The Troubling Rehabilitation of Leni Riefenstahl

July 2, 2018 | Matt Lebovic
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Berlin’s Museum of Photography is currently planning an exhibit of items from the estate of the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose work earned her the admiration of Adolf Hitler and who produced several propaganda movies for the Nazis. To Matt Lebovic, the exhibit is a reminder that Riefenstahl was never held to account for her collaboration with the Third Reich:

Riefenstahl was the first woman to earn international attention as a filmmaker, directing the Nazi-glorifying Triumph of the Will and Day of Freedom: Our Army. Relying on her close relationship with Hitler, Riefenstahl crafted films that mesmerized the German public and audiences abroad. In Olympia, her racially conscious Olympics extravaganza, she pioneered several [cinematic] techniques. . . .

Following Riefenstahl’s post-war rehabilitation—she was never convicted of being a Nazi by the Allies—she made a secret deal with Transit Films and government officials to receive royalties from her Nazi-era projects. Riefenstahl felt no need for “atonement” along the lines of Hitler’s armaments chief, Albert Speer. Well into her golden years, Riefenstahl vigorously sued people who claimed she had been a Nazi.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Riefenstahl arrived on-site as a war correspondent. As the army swept eastward, she witnessed the execution of 30 civilians in the town of Konskie, as well as the murder of Jewish grave diggers. With photographs placing her at the scene of the crime, Riefenstahl later claimed she had attempted to halt the execution, and that she went to Hitler in order to express her indignation. . . . A few weeks after Riefenstahl witnessed the execution, she filmed Hitler’s “victory parade” in Warsaw, in which her patron viewed his forces marching through a bombed-out city. . . .

Beginning in the 1960s, Leni Riefenstahl’s comeback period included a stint photographing the 1972 Munich Olympics as well as interviews in which she distanced herself from Hitler. She always denied having been an anti-Semite or having known about the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust.

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