What is it about Leni Riefenstahl? Jodie Foster, the Academy Award-winning actress, is currently developing a movie about the brilliant and ire-inspiring German director, whose 1935 film Triumph of the Will–made at Adolf Hitler’s request–has been widely denounced for glorifying the Nazi Party. Foster plans to both produce and star in the film, which she predicts will be the most challenging of her career.
“There is no other woman in the twentieth century who has been so admired and so vilified simultaneously,” Foster said in a statement released by her publicist. In an earlier interview, Foster anticipated that she, too, would be vilified. “I’m going to catch shit on that one,” she said.
But Foster is not the first filmmaker in town to flirt with Riefenstahl, whose four-hour film on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia, was once reviled by Susan Sontag as “fascinating fascism.” George Lucas was so intrigued by Riefenstahl that he parodied Triumph of the Will in the final scene of the original Star Wars. Oliver Stone spliced snippets of Triumph of the Will into his 1991 film The Doors, to re-create a Nazi-themed student film supposedly made by Jim Morrison.
And last year, Paul Verhoeven seriously considered making his own film version of Riefenstahl’s life. Verhoeven ultimately bowed out of the project (which–like Foster’s–was backed by German money) because he says he wanted to hire a more expensive screenwriter than the producers did. But before his exit, talks got serious enough for him to approach a leading lady: Sharon Stone.
“What interested me was the aspect I’ve heard Jodie describe: As an artist, how much do you identify with the aims of your government? Even with the freedom you assume you have, how unconsciously are you already tricked into promoting what’s happening right in front of you?” said Verhoeven, who’d worked before with Sharon Stone on Total Recall and Basic Instinct. “I did discuss it with her. She was certainly very interested.”
The lack of great roles for women actresses over the age of 22 is an unending lament in Hollywood. But that alone cannot possibly explain why some of today’s most sought-after female movie stars would seek to play a woman who did not merely consort with evil but helped it to thrive. (In several published reports, Riefenstahl claims that in addition to Foster, she has been approached by agents for both Sharon Stone and Nicole Kidman.)
Foster has asserted that the central question raised by Riefenstahl’s life is whether artists are morally responsible for their art: “It’s really the question of the artist at any time,” she has said, “whether it’s Nazi Germany or Reagan’s America.” But if Foster hopes to use Riefenstahl to make moviegoers think more deeply about, say, Robert Mapplethorpe or Eminem, she could not have chosen a more incendiary protagonist.
A talented dancer and actress, Riefenstahl had already made a name for herself as a filmmaker when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. She admired the Führer, and he her, and when he asked her to film a 1934 Nazi Party rally, she accepted (reluctantly, she has long claimed, and only on the condition that she would have complete creative freedom). Triumph of the Will uses shot-from-below camera angles, artistic composition and graceful editing to give Hitler and his Third Reich a mythic quality. Even sixty-six years later, its soaring swastikas and choreographed Nazi parades make for startlingly effective propaganda.