On 20 November 1984, in the southern German city of Freiburg, two film-makers faced each other in court for the first day of a trial that was to last nearly two and a half years. The plaintiff, Leni Riefenstahl, had been Hitler’s favourite film-maker. Now 82, she showed up to court in a sheepskin coat over a beige suit, her blond hair set in a large neat perm framing a tanned face. The defendant was a striking, dark-haired 32-year-old documentary maker. Her name was Nina Gladitz, and the outcome of the trial would shape the rest of her life.
During the Nazi era, Riefenstahl had been the regime’s most skilled propagandist, directing films that continue to be both reviled for their glorification of the Third Reich and considered landmarks of early cinema for their innovations and technical mastery. Once the second world war was over, Riefenstahl sought to distance herself from the regime she had served, portraying herself as an apolitical naif whose only motivation was making the most beautiful art possible. “I don’t know what I should apologise for,” she once said. “All my films won the top prize.”
Riefenstahl was taking Gladitz to court over claims made in Gladitz’s television documentary Time of Darkness and Silence, which had aired in 1982. In the film, members of a family of Sinti – a Romani people living mainly in Germany and Austria – had accused Riefenstahl of taking them out of Maxglan, a Nazi concentration camp near Salzburg, in September 1940, and forcing them to work as extras in her feature film Tiefland (Lowlands). Riefenstahl would later claim that all of the Romani extras – 53 Roma and Sinti from Maxglan, and a further 78 from a camp in eastern Berlin – had survived the war. In fact, almost 100 of them are known or believed to have been gassed in Auschwitz, just a small fraction of the 220,000 to 500,000 Romani people murdered in the Holocaust. Some of the survivors insisted that Riefenstahl had promised to save them. One, Josef Reinhardt, was 13 when he was drafted as an extra. He was the trial’s key witness, and sat beside Gladitz in the courtroom every day.
Riefenstahl denied that she had visited the camp to handpick the extras, denied failing to pay them and denied having promised and subsequently failed to save them from Auschwitz. She claimed that, while making the film, she had not known of the existence of the gas chambers, nor of the fate of the Roma and Sinti. When Gladitz’s documentary was played in court on the opening day of the trial, Riefenstahl repeatedly interrupted the screening with cries of “Lies! Lies!” and “Nothing but a lie!” As her shouts echoed round the darkened courtroom, the judge, Günther Oswald, told her: “Madam, I have no other choice than to watch the film.”
While there is no doubt that Riefenstahl’s account of her own life is far from reliable, it has been hard to establish precisely what she knew about the horrors perpetrated during the Third Reich. She was the regime’s leading film propagandist for almost its entire duration, and her films included Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg rally, and Olympia, a record of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. But, though she was a close friend of Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, such as the fanatical antisemite Julius Streicher, Riefenstahl fiercely denied any awareness of the slaughter that took place in concentration camps. Jürgen Trimborn, author of a highly critical biography published in 2002, declared that there was “no evidence that, due to her proximity to the regime, Riefenstahl knew more than others did about the mass annihilation of the Jews. But it is obvious that, like most Germans, she knew enough to be sure that it was better not to know even more.” (Gladitz would later judge this analysis as far too generous.)
During the trial, Riefenstahl produced correspondence from one of the extras that appeared to support her account of her good relationship with them while filming Tiefland. It was accepted that they had habitually referred to her as “Tante Leni”, or Auntie Leni. “Even if you don’t want to believe it, the Gypsies – the adults as well as the children – were our darlings,” Riefenstahl said. But the court also heard that during the day the extras were watched by two policemen, and at night they were locked up in sheds and cellars. A contract discovered by Gladitz in archives in Salzburg showed an agreement between Riefenstahl and the SS camp guard that measures would be taken against any attempts at escape.