BFI Film Classics: Olympia

Author: Taylor Downing

This is an obvious timely reprint of the 1992 original printing of Taylor Downing’s book about Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the year that London is staging the event. Neither before nor since has a film portraying the games been done so well. No documentary maker previous to this film had committed the games to film to this extent (not even with the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics) and at 2 and a half hours this is quite an achievement. The film amiably demonstrates how a country could put on a show before Beijing with all the pomp and majesty one would expect (many new traditions sprung from this film including the lighting of the torch in Greece and the ceremonious lighting of the brazier of fire). But hold on this is the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the year that the dictator and Führer of Germany, Adolf Hitler opened the games and commissioned film director and former German film star Leni Riefenstahl to make a documentary displaying the prowess of German youth and the athlete.


Downing’s book is neatly split into several distinct chapters and neatly sets out the making and fascinating background to this film. The introduction and opening chapter to the book gives a brief history of the modern Olympics since it was first staged in Athens in 1896 and gives a brief explanation of each of the games up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and how they were recorded or not as the case might be on film; Downing makes the interesting observation that the modern Olympics began a year after the Lumière Brothers made their first public film screening. The author then goes on to write about one of the most fascinating aspects to this film – namely Riefenstahl’s mysterious relationship with Hitler (more like enchantment of each other) and the jealous and guarded battles she had with Dr. Joseph Goebbels and the Ministry of Propaganda. This dichotomy is what makes the film so controversial. It has been labeled a propaganda film as with her two previous more obvious propaganda films which include the classic Triumph of the Will (1934) another staged arena event – this time the 1934 Nuremberg rally; any aesthetic considerations and artistic merit of this film is clouded by its propaganda making it a classic of an uncomfortable nature, leading cultural theoretician Walter Benjamin to call fascism “the aestheticization of politics”.


In viewing Olympia the viewer must withdraw from its propaganda and see it as a document that is of its time which aestheticizes the body image (revealingly Riefenstahl had an affair with the American athlete Glen Morris during Olympics). This controversial director has also had accusations leveled at her that she has ignored the triumphs of winners such as Jesse Owens, ignored any black athletes and only shows German victories – reading this book and viewing the film this is clearly not the case; it so happens that Germany did do very well at the Berlin games and if anything, as Downing observes Riefenstahl seems to admire the athletic prowess of Owens.


Downing also makes the point that much of the background to the film will never be known; that the director deliberately misled people as to her relationship with Hitler, her so-called political naivety and any propaganda worth contained in the film. Her arguments with Goebbels and how he made her life particularly difficult feature throughout the story of Riefenstahl’s career are some of the most fascinating insights into the making of the documentary in the book; as is the argument about staging events for aesthetic or practical reasons before and after the Olympics the author leaves as an open question. Her relationship with Hitler also remains ambiguous. It is ironic that it is only through Goebbels’ private diaries do we get anywhere near the truth. From this political background to the setting up of the games and how Riefenstahl gathered her large team of photographers do the chapters then go on to dissect both parts of the film. The film proved so long after editing that it was split into two parts of almost 2 hours and just under 1.5 hours apiece. The first is called Olympia: Festival of the People and the second Olympia: Festival of Beauty. He analyzes each of the films separately in two distinct chapters and goes through each scene and event featured including the beautiful aesthetic long opening sequence representing Ancient Greece and the birth of the games through to the opening ceremony. The author also highlights how the film, in order that Riefenstahl gets the desired aesthetic effect reconstructed some of the events. This is brilliantly realized in what is for me the most beautiful scene in the film, the diving sequences which are beautifully shot and edited played out against Herbert Windt’s Wagnerian type score (Riefenstahl and Windt were the only two to be credited in the film) that it is real joy to behold mixing actual footage, rehearsed and reconstructed footage to great effect.


Downing, a historian more than a film historian, concludes his book with the correct statement that it is wrong to read Riefenstahl’s film as propaganda, despite her glorification of the body (strength for men, grace for women) which fits in with Nazi ideology and instead see it as a celebration of the games, of which few films have come any near to in style. Later versions of the film were released totally cutting out Hitler and the Nazi leadership or figures in black SS uniforms which is to do a disservice to the grande dame of German cinema and the film as craft, something I suspect the author would also agree with.


Chris Hick

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