Filmmaker Riefenstahl Dead at 101 in Berlin

BERLIN -- Photographer and Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose hypnotic depiction of Hitler's Nuremberg rally, "Triumph of the Will," was renowned and despised as the best propaganda film ever made, died Monday, a German magazine reported Tuesday, quoting a long-time friend. She was 101.

A tireless innovator of film and photographic techniques, Riefenstahl's career centered on a quest for adventure and for portraying physical beauty. Even as she turned 100 last year she was strapping on scuba gear to photograph sharks in turquoise waters, although she had begun to complain that injuries sustained in accidents over the years, including a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000, had taken their toll and caused her constant pain.

Despite critical acclaim for her later photographs of the African Nuba people and of undersea flora and fauna, she spent more than half her life trying to live down the films she made for Hitler and for admiring the tyrant who devastated Europe and all but eliminated its Jews.

Speaking just before her 100th birthday on Aug. 22, 2002, Riefenstahl dramatically said she has "apologized for ever being born" but that she should not be criticized for her masterful films.

"I don't know what I should apologize for," she said. "I cannot apologize, for example, for having made 'Triumph of the Will' -- it won the top prize. All my films won prizes."

Although she said she knew nothing of Hitler's "Final Solution" and learned of concentration camps only after the war, Riefenstahl also said she openly confronted the F?hrer about his anti-Semitism, one of many apparent contradictions in her claims of total ignorance of the Nazi mission.

Likewise, she defended "Triumph of the Will" as a documentary that contained "not one single anti-Semitic word," while avoiding any talk about filming Nazi official Julius Streicher haranguing the crowd about "racial purity" laws.

Many suspected Riefenstahl of being Hitler's lover, which she also denied. Nonetheless, as his filmmaker Riefenstahl was the only woman to help shape the rise of the Third Reich, with the four films she made for Hitler including "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia," which presented the Nazis to the world as peaceful and tolerant.

Riefenstahl spent three years under Allied arrest after the war, some of the time in a mental hospital. War tribunals ultimately cleared her of any wrongdoing but suspicion of being a Nazi collaborator stuck. She was boycotted as a film director and sank into poverty.

She reclaimed her career in the 1960s when she photographed the Nuba, a tribe in Sudan that treated her like one of their own.