Sonoma festival to show German propagandists film

Sebastopol filmmaker Penny Diane Wolin is the kind of Jew who won't eat bacon, shrimp or cheeseburgers. She lights candles on Shabbat.

But, as program director of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, she will show the work of controversial German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, notorious for her famed "Triumph of the Will," a pro-Nazi documentary commissioned by Hitler himself.

The third annual festival runs from Thursday, March 30 to Sunday, April 2 at the Sonoma Cinemas and the Sebastiani Theatre in Sonoma.

When she was blacklisted after the war, Riefenstahl's brilliant career in films came to an abrupt end. Her name is anathema to many Jews.

Yet Wolin has scheduled Riefenstahl's two-part "Olympia" on the Sonoma festival bill.


Wolin shoots back, "Why not?

"The festival theme this year is films by and about women," she explained. "Because of the millennium, we wanted to look both forward and back.

"Surely it's not arguable that Riefenstahl's work is seminal in the field. She made some of the most brilliant films in the history of documentaries and pioneered techniques that stand today. How could I leave her out of a film festival that celebrates women? How could I?"

Wolin contends that Riefenstahl, now 97, never made an overtly anti-Semitic statement in her films.

"I don't mean to let her off the hook and I think she participated in the collective consciousness of the Germany of her day," she said. "But, while she glorified the Germans, she never said to kill the Jews. Does an artist shape the view of a society or does an artist reflect the view of a society?

"She's not beyond reproach — believe me — but we're talking art here. Should Jews censor her art because she made it for an anti-Semitic regime? Then maybe we should censor all the art that came out of the Inquisition or was inspired by the Catholic Church."

And in the art world, according to Wolin, Riefenstahl did not get a fair shake.

"We seem to forgive or ignore the German industrialists who actually fueled the war machine — do you have a Mercedes, a Volkswagen, a Krups coffee grinder? But this woman was collectively ostracized by the world community of art and never allowed to work again."

Wolin sighed. "We find so many ways to hate, to misunderstand. And besides, we're not showing 'Triumph of the Will.' We're showing 'Olympia.'"

Riefenstahl's 1938 film was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee and covered the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

It will be screened in two parts: Part I, "Festival of Nations," will be shown from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 31, and Part II, "Festival of Beauty," is slated for 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, April 2.

Wolin, an award-winning photographer in her own right, began working with a camera in her native Cheyenne, Wyo., at the age of 16. She has exhibited at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley and the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Her photographic collection, "The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora," will be published by Crazy Woman Creek Press in the spring. In 1992, she branched out into film and now divides her time between Sebastopol and Los Angeles. She also is producer of the Sonoma County Jewish Film Series.

"Art is a great way to build understanding, to build community," she said. "If Zubin Mehta can conduct the music of Wagner in Israel, we can show Leni Riefenstahl in Sonoma.

"And then maybe, somehow, we can rise through our achievements rather than fall in our failures."

Other highlights of the festival include the animated short "Silence," which deals with a Holocaust survivor. It will screen during a program of short films at 9 a.m. Friday, March 31 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1. Also on the bill is "Visas and Virtue," a documentary about the Japanese ambassador to Berlin — "an Asian Raoul Wallenberg," noted Wolin.

The festival will also hold panel discussions, including a Friday, March 31 tribute to filmmaker John Lasseter, and an awards dinner on Saturday, April 1. The festival is presented by the Sonoma Valley Film Society.