They were fleeting and unlikely collaborators, for lack of a better word. He was a son of Jewish Hollywood royalty, she a Nazi fellow traveler and propagandist, though they had a few things in common, too: both were talented filmmakers, both produced enduring work, and both would spend the second halves of their lives explaining or denying past moral compromises. Which isn’t to say the debits on their ledgers were equal—far from it.
Both are now household names, at least in households littered with DVDs from the Criterion Collection. But largely forgotten is the 1945 film he helped assemble with her grudging assistance as an involuntary consultant. It remains a key document of the twentieth century and helped send ten war criminals to the gallows, some of them her former friends and/or colleagues. If she felt badly about that, aside from the ways in which she was inconvenienced and her reputation tarnished, I could not find any record of it. For his part, his widow, his fourth wife, told me he never much talked about the film, or any of his World War II experiences, like so many men of his generation. Fortunately, he hadn’t always been so reticent.
* * *
Budd Schulberg had what used to be called a “good” war; certainly he had an interesting and productive one. He would go on to write screenplays for On the Waterfront (1954) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), but in 1945, at the age of thirty-one, he was best known as the author of the scathing Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run (1941) and for having babysat a declining, bender-prone F. Scott Fitzgerald while they worked together on the screenplay for a dopey college comedy titled Winter Carnival (1939)—an assignment Schulberg would later fictionalize in his third novel, The Disenchanted. (The title is something of a spoiler.) Schulberg was himself a product of Hollywood, the son of B. P. Schulberg, a producer and former executive at Paramount, but Budd moved east after What Makes Sammy Run, which his father had begged him not to publish, rendered him persona non grata in his hometown. He had nerve and didn’t shy away from a fight; with his broad nose and rough features, he even looked pugnacious, though when it came to boxing he was only a fervent fan.
After Pearl Harbor, he was commissioned as a naval lieutenant and in the spring of 1943 joined the Field Photographic Branch of the OSS (the precursor to the CIA), under the command of the film director John Ford. Schulberg spent some time with the unit in London during the run-up to D-Day, then followed Allied forces through Belgium and into Germany as part of what he called a “little group” that would sweep into newly liberated towns and ransack the local SS headquarters for documents and other valuable intelligence. He was also given opportunities to put his narrative talents to work. As he explained to an interviewer six decades later, he was assigned to a team that handled spies and saboteurs training to be dropped behind German lines: “I as a writer would work on the cover story, which was very much like writing a story. It was exactly like writing a character in fiction because you would find out what [the agents] really did, and then adjust it to what they would say . . . if they were interrogated.”
As the fighting in Europe drew to a conclusion, Schulberg was sent back to the States, though he remained in uniform, awaiting further assignment. He got a historic one. The OSS was involved in organizing the four-power tribunal that would try German war criminals—and there was an abundance of potential defendants—in the city of Nuremberg once the war was over. At Schulberg’s suggestion, he and the photographic unit were tasked with collecting film footage from German sources that could be used as evidence. He flew back to Europe, arriving in Paris on August 9—which also happened to be the day the United States dropped its second atomic bomb, on Nagasaki—only to receive “a cool reception” from the first officer he reported to. “War Crimes apparently not too pop.,” he noted in his diary.
This was no cushy assignment, given Germany’s ominous, chaotic, postapocalyptic state. Berlin, where Schulberg and his team were headquartered (albeit in nice digs), was “the most miserable, exciting, amoral, war-shocked city in the world,” he wrote to a friend. “From the air it looks like a gigantic honey comb that has been smashed with a hammer—for you peer down into thousands of roofless houses—empty, useless honeycomb cells.” His diary describes forays into the city’s black markets, where he saw one desperate old couple trying to sell their wedding rings and others their coats, even as the skies darkened and winter approached. Elsewhere, German women were essentially trading sex with GIs for cigarettes or chocolate, or even less. “Here is the flower of German womanhood,” he wrote, “on its knees, or more accurate on its back, for a crust of bread.”
