able to stay detached from politics.''
''The irony is that I have done the exact contrary of what has
been written,'' Riefenstahl says. ''I was never even interested in
parties. I was very seldom with Hitler. Very seldom. I was always
isolated and living for my work. The only guilt Leni has is that
Hitler admired her.''
Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, and the harassment and
persecution of some 500,000 German Jews began. On April 1 a law
barring Jews from the civil service was put into effect, and by the
end of the year ''non-Aryans'' were excluded from the professions and
the universities in Germany. In September 1935 the Nuremberg Laws
were announced and the severe persecution of Jews officially began
throughout the country. This gave pause to many outside the Olympic
movement about the '36 Games, but it hardly caused great distress
within the movement. In Great Britain, for example, Harold Abrahams,
the 100- meter gold medal winner from 1924 who was immortalized in
Chariots of Fire, personally led the move in 1936 to block any
British boycott of the Berlin Olympics. In the end, more than twice
as many athletes competed in Berlin than had in Los Angeles;
participants evidently were not put off by the fact that five months
before 20,000 doves of peace flew at the German Opening Ceremonies,
Hitler had jarred the world by marching into the Rhineland.
Though the Berlin Olympics are remembered as a Nazi showcase, the
fact is that Hitler himself had nothing to do with obtaining them,
and he took slight interest in their planning. Germany had never been
much of a factor in the modern Olympics, and the country had lost its
previous designation as host of the '16 Games when they were canceled
because of World War I. In his typically cosmic style, what Hitler
really wanted was that Berlin--which he planned to rename Germania
when the master race ruled the globe--would become a permanent site
for the Olympics, with a stadium seating 450,000. The fuhrer would
regularly irritate his subordinates by whining about what a disgrace
Berlin's tiny 100,000-seat Olympic Stadium was to Germany. Besides,
Hitler was not exactly what you might call a sports buff, though he
did have an interest in boxing. ''He just didn't care much about the
Olympics,'' Riefenstahl says. ''He didn't like the blacks and the
Indians and so forth, and the stadium wasn't big enough for him.''
But Hitler did adore mass pageantry, and since 1927 he had
orchestrated great party rallies at Nuremberg, a picturesque little
city 100 miles north of Munich, which boasted wonderful medieval
architecture that called up the glories of German antiquity. As many
as a quarter of a million Nazis would assemble on Zeppelin Meadow to
hear speeches and to march. Sometime early in 1933 Hitler told
Goebbels, his new minister of propaganda, to contact Riefenstahl and
have her make a documentary of the rally that would take place that
Goebbels was consumed by his jealousy of Riefenstahl. She still
refers to him, deferentially, as ''Doctor'' Goebbels and says, ''He
was clever and charming when he had to be.'' But then, her charity
comes easy, for she got the best of him every time. She was all he
couldn't be. She was beautiful. He was ugly. She was graceful, a
dancer and athlete. He was awkward, with a clubfoot. She was an
artist, honored throughout the world. He had failed as a writer and
now was only a mouthpiece. Moreover, Goebbels was an inveterate
womanizer, and Riefenstahl would never so much as give him a second
Goebbels disobeyed his fuhrer; he couldn't bring himself to
contact Riefenstahl. So Hitler called Riefenstahl himself and asked
her to drop everything and come to Nuremberg. She did, arriving just
before the '33 rally, in time to throw together a film short entitled
Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). Because internal party
convolutions quickly dated the movie, it was never shown (and all
copies, apparently, have been lost). Riefenstahl was only glad to be
done with the brief project, and she went back to Spain, where she
was preparing to direct Tiefland, her fairy tale.
After just a few months, however, another call came from Hitler,
and she returned to Berlin, where he asked her to film the '34 party
rally at Nuremberg as a full-length documentary. She demurred. She
told him about her fairy tale. He said he understood, but he wanted
this movie. She would have absolute control. Goebbels would not be
involved in any way. ''Make it as an artist,'' he told her. She was
flattered. But still, she told him, she didn't want to leave
The fuhrer, Riefenstahl says, leaned forward and pleaded with his
eyes. ''Leni,'' he said, ''give me six days of your life. After that
you'll never have to give me another thing.''
Riefenstahl sighs, remembering that moment more than 52 years ago.
