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Monday, 23 October, 2000, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
The five lives of Leni Riefenstahl
Leni Riefenstahl
By the BBC's arts correspondent Nick Higham

A new book out this week chronicles in pictures the life of one of the 20th Century's most extraordinary women, the notorious German film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl.

Its title, Five Lives, gives some clue as to its subject's remarkable ability to reinvent herself.

The Five Lives of Leni Riefenstahl
The new pictorial biography
The first of those lives was in some ways her favourite. The young Leni started as a dancer, touring Germany and Europe as a solo performer until injury forced her to quit.

In the 1920s and early 1930s she transformed herself into a film star in a succession of German feature films, tales of adventure and romance set in the Alps and the Arctic, which supplied a showcase for her beauty and athleticism.

At the time it was almost unheard of for an actor - let alone an actress - to make the transition to director, yet Riefenstahl managed it.

She made a feature film, The Blue Light, whose fans included Adolf Hitler, then a rising star in German politics. In the spring of 1932, she was summoned by the Nazi leader to a resort on the Baltic coast.

According to Riefenstahl's own account they walked on the beach; he told her that when he came to power she was to make films especially for him. But when he tried to kiss her she recoiled: the atmosphere at breakfast the next morning was distant and formal.

Leni Riefenstahl in The Blue Light
Her performance in The Blue Light impressed Adolf Hitler
Nonetheless, Leni Riefenstahl had fallen under Hitler's spell. Talking about him today her voice softens, her eyes light up. But she was not alone, she maintains, in succumbing to his charisma.

"I am one of millions who thought Hitler had all the answers. We saw only the good things, we didn't know bad things were to come", she told BBC News.

Riefenstahl went on to prove herself a documentary-maker of genius. Her film of the 1934 Nazi Party Nuremberg Rally, Triumph of the Will, was more than simply a record of the event.

From the opening shots of Hitler's plane arriving through the clouds, its shadow flitting across the roofs of the ancient city, it sets out - in Hitler's own words - to glorify the power and beauty of the Third Reich.

Yet Leni Riefenstahl has always denied that she was a member of the Nazi Party - she was twice cleared by tribunals after World War Two - and claims today that she was uninterested in politics.

"I was only interested in how I could make a film that was not stupid like a newsreel, but more interesting."

Hitler in Triumph of the Will
Triumph of the Will glorified Hitler
In 1936, at Hitler's behest, she filmed the Berlin Olympics. She used more than 40 cameramen, shot 250 miles of film, spending 18 months in the cutting room.

The result, Olympia, was visually stunning and uplifting, and to her credit, Riefenstahl gave full prominence to the phenomenal performances of the black American athlete Jesse Owens, whose dominance of the games gave the lie to the superiority of Hitler's Aryan master-race.

Many of the techniques we take for granted today in presenting sport on film or television were invented by Leni Riefenstahl.

In 1938 she went to America to promote Olympia. The tour coincided with the infamous Kristallnacht of violence against the Jews, when an estimated 20,000 were carted off to concentration camps and scores were murdered.

Too blinkered in her admiration of Hitler to realise the truth, Riefenstahl denounced the reports of violence as lies, and returned to Germany.

The famous diving sequence in Olympia
The famous diving sequence in Olympia
From that moment her post-war fate was sealed. Though cleared of being a Nazi, she became a pariah in Germany, her film career effectively at an end.

Her career drifted until, in the 1960s, she began her fourth life, photographing the Nuba tribe of Sudan and their way of life (now vanished). Well into her 70s she learnt to scuba dive and launched into a fifth career, as an underwater photographer.

Last week I interviewed Leni Riefenstahl in Frankfurt, where she had come to launch Five Lives at the city's vast annual book fair. She fired questions and instructions at my cameraman, the old habits of the director dying hard.


We only saw the good things, we didn't know the bad things were to come

Leni Riefenstahl on Hitler
She may be 98, but she showed few signs of diminishing intellectual capacity or self-belief.

When the American actress Jodie Foster recently proposed to make a film of her life, she was instantly condemned by members of Hollywood's Jewish community.

Foster's critics simply cannot accept the idea of a film about a woman they condemn for the way she used her undoubted talents in the service of a barbarous and repressive regime.

A photograph of a Nuba
She photographed the Nuba tribe in Sudan
Leni Riefenstahl herself is opposed to Foster's film, though for a rather different reason. She refused to sign a deal for the use of her memoirs when the Hollywood lawyers demanded the right to film scenes that did not appear in them.

"If they said I was Hitler's lover, that I slept with Hitler, it wouldn't be true, I would die", she protests.

As for Leni Riefenstahl herself, she shows no signs of fading away. She agreed to the publishers' title for the new book, Five Lives. You wonder whether, even at 98, she still thinks she had the rest of the proverbial nine still to come.

Five Lives is published by Taschen at 24.99.

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