Schulberg’s unit was rife with Hollywood lifers. His immediate superiors were E. Ray Kellogg, the head of special effects at Paramount and future director of The Green Berets, and Jack Munroe, from Fox Movietone News. One of the unit’s editors was Robert Parrish, who had appeared as a child actor in City Lights and the Our Gang comedies and who would win an Academy Award in 1947 for editing Body and Soul, a John Garfield boxing picture. The staff also boasted an Alsatian editor who had once been on the staff of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of National Enlightenment and Propaganda, but now considered himself a patriotic Frenchman.
The hunt for Nazi film footage took Schulberg back and forth across the country, with forays into France and Switzerland as well. Three times, informants led him to carefully hidden archives that had been secreted away as the Reich collapsed. One was in a granite quarry in the Soviet Zone outside Berlin that had to be entered through a tunnel several hundred yards long and had been used to store looted valuables. Emerging out of the tunnel into the open-air quarry, as Schulberg would later describe the scene, the unit was “confronted by one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen—burned film and charred film cans stretching for acres in every direction.” He estimated the loss at one million feet of film; the conflagration had been so explosive that film cans had supposedly been blown into a nearby village. The local burgomaster blamed the fire on “drunken Russian soldiers,” but Schulberg suspected “an inside job by the Germans.” Twice more the unit arrived at secret archives only to find smoldering ruins.
Three weeks after landing in Europe, Schulberg was despairing, and suspected there might be informants among his own staff. “We are so inadequately prepared to do this evidence job,” he wrote in his diary. He complained about “how amazingly fucked up this war crimes deal is. Nothing about it seems to go right. I’m afraid so far it’s going just as Goebbels would have it go.”
But his mood soon improved. The unit tallied a significant score when it located negatives of German newsreels stashed away in the town of Babelsberg, also a part of the Soviet Zone. The Russian major in charge refused to grant entry until he learned that Schulberg was a part of John Ford’s unit; in civilian life, the major was a film scholar who had written extensively about Ford. He ticked off a long list of the director’s films and then boasted, “Every one of those pictures I have analyzed in my book.” As Schulberg later noted, “He knew the obscure silent films. He knew every damned shot.” The excited Russian asked whether Ford himself would soon be along to take charge. “Oh yes, we expect him over any time now,” Schulberg lied—Ford was actually in Washington, winding down his military service and preparing to release They Were Expendable—and so Schulberg got his film: not only the newsreel footage but also biographical materials on some of the eventual Nuremberg defendants and two key reels of film that showed German troops rounding up Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and later burying them in a mass grave. “If there was any one defining moment” regarding his feelings about the Nazis, he said decades later, the memory of this atrocity film still raw, it was when he realized “that [the Germans] so cold bloodedly wanted to record this instead of [covering it up.]” He described how a cameraman had had the professional presence of mind, obscene in this context, to climb into the grave to get a shot of bodies, including children’s, being tossed in toward him—a reverse angle.
Altogether, the Babelsberg cache would supply upward of ninety percent of the film that Schulberg eventually produced for the first Nuremberg trial. But as important as that find was, Schulberg’s job wasn’t done. As he later confessed, “It didn’t take any genius to think that we ought to talk to Leni Riefenstahl.”
* * *
Leni Riefenstahl had suffered setbacks during the war, but was in much better shape than most Germans; befitting her status as the Third Reich’s most celebrated filmmaker and a former Time magazine cover subject, she had not been reduced to selling her winter coat. But renown has its downside, too, and she had been arrested by American troops shortly after Germany’s surrender. Intelligence officers who interviewed her reported that it was “difficult to recognize” the internationally famous actress and director in “this aging, seriously ailing woman [who] gives one the impression of a broken human being.” Nevertheless, Riefenstahl maintained under interrogation that her Nazi propaganda films were made strictly as aesthetic statements with, to her mind, no political intent. An American intelligence report, noting that her statements “give one the impression of honesty”—a nice hedge, that—concluded: “She is certainly no fanatical National Socialist.” Rather, her “admiration” for Hitler was largely limited to the fact that “his protecting hand insured her artistic activities.” The blind eye she had turned to the Reich’s crimes “did not obviously spring from opportunistic motives, but from the desire to continue dreaming her dream of a life ‘fully dedicated to art’”—an interpretation of her career she would cling to and promote, with varying degrees of success, through many future interviews. In this case it won her her freedom.
