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 Wenceslas.
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 Tiefland.
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 and ashes.
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 devil.
"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 comfortable people.