Friday, 29 June 2012

Olympia (1938)

One of the reasons I started the project of watching the 1001 list was that I was totally blank on so many of the movies and for the first half of the list it is really most of them. Then some of them do ring a bell, and an association, but I cannot really tell what they are about, likely because I never saw more than a clip if even that.

I never saw “Olympia” before but I know this clip with Hitler looking satisfied that he is the headpiece of this glorious event while everybody is heil’ing to him.

That is really enough to put me off. Why should I watch a piece of Nazi propaganda?

Seeing “Olympia” however made me realize that such impressions are deceiving, that there is a lot more to it.

Olympia was released two years after the Olympic Games in Berlin in 36, long after everybody had left for home, and functions as an afterimage to commemorate this glorious event. It was made to show how good Germany handled this event but also as something else and this is where it becomes interesting.

The movie is a celebration of the body, of the very physicality of it, health and strength. As such it was part of an ‘ism, vitalism, that started around the turn of the century and peaked at this point just before WWII. The extreme right hijacked these values and incorporated it into their ideology. That is why we today can see “Olympia” as Nazi propaganda.

But setting that aside, hard as it may be, “Olympia” really celebrates all the participating athletes, both individually and as a phenomenon.

It starts with the link back to ancient Greece, then naked people doing sports old school (surely no censorship here) gradually becoming the torch relay runners bringing the Olympic fire to Berlin. It is bombastic, big and we are left in no doubt that it is the beautiful, healthy, strong body which is in focus.

The opening ceremony is mostly interesting because of how weird it is with all these people heil’ing and Nazi symbols all over the place. Thankfully I did not see the Danish delegation do it, but then I only saw them shortly.

What follows then is 3 hours of sporting events. When I realized this I was groaning. This was going to be very long and tedious to see. The surprising thing is that is was not. When all the Nazi stuff and men in uniforms were out of the way the sporting events were filmed with such skill and sense for what is interesting that I got interested. Many things have developed since then, but so much is also the same and the way Leni Riefenstahl and her team filmed it with moving cameras from multiple angles and slow motion when required was not much different from how these things are done today. It would not surprise me at all to learn that this is where it comes from.

Of course there is a focus on the German participants, but I do not really see that as a problem. You cannot watch any sport coverage without an emphasis on the audience’s own representatives. But Leni Rieffenstahl is loyal enough to the event to show other people win as well. It must have hurt their nazi sensitivities to see Jesse Owens, a black American, win again and again, he he. So much for their ubermench ideals.

While the first part is focused on athletics the second leaves the Olympic stadium to show the other events. Totally weird how military some of these were. Despite this I really liked the part on cross country horse racing. I am not really into horses and I am sure it is really difficult, but these Olympic contestants looked like amateurs as they were almost all falling off their horse in this almost slapstick sequence.

I understand why this is called nazi propaganda but I also understand why Leni Rieffenstahl received the gold medal from the Olympic comity in 1948.


  1. Wow. This is really weird. I feel the EXACT SAME WAY about this movie. I find it beautifully hypnotic. Yeah, there's Nazi propaganda there, but it's not the focus of the film. I thought it was absolutely marvelous, and it didn't feel like a chore AT ALL to watch the entire thing.

    It's very good. Have you seen Tokyo Olympiad (1965)? It's very similar. A such, I really liked it too.

  2. No, I have not. I should look it up. Olympia was definitely better than expected.

  3. Rieffenstahl had the unfortunate good luck to have most of her films financed by the Nazi Party. She was an exceptional director/artist whose work is tainted by her associations with Goebbels and Hitler. Technical aspects are what sets Olympia apart for me. However, unlike you, I did find myself bored by watching countless + sporting events that happened so long ago.

    1. I can understand that. It worked for me, but that is not a given thing.
      What I find particularly interesting here is that she managed to skirt the requirements of her sponsors and focus on what really interested her. Something she did not do with her Nürnberg show in 1934.