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Controversial Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl Dead at 101

German filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl -- highly controversial for her propaganda films on the Nazi regime -- died Monday, one week after her 101st birthday.


Leni Riefenstahl at age 100

Germany’s seemingly invincible filmmaker and photographer, who donned scuba gear even on her 100th birthday to snap shots of sharks in turquoise waters, succumbed to a prolonged illness at her home in southern Germany on Monday night. She had just turned 101.

Riefenstahl, who was suffering from cancer, died in her sleep, companion Horst Kettner told Bunte magazine. "Her heart simply stopped," Kettner said. Riefenstahl is reported to have undergone a series of operations in recent years including one for a fractured femur.

Venturing into Nazi territory

Born in 1902 in Berlin, Riefenstahl started out as a dancer, performing both in Germany and in Europe. A knee injury forced her to stop and she then turned her attention to film and an acting career. She went on to star in classics like the The White Hell of Pitz Palu.

Riefenstahl ventured into filmmaking in the 1930s and it was her first feature film, The Blue Light, which attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler, then a rising political star. He was so intrigued by her work that he summoned her to a Baltic seaside resort where he commissioned her to create films about the Nazi party.

Leni Riefenstahl überprüft eine Kamera-Einstellung

Leni Riefenstahl during the shooting of "Triumph of the Will"

Her first work, Triumph of the Will (photo), a hypnotic documentary about the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally, was later followed by a film on the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Triumph of Will earned Riefenstahl awards at the Venice and Paris film festivals in the 1930s.

Riefenstahl’s pioneering film techniques, including lifts installed in the swastika-bearing flagpoles at the 1936 Olympics to enable vertical tracking shots, made her works both powerful and disturbing glorifications of the Nazi regime.

"Nazi sympathizer" and "Hitler's girl"

But after the war, critical questions were raised over Riefenstahl’s collaboration with the Nazis, as reflected in her works. Riefenstahl denied all conscious involvement with the regime and insisted she had not been a member of the National Socialist Party. She claimed her film Olympia glorified the human form purely for aesthetic reasons, and did not, as critics claim, put the Aryan race on a pedestal.

But the press continued to hound her as "Nazi pin-up girl," "Nazi sympathizer" and "Hitler’s girl." Since the end of the war, Riefenstahl won more than 50 libel suits relating to her involvement with the Nazis and the films that were made in that era.

As late as 2002, Riefenstahl was investigated for Holocaust denial after she said she did not know that gypsies taken from concentration camps to be used as extras in one of her wartime films later died in the camps. The case was eventually dropped.

"I don't know what I should apologize for"

Shunned by society and the media after the war, Riefenstahl cultivated an interest in photography and scuba diving.

Though she won critical acclaim for her later photographs of the African Nuba people and of undersea flora and fauna, Riefenstahl was unable to shake off the stigma of being a Nazi sympathizer.

In an interview with the Associated Press just before her 100th birthday in 2002, Riefenstahl said she had "apologized for ever being born," but that she should not be criticized for her skillful films. "I don’t know what I should apologize for," she said. "I cannot apologize for example, for having made the film Triumph of the Will – it won the top prize. All my films won prizes."

Riefenstahl said the search for beauty dominated all her artistic quests. "I always see more of the good and the beautiful than the ugly and the sick," she said. "Through my optimism I naturally prefer and capture the beauty in life."

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