Hosted by Nazi Germany, the 1936 Summer Olympic games are today best remembered for the spectacular performance of African-American track star Jesse Owens. Leni Riefenstahl's legendary two-part documentary of the event opened in 1938 to enormous acclaim except in the US and England,
where anti-Nazi sentiment delayed the film's general release until after WWII, although in 1940 it did enjoy a limited run in German-American urban neighborhoods.
Part I of OLYMPIA ("Festival of the People") begins in fog, which dissolves to reveal the artistic marvels of ancient Greece: friezes, pillars, statuary, the Parthenon, etc. All is beautifully photographed and edited in a somber, portentous style that anticipates the opening of CITIZEN KANE
(1941). (The first segment of Bernard Herrmann's KANE score is especially redolent of Herbert Windt's music for OLYMPIA's prologue.) A statue of a discus thrower comes to life and heaves his missile, setting a whole series of husky hurlers into action. Nude maidens dance against a backdrop of sky
and dunes. The element of fire is introduced. The fire becomes a torch relayed by runners from Athens to Berlin (a now beloved tradition that was introduced at the 1936 games).
One reel into the film, we find ourselves in Deutsches Stadium with 100,000 cheering spectators. It is opening day. The world's finest amateur athletes pass in review before Hitler, who officially opens the 1936 Olympiad with a short speech. The Olympic flag is raised, flock after flock of birds
are released, and the anchor torchbearer ignites the Olympic flame, which is shown lapping up the setting sun in one of the movie's most memorable shots. Like TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, OLYMPIA has been launched with two reels of handsomely composed lyric cinema, virtually unsullied by speech. Unlike
the earlier film, however, OLYMPIA will go on to celebrate the human race at its best, not its worst.
A narrator takes us through the high points of the men's and women's discus, the women's javelin event, the women's hurdles, and the hammer throw. Immediately Riefenstahl displays her voluminous cinematic vocabulary: slow motion intercut with regular-speed photography, crowd reaction shots
interjected into action sequences, endlessly varied angles and points of view, narrated segments interposed with material that speaks for itself.
Jesse Owens is shown winning the 100-meter dash, and with it one of his four Olympic gold medals. Next come the women's high jump, the shot put, the 800-meter run, the triple jump, and Owens' victory in the long jump. Riefenstahl then momentarily breaks the pattern she has established by
presenting the 1,500-meter race in one long, uninterrupted take. The men's high-jump competition is followed by the 110-meter hurdles, the men's javelin throw, the 10,000-meter run, and the pole vault, the final stages of which ended well after sunset and had to be restaged by the director. The
women's 400-meter relay is blown by Germany when one of its quartet of runners drops the baton; the corresponding male event results in another gold medal for Jesse Owens. Following the 1,600-meter relay, Riefenstahl shows us her strikingly expressionistic version of the marathon, a sequence she
deemed "the high point of the film." As the 26-mile race proceeds, Riefenstahl goes well beyond the domain of straight reportage to create a little film essay on pain and persistence. At one point, we are given a runner's view of his jogging feet, a privileged moment the director captured by
hanging a camera around the neck of one of the race's entrants during a training session.
Part II of OLYMPIA ("Festival of Beauty") begins in total serenity. It is dawn in Olympic Village, the site of the athletes' dorms, and, although nature is awake, humanity is not. One by one, joggers appear on screen, followed by naked young men taking their morning dips and showers. Calisthenics,
informal ball games, track practice, and parading lead up to one of the high points of the formal competition: men's gymnastics (beautifully photographed). Part II's narrator makes his first appearance to report on the yacht races. Then, three of the modern pentathlon's five components are
shown--the equestrian competition, pistol shooting, and the cross-country run. Women's gymnastic dancing is captured in a brief but unnarrated sequence edited with a series of lovely dissolves that takes us from close up to far off--concluding with what looks like a formation of all the women in
Riefenstahl's cameras give Glenn Morris loving treatment as he wins the two-day decathlon, an event comprised of ten track-and-field events, one of which, the 1,500-meter race, had to be restaged on account of darkness. Next up: field hockey, soccer, the 100-kilometer bicycle race, and the
three-day equestrian competition. Riefenstahl saw the latter event as "a relaxation" and she devotes a great deal of screen time to a series of spectacular spills suffered by the contestants. This entertaining sequence anticipates the "sports blooper" footage that would one day become a TV staple.
Riefenstahl's lenses get right into the contestants' faces in the rowing competition, after which we are shown women's springboard diving. (Much of the dramatic and lyrical footage of these two events, among others, was necessarily shot in practice sessions rather than in the heat of competition.)
