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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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The hypocritical, adulterous Goebbels claimed to be upset at this celebration of the human body. Indeed, at that time it was actually against the law in Germany to photograph the naked female. But Goebbels was more genuinely furious at the political tone—or, more accurately, the lack thereof—in Olympia . He raged that, while the director had devoted a signifiant amount of time to the discipline of gymnastics, she had never so much as mentioned that the host country had won five gold medals in that competition. In fact by any form of tabulation, the Germans decisively defeated the U.S. and every other nation in the '36 Games, but the movie makes no reference whatsoever to any international competition, much less to who might have won.

Triumph of the Will and Olympia have, by now, become twined, but apart from the fact that they were both filmed in Nazi Germany by the same person, there is no association between them in substance or tone. In Olympia , Hitler makes little more than a cameo appearance, and if there is a single individual who draws the most attention, it is a black American, Jesse Owens—the symbol, the personification of all that contradicted Hitler and his theories of a master race. Riefenstahl did cheer for her countrymen in competition, and she posed for photographs with the German gold medalists, but she became a congenial figure for all the athletes and the friend of many foreign competitors, Owens most prominently.

In her own collection there is an evocative photograph of Riefenstahl with the late Glenn Morris, the young American who won the decathlon in Berlin. Morris is clearly enraptured, peering adoringly at the gorgeous older woman. "It looks like he's in love with you," someone says to Riefenstahl 50 years later.

She glances at the photo, and the pilot light of memory flickers in her eyes. She tilts her head and smiles. "Perhaps," is all she says, smugly.

For then, the whole world was in love with Leni Riefenstahl. Olympia was not only extolled everywhere, but it brought in more foreign hard currency in 1938 than all the other German films put together. The IOC was so enraptured that it voted her a gold medal, just like her champions. The capstone came at the Venice Film Festival of 1938, where she was presented with the award for the year's finest film. Olympia defeated Snow White. She had beaten Walt Disney's fairy tale.

She had the glory and she could obtain what money she needed. So she put Tiefland on hold so that she might make her ultimate picture, Penthesilea. Even now, even after all these years, she sparkles at the mere mention of the film. Penthesilea, more than any man, was the love of her life. She once wrote, "If there is a transmigration of souls, then I must have lived Penthesilea's life. Every word she speaks is spoken from the very depth of my soul."

Riefenstahl was ready to begin the filming by the summer of '39. Everything was in place. Even the horses that the Amazons would ride had been specially trained. In August, Riefenstahl went climbing in the Dolomites to escape and refresh herself before shooting began. "I was so strong, so healthy," she says now. "That was always best for me, the mountains."

The word reached her in the mountains. War was coming. She rushed back to Berlin. On Sept. 1, Hitler marched into Poland and, forever after, the six days he had asked for would be the price she paid for the rest of her life.

When the war was over the Nazi trials began. The U.S. Seventh Army found Riefenstahl in Kitzb�hel, Austria, and locked her up; they examined the record and cleared her. "I never had any trouble with the American Army because they knew the truth," she says. Then the French had their day in court. They too acquitted her, in 1948. Then her own people had at her, and she was tried in a denazification court in Freiburg. It wasn't until 1952 that she was at last cleared of all charges by all courts. The final verdict by a West Berlin denazification court declared unequivocally that Riefenstahl engaged in "no political activity in support of the Nazi regime which would warrant punishment.... No relationships were established that went beyond what is necessary for the execution of her artistic undertakings.... No close or even intimate relationship with Hitler existed."

Riefenstahl became the most famous person identified with Hitler who did not escape or get punished.

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