In the end, she succeeded — but at a cost. O n 20 Novemberin 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. 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 year-old documentary maker. Her name was Nina Gladitz, and the outcome of the trial would shape the rest of her life.
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. 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 Septemberand 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 of them are known or believed to have been gassed in Auschwitz, just a small fraction of thetoRomani 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. 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. 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.
But it is obvious that, like most Germans, she knew enough to be sure that it was better not to know even more. During the trial, Riefenstahl produced correspondence from one of the extras that appeared to support her of her good relationship with them while filming Tiefland.
Parties in schwäbisch gmünd
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.
When the trial finally reached its conclusion, in MarchGladitz won on three out of four points. The judge ruled that Riefenstahl had indeed visited the Maxglan camp to choose the extras, and that they had not been paid for their work. For Gladitz, this was a disaster. Her refusal to remove the scene meant that WDR, the broadcaster of the documentary, coned the film to the archives, where it has remained under lock and key ever since. Though some journalists framed the verdict of the trial as an ending, for Gladitz it was only a beginning.
She would spend the next four decades consumed by Riefenstahl, devoting most of her waking hours to pursuing the truth about her as no one else, in her view, had adequately done. Her career, her friendships, her finances and her health would all be sacrificed in the attempt to find evidence that would finally, conclusively, condemn Riefenstahl.
For Gladitz, though, this was irrelevant. Gladitz was supporting a Roma and Sinti rights group in a new legal challenge against Riefenstahl, and she wanted me to cover her efforts for a British newspaper. She was insistent — ladies de schwäbisch gmünd and in the years to come — that if I wrote about her work, it must be in what she deemed to be the right way.
The more time I spent with Gladitz, the more apparent it became that her fixation was as much to do with her own biography, and with laying some of her own ghosts to rest, as it was about Riefenstahl. Her beautiful, uncaring mother was, Gladitz believed, mourning the loss of Hitler. When she was about five, Gladitz overheard her mother and an aunt talking about how many people, including children, had been murdered in the gas chambers. Her imagination was her escape, fuelled in part by the magical films her father would show to Gladitz and her siblings.
Reinhardt had asked the association for financial help, explaining that he and members of his family had been picked from a prison camp by Riefenstahl and forced to work as extras on Tiefland in and He had included two small black-and-white photographs of poorly clad, barefoot children. The funding was secured thanks to an intervention by Hitler, with the project classed as vital to the war effort, though the film was not released until well after the war.
When Tiefland finally reached cinemas init received a lukewarm response from filmgoers and critics, who dismissed it as wooden and schmaltzy. Almost all the closeups of the Sinti and Roma extras had been edited out. W ith remarkable speed, Gladitz managed to track down Reinhardt, who was living in the town of Offenburg in western Germany.
A violin maker by profession, he was the nephew of the jazz great Django Reinhardtand also of Schnuckenack Reinhardt, known as the violin virtuoso of Sinti music. At their first meeting, Reinhardt told his story over several hours. He and his family had fled Nazi Germany to Austria in the 30s.
He had first seen Riefenstahl there in Septemberaccompanied by several SS officers. Riefenstahl had, he said, inspected an array of pre-selected prisoners, including his teenage self, and several family members.
As soon as Reinhardt and the other extras arrived, they were put to work. They slept on bare boards in sheds, barns, animal stalls and cellars, which were locked up at night. They were under constant watch. The women and children had been separated from the men, the majority of whom were left in the camp in Salzburg.
Filming continued for about 13 months, until Novemberafter which the extras were ordered to march to the nearest railway station. Reinhardt told Gladitz they had not been allowed to take any of the costumes they had worn on set, instead having to wear the rags they had arrived in the year. The children no longer fitted their clothes. For the rest of his life he could only wear soft shoes as a result of the frostbite he suffered. InRiefenstahl had successfully sued Helmut Kindler, a magazine publisher who had been involved in wartime resistance, for revealing her exploitation of the Sinti and Roma extras.
From then on, Riefenstahl had pursued dozens of further legal battles against those who had written or said anything about her that she disliked. Gladitz was determined to speak to Riefenstahl for the documentary, and inshe managed to track her down in Frankfurt. Their first encounter took place in a bookshop, where Gladitz posed as a film-maker called Anna Madou, hoping to make a film about great 20th-century artists. Using the same false identity, she wrote to Riefenstahl a ladies de schwäbisch gmünd months later to remind her of their earlier meeting and to ask whether — given great interest in the project from, among others, the BBC and NBC — they could schedule an interview soon.
For what she imagined would be the central scene in the documentary, Gladitz hoped to stage a meeting between Reinhardt and Riefenstahl. It was such a stupid question. If I had known then that she had had several clandestine lesbian affairs, I would have known better than to ask that.
T oday, the only way to see Time of Darkness and Silence is to get hold of a bootleg. Despite the poor quality of the bootleg, the film retains its power. Watching it almost 40 years after it first aired, one is struck by the intimacy of the encounter with Reinhardt and his relatives, as they sit on their sofa, smoking and drinking coffee and relating their awful experiences.
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There is no musical accompaniment, no frills, no schnick-schnackas the Germans say. Instead, what we get are the plain facts of the hunger they felt during the filming, the nights spent locked together in a stall with a single bucket for a toilet.
At one point, Gladitz returns with Reinhardt to the place where Tiefland was filmed, and to the site of the former Maxglan camp. There is no trace of the horrors that unfolded there, just empty fields. Time of Darkness and Silence aired in Germany on 6 September Few Germans had ever heard Sinti and Roma talk about their experiences in the Holocaust, and the fact that Gladitz had persuaded them to talk so openly on camera was remarkable, wrote a reviewer in Die Zeit.
She immediately set about suing Gladitz for defamation. Going into the trial, Gladitz knew that not everyone would take her side. During the trial, these confrontations took on a new intensity. Others sensed it, too.
With her documentary banished to the archives, Gladitz decided to continue gathering more stories of those whom Riefenstahl had betrayed and exploited. She met Rosa Winter, who had been 17 when Riefenstahl chose her as an extra for Tiefland.
When Winter began to fear that her mother would be killed there, she escaped from the set and began walking back to the camp on foot. She was caught and taken to a police cell in Salzburg. According to Winter, Riefenstahl visited her and ordered her to get down on her knees and beg for forgiveness.
Gladitz discovered that at the time of the premiere, Zielke was in a psychiatric institution, having had a nervous breakdown. InRiefenstahl removed him from the institution by appointing herself his legal guardian. She gathered more and more interviews and documents, each piece of research opening a door to the next.
I n lateGladitz contacted me again with some news: her book was finished. The manuscript was more than 1, s long. A few days later, we met in a crowded cafe in Berlin. Dressed imposingly in a voluminous black velveteen dress coat, bulky necklace and black hat, Gladitz was what I would soon come to recognise as characteristically blunt.
The newspaper did not attempt to contradict her.
Our meeting lasted several hours. Afterwards, I realised that in more than 25 years as a journalist, I had never met anyone so consumed by a single subject, or so indignant about the fact that hers was such a lonely pursuit. Since the trial with Riefenstahl, Gladitz had made other films, most of which championed underdog heroes.