Her house is still now, soft with an early twilight, for outside a
few dark clouds have crossed the sun, heralding the approach of the
first snowstorm of the year. ''So, I must make this,'' she says at
last. ''I must make this film.''
Nuremberg suffered bombing damage at the end of the war, but the
city did not have to be reconstituted, only rebuilt, and it's easy to
imagine what it looked like in 1934 when Riefenstahl arrived with her
movie cameras. There were winding streets and cobblestones, spires
and castlelike turrets. Never mind the images of Wagner and Goethe
and Frederick the Great. It was just as possible to imagine the Pied
Piper snaking down the main drag, Cinderella dropping her slipper
over here, Rumpelstiltskin stomping over there. Riefenstahl could
film a fairy tale after all.
And she did. Hitler was the handsome prince, if not, indeed, an
avatar. Triumph of the Will begins in the clouds, with German
melodies wafting Hitler's plane down from the heavens. There is no
dialogue, but a subtitle reads: ''Sixteen years after the beginning
of the German misery, 19 months after the beginning of Germany's
renaissance. . . .'' Hitler lands, to be greeted by happy children,
bearing flowers midst the swastikas. The Hitler Youth tumble about
playfully in their tent city. There is plenty to eat --sausages and
soups and dumplings. Many of the celebrants are decked out in gay
native costumes. The noble past and the glorious future are joined by
one man, one party.
Slowly, Riefenstahl takes us down another garden path.
Goose-stepping troops march past the Nuremberg city hall under the
fuhrer's beatific gaze. Riefenstahl shot him from below, making
Hitler a giant, a presence secure, benignly powerful--almost, at
And then Riefenstahl draws us onto one more stage, one that is
palpably liturgical. Hitler, accompanied by two aides, marches
slowly down a boulevard formed by 100,000 massed troops, an image of
religious pageantry. At the end, the high priests of the Nazi church
lay a wreath upon an altarlike edifice honoring the German dead of
World War I.
The Nuremberg stadium today is in disrepair, overgrown; auto races
are held there. Over the field looms a large Coca-Cola sign, and
under the sign American troops play intramural sports. Nazi war
criminals were hanged by their necks there on Oct. 16, 1946;
judgment. But in September of 1934, Riefenstahl made it a holy place.
In his fascinating book The Nazi Olympics, Richard D. Mandell
writes: ''One almost feels a visceral revulsion that the
beautification of something so awful should be so successful.''
Riefenstahl didn't miss a trick in Triumph. Everywhere symbols
abound, flags fly, bands play; torches light the sky, light
Nuremberg, light history, light the way. And at last there stands
Rudolf Hess, a dark and handsome man; he rises at the podium, the
suppliant and worshiper and evangelist alike, and fervently cries:
''The party is Hitler. Hitler, however, is Germany, just as Germany
is Hitler. Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Heil victory! Heil victory! Heil
victory!'' Scenes from Triumph were shown to American troops
during the war to illustrate what they were fighting, what it felt
like to be a Nazi. And, of course, the film must have been even more
gripping at the time and place it was first shown. The movie was not
only praised within Germany, but it was also honored without; it was
even a financial success. And indisputably Triumph of the Will
belonged entirely to the director, for Hitler kept his promise, and
neither he nor any of his underlings saw so much as a frame of the
film before it was premiered. ''I made it only from my own eyes,''
But this begs, rather than resolves, the question of whether
Riefenstahl was an artist or an artistic propagandist. ''Only a
fanatic Nazi could have created such a work,'' Amos Vogel wrote in
The New York Times. Richard Schickel, the film critic, has
commented that Triumph is ''that source of Nazi imagery that has
haunted our minds for over 40 years . . . but it is not art and not
defensible as such.'' On the other hand, in calling Triumph a
''masterpiece,'' Susan Sontag writes: ''The Nazi propaganda is
there. But something else is there, too, which we reject at our loss
. . . the complex movements of intelligence and grace and
Whatever, the IOC saw no impediments to granting Riefenstahl the
exclusive franchise to make the official movie of the '36 Olympics.
Riefenstahl often cites this fact, emphasizing that it was the IOC,
not Hitler, that gave her license, though it is naive to imagine that
anyone could have shot the film without the fuhrer's blessing. Even
so, Goebbels continued to place obstacles in her path. He
appropriated some of the best cameramen from her staff and sent the
SS to confiscate her only sound camera shortly before the opening
ceremonies of the Games. On the fifth day of the competition he went
so far as to try to bar Riefenstahl from the Olympic Stadium.
