Movie. Olympia, 1938.

Posted by T on September 06, 2006
By Title, Documentary, History, Movies

This is Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

StadiumIt is in two parts. The first organizes the events under the theme of the athlete as humanistic idol spanning the ancient and modern world. The second develops an analogy between the athlete and the beauties of the animal kingdom.

Despite the fact that the event was 70 years ago, and performed by athletes that no one cares about anymore (perhaps excepting Jesse Owens), it is utterly riveting. There is hardly a boring moment.

The divers are the climax. I was clued in that Leni showed some of the dives backward for effect. You would scarcely notice unless told. I counted four backwards takes. (I wonder: did she get the idea from Buster Keaton’s Cameraman?)

InsideDuring the opening parade, it was interesting to see how many teams gave the Caesar salute as they went past the reviewing stand: not just the Italians, but the French and Canadians did. The English and Americans did not.

These are little details that will help us to understand the 30s better.

Along this line, the soundtrack of the announcer, presumably the actual announcer at the events, gives sound bites that indicate how times have changed:

[After a pole vaulter fails] “…and America’s great Negroes have the field to themselves.”

“Now Jix just got his nose in front, only inches in it… Jix there, very happy to have won for Europe; the biggest surprise of the games.”

Won for Europe?! Interesting.

OutsideA quick search on Google will reveal that Riefenstahl is widely villified for producing this movie allegedly as National Socialist propaganda. Yet, no evidence from the presentation of the movie is marshalled along with such claims. The movie has far less nationalism than what one sees on our media at contemporary Olympics (“U-S-A! U-S-A!”). Indeed: there is none.

In reality, Riefenstahl is not so much a propagandist, as the proximate occasion for all kinds of propaganda. I will address this in more detail anon.

In an age addicted to seemingly endless sports ordeals, with 24-hour cable coverage, this movie is a breath of fresh air, bringing art and grace to its depiction.

If any thing should be discussed critically, it is the question of whether Riefenstahl touts the hellenistic ideal of humanity over what might be set against it as the biblical view.


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