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Culture

Leni Riefenstahl: Genius of Controversy

Leni Riefenstahl has been surrounded by controversy ever since being commissioned by Hitler to make propaganda films. Her new film, released on the eve of her 100th birthday on Wednesday, is her first in half a century.

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Film maker Leni Riefenstahl, 100 on Thursday, is still the centre of attraction wherever she goes

A plane appears from behind the clouds, swooping across the sun, its shadow flitting above the rooftops. It is Adolf Hitler, flying in to attend the Nuremberg Rally.

This powerful scene depicts the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of Will, a both chilling and glorifying account of the Nuremberg Party Rally held in 1934.

Riefenstahl would go on to make other documentaries for the Nazis that proved her creative genius even as they thrust her into controversy that would endure the rest of her days. On Thursday, Leni Riefenstahl celebrates her 100th birthday - as controversial a figure as ever.

Hitler intrigued by Riefenstahl films

Born in Berlin in 1902, Leni Riefenstahl, a former dancer and actress, turned to film directing in the early 30s.

Her first feature film, “The Blue Light” attracted the attention of then political rising star Adolf Hitler.

Indeed, he was so intrigued that he invited Riefenstahl to his seaside resort on the Baltic where he commissioned her with propaganda films. Her first movie was a documentation of the Nuremberg Rally, later followed by a film on the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

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

Yet Riefenstahl claims her film Olympia glorified the human form purely for aesthetic reasons, and did not, as critics claim, put the Aryan race on a pedestal.

Art, not politics

Indeed, Riefenstahl has always denied any involvement in politics, saying despite her fim-making involvement for the Nazi regime she was never a member of the Nazi party.

In addition, she claims she was swept along on the general tide of enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler, and did not realize what he had been doing until it was too late.

But the fate of Riefenstahl was soon sealed after denouncing reports of the mass murder as nonsense, after returning to Germany from the US at the time of the Kristallnacht, which led to the deportation of some 20,000 Jews to concentration camps.

Since the end of WWII, Riefenstahl has contested, and won more than 50 libel suits on her involvement with the Nazis and the films that were made in that era. She was cleared of being a Nazi, but became a pariah in Germany, and left filmmaking for photography.

Tribal life and coral reefs

In the years to come, Riefenstahl photographed the Nuba tribe in Sudan, documenting the gleaming black, mostly naked bodies of this disappearing tribe in much the same way as her powerful images of the athletes’ bodies during the 1936 Olympics.

At the age of 70, she learned to scuba dive and consequently photographed and filmed the world under water in regions all over the world.

Leni Riefenstahl Impressions Under Water

Riefenstahl has chosen to present a compilation of these underwater documentaries on the event of her 100th birthday - her first film released in 48 years.

In addition, a new film on the life of Leni Riefenstahl is likely to be released in 2003, starring American actress Jodie Foster.

Hollywood tackles Riefenstahl

When Foster proposed to make the film several months ago, she was instantly condemmed by members of Hollywood’s Jewish community.

The controversy reflects the way Riefenstahl is still condemned by Jewish communities across the world for the way she used her undoubted talent and artistic genius in the service of a barbarous regime responsible for the genocide of millions.

However, Riefenstahl herself is also opposed to the film, albeit for different reasons.

The 100-year-old has refused to sign a deal ensuring the makers of the film the use of her memoirs. Hollywood has demanded the right to films scenes that do not appear in these recollections.

Riefenstahl has protested adamantly against this, fearing untrue scenes in the film, possibly depicting her as Hitler’s lover.

Old age, it seems, hasn't slowed down Riefenstahl's campaign to justify her life.