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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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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 G�ring'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 f�hrer 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 September.

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 look.

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