Documentarian Leni Riefenstahl dies. History's most controversial director, who did her most innovative and artful work for Hitler, was 101

By Gary Susman
Updated September 09, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Leni Riefenstahl, who created some of film’s most artistically dazzling — and notoriously propagandistic — documentaries during her work for the Nazi regime, died Monday at 101, a longtime friend told German magazine Bunte. She had been in frail health after recent accidental injuries, even though she had marked her 100th birthday last year by releasing ”Impressions Under Water,” a film compiled from footage she shot during her own scuba dives.

Riefenstahl began her career as a dancer and film actress before moving behind the camera. In 1934, she shot Adolf Hitler’s Nuremburg rally, which, through her innovative editing and camera work, became ”Triumph of the Will,” generally recognized today as one of the most artful — and hateful — propaganda films ever made. In 1936, she shot the Berlin Olympic games for her epic ”Olympia,” another film full of dazzling imagery that was made in the service of Hitler. In later years, Riefenstahl would claim ignorance of Hitler’s belligerent intentions or his racist ideology, claims that her critics said were disingenuous.

After World War II, she spent three years under Allied arrest before war tribunals cleared her of wrongdoing. Still, the Nazi collaborator tag stuck, and after 1954’s ”Tiefland,” she wouldn’t release another movie for 48 years. In her later years, she spent much time photographing African tribespeople and undersea life, working and diving past the century mark.