Olympia (1938)

Note: This is a review of both Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations and Part Two: Festival of Beauty.

After creating the magnificent, controversial and dangerous Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl documented the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, an event of great political importance as the nations of the world gathered to compete under the eyes of Hitler in the midst of his growing regime of power. As Leni Riefenstahl captures the events of the Olympics, there’s a deeply politically charged use of imagery.

The opening sequence captures crumbing Roman architecture, the remnants of a once great civilization. The camera pans through a hall of perfectly sculpted human forms, capturing the magnificence of each body. And then, the statue dissolves into a German posing to mimic the statue. The thread of Rome’s power is now associated with the German people and, after all, The Third Reich is named as a continuation of the Roman Empire.

This sequence also ties in the Nazi idea of the superiority of the German race. The Greeks captured the perfect human form in those statues, an idea of the height of human potential. When the statue dissolves into that German, he becomes the fulfillment of that idea, the perfect human, living and breathing, proof of the superiority of the German race.

Riefenstahl in the opening sequence often lingers on capturing the human form, but often denying the viewer a view of the figure’s face. In this way, the film opens with the pure objectification of the human form, a celebration of its strength, beauty and elegance without showing the face. When one thinks of a person, they think of their face. By denying the view of these figure’s faces, they are stripped of any identity.

And yet, isn’t that what the Olympics are all about? Sure, one roots for an individual to overcome and surpass whatever obstacles is set before them, but they are competing as part of a cultural unit assimilated into a group. In the same way, the event does not celebrate these individuals as distinct people, but purely on their physical superiority to those whom they triumph over.

Riefenstahl spends sections of the film lingering on specific parts of the body, isolating the legs, the arms, the back of athletes as they perform their great feat. In this way, the film is a spectacle of human strength and nothing more, but Riefenstahl is able to complicate this subversively inserting the smallest moments where personality and individualism shine through, just flashes here and there to suggest that these individuals are more than their physical drive.

The first sequence of the actual 1936 Olympics is the Festival of the Nations, where every country marches through the stadium, their athletes marching behind the flag of their country.  This is one of the most historically fascinating parts of the film as the nations march right underneath Hitler. The reactions of each country are telling. Some salute, others give dirty looks and other groups are mixed in their reactions.

One of the most haunting moments of the film is when England marches past and one can see the seething suspicion in the eyes of the men as they gaze up at Adolf Hitler. Almost by reactions alone one can gauge the political climate, the brewing conflict and global uneasiness as the world teeters on the edge of its Second World War.

From here, the film moves on into a fantastic series of events that Riefenstahl captures magnificently with the use of groundbreaking techniques which are still widely used today. The way she shot this Olympics, the first one ever captured on film, is still the way the Olympics are captured today. One can even see the locations of the tracking cameras are exactly where one will see them in a modern Olympics.

Extreme close ups, complex tracing shots and impressive underwater shots are three of the most notable groundbreaking techniques which are now extremely common among a variety of films. As a piece of film history, it’s essential to see film suddenly leap into an entire new level of technical capability, and it only adds to the excitement of the events captured on film.

But more than just the technical aspects, it’s the way Leni Riefenstahl captures and conveys motion that makes these techniques essential to the film. The culmination of the film is a four minute sequence of the high dive which is an absolute master class in editing, pacing and visual flow, a ballet of sight and motion, a piece of grace and beauty and one of the finest moments captured on film.

The editing process also proves essential in crafting an engaging and entertaining distillation of events. The events within the stadium are intercut with the action, the audience reaction and the expression of the athlete. The timing and tempo makes every event enthralling, tense and exciting. Here, the power of editing makes many events which are dull to watch live fascinating and enthralling to witness.

And the athlete which is the most exciting to watch, and Leni Riefenstahl must have thought so as well, is Jessie Owens. Here, Riefenstahl must be given full credit for having the audacity to include a Black man not only on film at all, but also winning a good number of events throughout the film. It’s the ultimate insult to Hitler as he witnesses a Black man outperform his “pure” and “superior” race.

Owens is also just a fantastic athlete, a man far ahead of the pack and one who absolutely blew away the competition. And Riefenstahl doesn’t just show him winning, she lingers on his wins. If Riefenstahl truly wanted to turn this film into a piece arguing for the superiority of Nazism, she wouldn’t have shown Owens win race after race or would have sought to objectify him in some way.

Beyond all the political and ideological threads, past all the fantastic filmmaking and deliberate craft, Olympia is an entertaining film to watch. The Olympics have never been this exciting. In fact, the film is so enthralling that one doesn’t even need the German commentators that sparsely guide the audience. Yes, it helps give the background of nationalities and individuals, but the events in themselves are engaging enough to watch without that context.

Olympia is a document that is as entertaining as it is important. From the political intrigue and historical context to the well-crafted filmmaking and thrilling action, it’s a film that engages on multiple fronts, more than just a strip of celluloid from decades past. Olympia captures more than just what happened in the 1936 Olympics, it elevates those events through reassembly into art.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • I don’t think I’ve read a review of a Riefenstahl film before. This is great. I’ve always been leery of her work because of her politics, but reading this actually makes me want to seek out this film.