But, once again, she outmaneuvered Goebbels. She was
indefatigable. ''I never saw that woman sleep,'' says Jaworsky.
Surrounded by black-garbed SS guards, Riefenstahl was more
businesslike than ever, favoring masculine clothes--usually a white
waterproof greatcoat and a wide-brim hat--as she became ''the
priestess of art,'' ''the epic cinematic poet of Nazism.'' She was,
in some respects, a greater presence than Hitler himself, for the
fuhrer appeared only sporadically in his shameful little 100,000-seat
bandbox, and he was bored with most of the athletic goings-on.
Riefenstahl was the field general, fighting off Goebbels's
diversionary rearguard actions, deploying her forces by day, then
marshaling them at night to plan the next day's strategy. During the
two-week span of the Games, as many as 160 of her troops slept and
ate in dormitories, always at the ready. She had six chief cameramen
and 60 assistants to operate 34 cameras. Also, she had ordered and
designed all manner of new equipment: special night filters and
telephoto lenses, a catapult camera that ran on tracks alongside the
sprinters, a diving camera that could change exposure while shooting
a subject in midair and then underwater. She had special portable
camera towers put up, and she also filmed from balloons and the Graf
As was not the case with Victory of Faith, Riefenstahl enjoyed
the luxury of being able to plan Olympia well in advance. ''I had a
vision of exactly what I wanted,'' she says. ''The only thing I
didn't know was whether it was possible to make this film about
sports artistic.'' Curious as it may seem now, there had never been
a sports movie of any consequence before. Not even Hollywood, with
the '32 Olympics in its backyard, had been able to bring off a
coherent film of the Games. The Olympics as we know them, their
sustaining image, was created in Berlin a half-century ago. Baron de
Coubertin had the dream, but Riefenstahl was the person who shaped
that dream, packaged it and gave it to the world.
She divided Olympia--Gods of the Stadium had been her working
title--into two parts: ''Festival of the Nations'' was almost
exclusively about track and field, culminating with the marathon;
''Festival of Beauty,'' which begins with an Olympic Village
pastorale of male athletes romping nude through a dappled glade,
spotlighted many of the other sports and concluded with the ethereal
The prologue, the transportation of the torch from Greece to
Berlin, was scripted as carefully as any fiction. Riefenstahl, busy
with the Berlin arrangements, put Zielke in charge of filming the
sequence, and it is revealing that even a half-century later, he uses
the phrase ''fairy tale'' to describe the concept of that segment.
The film opens in Olympia. Only it is not Olympia. It is Athens
posing as Olympia, because Olympia, the site of the ancient Games,
didn't have enough Corinthian columns to look like what the director
thought Olympia should look like. It also happened that the young
runner used as the main Greek torchbearer was a Russian. Riefenstahl
was not put off by this technicality. ''He is the most beautiful, and
so I am going to use him,'' she snapped at Zielke. Indeed,
Riefenstahl was so taken with her young Russian that she eventually
brought him to Berlin and put him up there.
The male body is glamorized in Olympia, that's for sure. In
events like diving and gymnastics, where both genders competed, the
men get almost all the play in the film. Nevertheless, she bridles a
bit at any suggestion that she was leering: ''I chose the male bodies
in those sports because they were the best at what they did.'' It is
also true that Riefenstahl used many nude female models in the
prologue--although it is apocryphal that the director herself, then a
doddering 33, was one of the nudes.
The hypocritical, adulterous Goebbels claimed to be upset at this
celebration of the human body. Indeed, at that time it was actually
against the law in Germany to photograph the naked female. But
Goebbels was more genuinely furious at the political tone--or, more
accurately, the lack thereof--in Olympia. He raged that, while the
director had devoted a signifiant amount of time to the discipline of
gymnastics, she had never so much as mentioned that the host country
had won five gold medals in that competition. In fact by any form of
tabulation, the Germans decisively defeated the U.S. and every other
nation in the '36 Games, but the movie makes no reference whatsoever
to any international competition, much less to who might have won.
