Leni Riefenstahl died in 2003. Born in 1902, Leni was 20th century's most controversial artist. Andrew Sarris observed in 1967, "Much of the controversy raging between her defenders and detractors is colored by political passions arising out of the Hitler era...Leni Riefenstahl emerges more honorably as an artist on a political tightrope than did such luminaries of the Stalin era as (Sergei) Eisenstein ('The Ten Days That Shook The World' 1928) and (Alexander) Dovzhenko ('Earth' 1930)."
Leni had said, "If an artist dedicates himself totally to his work, he cannot think politically." Ray Muller ('The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl' 1993) believed, "An artist has a great responsibility. Anyone who influences the public has this. She is possessed with her art. She says, 'I'm only doing my thing'. I think this is irresponsible. She may be obsessed and possessed, and a genius. But that does not exempt her from responsibility." Jodie Foster shared in 2000, "I've been interested in Leni for many years. I talked to her on the telephone several times and then eventually met with her. She is really one of the great stories of the 20th century and a moral tale for us all. She is an extraordinary woman, sharp as a tack and as beautiful as she ever was, with a tremendous body."
In September 1959, Leni met with Bill Gale of the North American Newspaper Alliance at her apartment in Munich. She told Bill, "The only country in the world that is true about me is the United States. They ask me, 'Were you Hitler's girlfriend?' and I say, 'No, I am an artist'. And they print it. "
Leni sighed, "What can I do, what can I really do against the press of the world? The truth is not a sensation. It doesn't make for exciting reading. So it's always the same thing – Leni, the girlfriend of Hitler." Leni then showed Bill a London newspaper, "Look at this, please. This article on 'Hitler's girlfriends', quoting me as saying, 'He was a wonderful man, Hitler'. Absolutely not true. Even if I did think it, I would never say it today (in 1959). This linking me with Hitler, it began in the French press back in the '30s (Leni first met Hitler in 1932). Soon after my success with my films of the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, the French were calling me 'the Pompadour of the Nazis'. I don't know why. Jealously, perhaps. After all, I was only a girl then but I did with my Olympic film what no man ever did. It was a sports masterpiece. It won awards all over the world. It is still winning awards, as recently as 1956 – 20 years after its debut. We (referring to Jean Cocteau) never met. But he writes me this letter and I treasure it. See here – he writes, 'You are a genius of the cinema.'"
Leni stressed, "To say that I needed Hitler to further my film career is ridiculous. I was famous before Hitler came to power (Leni first movie was made in 1925). I produced my first film, 'Blue Light', in 1931 and it was a great success. It ran in London for 15 months. I was the first to take my camera into the streets, the homes, the churches – I used people, not actors. All the newspapers say this film is a wonder and Hitler sees it and agrees. Then my sadness begins. For Hitler sought out talented people, and he thought me a genius. But he was an acquaintance for me – nothing more. I said that to American reporters when I visited the United States more than 20 years ago (in December 1938) and I repeat it today (in 1959). Sometimes 4 or 5 months would go by and I would not see or hear from Hitler. About him I can only say that he was always fair with me. He respected my work and asked nothing of me. I asked nothing of him. He seemed well above the middle – you say 'average' – to me. And I have always had interest for people who are individualistic."
After World War II, Leni spent 3 years under Allied arrest. The Nuremberg war tribunals cleared Leni of wrongdoing in May 1945. Leni recounted, "It was established I was not in the Nazi party. I got no money from the Nazi government. I made no propaganda film ever. I got nothing from the Nazis. I was cleared! Then, the French came. The French tell me I am a genius. I must go with them and they will protect me. From what? The Americans, I am told, will mistreat me. As soon as the French have me, they imprison me. They take all my money, my films, all my film equipment. They move me from prison to prison. My mother thinks I am dead. I go without food or water for days. I am forced to sit at the table and watch the soldiers eat because 'Leni is a criminal!' They do this to me – and worse. These, I think now, were not the French people but the communists. Finally, after 3 horrible years, I am set free. I am driven in a truck across the border into Germany, without a cent...without even a crust of bread. I hitchhike to Munich, begging food on the way. People I meet are kind and feed me."
It was noted Leni never made another film after World War II and instead she turned to photography and books. However in September 1959, Leni remained upbeat about her future, "I have completed 2 film scripts I want to produce. One is titled 'Red Devil', but it has nothing to do with communism. It is a story with a ski country setting. But first I want to do my African film. All the animal shots are done. I did them more than 3 years ago (at the height of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, culminating in Kenya gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1963). Then our Jeep overturned. I was thrown through the windshield and severely injured. I was in the African hospital for 2 months. Then, when I’m recuperated...it is the Suez crisis and our film equipment can't get through to us. Finally, my partner here in Germany who is raising the money for the film is himself almost killed in an accident. So – back to Munich I come with wonderful animal shots and that's all. It needs an Ingrid Bergman type for the lead, but a big star I can't afford. No (I won’t play the lead). I am not so young any more. Write that! You’re the first American writer I’ve talked to since the war, so be correct and write everything I’ve told you."
In November 1976, Leni talked to Suzanne Lowry of The Manchester Guardian, "When I made my first film, I had never heard of Hitler. Later when I made 'The Blue Light' as an independent director, he was surprised that a woman had managed to make her own film." 'Olympia' "was nothing to do with the Nazis or Hitler. It was my idea; the money even came from a different production company. It was difficult to sell the idea, because there was then no such thing as an Olympics film. I shot 1 million, 200 feet of film. There were 30 cameramen. I did the editing myself for the first time. There was no magnetic sound…it was a nightmare. But the intention was to make a sport film with the Olympic ideal, not propaganda."