BERLIN — Even at 100, Leni Riefenstahl remains Germany’s most controversial filmmaker. Last month the helmer celebrated her centenary, saw the TV premiere of her first film in 48 years and was slapped with a lawsuit by former internment camp prisoners used as slave labor in one of her films.
The 122 Roma and Sinti (ethnic groups formerly known as gypsies) were recruited as extras from prison camps in Berlin and Salzburg between 1940 and 1942 during the filming of her film “Tiefland” (Lowlands). Many of those who worked in the film were later sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.
The pic, which wasn’t released until 1954, is about a Gypsy peasant woman (played by Riefenstahl) who becomes the mistress of an evil Spanish tyrant but later finds absolution and love.
In real life, absolution continues to escape her. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau in April, Riefenstahl said, “We saw all the Gypsies that worked on ‘Lowlands’ again after the war. Nothing happened to any of them.”
The comment prompted Cologne-based Gypsy or “Roma” association Verein Rom to file a lawsuit against Riefenstahl accusing her of sedition, denial of the Holocaust and denigration of the memory of those killed.
Riefenstahl has since retracted her statement and promised to no longer say she met “all” the former extras after the war. She also issued a statement expressing her regret at the persecution and suffering of the Sinti and Roma under the Nazi regime.
The helmer denied having any knowledge at the time of filming of the atrocities taking place in concentration camps and added that the extras who worked on “Lowlands” were treated very courteously.
According to Verein Roma, the prisoners were locked up every night after shooting and forced to sleep in barns.
Recently uncovered documents listing the names of Roma and Sinti who died in Auschwitz aided Verein Roma’s legal action.
Ironically, “Lowlands” is considered Riefenstahl’s most anti-authoritarian work and is generally seen as a reflection of her own disillusionment with the Nazi regime and an attempt to denounce tyranny.
The film was confiscated by the French following the war and later returned to the director with significant footage missing.
Released in 1954, pic sparked the interest of that year’s Cannes jury president, Jean Cocteau, who screened the film at the fest.
Although she celebrated her birthday Aug. 22 with luminaries such as bankrupt media baron Leo Kirch and Teutonic tiger tamers and illusionists Siegfried and Roy, Riefenstahl has never managed to live down her tainted image as Adolf Hitler’s favorite director and remains branded a Third Reich propagandist for her patriotic Nazi-era documentaries “Triumph of the Will” and “Day of Freedom.”
“Impressionen unter Wasser” is her first film since “Lowlands.” The underwater doc, shot in tropical waters around the world over a period of more than 25 years, preemed on French-German culture channel ARTE Aug. 15.
Riefenstahl’s life remains a hot topic for Jodie Foster, who is set to make a film about the director next year with producing partner and Studio Babelsberg topper Gabriela Bacher.