January 17, 2020

21 Years Ago: Jewish Leaders Condemn Tribute to Riefenstahl

An award bestowed on German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl by a little-known national film group has been sharply criticized and has revived the debate over her role as a Nazi propagandist. In a larger sense, the appearance of the 95-year-old Riefenstahl at the Cinecon organization’s awards ceremony in Glendale bears on the question of whether art can be separated from politics and morality.

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

The achievement award was given to Riefenstahl on Saturday evening (Aug. 31) by the Hollywood-based Cinecon, an obscure but well-respected national group of movie buffs devoted to restoring and screening old films. The event at the Red Lion Hotel 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, but Riefenstahl’s presence did generate strong reaction 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. When I bought my ticket, I didn’t know she would be here. She was a propagandist for the war machine.”

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.”

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,” which seeks to recast the Italian dictator as an opponent of the Führer and Germany. Cooper also noted that a Hamburg art gallery opened a retrospective of Riefenstahl’s work on Aug. 19. In a story on the exhibit (under the subhead “Her Camera Adored Swastikas”), 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. “This is not just a Jewish issue.”

British producer Arnold Schwartzman, who has won an Oscar for his documentary “Genocide” and lives in Los Angeles, said that he was “rather saddened about what took place. It seems rather sneaky the way they did it, knowing there’ll be protests. Obviously, there was some hidden agenda here.” He added that Riefenstahl’s films “were probably the most important propaganda tool that Hitler ever had. To base an award on [these films] is poor judgment, in the same way she showed poor judgment in making the films.”

Osias Goren, chairman of the Jewish Federation Council’s Martyr’s Memorial Museum of the Holocaust, said: “This person may have been…a genius. But so were some of the doctors who conducted experiments on Jewish women….”

Kevin John Charbeneau, Cinecon’s president, said that his group was not honoring Riefenstahl for political reasons. “She is an artist first and foremost. That is what we are celebrating. 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.

According to wire service reports, Charbeneau stepped down from his post this week, but it was unclear whether the move was a result of the Riefenstahl flap. Charveneau denied it was, saying he decided not to run for re-election because he had no time. But another former president, Mike Schlesinger, was quoted as saying that Charbeneau had “fallen on his sword.”

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 said: “I absolutely cannot imagine that I did something unjust. What crime did I commit?”