Strong-willed, athletic, physically striking, maybe more handsome than beautiful, slightly cross-eyed, she had launched her career as a dancer and then as an actress during the Weimar Republic, ultimately starring in a series of “alpine movies” that mixed nature worship, mysticism, and literal cliff- and glacier-hanging (she did her own stunts, often barefoot). It was a popular genre, steeped in Germany’s national mythology, that might be seen as a loose equivalent to America’s Westerns. Adolf Hitler himself was a fan of her directorial debut, The Blue Light (1932), in which she also starred as a saintly, misunderstood mountain girl who has a religious bond with nature. As a work of narrative it is almost unwatchable, but as a painstakingly crafted act of cinematic self-love, it would remain unrivaled until the advent of more recent director-stars such as Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty.
Riefenstahl maneuvered to meet Hitler in 1932, when he was still a rising politician and not yet Germany’s Führer—purely out of curiosity, according to her 1987 memoir, and not at all out of ideological sympathy or as a career move. “He looked natural and uninhibited, like a completely normal person,” she noted with—to her credit—surprise. He expressed his admiration for her work and then pronounced, “Once we come to power, you must make my films.” She supposedly demurred, asserting her lack of interest in his or anyone else’s ideology—her only loyalty being to Art. “I will never make prescribed films,” she told him. “I don’t have the knack for it—I have to have a very personal relationship with my subject matter. Otherwise I can’t be creative.” Moreover, she claimed to have added, “You have racial prejudices. . . . How can I work for someone who makes such distinctions among people?”
“I wish the people around me would be as uninhibited as you,” he replied quietly, her account suggesting a note of wistfulness that perhaps only she ever saw in him.
But once Hitler seized power, Riefenstahl overcame her qualms about working for the Nazis, now willing to seek Art in all sorts of unusual places. With the Führer as a patron—he was widely and probably falsely rumored to be her lover (rumors she didn’t do much to discourage, however, until after the war)—and with Goebbels as what we might now call a “frenemy,” Riefenstahl became one of the Third Reich’s most powerful cultural figures. She’s also one of the few we still remember, for the two feature-length documentaries she directed under Hitler: Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg, a seemingly endless montage of precision goose-stepping, angry speech-making, idolatry, and wholesome Aryan horseplay that is routinely referred to as the greatest propaganda film ever made; and Olympia, her aestheticized chronicle of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where she bossed around athletes, referees, and anyone else who got in her way to produce a two-part film that is both lovely to look at and slightly creepy, a high-toned reminder of Nazi body fetishism.
The outbreak of war in 1939 forced Riefenstahl to abandon the film she had hoped would be her directorial masterpiece: Penthesilea, an elaborate, expensive epic in which she was also set to star as the title character—a savage Amazon queen in love with Achilles. “She could visualize herself on film—naked on horseback, hair streaming in the wind as she plunged into battle, spear in hand. Why not? She was as daring, as bold, as beautiful,” writes one of her biographers, Steven Bach. But that vision dashed, she turned to an allegedly more modest project, Tiefland, a melodrama set in Spain in which she starred as an alluring Gypsy dancing girl and which she struggled to shoot amid wartime shortages, logistical problems, and her own spiraling ambitions—Tiefland was the Third Reich’s Heaven’s Gate—although she did avail herself of one Nazi-era convenience, recruiting several dozen real-life Gypsy extras, including children as young as three months, from a “collection camp” near her Austrian location. (When she was done shooting, the extras, in essence slave laborers, were sent back to the camp and then on to Auschwitz, where most of them died.) She was still in postproduction, scrambling to complete the film, when Germany collapsed in the spring of 1945. Given the circumstances, Bach notes, “Leni’s monomaniacal concern for Tiefland struck even her as ‘absurd and inexplicable.’”
At the end of the war, she was living in the village of Kitzbühel, in the Austrian Tyrol, occupying a three-story, timbered chalet facing a pretty lake and surrounded by meadows and snowcapped mountains where she had installed editing and sound-mixing studios for work on Tiefland. But there would be more interruptions. “Leni Riefenstahl Weeps at Losing Austrian Villa,” was the headline in the New York Times two weeks after Germany fell, above an AP report that a U.S. Army division had commandeered her home. “But some of my best friends are Jews,” she had allegedly wailed, by way of protest and to no effect. (Her assertion was not completely untrue: as a younger woman she had had Jewish friends and colleagues, though she dropped them once the Nazis took power.) An effort to trade on her celebrity went nowhere. “Baby, I’ve been going to the movies a long time and I never heard of you,” she was told by a GI whose all-American sass could have been scripted by Preston Sturges. He added: “And now get going. We need this house.”
