A cruel game by Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, exposed

    HISTORY / Nina Gladitz’s film about Roma and Sinti survivors of Shoah has been hidden in the WDR archive since 1982. Reactions to her book show we live in times when searching for the truth and giving voice to the weakest in societysociety causes suspicion, not respect. But simply accepting that such are the times might be the real problem.

    Nina Gladitz’ book about the celebrated Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl had challenged the idea that Riefenstahl was a genial artist with poor political wisdom. The book is a result of a decades-long investigation Gladitz started as a preparation for the film she shot with Roma and Sinti survivors of Shoah and was first broadcasted by WDR in September 1982. The film’s subjects, Josef Reinhard, his relatives and other Roma and Sinti families, mostly mothers with children, were personally recruited by Riefenstahl in a Nazi camp near Salzburg, forced to work as extras during the shooting of Riefenstahl’s film Lowland (Tiefland) and afterwards murdered by Nazis. Those who testified in Gladitz’ film were the few who managed to survive. Gladitz was the first who give them the possibility to publicly speak about their horrible experiences and the cruelty of Riefenstahl. But Riefenstahl took Gladitz to court, claiming that these were «all lies». Even if Gladitz won in all but one point and a minor change would suffice to screen the film again, the producer, the main German public service broadcaster WDR, kept the film in their archives to this day. Gladitz pursued her investigation and published her discoveries in the book – some of these discoveries and, in particular, the chapter about «Riefenstahl Renaissance as the Revival of Nazism» are startling. Considering the relevance of her work for the most acute current problems, from the «fake news» spreading through social media to the rising popularity of Nazi ideas within alt-right and similar groups, I find the silence about Gladitz’ book a rather sinister sign that we should be worried about.

    Original credits for Olympia (Olympia – Fest der Völker, Illustrierter Film-Kurier, Berlin, 1938, Nr. 2792, courtesy Thomas Wiegand

    Silencing the messenger

    Part of this strange atmosphere is that because of her investigation, Gladitz herself is the object of scrutiny. Riefenstahl put tremendous efforts in eliminating the traces of her involvement with the National Socialist regime she celebrated in her films and in building an image of the most successful female film director of the last century. The work performed by Gladitz, a renowned German documentary filmmaker, was anything but simple. She would certainly not be able to write this book without an exceptional personal engagement and dedication. Yet her determination in tracing the buried evidence of Riefenstahl’s career as a perpetrator is gaining more attention than that what she disclosed. It makes Gladitz herself appear suspicious. The recent article in The Guardian entitled «Burying Leni Riefenstahl: one woman’s lifelong crusade against Hitler’s favourite filmmaker» is even trying to locate the motives for Gladitz’s investigation in her childhood memories and the relationship with her mother. Similar to the general perception of Julian Assange, the reception of Gladitz’s work shows that to seek the truth beyond one’s personal interest or comfort is a reason for distrust and not anymore, a professional duty of a journalist or a documentary filmmaker. Ironically, Gladitz’s book contains plenty of material showing that we might not even be aware of how dire the consequences of this «shoot-the-messenger» attitude are.

    Criminal Investigation

    Riefenstahl’s neighbours from Kitzbuhel, where she lived at the end of the war, remember that shortly before the arrival of allied forces, they saw huge pillars of fire from which black, coin-sized flankers were whirling in the air near Riefenstahl home, most probably from burnt celluloid. We will never know the whole truth. But Gladitz brought to light information that would otherwise remain unknown or not properly understood. She scrutinised several national and regional archives not only in Germany but also in France, Poland, the USA, and Switzerland; she studied diverse documents from doctoral dissertations to newspaper articles, biographies, diaries, and memoirs; she personally consulted diverse experts. Her work resembled a criminal investigation in which she applied her knowledge of filmmaking and interviewed several people with knowledge of other relevant matters, from persons from her intimate circle, as Horst Ebersberg, the son of Riefenstahl’s longtime female lover, to her victims.

    We will never know the whole truth.

    Inaccurate information

    Gladitz’ investigation revealed that the myth of Riefenstahl was based on two pillars. The first is inaccurate information. Almost everything contemporary audiences know about Riefenstahl, from her splendid dancing career to her vehement denial of any knowledge of the prosecution of Jews by Nazis, is wrong. Not only she did know about this – Gladitz reconstructs the atmosphere demonstrating Riefenstahl’s deadly fear after Goebbels discovered her presumably Jewish origins, and this itself is good proof that she knew. She was herself a passionate anti-Semite, claims Gladitz and lists a series of indications, starting with Riefenstahl’s antisemitic reactions to bad press reviews of her films. The only feature film Riefenstahl directed herself, Lowland, she first released in 1954 after she removed the most evident signs of Nazi ideology from it. Yet the film still embodies the symbols from The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion and celebrates the Final Solution, claims Gladitz. Data about the production of this film are inaccurate as well. For example, contrary to the idea that the final version lacks the material that was shot in 1934 in Spain and later lost, documents provided by Gladitz show that Riefenstahl was there on a private visit, looking for locations while the cameraman who was with her was her companion at that time. And, just the opposite of the often-repeated argument that Riefenstahl financed Lowland herself, the funding for this, one of the most expensive feature films of Nazi Germany, was provided by Hitler himself, who also took care of the arrangements. He even changed the law so that the house near Schwarzsee in Kitzbuehel, at that time the rest home of Wermacht officers, was in 1944 given to Riefenstahl as a residence, with a newly built film studio with the most advanced equipment, where she could complete the editing of Lowland.

