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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Meeting Leni Riefenstahl


By Bob Chaundy
BBC News Profiles Unit

Though she will best remembered for her wartime documentaries, Leni Riefenstahl was still working into old age. The BBC's Bob Chaundy recalls the impressions she made on him when he met her three years ago.

I'd always been fascinated by Leni Riefenstahl since I saw Triumph of the Will many years ago.

The image of Hitler's plane swooping through the sky like an eagle, with the sun glinting from its fuselage, and its long, eerie shadow cast on to the roads and fields of Nuremburg to where the Fuehrer was going to address one of his infamous rallies, will forever be etched on my mind.

Leni Riefenstahl
The extraordinary choreography of this and so many of the scenes in Triumph of the Will and her other masterpiece, Olympia, displayed a passion and an imagination that few other documentary makers have possessed.

Her extraordinary camera angles and novelties like slow motion were years ahead of their time.

Add to that the fact she was commissioned to make the film in order to glorify the power of the German people and the so-called Aryan race in particular, and you have an irresistible concoction of controversy.

Leni Riefenstahl directing film
A film director of tainted genius
For Riefenstahl's name will always be tainted.

So, it was with a sense of fascination that I looked forward to meeting her three years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair. She was there to publicise her new book, The Five Lives of Leni Riefenstahl.

The title refers to her careers as an actress, mountaineer, film-maker, photographer and author.

Flirtatious

She didn't disappoint. My immediate impression when first seeing her was how tiny she was, and that she had a large hooked nose that would doubtless have been the subject of plastic surgery had she followed rival Marlene Dietrich to Hollywood.

But she had the most passionate fire in her strikingly blue eyes and a vivacity you don't see in very many people, let alone a 98-year-old. She had that indefinable quality, charisma.

When I complimented her on her English (a false compliment I might add), she embraced me like an old friend. I found myself flirting with someone old enough to be my grandmother.

Leni with Bob Chaundy
Flirting with a 98 year-old
Her long-time partner Horst Kettner was with us in the interview room. A bear of a man, he was refreshingly eccentric in his manner, and it was easy to see how he could be attracted to someone a lot older than himself.

Of course, Leni Riefenstahl continued to deny being a Nazi. She reiterated the difference between her documentaries and the cheap, crude propaganda films that were the normal staple of Goebbels's department.

But that, of course, was what made them so much more terrifying.

She was excited by her first public appearance for many years and what was clearly a rehabilitation from the German public, judging by the huge standing ovation she was given at an ensuing media conference.

But in a moment of resignation, Leni Riefenstahl admitted to me, rather movingly, her regret that she would be judged by what amounted to a fleeting moment in a long and full life.




SEE ALSO:
Film-maker Leni Riefenstahl dies
09 Sep 03  |  Entertainment
Obituary: Leni Riefenstahl
09 Sep 03  |  Entertainment


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