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This year marks the 75th anniversary of the notorious 1936 Olympics, ironically the one Olympics that everyone knows and everyone can name. Adolph Hitler used the Eleventh Olympiad to showcase and legitimize his regime in the eyes of the world, the first and most notorious use of the Olympics for political ends. The International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Berlin in 1931, 2 years before Hitler came to power. He saw the impending Olympics as an opportunity to showcase his regime to the world, and his claims of Aryan racial supremacy. In 1933, German sports clubs purged all of their Jewish members, including some major athletes like champion boxer Erich Seelig. However, the Nazis softened their racist rhetoric for the games, but only in Berlin. The Nuremberg Laws were in full force in the rest of Germany. A number of Jewish athletes participated in the games anyway despite efforts by craven Olympic officials to force them to withdraw in order not to offend Hitler, and despite campaigns by Jewish groups to boycott the games. A substantial number of the athletes representing Hungary were Jewish. A still very segregated USA sent a number of Black athletes to compete. Jesse Owens was the most famous of these, but he was certainly not the only one to win medals and set records. Owens himself repudiated the canard about Hitler refusing to shake his hand. Hitler never personally congratulated any athletes, and was not present during any of the events in which Owens competed. Indeed, Owens blamed FDR for snubbing him. Roosevelt, always anxious not to offend Southern Democrats, refused to send Owens so much as a congratulatory telegram. New York City’s segregation laws compelled Owens to take the freight elevator in the Waldorf Astoria to his own congratulatory banquet.
The 1936 Olympics produced a major work of art, Leni Riefenstahl’s greatest movie, Olympia, released in 1938 in 2 parts, “The Festival of Nations,” and “The Festival of Beauty.” The movie was released in German, English, and French versions. Riefenstahl used the most up-to-date feature filmmaking techniques and technology to document the Olympics, creating a work that continues to influence the filming of sports to this day. She used unusual camera angles, skillful editing, slow motion, close ups of the athletes to recreate the excitement, and even the suspense, of events whose outcome was already known. She edited in sequences filmed from practice runs with athletes, usually from very unusual angles, in order to call attention to the splendor of athletes in motion, and to suggest the suspense of the event. Most of the two years of making the movie were spent in the editing room going through miles of raw footage from several cameras.
For all of its insistent Neo-Classicism (especially apparent in the way Riefenstahl films events like the javelin toss or the discus throw), Olympia is a very modernist movie. There is no real narrative anywhere and no dramatic conflict. The athletes perform, but they are on display. Those very individual stories of athletes struggling against and overcoming obstacles are conspicuously absent in Riefenstahl’s movie. Such stories are the stuff of sports writing from Pindar to modern journalism. The athletes in this movie are remarkably uncomplicated and one-dimensional. At the beginning of the movie, there’s a sequence where Myron’s Discus Thrower comes to life. That crucial scene establishes the theme of this movie; the athletes as magnificent specimens of an excellent type of human being, as indeed were the ancient statues of athletes. Myron’s Discus Thrower was never any particular athlete, but an incarnation of the idea of the perfect athlete. Riefenstahl makes actual athletes stand for an ideal type, like those ancient Classical statues come to life. Actual individuals are reduced to abstract types. That is very modern, and also, very ideological. Their individual struggles are simply beside the point.
The only person in the movie who comes across as an individual is the one behind the camera. Leni Riefenstahl definitely had an eye for man flesh. Jesse Owens clearly charmed her, but her camera gazes almost lovingly upon the decathlon champion Glenn Morris. Riefenstahl claimed to have had an affair with Morris. She told how Morris bared her breasts and kissed them in front of thousands of people when he won the gold medal. Like all of Riefenstahl’s stories, this one does not stand up well in the light of evidence, and can be safely dismissed as preposterous.
Here is a sequence that begins with the high jump that very effectively uses slow motion and close ups from unusual camera angles. The movie uses slow motion very effectively at the beginning of the hurdles. It concludes with the javelin throw, a sport that really does go back to ancient Greece, a point that Riefenstahl makes clear in her filming of the event.