Triumph of the Will and Olympia have, by now, become twined, but
apart from the fact that they were both filmed in Nazi Germany by the
same person, there is no association between them in substance or
tone. In Olympia, Hitler makes little more than a cameo appearance,
and if there is a single individual who draws the most attention, it
is a black American, Jesse Owens--the symbol, the personification of
all that contradicted Hitler and his theories of a master race.
Riefenstahl did cheer for her countrymen in competition, and she
posed for photographs with the German gold medalists, but she became
a congenial figure for all the athletes and the friend of many
foreign competitors, Owens most prominently.
In her own collection there is an evocative photograph of
Riefenstahl with the late Glenn Morris, the young American who won
the decathlon in Berlin. Morris is clearly enraptured, peering
adoringly at the gorgeous older woman. ''It looks like he's in love
with you,'' someone says to Riefenstahl 50 years later.
She glances at the photo, and the pilot light of memory flickers
in her eyes. She tilts her head and smiles. ''Perhaps,'' is all she
For then, the whole world was in love with Leni Riefenstahl.
Olympia was not only extolled everywhere, but it brought in more
foreign hard currency in 1938 than all the other German films put
together. The IOC was so enraptured that it voted her a gold medal,
just like her champions. The capstone came at the Venice Film
Festival of 1938, where she was presented with the award for the
year's finest film. Olympia defeated Snow White. She had beaten Walt
Disney's fairy tale.
She had the glory and she could obtain what money she needed. So
she put Tiefland on hold so that she might make her ultimate picture,
Penthesilea. Even now, even after all these years, she sparkles at
the mere mention of the film. Penthesilea, more than any man, was the
love of her life. She once wrote, ''If there is a transmigration of
souls, then I must have lived Penthesilea's life. Every word she
speaks is spoken from the very depth of my soul.''
Riefenstahl was ready to begin the filming by the summer of '39.
Everything was in place. Even the horses that the Amazons would ride
had been specially trained. In August, Riefenstahl went climbing in
the Dolomites to escape and refresh herself before shooting began.
''I was so strong, so healthy,'' she says now. ''That was always best
for me, the mountains.''
The word reached her in the mountains. War was coming. She rushed
back to Berlin. On Sept. 1, Hitler marched into Poland and, forever
after, the six days he had asked for would be the price she paid for
the rest of her life.
When the war was over the Nazi trials began. The U.S. Seventh Army
found ! Riefenstahl in Kitzbuhel, Austria, and locked her up; they
examined the record and cleared her. ''I never had any trouble with
the American Army because they knew the truth,'' she says. Then the
French had their day in court. They too acquitted her, in 1948. Then
her own people had at her, and she was tried in a denazification
court in Freiburg. It wasn't until 1952 that she was at last cleared
of all charges by all courts. The final verdict by a West Berlin
denazification court declared unequivocally that Riefenstahl engaged
in ''no political activity in support of the Nazi regime which would
warrant punishment. . . . No relationships were established that went
beyond what is necessary for the execution of her artistic
undertakings. . . . No close or even intimate relationship with
Riefenstahl became the most famous person identified with Hitler
who did not escape or get punished.
But the legend leveled the law, and she became a target, a
scapegoat. Though she was only 49 years old, no one would give the
woman who was arguably the finest director of her time a movie to
Riefenstahl doesn't just remind people of Hitler and unadulterated
evil, like an Eichmann or a Mengele. In the very ambiguity of the
role she played during the Nazi regime, she reminds Germans of
themselves, of what they had done, or perhaps, of what they hadn't
No one wants to be some ghoul like Bormann or Goebbels. No one
even wants to be an amiable toady like Eva Braun. But most of us
would like to have been a Leni Riefenstahl--beautiful, smart,
talented. Jaworsky, her cameraman, put his finger on it once. ''When
the war was over,'' he said, ''Leni was prosecuted and she said, 'I
believed in him, O.K.; maybe in my shoes you would have too.' '' We
don't see ourselves in monsters' shoes, but many of us can see
ourselves in Riefenstahl's, dancing, starring and bowing. Riefenstahl
commits the sin of making people uncomfortable.