Riefenstahl would eventually get her chalet back, although she was repeatedly arrested, interrogated, and released—first by U.S. forces, and then by the French, who took over administration of the area. “They thought in prison I was Mrs. Hitler. . . . They throw me about and say, ‘You never see the sky,’ and I say, ‘All right—go ahead and kill me,’” she later told the American director George Stevens, with perhaps a spackling of added melodrama. She claimed that this was when she first learned of the death camps and their grim but thorough logistics. Shown “dreadful” atrocity photos by American counterintelligence officers, “I hid my face in my hands; it was too horrifying,” she wrote in her memoir, describing a characteristic reaction. Knowledge of this evil plunged her into existential crisis: “I simply couldn’t imagine that orders of such a vast scope could be carried out without Hitler’s knowledge. Yet how were these cruelties to be reconciled with the indignant words that I heard him speak . . . at the beginning of the war: ‘So long as there are still women and children in Warsaw, there will be no shooting.’” She would resolve the conflict by concluding Hitler had suffered from a “schizophrenic nature.”
* * *
Riefenstahl had recovered her equilibrium, and her looks, by the time Schulberg found her in the autumn of 1945, possibly in the first week of November, not long before the Nuremberg trial was scheduled to begin. “She was still really quite beautiful and, if you could forget her connections, really very charming, and I would think that, to many people, very convincing in her intensity about her art, her love of the mountains, and winter sports,” he said years later. “She was really quite a—quite an imposing piece of work.”
This was the first meeting between the two, but Schulberg had played a very minor part—an extra in a crowd scene, if you will—in an earlier Riefenstahl drama. In 1938 she had made her first trip to America, ostensibly vacationing as a private citizen, although the visit was paid for by the German government. She was hoping to find an American distributor for Olympia—among her seventeen pieces of luggage she brought along three different cuts of the film, including one with all scenes of Hitler deleted—and hoping as well to hobnob with the powers that be in Hollywood, where German directors before her had found lucrative work (though they tended to be directors who hadn’t enjoyed Hitler’s patronage). She sailed into New York on November 4, hit the Stork Club and the Copacabana, and was famously pronounced “pretty as a Swastika” by Walter Winchell. But there were protests and boycotts organized against her by anti-Nazi organizations, and the PR equation grew even more complex a week later, following the events of Kristallnacht, when organized mobs throughout Germany beat and arrested thousands of Jews and murdered several hundred more while burning synagogues and looting Jewish businesses. She dismissed as “slander” news reports that, as Bach points out, “no one in Germany was denying.” (Rather, the Reich held the victims financially responsible for all the property damage.) Riefenstahl left New York for Chicago, and then Detroit, where she received an unsurprisingly warm welcome from Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic car manufacturer and crank publisher, but otherwise was treated like a pariah. Unlike her reception in New York, where her ship had been met by a big, jostling crowd of mostly friendly newsmen and photographers seeking a big story in Hitler’s alleged girlfriend (she and the Führer were “just good friends,” the director had demurred with a giggle), when she stepped off the Super Chief in Hollywood, on November 24, she was greeted by a desultory crowd consisting of the German consul, a staff member from a local German-language newspaper, an American painter who shared her and Hitler’s penchant for the idealized male physique, and the painter’s brother.
“Where is the press?” she demanded, according to her publicist (who defected to the States at the end of her trip and wrote an amusing if sometimes suspect series of articles about her for a Hollywood newspaper).
“But you’re supposed to be here incognito,” she was told.
“Ja, but not so incognito,” she snapped.
