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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 the legend leveled the law, and she became a target, a scapegoat. Though she was only 49 years old, no one would give the woman who was arguably the finest director of her time a movie to make.

Riefenstahl doesn't just remind people of Hitler and unadulterated evil, like an Eichmann or a Mengele. In the very ambiguity of the role she played during the Nazi regime, she reminds Germans of themselves, of what they had done, or perhaps, of what they hadn't done.

No one wants to be some ghoul like Bormann or Goebbels. No one even wants to be an amiable toady like Eva Braun. But most of us would like to have been a Leni Riefenstahl—beautiful, smart, talented. Jaworsky, her cameraman, put his finger on it once. "When the war was over," he said, "Leni was prosecuted and she said, 'I believed in him, O.K.; maybe in my shoes you would have too.' " We don't see ourselves in monsters' shoes, but many of us can see ourselves in Riefenstahl's, dancing, starring and bowing. Riefenstahl commits the sin of making people uncomfortable.

To this day, Riefenstahl is shadowed by a devastating article that Hollywood screenwriter Budd Schulberg wrote for The Saturday Evening Post of March 30, 1946, entitled "Nazi Pin-Up Girl." Even now the mention of Schulberg's name stiffens Riefenstahl and leaves her face fixed. "When Leni slid down from her profitable glaciers, [she] wrapped her trim figure in a swastika flag," Schulberg wrote. "If Adolf was going steady with any girl, it was Leni with the light brown hair." Riefenstahl was a "fading beauty" lacking "in physical appeal"; even her smile he found "queer" and "clearly designing." The article ran with a sidebar about Tokyo Rose. The piece is still used as a prime research source, compounding its effect through the 40 years.

In the wake of the article, a former lover, the actor Luis Trenker, started publicizing the dusty old tales that Riefenstahl had been Hitler's plaything. There were other charges that Riefenstahl had borrowed Gypsies from the concentration camps to use as extras in Tiefland and, finished with them, heartlessly dispatched them back to their deaths. (Riefenstahl sued publisher Helmuth Kindler in 1949 for printing the story about the Gypsies, and when Kindler couldn't prove his tale, he was fined 600 marks by the court.) And some old friends went public with grudges, claiming that Riefenstahl had not gone to petition Hitler to help save this friend or that family member when they had begged her to.

Because Hollywood was so singularly unforgiving, it made it all the more difficult for her to outrun the past. She should have seen it all coming, for what happened to Riefenstahl after the war was foreshadowed by her experience in Hollywood in the late '30s.

When she docked on the Europa in New York City in the fall of '38, she was greeted as a major international entertainment figure. By the time she crossed to California the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy had distributed fliers that identified Riefenstahl as "head of the Nazi film industry," crying, THERE IS NO ROOM IN HOLLYWOOD FOR LENI RIEFENSTAHL.... THERE IS NO ROOM IN HOLLYWOOD FOR NAZI AGENTS!!

No distributor ever dared show Olympia at a public theater in the U.S., and even now attempts to honor Riefenstahl's work inevitably end up in controversy. "I thought Hitler was dead," sighed Gloria Swanson in 1974, when a film festival in Colorado was disrupted by anti-Riefenstahl protesters. Someday, presumably, the art can be separated from the artist, and her work can be viewed dispassionately, but as Mandell wrote in The Nazi Olympics: "By the time all the hatred is gone, she will be dead."

Nevertheless, Riefenstahl herself helped purchase that destiny by refusing to rewrite the first draft of her life; she has only, in film argot, given it a good polish. For so many of her contemporaries, as soon as the war was over, nobody had ever been a Nazi; nobody had ever supported Hitler. Riefenstahl never joined the party, but even now, she says she believes that the Hitler she first knew in the early '30s had potential for good, that he was driven astray by the ugly little men around him, and that for whatever reasons, he went quite mad.

Riefenstahl can still make people uneasy and history inconvenient by reminding them that at the time she made Triumph of the Will, and afterward, it was not only the IOC that winked at Adolf Hitler. Riefenstahl declares that as late as 1938 and '39, when she was traveling throughout Europe exhibiting Olympia , the crowds in theaters in many countries would applaud lustily for Hitler when he made his brief appearances in the film. "People don't like to hear this now, but I'm sorry, it's the truth," she says.

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