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Riefenstahl’s legacy tainted by ties to Hitler

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SAN FRANCISCO -- To some, she's the greatest female filmmaker of all time. To others, she's the face of evil -- a lingering reminder of the horrors of the Third Reich.

At 96, Leni Riefenstahl still bears the stamp of her association with Adolf Hitler and "Triumph of the Will," which documented his massive 1934 rally at Nuremberg.In Ray Muller's 1993 documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl," she insisted that she wasn't a Nazi and that she made "Triumph" under duress, approaching it as an artist and not as a propagandist.

The legacy of "Triumph of the Will" is so great that Riefenstahl's early career as an actress and director is scarcely mentioned. But in the 1920s she was a popular German star in a series of "mountain films" directed by geologist-turned-filmmaker Arnold Fanck.

The best of that genre, "The White Hell of Piz Palu" (1929), screens Jan. 20 at San Francisco's Castro Theatre as part of the "Berlin & Beyond" film series. The silent film, co-directed by Fanck and G.W. Pabst ("The Threepenny Opera"), will be shown in a newly restored print with live organ accompaniment by Dennis James.

Riefenstahl stars as a young bride who braves a mountain expedition in the Swiss Alps and endures avalanches, her husband's fall from a mountain and a dramatic search-and-rescue mission.

Although Riefenstahl, a former dancer, had become a skilled mountaineer in two previous films -- and even scaled mountains in bare feet and without ropes for the camera -- the making of "Piz Palu" required her to risk her life in freezing temperatures without the benefit of a stunt double.

"The film was very hard to make, very cruel," Riefenstahl said recently from her home in Poecking, a village south of Munich. The crew worked in minus-28-degree weather, and Fanck, a harsh taskmaster and stickler for detail, thought nothing of tying Riefenstahl in ropes, hoisting her up the side of a mountain and allowing a real avalanche to engulf her.

"I screamed, my eyes and ears hurt," Riefenstahl said in the documentary about her life. "Fanck kept the camera rolling on and on. I really hated Fanck."

Riefenstahl once said that, in person, Hitler "seemed a modest, private individual. You couldn't imagine him stirring the masses." Speaking at his political rallies, however, "he had a kind of hypnotic effect that frightened me a little."

Riefenstahl said that when Hitler proposed that she direct "Triumph of the Will," she didn't want to take on such a large task -- "I wanted to act" -- and strongly suggested another filmmaker for the job, Walter Ruttmann. But Hitler had made up his mind. "It was not possible to refuse," she said.

In her memoirs, published in 1987, in the documentary about her and in countless interviews, Riefenstahl has always pleaded political naivete and claimed to be an artist just doing a job on "Triumph of the Will."