The reception went from bad to worse. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League—a Communist-led group that Schulberg, then a party member, was likely part of—took out ads in the trade papers declaring, “There Is No Room in Hollywood for Leni Reifenstahl” while holding demonstrations in front of her hotel, the Garden of Allah, which forced her to relocate to a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. After some hemming and hawing, the town’s moguls declined to meet with her—with the exception of Walt Disney, who showed her some sketches for his latest work-in-progress, Fantasia, but then backed out of allowing her to screen Olympia for him, afraid that his unionized projectionists would spread the word and he’d be boycotted. (Decades later she would claim, incorrectly and ungraciously, that Olympia had beaten out Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the then-coveted Mussolini Cup at the 1938 Venice Film Festival.)
Socially, she fared little better. Wrote the gossip columnist Louella Parsons, “If Leni Riefenstahl, said to be Hitler’s girl friend, had any idea of finding [Hollywood] homes open to her, she must have been greatly disappointed. She might be on a desert island, so far as anyone in the film colony is concerned.” The right-wing comedy producer Hal Roach (Laurel and Hardy, the Our Gang shorts) threw a party for Riefenstahl “and asked all the main people in Hollywood to come,” as Schulberg recalled. “And all of the liberal people like Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagan and Dorothy Parker . . . Freddy March . . . there must have been twenty—they were each given a list of ten people to phone and say, ‘Don’t go.’ I had a list myself. . . . Only about eight or ten people [attended]—just the extreme right-wing people, like Victor McLaglen. . . . Basically, the party was a disaster for her.” Riefenstahl slipped away to Palm Springs, where she did some snubbing of her own, declining to meet with a prominent lawyer who was hoping to persuade her to use her influence with Hitler to ameliorate the mistreatment of Germany’s Jews.
“I hope next time it will be different when I come, yes?” she remarked manfully as she got on the train heading back east, reported Variety under the headline “Nazi Retreat from Hollywood Chilled by Frigid Farewells.”
Bruised but indomitable, seeing herself as a martyr—“Naturally,” she told a German reporter, “I ran into resistance from the Jews”—she returned home to Berlin in February of 1939, where she was debriefed by Goebbels, who noted in his diary: “Leni Riefenstahl reports to me on her trip to America. She gives me an exhaustive description, and one that is far from encouraging. We shall get nowhere there. The Jews rule by terror and bribery. But for how much longer?”
* * *
When Schulberg set out to find Riefenstahl in the fall of 1945—with, he would later claim, some kind of warrant for her arrest—he had already located a copy of Triumph of the Will, portions of which would be shown at the trial. Putting motion pictures into evidence was then a radical notion; the prosecution wanted Riefenstahl to help legitimize that by formally attesting to her movie’s authenticity. As well, Schulberg and the lawyers wanted her help in identifying some of the officials pictured in it and in other films. One of the charges against the defendants was conspiracy to commit aggressive war, something akin to a latter-day RICO indictment, so it was essential that the prosecution place the defendants at key events and establish a web of associations and responsibilities, especially among those who were expected to claim they were apolitical military officers or civilians.
Schulberg was also hoping Riefenstahl could point him toward where he might find copies of two documentary shorts she had directed for Hitler and Goebbels. Following her trail led him first to her abandoned home in Berlin, where he found “nothing but a lot of dirty laundry,” then Munich, then Salzburg, and finally the chalet in Kitzbühel, where he and his driver arrived in an open-air weapons carrier. Riefenstahl was “sort of hiding in the open,” he would later say. “It wasn’t exactly hiding, but she wasn’t advertising, either, what her address was.”
I should note that, although Schulberg’s account of meeting and arresting Riefenstahl in 1945 would remain fairly consistent through multiple tellings over the course of his life, no one who has looked into it has yet found any corroborating evidence. Given the scattershot nature of the official record from that chaotic time and place, this is not altogether surprising, though Riefenstahl’s absence from books and interviews by other Nuremberg participants is maybe more so. Riefenstahl herself didn’t mention Schulberg or the trial in her memoir (the one that has her challenging Hitler’s racial theories to his face). Historians who have researched the matter believe one has to allow for the possibility that Schulberg embellished his account, or worse. He was, of course, a professional storyteller, as was Riefenstahl. I think his story has the clear ring of truth; it undeniably has the ring of poetry—of poetic justice.