This section begins with Jesse Owens beautifully filmed breaking the long jump world record.
Here is the celebrated diving sequence from near the end of part 2. Film critics, historians, and movie mavens praise this as a masterpiece of rhythm and editing, with long shots that follow divers right into the water. If you look carefully, there are 2 sections where Riefenstahl ran the film backwards to enhance the film’s rhythm and to create that sense of the divers flying in mid air.
I show the amazing opening of this movie in its entirety from the credits through the end of the opening ceremony. It is all of a piece. The whole thing from start to finish is built around the Olympic flame, from lighting the torch with the rays of the sun to the relay race that carries it to Germany, to lighting the flame in the Olympiastadion in Berlin. It is a series of seamless transitions from art to life, from the past to the present, a major masterpiece of visual rhythm, editing, and montage, that sets up the movie’s central themes.
The Olympic flame is a modern creation. It began with the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. The idea of lighting the torch in Greece from the rays of the sun and carrying it in a relay began with the 1936 Olympics. It was the brainchild of Carl Diem, head of the Berlin Olympic committee, and Joseph Goebbels. The Krupp manufacturing works created a series of torches fueled with gunpowder and phosphorus (that spark and sputter conspicuously in the movie). Over 3000 runners carried the flame over 12 days and 11 nights from Olympia to Berlin. This movie beautifully evokes that whole relay while only showing its beginning and its end.
Credit also to Herbert Windt's splendid film score.
Pauline Kael once wrote about this movie that in retrospect, it is a salute to a doomed generation of young men and women, young people who came of age in the Depression and would fight in World War II. Indeed, many of the athletes who participated in the 1936 Olympics, and who appear in this film, would die in World War II: in battle, in air raids, or in concentration camps. This movie now has an undercurrent of pathos, in sad hindsight, that Riefenstahl never intended.
As always when discussing a movie by Leni Riefenstahl, there is the question of morality and moral culpability. Riefenstahl always claimed after the war that her work was apolitical, that she was unaware of the Nazi’s true intentions and of their crimes. She claimed that she and Goebbels fought constantly over content and budgets. Neither of those claims survives examination in light of surviving evidence, including this movie. Far from being apolitical, she joined the Nazi party after hearing Hitler speak in 1932. She was a close personal friend of Hitler, who admired her work enthusiastically. Far from meeting resistance from Goebbels, the evidence shows that he supported her readily and happily, giving her an unlimited budget and the full cooperation of the Nazi state. She is most famous for Triumph of the Will, a brilliant propaganda movie about the 1934 party rally in Nuremberg that shows Hitler in downright messianic terms.
I think Olympia in many ways is more insidious than the other more famous and openly partisan documentary. Olympia was meant for both a German and an international audience. It played a key role in Hitler’s project to use the games to legitimize his regime and his ideology in the eyes of the world. Riefenstahl knowingly collaborated in that project by making this movie.
Can art be great and evil at the same time? Yes. As an old professor of mine always said, art ain’t cornflakes. Goodness does not guarantee good art. Moral goodness and aesthetic success are two completely different and unrelated criteria. Can artists be evil and still be great? Yes. Ezra Pound was among the greatest of all modern poets, one of the greatest of the 20th century. He was also a traitor, and the worst kind of traitor, a traitor in wartime who made anti-American broadcasts in the service of the Italian fascists and the Nazis. President Eisenhower pardoned him after he spent time in prison and in a mental hospital. I would not have pardoned him. At the same time, I would not have banned his work from publication either (as some called for). Leni Riefenstahl was one of the greatest filmmakers ever and one of the great artists of the 20th century. She knowingly used that great ability in the service of criminality on a vast scale. She got off far too easy, as far as I’m concerned. At the same time, her films are rightly praised. Great crime does not diminish great art. Great art does not pardon great crime.