Burying Leni Riefenstahl: one woman’s lifelong crusade against Hitler’s favourite film-maker

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heyn 20 November 1984, in the southern German city of Freiburg, the two filmmakers faced each other on the first day in court, which was to last about two and a half years. The plaintiff, Lenny Riefenstahl, was Hitler’s favorite filmmaker. Now 82, she appeared in court in a sheepskin coat over a beige suit, her blond hair covering her face set in a large neat perm. The defendant was a charming, dark-haired 32-year-old documentary filmmaker. Her name was Nina Gladitz, and the outcome of the trial would shape the rest of her life.

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During the Nazi era, Riefenstaal was the regime’s most accomplished propagandist, directing films that continued to be infamous both for glorifying the Third Reich and for its innovations and technical mastery considered landmarks of early cinema. Once World War II ended, Riefenstahl sought to distance himself from his rule, portraying himself as a non-political knife whose sole inspiration was making the most beautiful art possible. “I don’t know what I should apologize for,” she once said, “All my films won the top prize.”

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Riefenstahl was taking Gladys to court over claims made in Gladitz’s television documentary Time of Darkness and Silence, which aired in 1982. In the film, members of a family of Sinti – a Romani living primarily in Germany and Austria – accuse Riefenstahl of taking him out of a Nazi concentration camp near Maxglan, Salzburg, in September 1940, and killing him. Forced to work as an extra in your feature film lower (Talai). Riefenstahl later claimed that all Romani additions – 53 Roma and Sinti from Maxglan, and 78 more from a camp in East Berlin – had survived the war. In fact, about 100 of them are known or believed to have been gassed at Auschwitz, a small fraction of the 220,000 to 500,000 Romani massacres in the Holocaust. Some of the survivors insisted that Riefenstahl had promised to save them. One, Josef Reinhardt, was 13 when he was drafted as an extra. He was the main witness to the trial, and sat next to Gladitz in the courtroom every day.

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Riefenstaal denied that she had visited the camp to select extras, denied having failed to pay them and promised and failed to save them from Auschwitz afterwards. She claimed that, while making the film, she was neither aware of the existence of the gas chambers, nor of the fate of Roma and Sinti. When Gladitz’s documentary was played in court on the opening day of the trial, Riefenstahl repeated “Lies! Lying down!” and “Nothing but lies!” As her screams echoed in the darkened courtroom, Judge Gunther Oswald told her: “Ma’am, I have no choice but to watch the movie.”

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While there is no doubt that Riefenstahl’s account of her own life is far from credible, what she knew about the horrors that occurred during the Third Reich has been difficult to establish. She was the regime’s chief film campaigner for almost its entire duration, and her films included Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg Rally, and Olympia, a record of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. But, although she was a close friend of Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, such as the staunch anti-Semitic Julius Streicher, Riefenstahl vehemently denied any awareness of the slaughter in concentration camps. Jürgen Triborn, author of a highly critical biography published in 2002, declared that “there was no evidence that, because of his proximity to the regime, Riefenstahl knew more than others about the mass extermination of Jews. But It is clear that, like most Germans, she knew enough to be sure that it is better not to know even more.” (Gladitz would later consider this analysis too liberal.)

During the trial, Riefenstahl corresponded with one of the extras who appeared to support her account of her good relationship with him while filming Tiffland. It was accepted that they habitually referred to him as “”.many liniks, Or Auntie. “Even if you don’t want to believe it, gypsies – adults as well as children – were our darlings,” Riefenstahl said. But the court also heard that during the day the extra two were watched by policemen, and at night they were locked up in sheds and basements. A contract discovered by Gladitz in the archives in Salzburg showed an agreement between Riefenstahl and the SS camp guard that measures would be taken against any attempt to escape.

When the trial finally reached its conclusion, in March 1987, Gladitz won three out of four points. The judge ruled that Riefenstahl had indeed visited the Maxglan camp to select extras, and that he had not been paid for his work. He also reversed Maxglan’s description of Riefenstahl as a “relief and welfare camp”, stating that by definition it was a concentration camp.