In Kitzbühel, as Schulberg recalled, the chalet door was opened by “a short, nervous, overly polite little fellow,” a majordomo type who didn’t seem too happy to see Schulberg and who, Schulberg later realized—shades of Sunset Boulevard—was in fact Riefenstahl’s recently acquired and soon-to-be-deacquisitioned husband, a former major in the Wehrmacht. Schulberg was assured that Fraulein Riefenstahl would be eager to see him, but ended up cooling his heels in her study. “Marvelous, yes?” the majordomo husband said when he saw Schulberg looking at a book of stills from Tiefland. “Her greatest work. If only she is allowed to finish it.”
Half an hour later—allowing, presumably, for tactical primping—Riefenstahl made her entrance. “She was dressed informally in yellow corduroy slacks with a golden-brown leather jacket that blended prettily with her tanned complexion. She held out her hand to me, prima-donna fashion, and smiled grandly,” Schulberg wrote in “Nazi Pin-Up Girl,” a long and detailed article about their meeting he published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1946. (If he embellished his tale, he took the risk of doing so while events were still fresh in others’ minds.) “She reminded me of I don’t know how many actresses of her age I had met before, fading beauties who try to compensate in grooming, make-up and animation for what they begin to lack in physical appeal.”
Schulberg’s naval uniform was no doubt cause for suspicion during this initial conversation, which seems to have been less an interrogation than a kind of moral jousting match, something akin to the Frost-Nixon interviews. “Frighten her or flatter her” were his marching orders, he wrote, and he initially tried to draw her out, which wasn’t too hard, buttering her up with praise for the artistry of her early pictures before moving onto her Nazi-era oeuvre. “She immediately went into what I called her song and dance,” Schulberg recalled decades later in an interview. “She said that, ‘Of course everybody thinks because I made those films that I am a Nazi. I was never a Nazi. I’m a pure film artist. And my only interest in that film’”—Triumph of the Will—“‘was to make a work of art [on] a very interesting subject, which God knows it was.’” He added, probably employing understatement, “She went on like that.”
Hoping to bolster her case that her films transcended politics, and unaware of Schulberg’s civilian line of work, she bragged about the triumphant reception she’d been accorded on her visit to Hollywood—“as an artist.” He let that fib slide but did seize the opportunity to ask some pointed questions, according to his Saturday Evening Post account:
Hadn’t she been aware of the concentration camps?
“I had no idea,” she said, forgetting for the moment where she had found her Tiefland extras. “We never heard.”
Had she really been Hitler’s mistress?
“Of course not. I wasn’t his type. I’m too strong, too positive. He liked soft, cowlike women, like Eva Braun.”
So what made people think she was?
“They were jealous, and they didn’t understand.” She had had Hitler’s ear and could see him alone when it suited her, so people just assumed . . . “But that was purely professional, there was nothing personal about it. He just respected me because I was an artist. The SS and Goebbels hated me because I could go over their heads.” She and Goebbels had feuded over the making of Olympia, and she claimed he had retaliated in a particularly fiendish manner: by denying her publicity in the Reich’s newspapers. A laughable assertion, but one she held to. “He never mentioned me again,” she complained bitterly. “I was even afraid he might put me in a concentration camp.”
Here Schulberg thought he had her: “But would you be afraid of concentration camps? After all, you hadn’t heard of them.”
“Oh, I knew there were some. But I had no idea what they were really like, how terrible they were . . .”
And so it went—and would go, more or less in that vein, for the rest of her life.
* * *
“Nazi Pin-Up Girl” ends with Riefenstahl trying to wheedle a precious can of gasoline from Schulberg: “There was something queer about [her] smile; it was intimate and appealing, and yet clearly designing. That must have been the way she looked at Hitler when she wanted him to make Goebbels back down to her.” There Schulberg had her dead to rights.
In subsequent interviews he told a more dramatic story: “I had this warrant for her in my pocket. It was like burning a hole in my pocket . . . Finally I took the thing out and said, ‘Miss Riefenstahl, I’m sorry, but I have to take you to Nuremberg.’ And that’s when she screamed, ‘Puppi, Puppi . . . he’s arresting me.’” The little majordomo raced into the room, with Schulberg now realizing he was her husband. “I tried to reassure her,” Schulberg continued. “I said, ‘Look, you’re not being put on trial with Goering and von Ribbentrop, but we do need you as a material witness.’” He took her outside, where his driver and his vehicle awaited. The trip from Kitzbühel to Nuremberg was roughly 150 miles. “She didn’t say anything on the way. . . . She was very ticked off—very. And I guess scared.”
