Judge Jennifer Malkowski sure does wish that the most talented female filmmaker of all time hadn't been so ambiguously evil; at least with Olympia, there is more about sports than Nazis.
A festival of the nations, a festival of beauty …
It's impossible—or, at best, inadvisable—to write about a Leni Riefenstahl film without some kind of acknowledgment of her fateful entanglement with Hitler and the Nazi party. For some, dealing with this aspect of her life is as easy as a simple condemnation: she made Nazi propaganda, so she's evil. Others try to separate her art from her politics, saying that we should analyze her technique without regard to the actual content of the films or her personal beliefs. After a few years of research, discussion, papers, and just plain thinking on Riefenstahl, I can't see any way out of her ethical case that is so easy. Neither a blanket condemnation nor a blind acceptance of Riefenstahl's work does justice to the troubling complexity of her particular morality tale—perhaps the most sobering one involving an artist in the 20th Century. In my simplest possible articulation, I think she was an artistic genius so fixated on aesthetics and her own talent that she committed severe political negligence. Two factors mostly beyond her control tragically compounded this mistake—the enormity of her own talent that would brand her pro-Nazi works into cultural memory, and the sheer magnitude of human suffering that the men she promoted would come to inflict on the world. A third factor within her control, her stubborn refusal to accept any blame, sealed her fate and effectively ended her career. To prevent this review from stretching into oblivion, I will stop there. But for a fascinating exploration of Riefenstahl's unique guilt and brilliance, featuring the 90-something woman herself, see Ray Müller's 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.
As for Olympia itself, I honestly cannot see much glaring Nazi propaganda in this documentary of the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. Triumph of the Will, being a film of a party rally commissioned by Hitler himself, is obviously full of it, but apart from some shots of Hitler watching the games and the German flag (which, under the Third Reich, bore a swastika), one would hardly know that the games happened in Nazi Germany. From what I can tell—and my knowledge of that particular Olympics does not really extend much beyond this film—Riefenstahl does not even greatly favor Germany in her editing. I'm sure she covers most of the events that Germany wins (as any filmmaker would when her home country is hosting), but she also includes plenty of scenes of the Aryan pretty boys getting trounced, even when the trouncing is done by African-American track superstar Jesse Owens. Her camera lingers on him almost tenderly as he grins with pride after winning a gold medal—not the stylistic choices one would expect from "Nazi propaganda." I give some credence to Susan Sontag's famous argument about Riefenstahl's "fascist aesthetics" and the "cult of the body beautiful," but propaganda is by definition blatant and Sontag's accusation is too subtle to justify that label for a work like Olympia. In retrospect, some of the then-innocent moments are quite sad—like the line of French soldiers heil-ing Hitler, who would soon punish their army on the battlefield and occupy their country.
There is no denying that the film is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and endlessly innovative. Many of the modern cinematic conventions for sports coverage (and Nike commercials, for that matter) were invented by Riefenstahl and her crew—they dug pits to get ultra-low angles on pole vaulting athletes, brought their cameras underwater to capture swimming and diving, and commissioned special cameras and lenses that would maximize their coverage of fast-paced, unpredictable events. Riefenstahl, a professional dancer and renowned mountain climber, probably could have qualified for some of the events herself, but instead she transforms the very filming of this event into a sport. Like the athletes, she gives 110 percent. The opening sequence is fondly remembered: a rather abstract visualization of the spirit of the games, it is a long montage set to music with no dialogue. Riefenstahl shows us Greek columns and statues, evocatively rendered in contrasting light and shadow, then strapping young men and women, partially nude, celebrating the grace of their own bodies with dance and sport.
Riefenstahl strikes a nice balance between top-notch sports coverage (for the time) and an artistic depiction of athletic beauty. For some events—mostly track and field—we follow the action with great suspense, wanting to see who wins. For others—the marathon, fencing, and diving—we are drawn more into the poetry of bodies in motion than the heat of competition. Our move from the former concern to the latter—paralleled by the change from "festival of the nations" to "festival of beauty" in the titles of parts one and two—begins with the men's, umm, "stick throwing" competition. They throw their sticks—or javelins, if you must—but we do not see the result, only their faces watching, or isolated shots of the sticks flying through the air. The marathon that ends Part One masterfully creates the mood of dizzying exhaustion that begins to affect the athletes. Riefenstahl employs slow motion, extreme close-ups of hands, feet, and faces, and a disorienting shot looking down on running feet to render this feeling. Slow-motion shots here and elsewhere are sometimes reminiscent of the early Muybridge experiments in the late 19th Century that sought to slow time and put motion under a microscope. From the runners in the mist that open Part Two, through the fencing shadows, and to the balletic diving finale, the second half truly is a "festival of beauty" in its own right. If the film feels long and padded (coming in at almost three-and-a-half hours), these moments make the waiting worthwhile.
Finally, here are a few random things I learned from Olympia:
Sadly, the picture and sound quality here do not do justice to the beauty of the film. The image generally looks overexposed and has moderate levels of scratching and dirt. There is also an irritating tiny black border with white distortion in its top left corner that surrounds the image. The sound feels tinny and hollow most of the time. Clearly, this is a very old film, but I was still disappointed in the quality of the transfer here.
In some ways, the extras are generous, including two additional documentaries only tangentially related to Olympia: Jugend der Welt, a 30-minute parallel documentary on the Winter Games that year, and Die Kamera Fahrt Mit, a 12-minute propagandistic film from that period about the range of documentary filming completed in Nazi Germany. Picture quality is extremely poor on the former, with far too much contrast and bad focus. The second film, which includes narration, suffers also from a persistent tapping on the soundtrack. There are quite a few deleted and alternate scenes, including a five-minute "Olympia Oath" segment that has some very nice imagery, with flocks of birds and the sun behind the Olympic flame. This and the other scenes appear to come from the Italian version, making their content particularly Italy-focused (meaning that they show events Italy does well in which Riefenstahl did not include in her cut). The whole concept of deleted scenes probably sends Riefenstahl spinning in her freshly-dug grave, though, considering how critical she was of her own material—anything she didn't include, I'm sure she wouldn't want publicly shown. The photo gallery shows some stills from the film, but also some nice shots of Riefenstahl directing—director Ray Müller, who knew her quite well, told my German documentary class at Berkeley last week that "she isn't a woman—she's a general in disguise," and one can really see that in these photos. The biography is kind of a whitewash, far too generous and groveling to Riefenstahl to be very helpful, and not well translated. The on-screen essay is somewhat more objective, and is brief and historically informative. Don't expect any brilliant insights here, though. What's missing from the extras is a featurette analyzing the film on an artistic level, interviewing a few film scholars, and maybe even touching on the web of ethical issues surrounding Riefenstahl. It is such an important work in film history that Pathfinder should have found some money to produce such a thing.
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