But Josef Reinhardt’s claim that Riefenstahl had promised to save him and his family from exile in Auschwitz, or that he knew what would happen to Roma and Sinti at once, could not be proved, Judge Oswald said. said. And so he ordered the removal of the scene in Gladitz’s documentary in which Reinhardt recalls Riefenstahl’s promise.

Nina Gladitz (center) after being prosecuted by Lenny Riefenstahl during their 1984 trial, flanked by Josef Reinhardt (left) and his lawyer, Albrecht Götz von Ollenhausen (right). Photographer: Baden-Württemberg State Archive

For Gladitz, it was a disaster. “There are some edits that I am not prepared to tolerate,” she told the court. His refusal to remove the scene meant that the documentary’s broadcaster, WDR, sent the film to the archives, where it has been under lock and key ever since. In the years that followed, commissions for new films ended, and Gladitz’s financial situation, already being unable to work during the trial, worsened. “In the world of TV I had become personified, because I dared to single out Riefenstahl as a criminal,” Gladitz told me years later.

Although some journalists called the trial the end, it was only the beginning for Gladitz. She would devote most of her waking hours to the pursuit of the truth about him, consumed by Riefenstahl over the next four decades, as no one else had, in her view, done enough. Her career, her friendships, her finances and her health will be sacrificed in an attempt to find evidence that will ultimately, conclusively, condemn Riefenstahl. The result will be the publication of his magnum opus last year, a product of life’s passion, Lenny Riefenstahl: the career of a criminal (“Career of a criminal”), “Some people are definitely going to accuse him — and I don’t think it really can be denied — that it’s a personal vendetta,” his publisher told me.

However, for Gladitz this was irrelevant. “Most importantly, the myth of Riefenstahl is dead,” he told me on the day the book was published. “In my mind’s eye, I see her grave glowing from within because she’s moving so fast in it.”


I Nina met Gladitz for the first time in 2002, when she contacted me before Riefenstahl’s 100th birthday. Gladitz was backing the Roma and Sinti rights group in a new legal challenge against Riefenstahl, and she wanted me to cover their efforts for a British newspaper. She was insisting – then and in the years to come – that if I wrote about her work, it should be what she understood correctly. “It’s not about me. I won’t let you focus on me and ignore your research,” she used to tell me, although our conversations always led to her life. The more time I spent with Gladitz spent, the more it became clear that his fixation had to do with his own biography, and to put some of his ghosts to rest, as it was about Riefenstahl.

Gladitz’s childhood was overshadowed by the Nazi era. Born in 1946, she grew up in the Schwabisch Gmund in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, about 30 miles east of the state capital, Stuttgart. He had a beautiful, carefree mother, Gladitz believed, mourning the loss of Hitler. “He fed me. But there was a complete lack of affection and love or a sense of emotional security,” Gladitz recalled. “Her standard insult to me was: ‘You’re not my daughter, you must have fallen from a gypsy’s pram.'”

When she was about five years old, Gladitz overheard her mother and an aunt talk about how many people, including children, had been murdered in the gas chambers. “I was suddenly convinced that my mother must have been involved,” Gladitz once told me. “Although I realized later that this could not be the case, based on my own experiences, it was logical for a five-year-old to imagine that my unloving mother was one of the culprits.”

In Gladitz’s telling, her childhood was sheltered and isolated. Classmates were not allowed into the family home, which stood on the side of a hill. Her fantasy was her escape, inspired by the magical films her father showed of Gladitz and her siblings. In his early 20s, Gladitz moved to Munich to study at the University of Television and Film. It was there that she first came across Riefenstahl’s work, but she was more interested in the growing movement against nuclear power, and other left-wing causes, than in looking to the Nazi era. Soon after graduation, she made an agriprop documentary about the attempts to block a nuclear power plant where she grew up, which was named Chicago Film Festival’s Documentary of the Year in 1974.

Gladitz’s interest in Riefenstaal began in 1977, when an acquaintance sent him a letter he thought might interest him. It was written by Joseph…

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