At Nuremberg, in Schulberg’s telling, Riefenstahl was put up in a guesthouse with other witnesses. “Although she wasn’t very happy . . . she did cooperate,” Schulberg noted. He screened for her footage that his unit had confiscated, asking her to identify people, places, and events. It’s not clear how long Riefenstahl might have been detained in Nuremberg, but the unit was still editing when the trial opened on November 21. Among the twenty-one defendants on trial for their lives were Hermann Goering, chief of the Luftwaffe and once Hitler’s number two, who had personally called Riefenstahl in 1933 with the news that Hitler had been appointed chancellor; Albert Speer, the architect with whom she had collaborated during the shooting of Triumph of the Will; Julius Streicher, the publisher of the crude, anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer, whom Riefenstahl had once enlisted in a royalty dispute with the Jewish screenwriter of The Blue Light; Wilhelm Frick, the minister of the interior; Joachim von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister; and Baldur von Schirach, organizer of the Hitler Youth. All of these men had attended Berlin’s black-tie, military-dress premiere for Olympia, on Hitler’s forty-ninth birthday—described as the single-most glittering evening in the Third Reich’s short history. (Goebbels was not on trial, having committed suicide with his wife in Hitler’s bunker after killing their six children.)
Two films would receive less swanky if still memorable premieres in Nuremberg as part of the prosecution’s case. The first, an hour-long compilation of footage mostly taken by camera units that had been with troops that liberated the concentration camps, was screened in court on November 29. The crimes were still fresh, and for many in attendance, this would be the first time they were seeing images that are now an indelible part of the world’s consciousness: emaciated, half-alive men and women in striped pajamas, ovens clogged with bones and charred remains, bulldozers moving aside hillocks of dead bodies. “The film . . . with horror piled on horror and mounting in dreadfulness as it went along, was almost more than anyone could bear,” the New York Times reported. “There were mutters of ‘Oh God—Oh God’ and ‘Why can’t we shoot the swine now?’ from the audience of soldiers, officers, and correspondents. . . . It had been too appalling even for tears.”
Lights had been set up along the bar of the defendants’ box so that their faces could be seen in the darkened room. Wilhelm Keitel, military chief of staff, wept. Von Ribbentrop stared into his lap and shook his head. In Schulberg’s view, “the most unexpected reaction of all was that of Hans Frank,” the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland, who had once boasted at a year-end celebration in Krakow that thanks to his efficient administration great numbers of “lice and Jews had been eliminated.” When the film ended, Frank was bent over, his face hidden in his hands. As the other defendants filed out of the courtroom (Streicher, who had earlier scoffed at a shot of a human-skin lampshade, was heard muttering, “perhaps in the last days . . .”), Frank had to be forcibly lifted from his seat by guards. “His red wet eyes stood out in his white frightened face,” Schulberg recalled. “Later one of the guards who helped lead him out said to me, ‘How d’ya figure that, huh? A guy like that! He acted like he was gonna pass out.’”
The film that Schulberg devoted most of his time to was titled The Nazi Plan, a nearly four-hour production that illuminated the conspiracy charges with scenes from Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl’s shorter documentaries, and the captured German newsreel footage. James Donovan, a lawyer who served as the liaison between Schulberg’s unit and the prosecution team, wrote in a letter to his wife that he thought the film “might get an Academy Award. . . . It’s terrific.” In another letter he nearly bursts with anticipation: “I don’t know how Goering and the others will be able to stand the sight of themselves at the height of their glory.”
It turned out they could stand the sight very well. After The Nazi Plan was screened on December 11, the New York Times reported that the movie “brought back to [the defendants] memories of a vanished era, and some, including Rudolf Hess”—the Reich’s third-ranking figure until he made a bizarre flight to Scotland in 1941 in an effort to end the war—“were hardly able to restrain themselves from applauding Hitler’s recorded speeches. . . . Glorying in scenes of marching men, flying banners, hysterical crowds and a ranting Hitler surrounded by his chieftains, the defendants acted like excited school children seeing their pictures flashed across the screen. They nodded and nudged one another. Hess, whose feet had been tapping in time to the rhythm of blaring bands, occasionally broke into silent handclapping.” Goering laughed at a scene of Hitler mocking Franklin Roosevelt in front of the Reichstag. Von Ribbentrop was overheard gushing, “Can’t you just feel the Fuehrer’s personality?” That evening, he told G. M. Gilbert, one of the prison psychologists assigned to the defendants, “Even with all I know, if Hitler should come to me in this cell now, and say, ‘Do this!’—I would still do it.—Isn’t it amazing?”
