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'Hitler's filmmaker' turns 100

Riefenstahl facing lawsuit for Holocaust denial

Leni Riefenstahl  

BERLIN, Germany -- German prosecutors have interrupted the 100th birthday celebrations of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl by announcing they are investigating a statement she made on Gypsy film extras who perished in death camps.

Riefenstahl, who gained notoriety for the films she made for the Nazis, is celebrating her 100th birthday Thursday amid renewed criticism of her work for the Third Reich.

As the centenarian prepared to celebrate on Thursday near her home outside Munich with 200 guests, including former tennis champion Boris Becker, a Gypsy organisation announced it was suing her over allegations she used slave laborers as extras in her film "Lowlands" between 1940 and 1942.

The Cologne-based organization Rom says Riefenstahl used 120 Gypsies from concentration camps in Salzburg and Berlin, then failed to prevent them from being returned to the Nazi camp system, where many died.

The group said it was suing Riefenstahl for Holocaust denial, a crime in Germany, for dismissing the allegations as nonsense in an interview printed in the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper in April.

CNN's Walter Rodgers interviews Leni Riefenstahl in 1995 about being Nazi Germany's official filmmaker as well as her other contributions to filmmaking. (August 22)

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"We saw all the Gypsies that played in 'Lowlands' again after the war," Riefenstahl was quoted as saying. "Nothing happened to them."

Iris Pinkepank, spokeswoman for Rom, told The Associated Press her organization could prove many died by comparing Riefenstahl's own lists of people appearing in the film to records from the Nazi deathcamp at Auschwitz.

"Leni Riefenstahl is a woman who cares for her own history -- she makes sure that only the truth she wants to read and only her version is published," Pinkepank said. "But there are some survivors still living and we have contact with them and they want their version to be told, they wanted to have a voice."

Frankfurt state prosecutors said they had started a preliminary investigation, which could lead to charges. The filmmaker later issued a statement saying her remarks on their survival had been a misunderstanding and that she regretted the Nazi persecution of Gypsies.

A rise with Hitler

German dictator Adolf Hitler selected the dancer-turned-actress to be Nazi Germany's official filmmaker and gave her vast resources to make movies that idealized and glorified Nazism.

She gained wide acclaim for "Triumph of the Will," a documentary on the 1934 Nuremberg rally, and "Olympia," a filmed record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But she was ostracized after World War II and spent an active later life protesting against condemnation of her Nazi links. In recent years she has earned a partial rehabilitation in Germany and Thursday many newspapers gave extensive coverage to her birthday.

Last week Riefenstahl released her first film in half a century, "Underwater Impressions," a celebration of marine life mainly in the Indian Ocean. She has outlived most of her critics but some are determined to remind the world of her past.

"Olympia" celebrated the 1936 Olympics in Berlin -- including American Jesse Owens' victories in track events.  

Riefenstahl always denied political involvement with the Nazi party or any romantic link with Hitler. She defended her work by saying she was only filming what was happening in Germany at the time.

"In 1934 people were crazy and there was great enthusiasm for Hitler. We had to try and find that with our camera," she told CNN in a 1994 interview.

Although she admitted "Triumph of the Will" was used to promote Nazi ideals, she said that was not her intention. "One can use it for propaganda, but ... it is no propaganda film. There is not one single anti-Semitic word in my film," she told The Associated Press.

'A big lie'

But her biographer, Rainer Rother, said the filmmaker's view is simplistic. "I think she might not have been an anti-Semitic woman, but she still was aware of what was going on."

Prof. Brian Winston, a media scholar at the University of Westminster, agreed. "Riefenstahl represents a big lie and she's been lying for 50 years. She was extremely close to the regime and her only defense is that she wasn't a party member," he told CNN.

Riefenstahl was acquitted twice by allied "denazification courts" after the war ended in 1945 but was jailed by French occupation authorities for helping the Nazi propaganda machine. Blacklisted as a filmmaker, she turned to still photography, although her work was boycotted by West German magazines.

She rebuilt her reputation with photographs of Nuba tribesmen in southern Sudan and at the age of 72 took up diving, the subject of her latest film. But she says age is finally slowing her down.

After her birthday, she said, she hopes to put on her wet suit and go diving again.

-- From europe


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