Leni Riefenstahl died on Monday, September 8, 2003. You can read about it in all the papers. That she was 101 years old; that she made propaganda films glorifying Germany, Adolph Hitler, and the Nazis; that she was still working with a camera up until last year. She was as controversial film maker as ever yelled "action!"
Truth be told, there were probably a lot of things to criticize about Leni. All the should haves and could haves that might follow a person who lived within the German borders in those terrible years and enjoyed the good graces of Adolph himself. As luck would have it, Leni and I had a mutual acquaintance, a writer who had done interviews with both of us. He told me many things about Leni, things that are hard to read between the lines of a magazine piece, and I found myself fascinated by her.
Leni was a great artist. (She was also a very sexy looker in her own right.) She photographed moving pictures in ways that had been undreamed of before. She put cameras in places no one had ever put them. You can find Triumph of the Will, a film of a giant Nazi Party rally in 1934, and Olympia, a documentary of the 1936 Olympics and see what I mean. She was also unafraid to buck the Furher eye-to-eye. When Jesse Owens beat the best the Master Race had to offer, setting world records in the process, Hitler wanted him cut out of Olympia. Leni said no and Jesse stayed in the picture.
Her still photography is lushly gorgeous, much of it shot underwater wearing scuba gear and at an age when most people are happy to stay upright in a rocking chair and eat solid food. She photographed a disappearing tribe in Africa and made an underwater documentary film. She had a sort of triumph of her own will to keep on keeping on after a long lifetime of difficulty and criticism.
Leni and I appeared in the same issue of Vogue Hommes International magazine a year ago. Our mutual friend suggested to each of us that it might be fun to do a photo shoot. I agreed in a second and said I would fly to Bavaria to do it. Leni liked the idea too and said she wanted to photograph me wearing no makeup. I had never let anyone do that before, but I said yes. Unfortunately, the shoot never occurred. Leni was still recovering from injuries she suffered in a helicopter crash in Africa in 2000. She also had cancer.
It would be easy to dismiss Leni as another Nazi, gone. But she never belonged to the Nazi party and was cleared of all war crimes charges. And her art cannot be dismissed. She made beautiful pictures, commissioned by the wrong guy, just like Mercedes made airplane engines and Dr. Porche made the Volkswagen.
Leni's eyes saw things differently and she was able to help us see them too. What could she have shown us working for the right guy?
She had always wished to die in her sleep. She did that on Monday.