THE CASE OF LENI RIEFENSTAHL
Leni Riefenstahl has been the most enduringly controversial of the Third Reich's filmmakers. Triumph of the Will and Olympia can be said to have an aesthetic quality that surpasses their propagandistic purposes. Indeed, along with Carl Orff's oratorio Carmina Burana, they were among the most admired of Nazi-era artworks.
Riefenstahl was neglected for decades after the war, but the rise of feminism caused traditional film history to be reexamined, and she was rediscovered and acclaimed as one of the most important female directors. The beauty of her films was often stressed more than their historical role, and she was welcomed at feminist film festivals. Susan Sontag has discussed this trend, arguing that the beauty and the Fascist ideology of Riefenstahl's films were inextricably linked, in her "Fascinating Fascism" (1975), reprinted in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 31–43.
The issue of Riefenstahl's personal attitude toward the Nazis has been much debated. She claimed that she was interested only in art when she made the films and that she knew nothing of oppressive Nazi policies. David Stewart Hull presents a description of her filmmaking based largely on Riefenstahl's own claims in Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), especially pp. 73–76 and 132–37. Glenn B. Infield's research used government records and other archival material to show that at least some of Riefenstahl's claims are untrue. See his Leni Riefenstahl: The Fallen Film Goddess (New York: Crowell, 1976). Richard Meran Barsam analyzes the film in deteail in Filmguide to Triumph of the Will (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975). The ongoing debate was reflected in the title of The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993, Ray Muller), a feature-length documentary examining Riefenstahl's responsibility for her Nazi-era films. For Riefenstahl's final account of her activities, see her The Sieve of Time: The Memoirs of Leni Riefenstahl (London: Quartet Books, 1992).
Riefenstahl died in 2003, at age 101. Two books that set out to uncover the truth behind Riefenstahl's career are Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (New York: Knopf, 2007) and Jürgen Trimborn, Leni Riefenstahl: A Life (New York: Faber & Faber, 2008).