Olympia (Parts 1 & 2: Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty) – 1938
Director – Leni Riefenstahl
Starring – Adolph Hitler, and Jesse Owens
Notorious darling of the nazi propaganda machine, Leni Riefenstahl, once had a legitimate career as a filmmaker. Starting off as an actress, she moved her way up the ranks to produce and direct both narrative as well as documentary films on varying subjects. This film, split into two parts, is a documentary of the 1936 Olympic games which were held in Nazi controlled Berlin (this was, of course, before anyone knew that was a bad thing). With both parts clocking in at nearly 4 hours together, it is a daunting watch, but is it worth it?
The Festival of Nations is the first part of the duo, and it is introduced by a long montage of shots panning and dollying through the ruins of classical Greek architecture, and featuring dramatic lighting, a fog machine, and classical statuary. From there we move on to the running of the Olympic torch from the past into the future (1936), into the stadium in Berlin where the legions of people from each nation proudly march in formation and wave their country’s flag, and await the beginning of the games. Afterwards we are treated to (or subjected to, depending on your view), nearly two solid hours of footage from the numerous contests of the games itself. The Festival of Beauty is very similar in structure and length but features a different variety of events, and then at the end rounds out the games with a closing ceremony.
The pros and cons of this film are all weighed out fairly evenly, and in some ways cancel each other out when considering the value of this film historically. Firstly the black and white imagery is very captivating, alternating between slow motion and full speed footage of the athletes and with grand sweeping shots of the stadium and the crowd. The images captured here are completely focused on the relationship between form and function of the human body. The slow motion shots recall the photography of Eadweard Muybridge in the way they dissect and analyze each and every detail. Riefenstahl’s camera lingers on each athlete, highlighting the raw power that comes from their muscles working together. Unfortunately this introduces one of the main problems with the film. There are only so many different ways to show the same action over and over and over and over and over again. A guy running is a guy running no matter if you have 2 shots of him doing it or 20. Likewise, since a lot of the different events are visually very similar, it would have been nice to condense them down to about half of what they were (there is only so much you can do to show track events in interesting ways without getting in the runner’s way)
Second, the film presents an interesting view back in time to what it was like before the Nazi party was as vilified as it is (and clearly deserves to be) today. This olympics, while hosted by the Nazis, was attended by all the major players in WWII (with the notable absence of the Russians), England, France, Poland, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Japan, and of course the US. There are numerous scenes of large crowds saluting Hitler (who appears numerous times throughout), German athletes saluting, and lingering shots of a proud waving Nazi flag indicating the winner of the event. It is in this film, that exists the footage of America’s Jesse Owens dominating each event he participated in. Unfortunately, there were a number of references referring to him as “…the best of America’s negros…” or talking about pitting his prowess against that of the “white race.” This provides some interesting questions, “Does the history of what happened after the games, deface and ruin what happened at the games?” “Is the film art, propaganda, or both?” With the exception to how the African American athletes are referred to, each nation seemed to get equal billing and equal credit for their contributions to their events. Does this mean that it should be viewed without the stigma of what the Nazi’s did? Whether or not it should be judged without bias, it never will be.
Finally, the best part of this documentary comes from watching these men and women at the top of their game, doing what it is they are best at. This is somewhat marred by the fact that there is an announcer giving the play by play. The film would have worked better with more of the montage elements of the athletes performing, and less minutia on who was winning. Also, the symbolism and pageantry was a little heavy handed, and could stand to have been edited down quite a bit. The main focus of the film (and consequently, the most successful part) is the study of movement, and form found in the mechanics of the human body, not in the history of what actually happened. I suppose I understand why these elements were included, but they are distracting, and slow.