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.
No one denies that Riefenstahl–now 98–is a pioneering filmmaker and photographer. In her 70s, she published books of photos of African tribesmen and underwater coral life that were lauded for their beauty even as some questioned their objectifying aesthetic. But Riefenstahl has never lived down or fully acknowledged how readily she put her art to work for Hitler. “What am I guilty of?” she asks her interviewer in the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. “I can and do regret making…Triumph of the Will. I regret–no, I can’t regret–that I was alive in that period. But no words of anti-Semitism ever passed my lips. Nor did I write any…. I didn’t drop any atom bombs, I didn’t denounce anyone, so where does my guilt lie?”
The fact that she has remained unrepentant for her role in promoting the Nazi cause is reason enough, some prominent Jewish leaders say, to leave her story alone. “It’s one thing if she said, ‘I was a fool. I shouldn’t have done it.’ It’s one thing if she took full responsibility and recanted. But what she did was sell Adolf Hitler to the world. Nothing less. And she’s trying to repaint her image,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who worries that a movie will inevitably celebrate Riefenstahl. “Jodie Foster said in one of her interviews that this was a remarkable woman. What’s so remarkable? It seems to me Leni Riefenstahl is duping Jodie Foster.”
The debate over how to portray the Holocaust onscreen is nothing new. Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful may have won ten Oscars between them, but that has not quieted some critics who say that by focusing on rare stories of survival and salvation, Hollywood has minimized the true horror of genocide.
Moreover, when A-list stars are cast as Nazi sympathizers, it can tend to make fascists look good. Remember the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet, which starred Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer who tutored the Dalai Lama? When it was revealed, just before the film’s release, that Harrer had been a sergeant in Hitler’s elite SS, director Jean-Jacques Annaud added a few last-minute voiceovers (including one in which Pitt’s character “shudders” to recall that he once embraced intolerance). The changes did little to alter the thrust of the film, however, which portrayed the handsome Pitt as a hero and chronicler of human rights abuses.
Depicting victims of the Holocaust can also be problematic, as ABC discovered when it began shooting a four-hour miniseries about the life of Anne Frank. Planned for broadcast this May, the project is based on an unauthorized biography that purports to paint a more realistic portrait of the teenaged author of The Diary of Anne Frank, who was sent to her death in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Steven Spielberg was initially an executive producer on the project. But he pulled out when Frank’s first cousin expressed concern that the miniseries might explore themes that were largely omitted from the published version of Frank’s diary–namely, the girl’s awakening sexuality and her thoughts about her parents’ marriage.
“Steven did not want to do anything that would be upsetting to the family or to the legacy of Anne Frank,” said Marvin Levy, Spielberg’s publicist.
Spielberg, meanwhile, is said to have reservations about a Riefenstahl film, as has the director Rob Reiner. Spielberg, whose Schindler’s List portrayed the complicated Oskar Schindler, is clearly interested in morally ambiguous characters. He owns the film rights to a biography of Charles Lindbergh, for example, the pioneering aviator whose Nazi sympathies have been well documented. Still, the director worries there may be no way to bring Riefenstahl’s life to the screen without exalting the Nazis.
For her part, Riefenstahl has severed all ties to Foster’s project. In a rare public appearance at last fall’s Frankfurt Book Fair, she told a crowded press conference she had declined to sign a contract with Foster’s company, Egg Pictures, because it gave her no rights to refute the film’s contents.
“Ninety-nine percent of what’s been published about me is wrong,” she said through a translator. “Jodie Foster can make the film, but it is not the official story of Leni Riefenstahl.”
If Riefenstahl could control her story, however, it appears she might very much like to be immortalized in the medium that made her famous. Oliver Stone says she contacted him in the late 1990s and asked that he read her autobiography, A Memoir, whose rights she has sold to a film producer.
“She wrote me a lovely letter praising my work and asked me to read her book,” recalled Stone, who nevertheless declined to consider a film project, “because I didn’t think I could bring anything new to it. But I think she was a great filmmaker. In her time, Triumph of the Will matched the popular will. She was glorifying an emperor. That’s a very human trait. We glorify US Presidents.”
Some have wondered whether Foster has the chops to produce such a difficult project. Her previous experiences shepherding a project from start to finish–1994’s Nell, and 1995’s Home for the Holidays (which she also directed)–were narrower in scope and did not attempt the kind of complex political and moral analysis that Riefenstahl will require. But it’s difficult to think of an actress who could bring the character of Riefenstahl to life more affectingly than Foster–who has twice won the Oscar for best actress, for her hard-edged roles in The Silence of the Lambs and The Accused.
Stone said he thought Foster would make a good Riefenstahl, dismissing the argument that a beautiful actress would overglamorize the character. “She was a beautiful woman. She was glamorous. It should be played by somebody with a strong will, not some passive frump. Leni Riefenstahl had star quality. Twenty years ago, [the role] could have been played by Elizabeth Taylor.”
Asked whether he had any advice for Foster, the maker of such pseudohistorical films as JFK and Nixon said, “If she can take the heat in the kitchen, more power to her. You don’t court controversy. It doesn’t necessarily help a movie. But if it follows, don’t shy from it.”
Foster has opted to stop discussing the project until it begins production. Calls to Egg Pictures and to the German company that is financing the film, Primary Pictures, were forwarded to Foster’s publicist, who faxed a short statement from the actress. Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for 1993’s Philadelphia) who is penning the Riefenstahl script, did not respond to interview requests.
“Leni Riefenstahl’s story is something I’ve been dying to do for a very long time. I see it as the acting challenge of a lifetime,” Foster said in her statement. “She was perhaps one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and yet her name and work will forever be linked to the horror of Nazi Germany. We have a very complicated moral tale to tackle.”
Verhoeven predicts that Foster’s challenges will be technical as well as moral. He said Riefenstahl’s filmmaking techniques–though innovative at the time–are difficult to portray as such because they are now so commonly used. Moreover, her best-known films portrayed huge crowds–at Nuremberg and the Olympic Stadium in Berlin–that will be daunting to replicate.
“If you cannot show that,” Verhoeven said, “then it’s hard to prove the strength of her achievements. Those multitudes are expensive.”
Himself no stranger to controversy (critics denounced his 1997 sci-fi flick Starship Troopers as having a Nazi aesthetic), Verhoeven still thinks the strength of Riefenstahl’s story merits paying even a high financial and political price. Historical films are troublesome, he said, but they can wield true power.
“You’re limited by your respect for reality. And sometimes that kills the project,” he admitted, noting that he gave up on a film about Harry Houdini not long ago when the actual details of the magician’s life didn’t form the dramatic arc Verhoeven had hoped for. “In Lawrence of Arabia they bent history, and everybody now thinks that’s what happened. So some have succeeded. But you have to be very, very powerful in your presentation. Your vision must be stronger than history.”