To this day, Riefenstahl is shadowed by a devastating article that
Hollywood screenwriter Budd Schulberg wrote for The Saturday Evening
Post of March 30, 1946, entitled ''Nazi Pin-Up Girl.'' Even now the
mention of Schulberg's name stiffens Riefenstahl and leaves her face
fixed. ''When Leni slid down from her profitable glaciers, (she)
wrapped her trim figure in a swastika flag,'' Schulberg wrote. ''If
Adolf was going steady with any girl, it was Leni with the light
brown hair.'' Riefenstahl was a ''fading beauty'' lacking ''in
physical appeal''; even her smile he found ''queer'' and ''clearly
designing.'' The article ran with a sidebar about Tokyo Rose. The
piece is still used as a prime research source, compounding its
effect through the 40 years.
In the wake of the article, a former lover, the actor Luis
Trenker, started publicizing the dusty old tales that Riefenstahl had
been Hitler's plaything. There were other charges that Riefenstahl
had borrowed Gypsies from the concentration camps to use as extras in
Tiefland and, finished with them, heartlessly dispatched them back to
their deaths. (Riefenstahl sued publisher Helmuth Kindler in 1949 for
printing the story about the Gypsies, and when Kindler couldn't
prove his tale, he was fined 600 marks by the court.) And some old
friends went public with grudges, claiming that Riefenstahl had not
gone to petition Hitler to help save this friend or that family
member when they had begged her to.
Because Hollywood was so singularly unforgiving, it made it all
the more difficult for her to outrun the past. She should have seen
it all coming, for what happened to Riefenstahl after the war was
foreshadowed by her experience in Hollywood in the late '30s.
When she docked on the Europa in New York City in the fall of '38,
she was greeted as a major international entertainment figure. By the
time she crossed to California the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the
Defense of American Democracy had distributed fliers that identified
Riefenstahl as ''head of the Nazi film industry,'' crying, THERE IS
NO ROOM IN HOLLYWOOD FOR LENI RIEFENSTAHL. . . . THERE IS NO ROOM IN
HOLLYWOOD FOR NAZI AGENTS!!
No distributor ever dared show Olympia at a public theater in the
U.S., and even now attempts to honor Riefenstahl's work inevitably
end up in controversy. ''I thought Hitler was dead,'' sighed Gloria
Swanson in 1974, when a film festival in Colorado was disrupted by
anti-Riefenstahl protesters. Someday, presumably, the art can be
separated from the artist, and her work can be viewed
dispassionately, but as Mandell wrote in The Nazi Olympics: ''By the
time all the hatred is gone, she will be dead.''
Nevertheless, Riefenstahl herself helped purchase that destiny by
refusing to rewrite the first draft of her life; she has only, in
film argot, given it a good polish. For so many of her
contemporaries, as soon as the war was over, nobody had ever been a
Nazi; nobody had ever supported Hitler. Riefenstahl never joined
the party, but even now, she says she believes that the Hitler she
first knew in the early '30s had potential for good, that he was
driven astray by the ugly little men around him, and that for
whatever reasons, he went quite mad.
Riefenstahl can still make people uneasy and history inconvenient
by reminding them that at the time she made Triumph of the Will, and
afterward, it was not only the IOC that winked at Adolf Hitler.
Riefenstahl declares that as late as 1938 and '39, when she was
traveling throughout Europe exhibiting Olympia, the crowds in
theaters in many countries would applaud lustily for Hitler when he
made his brief appearances in the film. ''People don't like to hear
this now, but I'm sorry, it's the truth,'' she says.
Of course, even if she was only playing a good customer's game
with the Nazis, she was close enough (and bright enough) to have
smelled the rot. Triumph was shot at the end of the summer of '34,
when someone had clearly left Germany out to spoil in the sun. June
30, 1934, was ''The Night of the Long Knives,'' when uncounted
numbers of dissidents were murdered or sent away. A month later
Hitler ordained himself president and chancellor alike, head of
government and state, dictator in totality. A month after that, in
Nuremberg, Riefenstahl unabashedly portrayed him as Good King
Yet even Riefenstahl's most virulent personal critics have never
attributed hate to her, no matter how much coldness and conceit they
might find brimming her cup. And it must count for something that her
greatest happiness came when she lived with the people of another
race, the Nuba in Sudan, Africa.
