Documenting Docs: 'Olympia'
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Recently I talked about Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, and no, we still aren’t done with her yet. This time we are going to look at her less controversial and infinitely more interesting film: Olympia.
Olympia is a two-part documentary that covers the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin. This was an interesting time for Germany, and the whole world really, who would be entering World War II in the few years following the film’s release.
Like I discussed in my article on Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl’s filmmaking was so revered by Hitler that she was granted complete creative control. This is also the case with Olympia. Riefenstahl worked directly with organizers of the Olympic Game so that she could craft the best possible film.
And what she did craft is indeed excellent.
Now full disclosure; I hate sports. I can’t watch most sports films without falling asleep, and any sports game I’ve been to has been “eh” at best. So I fully admit that someone out there can probably point out some equally important and well-done sports documentaries. But when I say Olympia is a expertly-crafted and interesting film, I truly do mean it. I may not like sports, but very rarely did I become disengaged with the action on screen. Each athlete is filmed with such careful precision that details each and every movement in a captivating way. I mean, Riefenstahl manages to make divers appear as if they are diving into the sky, which is really cool to see. She really was dedicated to shooting not only a documentary, but something beautifully engaging.
Say what you will about Riefenstahl, but she is an incredibly adept filmmaker. Case in point, the opening sequence of the documentary. Instead of jumping directly into the games, Riefenstahl places an emphasis on the immense timelessness of the games. Statues of ancient Greek athletes are clad in smoke and dissolve into one another as the shots transition. These otherwise lifeless statues are given movement and life through her careful editing, and eventually the statues fade into real athletes. It is examples like these unique editing choices, nearly perfect shot composition, and interesting juxtapositions that arguably make Olympia one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time.
It would be a crime to not talk about the infamous Jesse Owens sequence. Let me tell you, watching Jesse Owens literally destroy the competition during the 200m competition is one of the most satisfying things I have ever watched. There is something so appealing about a African-American man showing up the competition in front of Adolf Hitler. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that for a film made by Hitler’s filmmaker, Americans are shown succeeding in a lot of the sports. You would think that Riefenstahl would steer away from showing Germans being defeated, but this simply wasn’t the case. It’s clear that she had a very strong dedication to showing the entire event in all its glory.
Now don’t get me wrong, Hitler appears semi-frequently. Riefenstahl makes a point to show Hitler’s reactions to certain events. But while Hitler is shown occasionally, it’s debatable if she gives him the same praise she offered him in Triumph of the Will. Yes, he certainly is shown in a pretty good light, one of the key reasons she was filming was to make Germany look powerful and capable, which she does to an extent, but she never does this by censoring events or overplaying a certain figure, like Hitler’s, influence. No, the film is first and foremost about the Olympics, not Nazi Germany, and that is largely why this film is still so easily enjoyable.
After the film’s release and great success, Riefenstahl aimed to get a job in Hollywood. According to a BBC article:
She didn’t get one. Just after Riefenstahl arrived in New York in November 1938 to promote Olympia, news of the Kristallnacht pogroms reached the US: more than 1,000 synagogues throughout the Reich had been burnt in one night, thousands of Jewish businesses had been vandalised, and 30,000 Jews had been taken to concentration camps. After Riefenstahl declared to the American press that she didn’t believe these reports, no studio boss in Hollywood would see her – the exception being Walt Disney.
Dang it Walter, this doesn’t help with the rumors at all, but I guess that’s besides the point. World War II significantly impacted Riefenstahl's credibility as a filmmaker. While Triumph of the Will is by far the more controversial of the two works, America certainly couldn’t allow Riefenstahl to continue showing her work in America, even if the content was mostly harmless.
But is it harmless? Can we really separate the work from the author? Does the artistic value remain intact knowing Riefenstahl worked closely with Hitler himself?
Well I’m going to take a stance very similar to the one I made when talking about Triumph of the Will. I fully believe Olympia is a beautifully made film and well worth celebrating. I find it far less dangerous that Triumph of the Will, and frankly there is very little to tie it to Nazi ideology. The same BBC article makes an excellent statement regarding Olympia’s relationships to Nazi ideology:
...It would be wrong to decry Olympia as a fundamentally Nazi film. It isn’t. In fact, its most Nazi-like attributes are those which are intrinsic to the Olympics: the fetishizing of physical perfection, the evocation of a mythical ancient past, the division of the world into separate, competing, flag-waving countries. The uncomfortable truth is that Olympic imagery is never very far away from Nazi imagery, whether Riefenstahl is involved or not.
This is a very interesting take on the idea and one I agree with. The Olympic Games tend to fetishize physical strength and beauty. There is a harsh competition. There is a deep clinging to tradition.
But still, I feel it is also important to address that we view films through the lens of the filmmaker. What does that mean exactly? In this case, Olympia may not exactly be propaganda, but it does carry a piece of Riefenstahl in it. So we can't completely separate the art from the author; this is impossible because we are viewing the film through the lens of the director.
There is a middle ground here. Riefenstahl’s faults are her own and not all of her work reflects her faults. In this case, the film does not cling to any ideologies Riefenstahl may hold. It is more a showcasing of her technical capabilities and of the beauty of the Games than anything else. To view it as Nazi propaganda on par with Triumph of the Will would be absurd, but to say that Riefenstahl's actions and ideologies do not affect the context of the film and the way audiences will decode it would be naive.
What else can I say? Hold Riefenstahl accountable. Criticize her. Criticize her works. You can do all of these things and still like Olympia. When a film enters the public spheres it becomes decoded in various ways: opposing, preferred, or somewhere down the middle. In this way, art does take on new meanings and purposes, and Riefenstahl's creations still create and invoke various meanings, despite who she is as a person. It’s hard to say what her purpose in making the film truly was, but no matter the answer the public can craft unique perspectives, be it positive or negative.
So yes, Riefenstahl's works are art, despite her actions or beliefs that make her works controversial. Art is art no matter the intended meaning.
Okay, now we’re done with Leni Riefenstahl. Sorry to put you through that, but she really is an important filmmaker to talk about, and her documentaries are required watching for any aspiring creators. Next time we’ll move on to something more lighthearted…
But let’s be honest, it probably won’t be lighthearted at all. See you next time as we continue Documenting Docs!
Images: YouTube, Mubi
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