BERLIN - Leni Riefenstahl, whose hypnotic depiction of Hitler's Nuremberg rally, "Triumph of the Will," was renowned and despised as the best propaganda film ever made, has died. She was 101.
Riefenstahl died Monday night at her home in the Bavarian lakeside town of Poecking, mayor Rainer Schnitzler said.
Riefenstahl's companion Horst Kettner said she died in her sleep.
"Her heart simply stopped," Kettner told the online version of the German celebrity magazine Bunte.
A tireless innovator of film and photographic techniques, Riefenstahl's career centered on a quest for adventure and portraying physical beauty.
Even as she turned 100 last year, she strapped on scuba gear to photograph sharks in turquoise waters. She had begun to complain recently that injuries sustained in accidents over the years, including a helicopter crash in Sudan in 2000, had taken their toll and caused her constant pain.
Despite critical acclaim for her later photographs of the African Nuba people and of undersea flora and fauna, she spent more than half her life trying to live down the films she made for Hitler and for having admired the tyrant who devastated Europe and all but eliminated its Jews.
Even as late as 2002, Riefenstahl was investigated for Holocaust denial after she said she did not know that Gypsies taken from concentration camps to be used as extras in one of her wartime films later died in the camps. Authorities eventually dropped the case, saying her comments did not rise to a prosecutable level.
Speaking to The Associated Press just before her 100th birthday on Aug. 22, 2002, Riefenstahl dramatically said she has "apologized for ever being born" but that she should not be criticized for her masterful films.
"I don't know what I should apologize for," she said. "I cannot apologize, for example, for having made the film 'Triumph of the Will' - it won the top prize. All my films won prizes."
Biographer Juergen Trimborn, who wrote "Riefenstahl: A German Career," said she could not apologize because the Nazi films were the centerpieces of her career.
"One can't speak about Leni Riefenstahl without looking at her entire career in the Third Reich," Trimborn said. "Her most important films were made during the Third Reich - 'Triumph of the Will,' 'Olympia,' - that's what's she's known for."
The former president of the Goethe Institute honored Riefenstahl as an aesthetic model for many directors around the world.
"Now that she is dead, we can distinguish between the aesthetic Leni Riefenstahl and her political entanglements," said Hilmar Hoffman.
But Germany's Culture Minister Christina Weiss said Riefenstahl's life tragically demonstrated that "art is never unpolitical, and that form and content cannot be separated from one another."
Riefenstahl said she had always been guided by the search for beauty, whether it was in her images of the 1934 Nuremberg rallies with thousands of goose-stepping soldiers and enraptured civilians fawning for their Fuehrer, in her dazzling portrayal of the 1936 Olympic athletes in Berlin, or in her still photographs of the sculpted Nuba men.
"I always see more of the good and the beautiful than the ugly and sick," Riefenstahl said. "Through my optimism I naturally prefer and capture the beauty in life."
Born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin on Aug. 22, 1902, she was the first child of Alfred Riefenstahl, the owner of a heating and ventilation firm, and his wife, Bertha Scherlach.
Riefenstahl's artistic career began as a creative dancer until a knee injury led her to switch to movies.
After she saw one of Arnold Fanck's silent films set in the mountains, Riefenstahl presented herself to him as his new star, and he accepted, as much for her blue-eyed, high-cheekboned beauty as her daredevil spirit.
She climbed rocks barefoot for the camera and was buried in an avalanche for the death scene in the 1926 film "Mountain of Destiny." Soon, she was making her own films, fairy tales such as "The Blue Light" celebrating Germany's Alpine mystique, in which she was star, screenwriter and director.
She heard Hitler speak for the first time at a 1932 rally and wrote to him - again offering her talents. In her memoirs, Riefenstahl describes her first impression of Hitler's charisma.
"It seemed as if the earth's surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth. I felt quite paralyzed."
Though she said she knew nothing of Hitler's "Final Solution" and learned of concentration camps only after the war, Riefenstahl said she confronted the Fuehrer about his anti-Semitism, one of many apparent contradictions in her claims of total ignorance of the Nazi mission.
Likewise, she defended "Triumph of the Will" as a documentary that contained "not one single anti-Semitic word," while avoiding any talk about filming Nazi official Julius Streicher haranguing the crowd about "racial purity" laws.
Many suspected Riefenstahl of being Hitler's lover, which she also denied. Nonetheless, as his filmmaker, Riefenstahl was the only woman to help shape the rise of the Third Reich.
She made four films for Hitler, the best known of which were "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympia," a meditation on muscle and movement at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
She married once, in 1944 to army Maj. Peter Jacob, but the couple split three years later. She had no children, and her only sibling, Heinz, was killed on the eastern front during World War II.
Riefenstahl spent three years under allied arrest after the war, some of the time in a mental hospital. War tribunals ultimately cleared her of any wrongdoing but suspicion of being a Nazi collaborator stuck. She was boycotted as a film director and sank into poverty, living with her mother in a one-room apartment.
She reclaimed her career in the 1960s when she lived with and photographed the Nuba.
"I've never laughed so much as I did when living with the Nuba. I became reconciled with myself," she said.
She next turned to underwater photography, diving in the Maldives, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and off Papua New Guinea. She learned to dive when she was 72, lying about her age by 20 years to gain admittance to a class.
Around this time, she met Kettner, a fellow photographer half her age who became her live-in assistant and companion.
At age 100, she released a new film based on her dives, "Impressions Under Water."
She said she hoped she would be remembered as "an industrious woman who has worked very hard her whole life and has received much acknowledgment."
A funeral was planned for Friday in Munich.