Riefenstahl’s films could still work their magic.
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For those who worked on it or covered it—and probably for those being judged as well—the ten-month trial, a logistical and procedural morass conducted in four languages, felt interminable. Schulberg, who won two Commendation Ribbons for his work at Nuremberg, had already been home for several months when the individual verdicts were handed down on October 1, 1946. Eleven men were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, including Goering (who would cheat the noose by crushing a hidden cyanide pill in his mouth), Von Ribbentrop, Streicher, and Frank. Seven others, including Speer and Hess, were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms, varying from ten years to life. Three were acquitted: a former president of the Reichsbank; a politician who had helped engineer the deal by which Hitler had become chancellor; and a B-list propagandist.
Though never charged with any war crimes, Riefenstahl would herself be a defendant in four de-Nazification trials and was eventually ruled a Nazi fellow traveler, the fourth out of five levels of culpability. She would spend the rest of her life working to raise the flag of Art and lower the flag of Responsibility. Tiefland was finally completed in 1954, and released to mediocre reviews. Bach describes it as “a kitsch curiosity, as nearly unwatchable as any film ever released by a world class director.” Riefenstahl died, unrepentant, at the age of 101, in 2003.
The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, with its heavily Communist membership, had disbanded not long after it had made life “so uncomfortable for Hitler’s ‘girl friend’ Leni Riefenstahl that she left our community,” as the group bragged in a statement. The ebb in anti-Nazi fervor was thanks to the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact, announced in August 1939, weeks before the outbreak of war. A disillusioned Schulberg would leave the party around this time, but the affiliation came back to haunt him a dozen years later when he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and gave up the names of several other party members, including fellow screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr., Waldo Salt, and Paul Jarrico. Though he claimed to have no regrets and defended his testimony, it would dog his public image for the rest of his life. He died in 2009 at the age of ninety-five.
Riefenstahl had taken exception to her Norma Desmond-ish portrayal in “Nazi Pin-Up Girl,” and she and Schulberg would occasionally snipe at each other across the decades. In a 1973 interview she dismissed him as the leader of a “persisting ‘Hate Leni’ cult.” He responded with a letter in Variety calling her Hitler’s “cinematic eye-and-mouthpiece.” He might have had even more fun at her expense if a 1983 film treatment he cowrote, fictionalizing their meeting, had ever been produced. In The Celluloid Noose, naval lieutenant Ben Sherman tracks down Hedi Rosendahl at her “luxurious chalet in Bavaria.” She shows him her great masterwork, For a Thousand Years, and then, mustering her considerable feminine charms, attempts to seduce him. He almost falls for her, but at the last moment discovers she’s hiding a fugitive SS colonel, Hans Rudiger, in her basement. Gunplay ensues, and the treatment ends with MPs cuffing Hedi as a sadder but wiser Ben washes his hands of her.
“How could you do this to me?” she cries. “I thought you were in love with me.”
“I was on the verge,” he admits. “But Herr Rudiger changed my mind.”
Finally, the mask drops. “You . . . Jew!” she screams as she’s led away. “Jew! Jew! Jew!”
As Schulberg noted in a cover letter attached to the treatment, he had granted himself a bit of “creative elbow room, you might say”—his own salute to Art.
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Author’s note: I’d like to thank the many historians, librarians, and researchers who generously helped me with this piece, including: Raye Farr, director of the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Barbara Hall at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science’s Margaret Herrick Library; Jay Satterfield at Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library; and Sandra Schulberg, Budd’s niece, who recently restored the documentary Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today, which was written and directed by her father, Stuart Schulberg, for the War Department (and then shelved, like many late-40s anti-Nazi projects and policies, due to Cold War politics).
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Originally published in Tin House, March 2013.