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Tuesday, March 2, 2004


Salute creates furor

THERE she was on the Oscar night honor roll of recently departed movie folk -- Adolf Hitler's favorite filmmaker being officially mourned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

When the late Leni Riefenstahl's name scrolled down the giant "In Memoriam" screen at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, there was muffled applause and scattered boos.

A few miles away, at Morton's in Beverly Hills, some of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's dinner guests loudly hissed.

FoxmanAnd in Abraham Foxman's Manhattan apartment, where the Anti-Defamation League honcho (left) watched the broadcast with his wife, there was utter disbelief.

"I said to my wife, 'Oh, God! What is she doing up there?'" Foxman told me yesterday. "Are we now giving equal time to Hitler? I don't know what could have been in the mind of the Academy to include her as one of our greatest filmmakers. There are a lot of other dead bigots who don't get honored by putting them on such a list."

Hollywood producer Sid Ganis, an Academy vice president, said there's a simple reason for honoring Riefenstahl, who died in September at her home near Munich at the ripe age of 101.

"She was there because she was an artist and she's gone," Ganis told me. "She had a greatness to her and she had amazing longevity. There was no special debate whatsoever in the decision to include her on the list, and I personally agree with it."

Riefenstahl was perhaps the Third Reich's most effective propagandist. Her classic documentaries, "Triumph of the Will," capturing the drama and grandeur of a 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, and her two-part epic "Olympia," about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, cemented her reputation as a brilliant and imaginative filmmaker who eagerly put her talent at the service of evil.

After World War II, she never apologized for her close association with Hitler, though she later claimed, along with millions of other Germans, that she was ignorant of the Nazi mass murders and other atrocities.

From my post-Oscar soundings of the Hollywood elite -- who have been riveted in recent weeks by "The Passion" of Mel Gibson -- it seems that Riefenstahl has been largely forgiven for sins of the distant past.

"Yes, Hitler was evil, but I think it was proper to have her name there," Elton John told me at his AIDS charity party up the street from Morton's. "She was a great filmmaker, and as an artist myself, I think she deserved to be there."

At the Vanity Fair party, megaproducer Jerry Bruckheimer told me: "I don't have a problem with it. She was a genius, and her movies were innovative and still copied today. . . sWhen I was making commercials years ago, I remember one where the director stole directly from 'Triumph of the Will.'"

Academy board member Tom Hanks -- who said "my role is to crack wise at the meetings and make people laugh" -- declined either to boo or cheer for the decision to memorialize Riefenstahl.


Leni Riefenstahl index
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