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The strange horror of meeting Leni Riefenstahl

Blog | By William Cook | May 03, 2020

On the 75th anniversary of VE Day, William Cook recalls his haunting encounter with Hitler's favourite film director

Two of my great grandfathers fought on opposite sides in the First World War, my two grandfathers fought on opposite sides in the Second World War, and my father was born in Germany during the Third Reich. His parents were living in Berlin during Kristallnacht. The magnificent Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, which was wrecked that night, was only a short walk from their apartment.

My grandparents weren’t Jewish, but Kristallnacht was bad news for them too. From then on, they knew war was imminent. When the war began my grandfather went into the Wehrmacht, and my grandma went back to Hamburg, to be with her parents. When the RAF bombed Hamburg she fled to Dresden, where my father was born. In 1945, when Dresden was destroyed, she returned to Hamburg. Back in Hamburg, after VE Day, she met a British soldier, a journalist called Gerry Cook. She eloped with him and went to London, where Gerry raised my father as his own.

This mongrel heritage has been the impetus for much of my journalism these last thirty years. It’s led to many strange encounters, and maybe the strangest of them all was in 1992, when I spent an hour in a hotel room in London with Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (pictured on the cover of Time, 1936).

Leni didn’t give many interviews so this was a big scoop, but it was also a big headache. Her artistry was indisputable but she had some serious questions to answer. However these weren’t simple questions, and the answers weren’t black or white. She was guilty by association with a genocidal tyranny, but her own role was elusive, and so was her work.

Triumph of the Will, her film of Hitler’s 1934 Nuremburg Rally, was horribly seductive, but her defence had always been that she merely made a film of what she saw. As she’d said a thousand times, she’d never joined the Nazi party - but it might have done her a lot less harm if she’d been just another sycophantic party hack. Instead, her genius as a director made the Nazis seem heroic. Her talent transformed propaganda into art.

Riefenstahl’s career was transformed by Kristallnacht. Before Kristallnacht, she was feted throughout the western world, despite her close association with Hitler’s coterie - widely (and quite rightly) regarded as one of the world’s most gifted filmmakers. After Kristallnacht she became an international pariah. She was in New York when it happened, promoting Olympia - her brilliant documentary about the Berlin Olympics. New York was ready to welcome her, but Kristallnacht changed all that.

Shunned and chastened, she returned to Germany. She worked briefly as a war reporter but was horrified by what she saw. After the war she was (eventually) cleared of any wrongdoing, but her career was forever blighted by Triumph of the Will. Half a century later, to mark her 90th birthday, she’d written her autobiography and she’d come to London to promote it. (She died in 2003, aged 101).

After a fortnight of furious swotting, the day of the interview arrived. I’d read her fluent yet evasive memoir; I’d sifted through loads of press cuttings. Yet the more I mugged up about her the more bewildered I became. Did she set out to glorify the Nazis, or was she merely making a factual record? Was she complicit in Hitler’s tyranny, or was she merely in the wrong place at the wrong time? It felt unseemly playing judge and jury in the shadow of such huge events. When I finally met her, I felt punch drunk. How was I supposed to know whether she’d been a guileless victim or an artful fraud?

She’d been a great beauty in her youth, which gave her all sorts of headaches (Goebbels, in particular, was always trying to get her into bed) and even at the age of 90 she still lit up the room. I hate to admit it, but I was star struck. ‘I’m shaking the hand that shook the hand of Adolf Hitler,’ I thought, as her fierce blue eyes pinned me to the wall.

In an attempt to break the ice, I mumbled a few courtesies in clumsy German. Leni was thrilled. ‘You speak German! We do the interview in German!’ Sheepishly, I told her my schoolboy Deutsch wasn’t really up to it. She said her English was awful too. An awkward negotiation ensued. Eventually, reluctantly, she agreed to be interviewed in English. Belatedly, I realised this actually gave her the upper hand. If the discussion became too awkward, she could easily play dumb. I would have been far better off letting her prattle on in German. How much had she known about the Third Reich? How had she really felt about Hitler? Of course she wasn’t going to tell me. My questions were a waste of time.

In my experience, there are two ways to do an interview: Jeremy Paxman or Graham Norton; fearsome interrogator or friendly fan. I tried a bit of both. Both approaches were worse than useless. How can you cosy up to someone when you’re supposed to be asking them about crimes against humanity? How can you interrogate someone who’s been parrying the same questions for fifty years? She gave me the same old answers I’d read in all the old press cuttings. No, she’d never been a Nazi. No, she’d had no idea what was really happening to the Jews, or the gypsies she used as extras. Was she telling me the whole truth, or a pack of lies? I doubt she even knew herself.

After an hour, I gave up and turned off the tape. As I gathered up my things, we exchanged a few final pleasantries. This is the part I always dread. This is when the interviewee says something you’d love to print, something they’d never say while the tape was running, something they’d gladly deny in court (Riefenstahl had fought 50 libel actions and won every one of them). Sure enough, as we said goodbye, she gave me the quote that told me everything, a quote I couldn’t use, until now. ‘Hitler was obsessed with the Jews,’ she said. ‘That was his downfall. Other than that, he was a great man.’

There’s a curious coda to this story. A few years later, in New York, I tracked down an old friend of my grandfather’s, a German Jew called Manfred Alexander who’d lived around the corner from my grandfather in Berlin. He’d been sent to a concentration camp in Minsk, with his parents (who died there) and escaped and made his way back to Berlin, where he hid in my grandparents’ apartment. My grandfather helped him escape to Switzerland, from where he emigrated to America. After fifty years Manfred returned to Germany and went looking for my grandfather, but he was too late. My grandfather had been dead for twenty years (I never met him).

Over the next few years, I got to know Manfred fairly well. He died in 2006, three years after Leni. I never thought to ask him what he thought of her. I wish I had. The last time I saw him was at the Israeli Consulate in New York, where we met up to receive my grandfather’s Righteous Among the Nations medal, given to Gentiles who helped Jews escape the Shoah. At the ceremony, Manfred recited the words of a medieval Talmudic scholar called Rashi. ‘Naked a man comes into the world, and naked he leaves it. After all his toil, he carries away nothing - except the deeds he leaves behind.’