In the rather small home-and-gift department at Saks Fifth Avenue's Bala Cynwyd store, displayed along with other coffee-table books about exotic places around the world sits none other than the 25th-anniversary edition of Leni Riefenstahl's Africa.
Riefenstahl, of course, was the German filmmaker best known for her documentary, "Triumph of the Will," a pseudo newsreel commissioned by the Nazi Party in the early 1930s that glorifies Adolf Hitler. It is regarded as one of the most effective pieces of propaganda ever created.
Riefenstahl's 560-page work doesn't contain anti-Semitic references; it includes photographs of African tribes that she met while visiting Sudan.
Andree Corroon, head of communications for the department store, said the book is placed in more than 20 of its stores nationwide, including Pittsburgh, and since January has sold 16 copies.
"It's not Saks' intention to offend anyone," stated Corroon. "Many consider Leni Riefenstahl a well-known filmmaker, not a political activist, and her work – not propaganda films – has been exhibited in museums and galleries. The book is very much being presented merely as a coffee-table book and as a beautiful presentation of Africa."
According to Josey Fisher, director of the Holocaust Oral History Archive at Gratz College, after the war, Riefenstahl was accused of war crimes but not brought to trial for them, though she was interviewed as a possible defendant. She maintained, until the day she died in 2003, that she never took a political stance, and was simply an artist just doing her job.
"I think it's really fascinating that this book was picked," said Fisher. "It provokes discussion and a revisiting of who she was, and a question about art and social responsibility."