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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 extraordinary.
"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 frail woman.
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 f�hrer 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.' "