XL Popcorn: Olympia

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 438/1007Title: Olympia 1. Teil — Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations) and Olympia 2. Teil — Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty)
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Year: 1938
Country: Germany

Is it possible to develop a crush on a gold medal winning American pole vaulter from the 1936 Berlin Olympics? No? Alright then.

On the 1001 Movies list there are three documentary films depicting the Olympic Games. There is the 1965 film Tokyo Olympiad which focuses on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and then the two Olympia films depicting the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Whilst I will get to the Japanese one at some point I couldn’t turn down the chance of seeing what what the fuss is about Olympia.

I enjoy reading about film history and Leni Riefenstahl is one of those directors where it is hard not to be fascinated. There are so many questions I would like to ask about her, but mainly this one: “Would we remember her if her legacy wasn’t so closely linked to the Nazi Party?”.

I have now watched her three main films, the two Olympia movies and Triumph of the Willand I still have this question as well as another one: when does promotion become propaganda? With Triumph of the Will it is pretty obvious how this is propaganda, not so much with Olympia. Why? Because I don’t see how a sports documentary film that spends more time on Jesse Owens, Olympic sailing or the very attractive pole vaulter Earle Meadows than it does on Nazi officials could really be propaganda based.

Here’s the thing, I don’t really enjoy watching sport on the television. I was very much prepared to be surfing the web and checking in on this documentary as a half-watch. I mean, these Olympics happened nearly 80 years ago, it’s not like you can feel tense watching it… and yet you do. In these short depictions of events you automatically start to root for people. In the women’s high jump competition I was actually saddened when the British athlete didn’t win gold. What the actual hell!?

Also of interest was the opening ceremony where apart from Germany I saw only three other nations giving the ‘salute’: Austria (obviously), Italy (makes sense) and France (what the what!?).

Riefenstahl spends a sizeable amount of the opening minutes of both movies in a form of worship of the human body in both clothed and unclothed forms. It’s very classical and ethereal, but the really interesting parts is the sport itself. The fact that, in order to shoot Olympia, she came up with a bunch of techniques in order to best showcase the different sports, things that we use to this day.

Her love of the human form and her knowledge of how certain camera angles can work during her propaganda work heavily influenced the framing of nearly every shot. Under her direction there are few Olympic athletes that escape from looking like heroes. Some get more treatment then others, but obviously she focuses mainly on the winners of the events. That does mean the German athletes get more limelight, but they did top the medal table…

In the end, this is always going to be one of those films that inspires differing opinions. It really depends how readily you can remove politics from what is, undoubtedly, a ground-breaking piece of sports journalism.

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