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Award to German Filmmaker Spurs Debate on Her Role As Propagandist

September 3, 1997
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An award bestowed here on German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has been sharply criticized and has revived the debate on her role as a Nazi propagandist.

In a larger sense, the appearance of the 95-year-old Riefenstahl raises the question of whether art can be separated from politics and morality.

Riefenstahl’s long career ranges from silent-screen actress to underwater photographer, but her name is invariably linked to her 1934 film, “Triumph of the Will.”

Shot at a Nuremberg Nazi party rally, it is considered one of the world’s most notorious propaganda documentaries in which she used brilliant cinematic techniques to glorify Hitler and the Aryan ideal.

Riefenstahl, whose work is currently being exhibited in Hamburg, Germany, was here Saturday night to receive an achievement award by the Hollywood-based Cinecon, an obscure but well-respected group of movie buffs devoted to restoring and screening old films.

The event in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb, drew 1,000 enthusiastic guests and “was kept under wraps until the last minute in an effort to circumvent some of the anti-Nazi protests that usually occur at her appearances,” The Los Angeles Times reported.

The ploy succeeded, though the Times noted that Riefenstahl’s presence “was expected to generate outrage among Los Angeles’ Jewish community.”

That outrage was expressed at the award ceremony by cinephile Bob Gelfand. Raising his voice above the applause for the honoree, Gelfand shouted, “Shame, shame on you.”

He later told a reporter, “If I had known this festival was going to honor the Nazi war machine, I would not have come.”

The following day, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, strongly criticized the award.

“Hitler personally picked Riefenstahl to produce `Triumph of the Will,’ and we actually use segments of the film at our Museum of Tolerance to illustrate how the German people were sold on the Nazi regime,” he said in a phone interview.

“Without the Riefenstahls of the world in the 1930s, the Shoah might not have happened. I would consider her an unindicted co-conspirator,” Cooper added.

Attempts to rehabilitate Riefenstahl fit into a larger pattern emerging in Europe to whitewash the past and recast history, said Cooper.

As an example, he pointed to the recent book by Italian historian Fabio Andriola, “Mussolini: Hitler’s Secret Enemy,” that seeks to portray the Italian dictator as an opponent of the Fuhrer and Germany.

Cooper also pointed to the retrospective of Riefenstahl’s work in the Hamburg art gallery, which opened Aug. 19. In a story on the exhibit, The New York Times reported that German officials absented themselves from the opening. In addition, protesters picketed the exhibit.

“Despite Riefenstahl’s proclamations that she was merely an artist, the Germans know exactly what the implications of this award are,” said Cooper.

The Los Angeles Times followed up its initial story with a lengthy report on Jewish reaction to the award.

One response came from Israel Bick, who manned a stand of movie memorabilia at the festival.

“You can’t separate her art from her,” Bick said. “In the camps, the artists weren’t treated any differently. They burned the artists up with all the others.”

British producer Arnold Schwartzman, who has won an Oscar for his documentary “Genocide” and lives in Los Angeles, said he was “rather saddened about what took place. It seems rather sneaky the way they did it, knowing there would be protests. Obviously there was some hidden agenda here.”

Kevin John Charbeneau, Cinecon’s president, said his group was not honoring Riefenstahl for political reasons.

“She is an artist first and foremost. That is what we are celebrating,” he said. “I can understand people are going to be upset, but she was not the head of Germany. She was not Hitler.”

The German filmmaker declined to speak to reporters.

Riefenstahl spent three years after World War II in American and French detention camps as a Nazi sympathizer and underwent a denazification process.

In interviews, she has consistently cast herself as a dedicated artist, too wrapped up in her work to realize the crimes of the Nazi regime.

Despite her proximity to Hitler and top Nazis, she has claimed absolute ignorance of the Holocaust, saying, “I did not know what was going on. I did not know anything about these things.”

In other interviews, according to The New York Times, Riefenstahl insisted that she had “never uttered an anti-Semitic phrase and was never a racist.”

And, reflecting on her career, she observed, “I absolutely cannot imagine that I did something unjust. What crime did I commit?”

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