Leni Riefenstahl, 101, the German film director and protege of Adolf Hitler whose historic documentaries about the 1934 Nazi party congress at Nuremberg and the Berlin Olympics of 1936 set benchmark standards for cinematic imagery and political propaganda that endured through the 20th century, died Sept. 8 at her home in Pocking, near Munich. No cause of death was reported.
Ms. Riefenstahl was a personal favorite of Hitler's and one of the few remaining friends of the Nazi dictator still alive. Under his sponsorship, she had wide authority and unlimited access in her work, and her career flourished. But it collapsed with the fall of the Third Reich and the carnage of World War II, and Ms. Riefenstahl never rid herself of the Nazi stigma.
As a filmmaker and artist, she had an eye for detail and a talent for editing that evoked the hypnotic spectacle of the massed Nazi legions, the raw charisma of the German Fuhrer and the mesmerizing drama and majesty of Olympic competition with a force and power not seen before in the film medium.
During the 1930s, Ms. Riefenstahl was widely rumored at the highest levels of the Nazi party and throughout Germany to have been Hitler's mistress. In the United States, the Saturday Evening Post described her as a "Nazi pinup girl," and the Detroit News, in a 1937 story, called her "the woman behind Hitler."
Ms. Riefenstahl always insisted the rumors were baseless, and after the war, investigators for the Allied Powers found no evidence to suggest that she and Hitler might have had a romantic or sexual liaison.
Taken into custody by military authorities after the Nazi surrender in 1945, Ms. Riefenstahl eventually was released without charges. But it was years before she obtained a work permit, and the films she made under Hitler would become a permanent reminder that she had served a regime that produced concentration camps, gas chambers, the Gestapo and genocide of European Jews and others. She never regained her prewar professional standing as a director and actress.
Late in her life, Ms. Riefenstahl would play down her relationship with Hitler, saying he "did not play such an important role in my life."
But she did admit being "dazzled" by him. "I had never met anyone with such power of persuasion," she said, "able to influence other minds so effectively."
Ms. Riefenstahl had been a glamorous actress and director who starred in her own adventure movies before Hitler selected her to make the film of the 1934 Nazi congress. As one of Germany's leading movie stars, she caught his eye with her performance in "Blue Light" (1932), which she co-directed, about a courageous village girl who scales a treacherous mountain.
"Your 'Blue Light' proved that you can do it," Hitler told her when she voiced doubts over her ability to produce the documentary he wanted about the Nazi congress. He later would describe the finished product, which came to be known as "Triumph of the Will," as "a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement."
For the filming of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Ms. Riefenstahl was working officially for the International Olympic Committee, but her efforts were financed surreptitiously and later exploited by the Nazi regime. She would produce an epic three-hour documentary titled "Olympia," which became a prototype for much of sports television decades later.
In that picture, she pioneered such techniques as aerial photography, underwater pictures of swimming and diving events and the placing of cameras on tracks to move with runners in a race.
She perfected the technique of dramatizing athletic contests by personalizing the athletes. With such details as a close-up of the vein throbbing in the forehead of American sprinter Jesse Owens and the glint of confidence on his face as he prepared for the final in the 100-meter dash, Ms. Riefenstahl made the Olympic Games come alive.
It took her 18 months to edit the 250 miles of film footage into a single documentary, which had its premiere showing in Berlin on April 20, 1938, Hitler's birthday. To no one's surprise, "Olympia" won Germany's State Prize as the best film of 1938, but it also won prestigious awards in France and Sweden and at the Venice Film Festival. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin sent a congratulatory note praising the film.
In its May 1938 issue, German Film magazine declared "Olympia," to be "one of the greatest works of art that the German film has produced up to now -- filled with the spirit that we sense not only as the spirit of the Games but also the spirit of the German reality of today. . . . It is a result of National Socialism, which is penetrating the total life of the nation. Only in the ideological structure of National Socialism could this great documentary film have come into being as an artistic achievement."
Helene Berta Amalie Riefenstahl was born in Berlin, where her father was a prosperous manufacturer of plumbing and heating equipment. As a child, she aspired to be a dancer, but a knee injury cut this career short, and she turned to acting.
