Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ideology vs. Art

Film: Olympia 1: Teil—Fest der Volker (The Olympiad Part 1: Festival of the People), Olympia 2: Teil—Fest der Schonheit (The Olympiad Part 2: Festival of Beauty)
Format: VHS from Scott Community College (Part 1) and Muscatine Community College (Part 2) through interlibrary loan, both on big ol’ television.

First, a note: Both “The Book” and IMDB list the English title of the first part of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the 1936 Olympics as “Festival of the Nations.” However, anyone with even a smattering of German will tell you that “Volker” translates as “folk,” or “people.” Thus, I’m going with the translation here that makes sense to me, which also happens to be the title given on the copy sitting next to me at the moment.

Admiring Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary duo Olympia 1: Teil—Fest der Volker, and Olympia 2: Teil—Fest der Schonheit (The Olympiad Part 1: Festival of the People and The Olympiad Part 2: Festival of Beauty, hereafter referred to as Olympia 1 and Olympia 2, and jointly as Olympia) is sort of like admiring the poetry of Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound—great poet, Nazi sympathizer. Leni Riefenstahl—groundbreaking filmmaker, essential component of Nazi propaganda machine. It can certainly be argued (and successfully, I think) that Riefenstahl did not support the Nazi racial ideology, but it can just as easily be argued that films like Olympia did a great deal to enhance the National Socialist agenda in the late 1930s. In a way, it feels like saying, “Y’know, Joe Stalin didn’t have much of a record as a humanitarian, but boy! What a dancer!”

This advancement of Nazi belief occurs only at the beginning and end of each part of the documentary. The opening of both films is decidedly Aryan, with blonde youth cavorting in various sports, often nude. In the first film, we see the torch coming from Greece to Berlin, with scenes of the torch being passed overlaid on a map of Europe as the torch makes it to the stadium. We also get a glimpse of the opening ceremonies, and how strange and fascinating it is to see (for instance) French and Canadian athletes marching into the stadium giving the Nazi salute.

The second film opens with a montage of male bodies diving and swimming. I’d call it homoerotic save for the fact that Riefenstahl was a woman. I guess I’ll just have to call it erotic and move on from there. Again, there is a particular Aryan-ness to this opening.

With both films, though, we move into the sports, and the coverage is surprisingly even-handed. We see, for instance, many events in which athletes from countries other than Germany win. Additionally, we often see the medal ceremonies and hear long stretches of national anthems other than “Deutschland Uber Alles.” Jesse Owens gets star treatment here, as he richly deserved. It’s noteworthy, though, because as a non-Caucasian, Owens is unquestionably “untermensch,” and not a part of Aryan ideology. Still, Riefenstahl depicts him as an athletic deity, which goes a long way in suggesting that her own racial politics were different from that of her bosses.

The first film deals almost entirely with track and field events, and we get them in ridiculous detail. We see people long jumping for huge stretches, throw after throw in the javelin and discus, and leap after leap in the pole vault. There’s some track and field in the second film, but it branches out into boating, rowing, cycling, field hockey, and other events that don’t center on the main stadium in Berlin. Again, the treatment is decidedly even-handed. We’re given a detailed account of the field hockey finals in which India destroyed Germany by a score of 8-1, hardly a victory for Aryan pride. Boxing, strangely enough, is missing entirely.

This is all worth noting, because Riefenstahl could have easily made this an Aryan-only film. Germany actually won the medal count in the 1936 Olympic Games with 89 total medals, several dozen more than the U.S., which finished second with a total of 56 medals.

Riefenstahl chooses to show the results of some events and not others. For instance, we see a great deal of men’s gymnastics, but get no commentary on the events, and hear the names of no winners. Other events that today have a much lower profile, like the Pentathlon, are given a full treatment here.

