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THE GHOST OF BERLIN
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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In the last years of his life, after he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, H.L. Mencken would refer to his own reduced capacity derisively as if he were deceased. "Before I died..." he would idly begin a sentence about something in the past .

Leni Riefenstahl is remarkably hale for 83. Her hair is an ingenue's strawberry blonde, and she flirts with as much proficiency as ever. Her eyes are clear, a fawn brown with a ring of gray-green fringing the iris. Her mind is a well-lighted room, her will as unyielding as it was down all the interrogations and trials. She will not give an inch, growing testy now, then rude, to snoopers who would dare to trespass on those olden times she shared with evil men.

Only her hip, injured in a skiing accident, troubles her. For therapy she swims, diving with a camera as far as 50 meters down, alone amid the rocks and the coral and the sand. "Underwater, I have no pain," she says.

Above the water she works ceaselessly, carving out her memoirs, hating to finish them, for they are, she dreams, the one last proof of her innocence. For all the courts that cleared her. American and French and German alike, there was no public absolution for her and certainly no redemption in the world of film. Still, some consider her the greatest female director who ever lived, the creator of the greatest sports film ever made. It is 50 summers now since she shot Olympia and, like the athletes, won a gold medal for it. But after that there would be only one more movie, a fairy tale, named Tiefland. It's ironic; all Leni Riefenstahl ever wanted was to tell fairy tales.

She looks at a photograph of herself, one taken a half-century ago. In it she is peering over folded arms, her shoulders are bare, her delicately beautiful face luminous—Germany's Garbo, she was called—the woman at her most gorgeous. Riefenstahl taps the photograph. "They killed me then," she explains. "I am a ghost." Before I died....

When World War II ended and the true horror of the Nazi regime—Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau—was revealed to the world, thousands of Germans were called to account for their associations, great or small, with the fascist government: There was execution for some, imprisonment for others, self-exile for a few, living ghosthood for Leni Riefenstahl. Has anyone else ever posed the question of an artist's justification quite like Riefenstahl? The celluloid artifacts from the '30s and '40s cannot tell us for sure how much it was that she served herself or served art or served Adolf Hitler.

Riefenstahl was a fine athlete, a dancer first, then a mountain climber. A decade ago, when she wanted to get into underwater photography, she took a diving course. She lied about her age. Students couldn't be accepted if they were over 55; she was 72 at the time. But then, she has been accomplished at whatever she attempted. "I only wanted to be a dancer," she says now, but after she mastered dancing she became an internationally acclaimed actress, director, producer, photographer. Riefenstahl has, it seems, managed to succeed at all she has ventured, save the one thing. "My name is beschmutzt," she snaps. Besmirched. Indeed, her many critics claim she has gotten off easy, that at the least she should have been stuck behind bars like Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, and the others who buffed Nazism with their cuffs and made it shine. But Riefenstahl, they say, was too wily, too much the she-devil. As Amos Vogel wrote in Film as a Subversive Art, she could "inspire impressionable men to smooth her into an innocent, apolitical artist."

Still, she could never get another film to direct. Half a dozen times after the war it appeared she had firm offers, but on each occasion the deal fell through. "They would tell me," she says, "that they had heard: If you make a film with Leni, you will never get another film from Hollywood."

In the mid-'50s she was able to start work on a movie about the slave trade in Africa, but shortly after her arrival in Kenya, the car she was traveling in swerved to avoid a dwarf antelope and crashed, and Riefenstahl's magnificent lapidary face was thrown through the windshield. She was taken to Nairobi, where they patched her up with a darning needle. It was six weeks before she could walk. The money ran out and the film had to be abandoned.

But from that experience came Riefenstahl's affection for Africa—"It means more to me than any country"—and her career as a still photographer. In 1962 she rented out her apartment in Munich to pay bills for her aged mother and, with less than $1,000, departed for the most primitive parts of Africa, photographing the Nuba tribe, recording a world that had been rarely revealed. Though her photographs were published and her books were best-sellers, and though she became acknowledged as a top professional photographer, she could not get credentials for the '72 Olympics, which were held in Munich. The Germans didn't like to be reminded of Riefenstahl. Finally, the director of the International Olympic Committee, Monique Berlioux, who had helped the French Resistance during World War II, obtained photographer's credentials for Riefenstahl.

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