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26 August 2010

A disturbing story

German artist Leni Riefenstahl became a favourite of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, making films for his fascist regime. She was adamant, though, she was not a supporter of the Nazis, and that she had done the films for art and not politics.  

I read that her film, Triumph des Willens, is a groundbreaking work of art, and that Olympia, her record of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, was an amazing less propaganda and much more a paean to athletes an aesthetics of sports competition. Many of the pioneering techniques she used for that film (cranes, tracking rails, slow-motion, multiple cameras) are still used for contemporary Olympic and sports TV coverage.

Good, she was a woman of multiple talents and brought innovation to filmamaking, but I honestly find it hard to believe that she was not a willing accomplice in the horrors. She was investigated for Holocaust denial after she said she was unaware that Gypsies which had been taken from concentration camps to be used as extras in one of her wartime films had later died in the camps. Come on! I think she much largely ignored the suffering and the persecution that Hitler and his enchmen caused. 
In one of her films, Tiefland, she needed extras with a Spanish look, especially children. These were gypsies. In the beginning of the war gypsies had been put into concentration camps because of the alleged "impurity" of their "race", although those camps were not yet extermination camps at that time. It has so far not been clarified who selected the gypsies in those camps nor how they where treated during the film activities (credits).
Although the court stated that the artist has used gypsies from concentration camps and that most of them had been killed in the gas chamber afterwards, the judges found no reason to believe this and Riefensthal was acquitted once and forever.
Anyway, no gypsy who had served as an extra was present at that time in the court and with time some started to talk. Indeed, there were few survivors; many stated that family members who had played in the film had been gassed in Auschwitz shortly after having worked with Riefenstahl. Nevertheless, their public statements were extremely different: some found that working for Riefenstahl had been their best time during the war, others stated that they were better off in the concentration camp than under Riefenstahl's control. These contradictions have been shown to be caused by the fact that gypsies from various camps had been used at different times (same credits).
Riefenstahl went to court many times to defend herself against the press statements about this matter. And since she had been acquitted, she won any case she started. Yet each time, her victories were only half-won: magazines and newspapers had to rectify only certain sentences of their articles, documentary makers had to cut only a few minutes of their films.
The "gypsy question" continued until 2002, when Riefenstahl turned one hundred. This time, as she had stated publicly that she had seen all "her gypsies" back after the war, she could be charged with denial of the extermination of gypsies. Due to her advanced age and her illness, no further action was taken against her. At the same time, the surviving gypsies asked for money for their work as well as to be credited on the film.

And so this woman's life was stigmatized. She was not allowed to continue making films after the war but she kept being considered the mother of modern film. The rise and fall of her career can be visioned  in this video, which is a piece that presents her views without editorializing about how she must have been a horrible person.

But there's also this exctract from the short satirical narrative loosely based on true events in the final years of Leni Riefenstahl's controversial life. And it expresses my point of view. 

A feminist pioneer or a woman of evil? An actress, in the first place, as quoted in her early career. A person for whom acting comes natural. And she was Hitler's friend, for goodness sake! I don't think that the fact she was excited, like almost every German, at the prospect that her country might make a comeback after the devastation of WWI can be a necessary perspective whenever considering her work. No, thanks. That sounds like a damn excuse to me. Sorry.


  1. I don't know about this lady, if she was aware or not (many Germans years later used the "I had no clue" as an excuse)but I find a Nation doomed whe its people are ignorant, don't give a dam and have no sensitivity left. If the Germans of the 40s had some of that, I doubt we would have such bloddy pages in our History. And...... thanks for keeping us alert!

  2. u welcome, sweet pie! it's great to know there's someone who agrees with me out there!


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