Look at the world through Leni Riefenstahl's lens, and a high diver doesn't just dive. She flies. In one of the iconic images from her award-winning 1938 film Olympia, you see nothing but a glistening airborne figure silhouetted against sky. All else diving board, ground, pool disappears. It's classic Riefenstahl, a brilliant piece of editing, a fine example of a talent she has applied throughout her life and work.
Riefenstahl turns 100 this week, having survived career changes, war and its aftermath, decades of political criticism and ill health. Friends will fête her at a birthday bash in Munich. The rest of us get some party favors too, with the release of Impressions Under Water, her first film since 1954, and the publication of Africa (Taschen; 564 pages), a book of photos taken over the past four decades. Her new work looks at sea life and Sudanese tribesmen, not ruddy-cheeked Nazi youth or Olympic sprinters, but it's still of a piece with the old: stunning images of natural power, physical beauty and fluid movement. When asked what characterizes the work, she tells Time simply, "The aesthetics."
Her pursuit of all things beautiful began in dance. As a teen, Riefenstahl started taking lessons without the permission of her father, a Berlin plumber. In 1924, hobbled by a knee injury, she went to see Arnold Fanck's Mountain of Destiny, part of the Bergfilm (mountain film) genre that set its scenes improbably high in the mountains. Enthralled, she saw the movie repeatedly and eventually met Fanck. He cast Riefenstahl in his next film, The Holy Mountain, and for the next several years, she acted, did her own stunts (one critic dubbed her Ölige Ziege Oily Goat for the way she clambered up and down mountains) and enjoyed an extended masterclass with Fanck. In 1932, Riefenstahl co-wrote, co-directed, co-produced and starred in The Blue Light. She had no idea, of course, that by turning the camera on herself, she'd catch the eye of Adolf Hitler.