    self portrait of Willy Zielke
    Willy Zielke, self portrait, 1932 (collection Dieter Hinrichs)

    Work of others

    The second pillar of the myth of Riefenstahl was her taking credits for the work of others. The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht, 1932), a film in which Riefenstahl played the lead role, was one of the first sound films mostly filmed on location. She never missed the opportunity to present herself as a pioneering filmmaker since she presumably also directed it. But the documents about the first screenings show that in the original version of the film Béla Balázs, a Hungarian communist, film writer and theorist, was listed as the film’s director while Riefenstahl was mentioned as a collaborator. Only later, when Balázs was in exile, and The Blue Light was celebrated as Hitler’s favourite film, Riefenstahl changed the titles so that the roles of Screenwriter, Director, and Image designer (Buch, Regie, Bild gestaltung) were attributed to her.

    Even in Olympia, the film about the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, considered the source of a new genre of films about Olympic games and Riefenstahl’s greatest film achievement, not everything is as it seems. Gladitz’s investigation disclosed that the most outstanding part of this film, the Prologue, which connected the present with antiquity and was filmed beforehand on location in Greece, was actually a work of a very talented contemporary of Riefenstahl, Willy Zielke. According to Gladitz, it was Riefenstahl who, knowing Zielke’s early works and his talent, used her privileged position within the Nazi regime to have him confined in a psychiatric hospital where he was forcefully sterilised and kept locked up since 1937. Evidence is partially circumstantial, but the basic facts are undisputed. The medical examination of Zielke after the war confirmed that all his presumed psychiatric diagnoses were false. During his captivity, Zielke was allowed to leave the hospital whenever Riefenstahl requested so, for example, to work as a cameraman on Lowland. His presumed illness enabled Riefenstahl to remove Willy Zielke’s name from the Olympia credits and to obtain the negatives of photos Zielke took while working on the Prologue and presented them as her own.

    These same photos appeared in 2017 as part of an installation at the documenta 14, the most prestigious German art biennial that in that year introduced a nomad approach and, besides the Kassel as its traditional location, also took place in Athens. Piotr Uklanski, one of the selected artists, put on display in Athens an «Installation with thirty-two gelatin silver prints of photographs by Leni Riefenstahl». This is what today, January 11, 2022, is stated on the official documenta 14 website even if along Gladitz also several German film historians, including the renowned Zielke-expert Dieter Hinrichs demonstrated that these photos are the work of Zielke. Similarly, Wikipedia, in its entry in English, today’s version, states that The Blue Light was «directed by Leni Riefenstahl».

    Gladitz’ investigation revealed that the myth of Riefenstahl was based on two pillars.

    By grace or force

    One can find this kind of misinformation practically everywhere. Many of them are collected in the documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993, Ray Müller). The film won several awards. Only rarely have experts revealed that the film «was made at Riefenstahl’s instigation (…) and she maintained veto rights over who could be interviewed in it,» as did Johathan Rosenbaum, who also wrote that «the publicity and most of the press surrounding it, has tended to minimize this central fact». One thing Müller nevertheless achieved in that film, namely, he showed how persistent Riefenstahl was in obtaining what she wanted. When the kindness did not work, she turned to violence. In the film, for instance, she began to shout. But this strategy was not limited to her public appearances, and it had a solid base: more than 3 million Swiss francs on her two black accounts in Swiss banks. The source of this money, says Gladitz, who discovered documents about this in the Swiss National Archive in Bern, is unclear. But it surely enabled Riefenstahl not only to make her own truth prevail but also to obtain sympathy for herself. She remained in optimal shape, living publicity for Arian supremacy, and till her late age pursued the quest for the romanticised «blood and soil» ideal of primordial life, be it in the African desert or under the sea. And when this did not work, she used legal persecutions. In 1949 she had successfully sued a magazine publisher Helmut Kindler who revealed her exploitation of the Sinti and Roma extras but failed to provide sufficient evidence. After that, according to her own testimony, she started around 50 trials against people who attempted to publish what she did not like. The fact that the evidence about these trials is hard to find shows how successful she was.

