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Hitler's favored filmmaker, revered and reviled for her work, dies at 101

Leni Riefenstahl, the German film director whose masterpiece, "Triumph of the Will" (1935), made art of the documentary even as it made Nazi propaganda of art, died Monday night at her home in the German town of Poecking. She was 101.

Ms. Riefenstahl died in her sleep, according to her companion, Horst Kettner.

One of the most controversial figures in film history, Ms. Riefenstahl (pronounced REEF-en-stahl) stood at the intersection of art and politics. To the filmmaker Jean Cocteau, Ms. Riefenstahl was "the genius of the cinema" who brought it "to heights that it has seldom ever attained." The British documentary film producer John Grierson called her "one of the greatest filmmakers in the world and certainly the greatest female filmmaker in history."

Yet did her work's stunning beauty and remarkable innovativeness neutralize its association with the Nazis? Ms. Riefenstahl's most famous admirer thought not. "Triumph of the Will," which records the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremburg, is "a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement," Adolf Hitler said.

Hitler had come to admire Ms. Riefenstahl through her work as an actress in a series of feature films during the late '20s and early '30s set in mountainous locales. "My perfect German woman," he called her. She also directed a feature film, "The Blue Light" (1932). At Hitler's urging, she made "Triumph of the Will." With the financial backing of the Nazi Party, she made her other great documentary, "Olympia" (1938), a 3-hour epic about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Ms. Riefenstahl, who had not been a Nazi Party member, spent nearly six decades pleading her innocence. "I don't understand," she lamented in a 2002 New York Times interview. "What have I ever done? I never intended any harm to anyone." She would frequently cite the 1952 verdict in her favor by a German court: "no political activity in support of the Nazi regime which would warrant punishment."

Perhaps the most telling judgment of Ms. Riefenstahl came from a Jewish friend who had fled Germany in the '30s. "My memory of you has always been that of a person seeking perfection," he wrote her in 1949.

That seeking is evident throughout her work, whether it be the authoritarian perfection of the Reich celebrated in "Triumph of the Will"; the physical perfection of the athletes in "Olympia" or the African tribesmen in her books of photographs, "The Last of the Nuba" (1974) and "People of the Kau" (1976); the exalted, above-the-clouds perfection of the mountain films; or the otherworldly perfection she photographed beneath the waves in "Coral Gardens" (1978) and the documentary film "Impressions Under Water" (2002).

The critic Susan Sontag called Ms. Riefenstahl an "indomitable priestess of the beautiful." A measure of agnosticism on the priestess' part would have benefited her in both art and life. In worshipping perfection, Ms. Riefenstahl fetishized it, making it abstract, unreal, certainly sterile. Her undeniable artistry was fundamentally inhuman, dedicated to aestheticizing her subject matter into arrangements of perfect form. The great fascination of her art is also its great failing. Athletes, coral reefs, storm troopers: The arrangement was all the same to her.

Berta Helene Amalia Riefenstahl was born in Berlin on Aug. 22, 1902. Her father, Alfred Riefenstahl, owned a plumbing firm. Her mother, Berta (Scherlach) Riefenstahl, was a housewife.

In her teens, Ms. Riefenstahl began to study dance, both classical and modern. She made her debut in 1923, dancing to her own choreography. It is a mark of her success that she appeared under the auspices of the legendary impresario Max Reinhardt and the composer Ferruccio Busoni wrote his "Valse Caprice" for her.

Deeply impressed by the work of the director Arnold Fanck, who specialized in films shot in alpine settings, Ms. Riefenstahl sought him out. He cast her in "The Holy Mountain" (1926). Abandoning her dance career, she starred in his next five films. "My slightly squinting gaze was perfect for the two-dimensional medium of film," Ms. Riefenstahl later said. Her blend of athleticism, independence, and intensity lent her a striking screen presence.

Out of curiosity, she went to hear Hitler speak in 1932. "It seemed as if the earth's surface were spreading out in front of me," she wrote in her autobiography. She met with him. "I made a crucial distinction between Hitler's political notions and his personality." The latter, she admitted, greatly impressed her.

It was widely rumored during the '30s that Ms. Riefenstahl was romantically involved with the dictator. "Are you Hitler's girlfriend?" reporters kept asking on a US visit in 1938. According to Ms. Riefenstahl, he embraced her at that first meeting but nothing developed beyond that.

At Hitler's request, Ms. Riefenstahl made a brief documentary about the 1933 Nuremburg rally, "Victory of Faith." Its success led to "Triumph of the Will" (the title was Hitler's).

Ms. Riefenstahl spent four months making arrangements for the filming and was closely involved in planning the rally. It was, in effect, a gigantic photo op (as we would now call it), one she made the most of. Ms. Riefenstahl employed tracking shots, crane shots, aerial shots, and even put some of her 32 cameramen on roller skates. All of them wore the uniform of the SA, the Nazi storm troopers, "so that no one will disturb the solemnity of the image with his civilian clothing," as the head of the SA put it.

Ms. Riefenstahl shot some 100 hours of film for "Triumph of the Will." She shot twice that amount for "Olympia," using more than 60 cameramen and an even greater variety of angles and techniques than in its predecessor. "All televised sport is indebted to `Olympia' " the critic Richard Corliss has written. Its much-celebrated concluding sequence, on platform diving, is among the most beautiful in film history.

Ms. Riefenstahl visited the United States to promote "Olympia." The only film executive willing to see her was Walt Disney. Asked by a reporter how the reception she'd gotten in Hollywood compared with the treatment a Jewish filmmaker would receive in Berlin, Ms. Riefenstahl became angry. "You are a bad man," she said. "All you do is put down the things that are not good."

Ms. Riefenstahl briefly filmed the Nazi invasion of Poland, then took up a long-cherished project, a feature film called "Tiefland," which she directed and starred in. It would not be released until 1954. For the filming, Gypsies imprisoned in concentration camps were used as extras.

In 1944, Ms. Riefenstahl married Peter Jacob, a major in the German army. They divorced three years later. In the meantime, she was twice briefly imprisoned as a Nazi sympathizer.

Various film projects came to nothing, and Africa became Ms. Riefenstahl's surpassing interest. She had read Ernest Hemingway's "Green Hills of Africa" in 1955 and resolved to go there. Her many visits produced several photography books.

With the return of the Olympics to Germany, in 1972, Ms. Riefenstahl became chic. The London Sunday Times Magazine assigned her to photograph the games. Mick and Bianca Jagger had her take their portrait. Andy Warhol invited her to The Factory. She was honored at the first Telluride Film Festival, in 1974.

An interest in diving came to rival her passion for Africa. She understated her age by 20 years to qualify for a scuba license, and her diving figures prominently in Ray Muller's documentary "The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" (1993).

Mark Feeney can be reached at

Leni Riefenstahl shooting the film "Tiefland" in Berlin around 1940; the director at a Frankfurt book fair in 2000. Leni Riefenstahl shooting the film "Tiefland" in Berlin around 1940; the director at a Frankfurt book fair in 2000. (AFP / AP Photos)
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