One of the most interesting things to see here is the differences in the various sports from then and now. Gymnastics evidently took place in the center of the main stadium outdoors. The high jump is particularly interesting since this Olympics took place years before the advent of Dick Fosbury and the “Fosbury Flop.” Some of the numbers feel low as well—the pole vault, for instance, was won with a jump of about 14.5 feet, which wouldn’t even qualify today.

The main reason that Olympia is worth watching at all is because of the revolutionary camera work. Riefenstahl manages to get camera angles that almost had to be intrusive in the events. There are shots directly under the high bars in jumping events, shots that feel so close to the athletes that I have trouble believing they didn’t affect performances. She manages to show the human body in action from virtually every possible angle, and in spite of any apparent ideological desires from her Nazi overlords, gives this treatment to people of all nationalities and colors.

The goal, essentially, appears to be the depiction of the human body as a work of art or a thing of beauty. She succeeds. Much of what we are shown is in crisply-filmed slow motion, allowing for a real study of the bodies in motion. And, since the bodies are in general those of highly trained and exquisitely fit athletes, there is a particular beauty to them, as well as a grace and sense of physical power.

If anything fails in the version of the film I watched (there are evidently three—German, English, and French), it’s the editing. In the second part, we see horse after horse in the steeplechase jump the same fence and into the same pond. We see dive after dive after dive off springboards, endless javelin tosses, and what feels like hours of guys jumping over bars. Women’s events are almost entirely ignored as well in favor of the men. Whether this is specific to her vision or demanded as a part of the commission she was given is unknown to me. It does leave a taste of “the job of women is to produce children for the 1,000-year Reich,” though.

Regardless of these issues, Olympia is the beginning of the sports documentary, and has influenced generations of filmmakers since it was first unveiled. It may feel like weak sauce in this day and age of continual and continuous sports coverage, but virtually every sports movie, most documentaries, and certainly everything ever produced by NFL Films owes Leni Riefenstahl a debt that cannot be fully repaid.

In other words, “Leni Riefenstahl’s politics might have been a little suspect, but boy! What a filmmaker!”

Why to watch Olympia: Revolutionary coverage of sports.
Why not to watch: How many horses do you want to see jump into the same puddle?


  1. Like you, I was shocked by the parade, with the French and Canadians giving the Heil Five (watch Seinfeld much?) and also remember a pistol marksmanship event with a German "athlete" in some kind of dress military uniform shooting (I'd swear it was a luger but that may have been what my mind expected to see) with his body turned sidewise and his thumb hooked into his leather belt, looking quite "S.S.-ish" (not sure that is really a word, but hey if OED can cave to Palin, who knows what's next)

    Since my first introduction to "The Book" and reading about Leni Reifenstahl, I was compelled to look more into her work and life. I suggest seeing "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" to give her the chance to state her case with you. I guess I want to believe that she had no sympathies for the Third Reich but then I also understand that complacency is a form of support. An interesting look at her life before and after that complicated time. I have even seen a couple of the "mountain films" she played in which really are pretty good in retrospect.

  2. Leni Riefenstahl claimed that she wasn't a Nazi, but it's not really an easy claim to support. Certainly, her views likely changed over the course of her life. However, this film was made on the personal request of the Austrian corporal, and funded by the National Socialist propaganda machine. "I'm not a Nazi, but I use their money, equipment, and people to make films supporting their ideology" isn't much of a defense.

    The pistol shooting was part of the pentathlon. It struck me as interesting that so many of the pentathletes dressed in full military dress for at least the equestrian and shooting events.

  3. Such a very informative post. Thanks for sharing such a useful post with us......

  4. I have long time ago made it a rule not to read reviews before actually seing the movies so I would not get a biased mind to what I see (which is why you only get comments from me on the oldies). Since I started my own blog I made it a rule to write my comments first and only then read what others have written about the movie. This turns out to be a good choice. Had I read you review first I would likely just have copied it, at least in essence. My own impression of Olympia is perfectly in line with your. The main difference being that I saw the German edition (without subtitles! I am pretty good), which includes boxing and quite a lot of women athletes. The swimming part is quite extensive covering the womens diving competition where the US took gold, silver and bronze. So even the German edition was more even handed that one would expect given the circumstances.

