Goebbels disobeyed his f�hrer; he couldn't bring himself to contact Riefenstahl. So Hitler called Riefenstahl himself and asked her to drop everything and come to Nuremberg. She did, arriving just before the '33 rally, in time to throw together a film short entitled Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). Because internal party convolutions quickly dated the movie, it was never shown (and all copies, apparently, have been lost). Riefenstahl was only glad to be done with the brief project, and she went back to Spain, where she was preparing to direct Tiefland, her fairy tale.
After just a few months, however, another call came from Hitler, and she returned to Berlin, where he asked her to film the '34 party rally at Nuremberg as a full-length documentary. She demurred. She told him about her fairy tale. He said he understood, but he wanted this movie. She would have absolute control. Goebbels would not be involved in any way. "Make it as an artist," he told her. She was flattered. But still, she told him, she didn't want to leave Tiefland.
The f�hrer, Riefenstahl says, leaned forward and pleaded with his eyes. "Leni," he said, "give me six days of your life. After that you'll never have to give me another thing."
Riefenstahl sighs, remembering that moment more than 52 years ago. Her house is still now, soft with an early twilight, for outside a few dark clouds have crossed the sun, heralding the approach of the first snowstorm of the year. "So, I must make this," she says at last. "I must make this film."
Nuremberg suffered bombing damage at the end of the war, but the city did not have to be reconstituted, only rebuilt, and it's easy to imagine what it looked like in 1934 when Riefenstahl arrived with her movie cameras. There were winding streets and cobblestones, spires and castlelike turrets. Never mind the images of Wagner and Goethe and Frederick the Great. It was just as possible to imagine the Pied Piper snaking down the main drag, Cinderella dropping her slipper over here, Rumpelstiltskin stomping over there. Riefenstahl could film a fairy tale after all.
And she did. Hitler was the handsome prince, if not, indeed, an avatar. Triumph of the Will begins in the clouds, with German melodies wafting Hitler's plane down from the heavens. There is no dialogue, but a subtitle reads: "Sixteen years after the beginning of the German misery, 19 months after the beginning of Germany's renaissance...." Hitler lands, to be greeted by happy children, bearing flowers midst the swastikas. The Hitler Youth tumble about playfully in their tent city. There is plenty to eat—sausages and soups and dumplings. Many of the celebrants are decked out in gay native costumes. The noble past and the glorious future are joined by one man, one party.
Slowly, Riefenstahl takes us down another garden path. Goose-stepping troops march past the Nuremberg city hall under the f�hrer's beatific gaze. Riefenstahl shot him from below, making Hitler a giant, a presence secure, benignly powerful—almost, at times, avuncular.
And then Riefenstahl draws us onto one more stage, one that is palpably liturgical. Hitler, accompanied by two aides, marches slowly down a boulevard formed by 100,000 massed troops, an image of religious pageantry. At the end, the high priests of the Nazi church lay a wreath upon an altarlike edifice honoring the German dead of World War I.
The Nuremberg stadium today is in disrepair, overgrown; auto races are held there. Over the field looms a large Coca-Cola sign, and under the sign American troops play intramural sports. Nazi war criminals were hanged by their necks there on Oct. 16, 1946; judgment. But in September of 1934, Riefenstahl made it a holy place. In his fascinating book The Nazi Olympics, Richard D. Mandell writes: "One almost feels a visceral revulsion that the beautification of something so awful should be so successful."
Riefenstahl didn't miss a trick in Triumph. Everywhere symbols abound, flags fly, bands play; torches light the sky, light Nuremberg, light history, light the way. And at last there stands Rudolf Hess, a dark and handsome man; he rises at the podium, the suppliant and worshiper and evangelist alike, and fervently cries: "The party is Hitler. Hitler, however, is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler. Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Heil victory! Heil victory! Heil victory!"