Dark-haired, brown-eyed and athletic, she radiated confidence and a cool Teutonic sensuality. In seven films during the 1920s and early 1930s, she displayed a lively and spirited alpine glamour as she climbed mountains barefoot, survived avalanches and traversed treacherous crevasses on the flimsiest of ladders, often in films by her mentor, director Arnold Fanck.
In May 1932, after having attended a Nazi party rally at the Berlin Sports Palace and hearing Hitler speak, Ms. Riefenstahl sent him a letter. "I was so impressed by you and the enthusiasm of the spectators that I would like to meet you personally," she wrote.
A few days later, she received a telephone call from one of Hitler's aides inviting her to meet the Nazi leader at Horumersiel, a small fishing village on Germany's North Sea coast. She accepted, and the next day she spent several hours with Hitler, walking along the seashore and conversing on subjects ranging from art and architecture to Hitler's politics.
"I feel that I have been called to save Germany -- I cannot and must not refuse this calling," she recalled him as saying.
At one point, she wrote in her 1987 autobiography, "Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir," Hitler "halted, looked at me, slowly put his arms around me and drew me to him . . . but when he noticed my lack of response he instantly let me go and turned away. Then I saw him raise his hands beseechingly: 'How can I love a woman until I have completed my task?' "
They met periodically over the next several years. At one point, Hitler offered to place Ms. Riefenstahl in charge of all German cinema, which she declined. But she agreed to his request to film the 1934 Nazi congress. Preparations for filming the spectacle began months before the rally, which took place Sept. 4-10, and they involved elaborate, stage-managed coordination among party organizers and the 36-member film crew.
The result of these efforts was an amalgam of exquisitely interwoven and highly emotional images building up to a crescendo of frenzied German nationalism and mass hero worship for the Fuhrer. Time magazine later called it "newsreel raised to romantic myth."
Especially powerful was a sequence in which Hitler walked down an enormous corridor of massed Nazi party members to lay a commemorative wreath at the grave of a Nazi martyr.
The American film director Frank Capra found the fanaticism of "Triumph of the Will" so compelling that he used copious footage from the documentary to illustrate the nature of the enemy in "Why We Fight," the inspirational films he made for the U.S. armed forces.
To film the Berlin Games, Ms. Riefenstahl directed dozens of camera crews -- 60 were assigned to the opening ceremonies alone -- and pictures were taken from helium balloons and the saddles of horseback riders.
In editing the films, she perfected such artistic techniques -- copied later by U.S. film directors -- as superimposing the image of the Olympic Stadium getting nearer over the running feet of a marathon racer and the cinematic silhouettes of the Olympic divers soaring and tumbling as if in defiance of gravity.
Late in 1938, Ms. Riefenstahl toured the United States with the film, which drew grudging admiration though she received a cold shoulder from the media and the Hollywood film industry. At the outset of World War II, she followed the Wehrmacht into Poland, but she soon decided against making war films.
She did some desultory work during the war on a film version of the Eugen d'Albert opera "Tiefland" ("Lowlands"), but the picture was not finished until the early 1950s, and it was withdrawn from circulation after unsuccessful openings in Germany and Austria. Several other film projects during the 1950s never materialized. For the Munich Olympics of 1972, she was a photographic adviser.
For most of the half century since the end of the war, she attracted little notice from the media, although she did return to the public spotlight with the publication of her memoirs and the U.S. release of a documentary film about her, Ray Muller's "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" (1993).
She also learned to scuba dive at age 71 to take photographs for her book "Coral Gardens," which was hailed for its stunning beauty.
She continued diving well into her nineties. In 2002, in conjunction with her 100th birthday, she released a 45-minute documentary, "Underwater Impressions," about her 30 years of exploring the coast of Indonesia.
Hilmar Hofmann, director of the Goethe Institute, was quoted as saying, "It exceeds even the talents of the veteran French underwater filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau."
She was married once, in 1944 to Peter Jacob, an officer in the Wehrmacht. They were divorced in 1946.