    Time of Darkness and Silence, 1982, film poster

    The forgotten victims

    In 1984, she took to the court Nina Gladitz and her documentary Time of Darkness and Silence. This time, like in the case of Kindler, the reason was the revelations about her abuse of Sinti and Roma extras. Gladitz’s film was based on the letter an acquaintance of Gladitz found in the archive of the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi regime. The letter, remembers Gladitz, was not easy to understand. It was written in 1956 by Josef Reinhardt, who asked the association for financial help for him and members of his Sinti family. Before the war, they were imprisoned in a «Gypsy» camp, Maxglan, near Salzburg, where Riefenstahl personally selected them for extras in her film Lowland. They were forced to take part in the shooting on location in 1940 and 1941 and never paid for their work. Gladitz managed to track down Josef Reinhard and, with his assistance, other extras who survived. While Riefenstahl persistently claimed that all of the Sinti and Roma extras in her film (53 from Maxglan and 78 from a camp in eastern Berlin) survived the war, actually, at least 80% have been gassed in Auschwitz.

    The film is a minimalist, intimate encounter with Sinti and Roma, the forgotten victims of Nazi crimes who are for the first time invited to talk about their horrible experiences in the Holocaust. Amid empty green fields, Reinhardt is pointing to the invisible traces of the camp, where he was told to put the wire and where the kitchen was located. Gathered around a table, Reinhardt and other extras who survived and were ready to share their painful memories recall the cruelties on and off the set, the hunger and cold, the fear of what was waiting for them after the shoot, and the hope that «Aunt Leni” will save them from gas chambers. After the film was broadcast, Gladitz was praised for her ability to make her subjects talk so openly on camera. But then the suit came. Riefenstahl denied everything, visiting the camp to handpick the extras, failing to pay them, knowing of the existence of the gas chambers. She had lost her suit in all points. Only the victims’ assertion that Riefenstahl had promised to save them from deportation to Auschwitz or that she knew what was waiting for them there, could not be proven. But if you watch those rare scenes in Lowland where close-ups of Roma and Sinti extras are still visible, you cannot fail to see their warm smiles and big eyes, revealing joy, love, and admiration as they look at Riefenstahl. And this, exactly, was her game, her cruel game. Making the mothers and children, she had forcefully taken away from the «Gypsy» camps believe that she is their friend and ally while at the same time treating them as inferior human beings.

    Basic social need

    Gladitz remembers that during the trial, Riefenstahl said in an interview for a local radio: «We are yet to see to whom the perjury will be attributed, to me or to this handful of vagrants.» According to Gladitz, Riefenstahl vehemently mistreated her Sinti and Roma extras and then denied this simply because she was sure that she could rely on the racism and prejudices against Roma and Sinti in society. One of the friends who helped me obtain the bootleg of Gladitz’s TV documentary said that Sinti and Roma were not organised well enough to let their truth about the Nazi crimes be heard. But I agree with Gladitz, they are victims of Shoah, and we must ensure that they are heard. This is not an eccentricity but a basic social need. A democratic society needs media and journalists in the first place to ensure that those who might not have ways to make themselves heard, will be heard. Gladitz made the documentary and wrote the book to give voice to Sinti and Roma victims that nobody paid attention to. Now she seems to be a victim of the same practice of silencing that she opposed. Of course, silencing can take various forms. To incite doubt into ones’ credibility or even more direct character assassination as it happened to Assange is only one possibility. The fact that Gladitz’s book is in German is an obstacle in itself. The TV documentary Leni Riefenstahl- The End of a Myth (Das Ende eines Mythos, 2020) by Michael Kloft, produced by Spiegel TV, ZDF and ARTE that is based on Gladitz’ book is in German too. The film is faithful to the book and gives a visual form to several key testimonies and documents. Gladitz’s own documentary is kept stored away from the eyes of the public by the main German public service broadcaster, WDR.

    But reading Gladitz’ book, I became aware of how the consequences of the strategies mastered by Riefenstahl have already changed our world…

    Part of us

    Brian Winston once said that fascism is not a virus but a part of us. I am not sure if the limited reach of the Gladitz’ (and of course also many other scholars’ and researchers’) discoveries about Hitler’s favourite filmmaker is a result of a deliberate silencing nor if this silencing can also be seen as part of this dark side of the European tradition. But reading Gladitz’ book, I became aware of how the consequences of the strategies mastered by Riefenstahl have already changed our world and how the elusiveness of truth, causing the delirious search for it in practical matters such as Covid 19 vaccine threatens to expand into more academic and presumably more safe spheres such as film science. Some basic facts simply disappeared from film history, and no one knows about them anymore, while some pure fabrications are considered to be the truth. And therefore, it is important not to accept the times as they are, nor get intimidated into silence.

    Featured Image: Nina Gladitz (centre) during her 1984 trial with Josef Reinhardt (left) and her lawyer, Albrecht Götz von Olenhusen (right). Photograph: Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg

    Melita Zajc
    Melita Zajc
    Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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