Owen Gleiberman
April 01, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl

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We gave it an A

For sheer camera-grabbing magnetism, there isn’t a presence in movies right now who can top Leni Riefenstahl, the aging cinematic visionary of the Third Reich. Eighty-nine years old when Ray Muller’s mesmerizing documentary The Wondeful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl was shot, Riefenstahl, who’s best known for creating the infamous Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (and for spending half a century defending the fact that she made it), isn’t just robust. She’s sexy, with curly white-blond hair and a face that beneath its folds and wrinkles retains its youthful contours. An enthusiastic scuba diver at an age when most people are struggling to reach for their walkers, Riefenstahl all but redefines what it means to grow old. And the fascination of Muller’s film is that it reveals how her supernal life force underlies both the pulsating power of her art and the unrepentent amorality that allowed her to make a pact with Adolf Hitler.

Muller takes Riefenstahl back to the original sites of her fame, where, on several occasions, she grows so impassioned that she tries to wrest control of the movie from him. It’s eerie and thrilling to see her stand in the stadium where Triumph of the Will was filmed (it looks oddly innocuous now, like an abandoned high school football field), describing how she placed a track around the podium so the camera could circle Hitler.

The vividness of her memories underscores the continuity of her life: In decade after decade, Leni Riefenstahl engaged in a primal lunge for transcendence. Here she is as a ravishing young German movie star, scaling the Alps barefoot in director Arnold Fanck’s popular ”mountain films.” Here are clips from the hypnotic documentaries she made for Hitler: Triumph of the Will, with its surging, almost sexualized images of fascist hero worship (the movie makes you understand how the Germans could have become true believers), and Olympiad, an epic feat of kinesthetic wizardry in which Riefenstahl transformed the 1936 Berlin Games into a stylized pageant of strength, beauty, bodily genius. Here she is in her 60s, living with the Nuba tribe of Sudan, her photographs of whom served both to rejuvenate her career and to stoke the fires of her controversial reputation (did she envision the Nuba as primitive fascist gods?). And here she is under the sea, filming its primitive wonders, fearlessly reaching out to pet a giant stingray that-the implication is clear-is only as deadly as she.

If you watch closely, Muller’s camera reveals two Riefenstahls: the feisty, remorseless charmer and the complicated private woman struggling to keep that invulnerable image alive. Muller tries to pin her down on such matters as her friendship with Hitler and her reason for returning to Germany after the persecution of Jews had been reported. Often, he presents evidence that undercuts her protestations of ignorance, at one point reading her the ecstatic telegram she sent to Hitler after his invasion of France. At moments like this, her righteousness about the purity of her motives masks a far more likely reality, which is that she was a ruthless artist-careerist willing to delude herself into looking the other way.

Yet does that mean she had knowledge of the concentration camps? And if not (the evidence suggests that she didn’t), was she still, in essence, a Nazi collaborator? As Stephen Schiff argued in his brilliant 1992 profile of Riefenstahl in Vanity Fair, the standard, knee-jerk condemnation of Riefenstahl-she was there, and therefore she was guilty-may be every bit as facile as her own slick rationalizations. It is rooted less in any definitive information about what she did or did not know than it is in our cozy, hindsight vision of Hitler as a figure of mythical evil. Of course, it was Leni Riefenstahl’s filmmaking genius that first transmogrified Hitler into myth. Perhaps it’s appropriate-if not entirely just-that the very power of that myth will always damn her. A

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