The sad thing is, she was a brilliant filmmaker. She’s certainly one of the five most important female filmmakers in history; her techniques and style are hugely influential.
But yes, she did this in service to an indisputably evil regime.
What gets me is the “either/or” mentality people have with respect to her. When I say she was a brilliant and innovative filmmaker, people will scream at me, “No she wasn’t, she was a wicked Nazi bitch!” Well, perhaps. But why can’t she also be a brilliant and innovative filmmaker? Why is it either/or?
Seriously, for as much as I hear the “evil Nazi bitch” line, for as much as people claim to dismiss her as a filmmaker, I am usually unsurprised to learn that people haven’t actually seen anything she’s done, not even the two most important works, Triumph of the Will or Olympia. Instead, they’d rather stick their fingers in their ears and cover their eyes, as if they might get polluted or something if they actually tried to look at the work objectively. (It’s the same sort of ignorance as Anniee’s reaction to Nabokov’s Lolita in this thread.)
Seriously. Go look at the films. She was brilliant. There’s a reason Triumph of the Will is as scary as it is: because it’s so goddamn effective. You cannot look at her films objectively and deny her manipulative skill.
But that’s not all. At a certain point, while you’re watching, I expect you to sit up in shock and say: “Holy shit. This is basically the triumphant medal scene at the end of Star Wars.” You won’t look at Lucas’s works — or anyone else’s — the same way again.
In short, the vocabulary she invented has been adopted and/or replicated by people of all political persuasions for various purposes ever since, because she was damn good at it, and the stuff she came up with was damn powerful. George Bush’s speech on the aircraft carrier is a direct descendent of the visual pageantry perfected by Riefenstahl. That’s not to tarnish Bush by association, because all successful politicians use the same vocabulary. If Gore were President, he’d be using the same tricks to present himself: because they are powerful and they work.
Condemn her political role all you want, but don’t for a moment get confused and try to dismiss her importance as a filmmaker at the same time.