During the war, she appears to have stayed completely out of
things, except for a disillusioning stint as a war correspondent in
Poland that first week of the German invasion. There she saw dead
bodies for the first time in her life and almost immediately
retreated back into her fantasy world, escaping to Austria and
Czechoslovakia to spend most of the rest of the war finishing
Her only sibling, her brother Heinz, was turned in for muttering
anti-Nazi sentiments and was punished by being sent to the Russian
front. ''If I were so close to Hitler, wouldn't I have saved my own
brother?'' she asks. Heinz was killed in action in the spring of
1944, the same day Leni's father died, his beloved Germany in shame
The light coming into the house is all but gone now. The first
snowflakes will fall before the big picture window very soon.
Riefenstahl sighs. ''So, that is the drama,'' she says. ''I didn't
know what was happening. I didn't know about the concentration camps
until I was under arrest with the Seventh Army. But 40 years later,
many people don't believe this. They would promise me everything to
say, yes, yes, I knew about Auschwitz, I knew about Dachau. But I
didn't. I'm sorry, but I couldn't say, yes, I am a beast, I am a
''I do not understand why, but you can say that every German was a
monster, and people will believe that. But if we say some of us were
not, some of us didn't know, people will not believe that. They would
tell me, say that you are guilty, Leni, say that, and you will work
again. But I wouldn't. I never lied. I always admitted that yes, in
the beginning, I was fascinated by Hitler. I never denied that. But I
had no idea what Hitler was doing.''
She is, however, forever intertwined with him. In history, in
memory, Hitler must always be her patron. ''If my films had not been
so good, so successful, if they had not begun a whole new documentary
school. If I had not been so good. . . .'' Her voice trails off. And
then she brings it back. ''I was only waiting for Penthesilea.
Always, I hoped I would do it. But always I was stopped. I wanted to
make fairy tales, and look what happened to me.''
Another person linked in history with Hitler--in a far different
way, of course--was Jesse Owens. For without Hitler, Owens would have
been just another great athlete of one summer's time. He would have
been Glenn Morris. Remember him? Of course you don't. We remember
Jesse Owens primarily because Hitler has us remember Jesse Owens.
Owens exists, in the oddest way, in tandem with the monster. And so
does Riefenstahl. Like it or not.
In 1972, in Munich, after the West Germans had originally denied
Riefenstahl access to the Olympic Games, Madame Berlioux of the IOC
got her in as a photographer, and one day Riefenstahl was at a
ceremony honoring a new film about Jesse Owens that Bud Greenspan,
the American documentary maker who would shoot the '84 Olympic film,
had produced. Owens got up and thanked Greenspan, and Greenspan's
wife and partner, Cappy. And then Owens said, ''There is another lady
here who is important in my life.'' And he pointed to Riefenstahl,
sitting unobtrusively in the back of the big room, and he called her
to come up and join him.
When Owens introduced her to the crowd, nobody knew what to do.
The dozen or more West German officials who were there were
mortified that this ghost of the Nazis had been called up. The other
people, from all over the world, were confused. As guests in the
German house, they didn't know how to respond. Riefenstahl wasn't
supposed to be a person any longer, and they probably shouldn't
acknowledge her existence. What a mess Owens had made for
But Owens kept on clapping for her, and Riefenstahl rose and
started forward. And then one man in the middle of the crowd got to
his feet and joined Owens in the applause, and that started it. One
by one, as the old lady came forward, the crowd began to rise and
cheer. At first the people were dubious, and then they were polite,
and then they were genuine, and then they gave her such roars, such
honor that Leni, even though she was organized like a man, began to
cry like a woman.
When she got to the front of the room, Owens kissed her, and all
of a sudden it was 1936 again. ''I thank you,'' Leni said, leaning
on Jesse a little, letting him support her a bit. And the people in
the room kept cheering, calling her name. It was very nearly like a
fairy tale. That was one of the few times in the last 40 years that
Leni Riefenstahl was allowed to be a person, like the rest of us. It
was one of the better of her days that had been left over from the
six she had given to Adolf Hitler. END
Table of Contents
Aug. 4, 1986
THE GHOST OF BERLIN FIFTY YEARS AGO, LENI RIEFENSTAHL DIRECTED A BRILLIANT FILM ABOUT THE OLYMPICS, BUT HER ASSOCIATION WITH ADOLF HITLER HAS SHADOWED HER LIFE
In the last years of his life, after he had suffered a cerebral