Maria Furtwaengler, who is best known in her homeland playing a Prime Suspect-style detective in the popular TV series Crime Scene, will star as Riefenstahl in the two-hour film being produced by the ZDF TV network.
Hollywood actress Jodie Foster announced more than a decade ago she wanted to make a big screen epic about her but failed to generate enough interest in the project. Now ZDF has stepped in to make the movie, which will be dubbed and sold to the English-speaking world.
Furtwaengler said she was “thrilled” to have got the part, adding: “I have a penchant for personalities that have decisively shaped our modern image of women.”
ZDF said she was behind the idea. During the war her grandfather, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, was a well-known conductor and composer much courted by the Nazi hierarchy. He earned scorn in the music world for staying on to work under the regime but fled to Switzerland in 1944.
Only after the war was it revealed that he helped imprisoned Jewish musicians in concentration camps to get away.
Riefenstahl, who died at the ripe old age of 101 in 2003, was a stellar filmmaker whose Triumph of the Will about the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally portrayed Germans as the supermen Hitler said they were.
She went on to make another ground breaking documentary called Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Both movies cemented her reputation as the greatest female director of the 20th century but she was forever tainted by her promotion of a regime that would go on to create the Holocaust and the greatest war in human history. She was friendly with Hitler and the elite of the regime but always denied that she knew anything of the crimes committed by the Nazis.
Arrested after the war, Riefenstahl said she was fascinated by the National Socialists but politically naïve and ignorant about any war crimes. From 1945 through 1948 she was held in American and French-run detention camps and prisons along with house arrest but although tried four times by various postwar authorities, she was never convicted through denazification trials, either for her alleged role as a propagandist or for the use of concentration camp inmates in some of her other films.
However, she was found to be a “fellow traveller” who was sympathetic to the Nazis. Riefenstahl later said that her biggest regret was meeting Hitler: “It was the biggest catastrophe of my life.
Until the day I die people will keep saying, ‘Leni is a Nazi’, and I’ll keep saying, ‘But what did she do?’”
Although she won more than 50 libel cases against people accusing her of collaborating with the Nazis, there are many unanswered questions about her relation to National Socialism.
The new film will be completed by the middle of next year.