    1. I've found I can get about 50% of German without subtitles.

      Interesting that the two versions are so different. I was mostly surprised by how even handed this film seemed to be in general, at least in terms of the coverage of athletics.

  5. I'm having trouble watching Olympia. Something about it makes me want to pee. Just writing about it makes me want to pee! Back soon ...!

  6. I watched Olympia, Part One, in three segments (not including several bathroom breaks) and liked it quite a bit.

    I saw it on YouTube, and as Part Two is also on YouTube, I'm planning on watching it in a few days and I'll have a longer comment then.

    1. Visually, it's an interesting film. Morally, I found myself in the same place I did watching Birth of a Nation.

  7. I've been interested in Leni Riefenstahl since about 1990. I had a roommate who was kind of obsessed with the Holocaust and the Nazis in general. (Should I add it was not in any admiring way? He was Jewish and was really interested in these atrocities and how they happened. So he watched a lot of movies on the subject.)

    So we went and saw so many movies about the Holocaust. Triumph of the Spirit (with Willem Defoe), Weapons of the Spirit (a documentary on French Huguenots hiding Jews during World War II) and we also went to a special screening of The Dybbuck, a 1938 movies in Yiddish. (Most of the actors died in the camps within a few years of the movie.)

    And my roommate watched Triumph of the Will a few times and told me about Leni Riefenstahl. It's very interesting, that's for sure. And Triumph of the Will is mesmerizing.

    A few years later (after we had parted ways), a documentary called The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Reifenstahl came out, and I went and saw it on a Sunday morning and sat there for three hours until I felt like it was MY wonderful horrible life.

    It really was a wonderful horrible life.

    Highly recommended.

    But despite my interest in Fraulein Riefenstahl, 25 years have passed and I've never seen anything she did except Triumph of the Will. Until a few days ago I had never seen Olympia. And I've discovered that YouTube has some of the movies she made as an actress in the 1920s, but I've never actually watched any.

    So after discovering both parts of Olympia on YouTube, I decided it was past time to jump in.

    It's really quite amazing the little mini-dramas that Riefenstahl creates for the various events. I watched the first part in segments because I didn't have two hours together to watch the whole thing, but I could have easily watched in it one sitting. I was fascinated, with the athletes, with the crowds, with the excited announcers, with the spectacle. It's an important movie because of the pioneering methods created to film sports events, but I was entertained completely independently of any of the historical interest.

    The second film is not quite so successful for me. Some of it was fascinating, especially the equestrian events. That segment where the horse has to jump over a tiny fence and then run down a freaking cliff was - I was hypnotized. I watched that whole segment twice. Wow! So many of the horses would go "Nope. Not doing that" and stop and half the time the rider would go tumbling down. They showed one horse after another refusing to go down the cliff.

    I also liked the decathlon.

    But other segments were more likely to prompt some head scratching. Like the field hockey. That was mercifully short.

    I wanted to mention something from the first movie. Those guys who took the gold and bronze medals for Japan in the marathon were actually Korean! Korea was occupied by Japan for the early part of the 20th century, so quite a few Japanese medals went to people from Korea until 1948, when Korea competed as an independent nation for the first time.

    And it's kind of a big deal to Koreans, I found out! I work with several Koreans and mentioned the marathon to my boss and he knew all about it. He even knew the names of both the Korean marathon medal winners. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.

    1. The issue with the Korean athletes is one I didn't know, but now that I know it, it's hardly surprising that it would be a big deal to many Koreans. There is a sense of nationalism in most of us, I think, or some sort of ethnic pride. That gets aroused when we think it has been offended in some real, tangible way.

      There's a lot here worth seeing, but I think these films are one-and-done for me.

  8. good article written by you keep it up


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