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Frank Deford
August 04, 1986
Fifty years ago, Leni Riefenstahl directed a brilliant film about the Olympics, but her association with Adolf Hitler has shadowed her life
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August 04, 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

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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 splendor.

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 M�rchen, her fairy tales. She took to dancing, too.

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 evening.

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, Fr�ulein 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 danced again.

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."

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