Following three swimming events, OLYMPIA's audience is treated to four of the most glorious minutes in the history of cinema, before or since--the men's diving sequence. Creative editing reaches its apogee as Riefenstahl forgets journalism, disdains competition, and eschews continuity to blend
slow motion, reverse motion, heroic angles, and increasingly truncated slices of action into one awesomely beautiful tone poem. As she proceeds, individuality, nationality, and ethnicity blur and then vanish in a glorious celebration of human physicality in motion.
A climactic series of sublime swan dives, shot against a darkening sky, metamorphose into shots of the Olympic stadium, flame, and flag. The flame dies and, from its ashes, smoke rises high into the sky, where the tips of beacons meet to form a symbol of international fellowship and mystical
rapture. OLYMPIA is over. (Note: the order of the events listed above may vary in different prints of OLYMPIA.)
Adolf Hitler was not looking forward to the Olympics. "The Americans will win most of the victories, and the Negroes will be their stars," he told Riefenstahl. "I won't enjoy watching that." The Third Reich decided to put its best foot forward nevertheless. All of Berlin's anti-Jewish signs were
taken down. The Ministry of Propaganda warned that "special care should be exercised not to offend Negro athletes." Berlin's monumental Deutsches Stadium was expanded to accommodate 110,000. And Riefenstahl was chosen to capture the whole spectacle on film.
Riefenstahl claims to have had a few initial misgivings: she had sworn never to make another documentary or government-sponsored film, and she dreaded working under the eye of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, her nemesis during the making of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935), her chronicle of the
1934 Nuremberg rallies. But the 34-year-old German filmmaker quickly became enthusiastic about the project. She immediately envisioned the film as a two-part piece that would be more a highly crafted work of cinematic art than a record of a particular sports event. "Remember: beauty is not names,"
she was quoted as saying.
Recruiting dozens of cameramen was not easy; many of the most experienced people were unavailable and some refused to work for a woman. Then came the awesome task of organization. Towers were built; trenches were dug for photographing jumpers against the sky; noiseless cameras were developed for
filming athletes without distracting them; an underwater camera was perfected for the diving sequences.
During the shooting, Riefenstahl fell for a handsome American athlete named Glenn Morris, who would go on to play Tarzan in the movies. Their brief but torrid relationship began on a bizarre and rather ugly note. After accepting his medal for winning the decathlon, Morris, as Riefenstahl recalled
it, "grabbed me in his arms, tore off my blouse, and kissed my breasts, right in the middle of the stadium, in front of a hundred thousand spectators."
Shooting complete, Riefenstahl retired to her editing room to begin the monumental job of shaping OLYMPIA and bringing it down to size. It took her two months just to screen the miles of footage that had been printed (70 percent of which turned out to be completely unusable) and well over a year
to edit it. Perhaps her biggest chore was preparing a soundtrack. Only a few minutes of the finished film, principally Hitler's brief opening-day speech, feature live sound--virtually all the rest was post-recorded by the director.
When OLYMPIA premiered on April 20 1938, Hitler's 49th birthday, he declared it "a masterpiece." A huge success throughout Europe (even Stalin liked it), the movie beat out SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) for the top prize at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. Walt Disney himself wanted to
screen OLYMPIA during Riefenstahl's 1938 visit to America, but Nazism had become such a sensitive issue by that time that he changed his mind. The picture was not to find a wide American audience until after the war, when it was shown in somewhat de-Nazified and denudified versions.
Is OLYMPIA a fascist film? It is certainly not racist; Riefenstahl's complimentary treatment of Jesse Owens establishes that. On several occasions, the director has trumpeted her true Olympic spirit by pointing out that not once does the movie reveal that Germany won more medals in the 1936 Summer
Olympics than any other country, and, in fact, more than one viewer has left a screening of the film with the mistaken impression that the American team prevailed in Berlin.
The smaller the "f" in "fascism," the more vulnerable the film becomes to criticism. Several commentators have faulted it for celebrating youth and physical beauty above all else; OLYMPIA is dedicated, to be sure, "to the honor and glory of the youth of the world." This criticism seems a little
puritanical; the movie is, after all, a documentary of the Olympic Games, not the League of Nations. In one way, however, the film may be guilty as charged: it was a deliberately distorted presentation of Nazi Germany as a healthy, hearty, peace-loving nation at a stage in its history when it was
just about to unleash upon the world the most heinous series of crimes committed in the 20th century.
How complicit, if at all, Riefenstahl was in that deception we will probably never know. This sin aside, OLYMPIA is an almost exemplary film that strikes a near-perfect balance between the journalistic and the abstract. As the events it recorded recede into the past, the movie's more lyrical
moments come increasingly to the forefront, making OLYMPIA a work of art that never grows old. (Extensive nudity.)
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- Review: Hosted by Nazi Germany, the 1936 Summer Olympic games are today best remembered for the spectacular performance of African-American track star Jesse Owens. Leni Riefenstahl's legendary two-part documentary of the event opened in 1938 to enormous acclaim ex… (more)