OLYMPIA (1938)

  • Director: Leni Riefenstahl
  • Writer: Leni Riefenstahl
  • Starring: Jesse Owens, Adolf Hitler, Glenn Morris, Sohn Kee-Chung, Rie Mastenbroek, and Ralph Metcalfe
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#37), Shown at 1938 Venice International Film Festival – Best Film Award
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Leni Riefenstahl is recognized today as a great innovator of film language, and also perhaps the first internationally-known female director whose films are still studied today. Unfortunately, her work was entirely devoted to Nazi propaganda. Close friends with Adolf Hitler, she was given essentially unlimited resources in order to create documentaries intended to promote his ideology. Riefenstahl first rose to international prominence with her films of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies in the early 1930s, including perhaps the most famous propaganda film ever made, 1934’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). In 1936, Hitler invited her to film the 1936 Summer Olympics being held in Berlin, with a then-unheard of budget of the equivalent of $7 million.

What Riefenstahl finally produced, titled Olympia, was nearly four hours long, and was immediately proclaimed one of the most technically-proficient films made up to that time. It was the first feature film made about the Olympics, and it did a great deal to shape our modern views of the Games. Since Olympia, it has become common for documentaries to be produced about each Olympics, and her techniques (such as putting the camera on a track next to the runners, following them as they pass) are still frequently used today. During the diving events, the camera follows the divers down the board and splashes with them into the water itself. This is thought to be the first widely-known use of an underwater camera in the movies.

It feels strange to say, given the film’s context, but I think I have have enjoyed Olympia the most of any of the movies we’ve featured in this Summer Games Virtual Film Festival. That’s because it spends the vast majority of its run time just showing the sports. For at least three hours of this movie, I can just sit there and watch track events or what have you, which I was 100% here for. The narration almost entirely sticks to straightforward description, if in German and generally delivered in a sort of strained shout not unreminiscent, now that I think about it, of Hitler’s own delivery of his speeches. Nor does Riefenstahl seem to shy away from showing the triumphs of athletes who don’t fit into Aryan ideology. Jesse Owens’ famous triumphs are depicted in detail, and in fact if you’ve ever seen video of his Olympic triumphs it almost certainly came from Riefenstahl’s cameras.

Yet it is not a particular stretch to say, as at least one critic has, that “every frame of the film is suffused with Nazi ideology.” Hitler and Goebbels were particularly eager to connect Nazism back to the Ancients, as part of an unbroken string of true, pure civilization. Thus someone came up with the idea of doing a relay of the Olympic Torch (first introduced eight years earlier) from Ancient Olympia in Greece to Berlin. Yes, Nazis invented the Olympic Torch Relay, sorry everyone. On a “text” level, Riefenstahl keeps the ideology mostly out of our faces, which is part of the reason the movie was considered so effective as propaganda by the Nazis themselves. The main exception is the way it can’t quite help occasionally setting up athletes as members of various racial groups, such as when the Mile Run final is introduced as “pitting two Negroes against the strongest runners of the White race.”

More subtle is Riefenstahl’s seeming obsession with physical beauty and perfection. The movie became famous for its use of slow motion in depicting sports, unusual up to this time, but the reason behind all that slow motion is to emphasize the joy of physical perfection. Or put another way, this is the ideal of all that Nazi eugenics, the end product Hitler’s policies were created in pursuit of. This is clearest during those segments of the film where Riefenstahl gives in entirely to lyricism. It takes about 20 minutes before we actually get to Berlin, most of which time we spend watching athletes performing various athletic activities. There is a surprising amount of nudity in this segment, because again, the point is the physical perfection of the athletes.

In 1938, Riefenstahl traveled to America to promote her film, causing huge controversy at a time when the U.S. was heavily divided on how to respond to Hitler’s Germany. The only Hollywood studio head to receive her warmly was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Walt Disney, who showed her a work-in-progress version of Fantasia. After news of the Kristallnacht attack on German Jews reached America, Riefenstahl publicly dismissed criticisms of Hitler. Henry Ford also met with her and organized a major screening of the film in Chicago.

Riefenstahl would be arrested near the end of World War II and was tried no less than four times, but it was eventually determined that, while she was a “Fellow Traveler” of the Nazis, she had not actually committed any of their atrocities herself. She would insist for the rest of her life that she hadn’t been an actual member of the Nazi party and that she had no idea about the Holocaust. The latter assertion in particular is belied by the fact that many of the extras in Riefenstahl’s only fiction film, Tiefland (Lowlands), were Romany from a nearby concentration camp, all of whom were immediately sent to Auschwitz for extermination after filming. Riefenstahl, meanwhile, died at her lakefront Bavarian home in 2003, at the age of 101.

In photographing Olympia, Riefenstahl seems to want to move beyond the surface of the various sports to get at a sort of visual poetry beyond. She finds abstract patterns in their repetitive movements, getting at something essential about human existence. The problem, of course, is that she does this for a reason. This is the Nazi worldview on display, physical beauty as virtue. One critic at the time said that Olympia should “forever” end complaints that Riefenstahl was just a “Nazi director,” because, “while Triumph of the Will makes Hitler into a Wagnerian demigod, in Olympia she does the same for Jesse Owens.” This seems to miss the forest for the trees here. Riefenstahl understood that, by not summarily dismissing the accomplishments of athletes like Owens, she could get her foot in the door with a much wider audience to deliver her real message. She remains to this day the undisputed master of propaganda, a mastery she unfortunately employed in the service of one of the great monsters of the 20th Century.

A quick note on actually watching this movie: given its extended runtime, Olympia is usually broken down today into two parts. The first, which depicts the torch relay, opening ceremonies, and track and field competitions, is called Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations), while the second, which concentrates on the various other events, is called Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty). The Criterion Channel has both, though as two separate files, and some streaming services may try to rent the two halves to you separately. It is really all one long film, however. One might argue that it is not a film we should be watching today, considering its origins. And I’ll admit to sometimes getting caught up in the pure athletic spectacle of the thing, just as Riefenstahl intended. Sometimes I watch films with intended messages and think, “no one would fall for this today.” I don’t think that’s true of Olympia. But by the same token, it seems like a terrible idea to throw out the propaganda of the past, never to see the light of day again, because then how will we recognize the propaganda of the future when we see it?

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