Wednesday, January 4, 2012


In 1936, Hitler wanted German, and German/Aryan superiority to go on display for the whole world to see.  Hosting the Olympics gave him the stage, and, to the credit of the Germans, they did raise the bar for the Olympics, elevating the games beyond a sporting event to a spectacle.  German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was there to capture it all on film.
The diving scenes are among the most famous.
The greatest contribution Olympia gives us is the extent to which Riefenstahl documented the events themselves.  The games were broadcast on television, but in a very limited way.  The massive coverage we enjoy of every Olympic event today was unheard of then, of course.  Unlike sports coverage today, Riefenstahl does not emphasize the names, countries, or back stories of the athletes, but the form of their bodies and the mechanics of their feats.  She includes little dialogue or commentary, but focuses on the beauty of motion and athletic skill.  You definitely see more glory than agony of defeat.  Even on decades-old film, Olympia captures the speed and grace of the athletes beautifully.
See how the runners had to dig out their "starting blocks"?
We, of course, have the benefit of historical hindsight watching this today, but I think surely even objective viewers at the time must have been put off by the fawning over Hitler.  Overseeing the games as the grand host, Hitler appears as the almighty game master.  Tens of thousands of citizens in the stands gleefully salute the Fuhrer.  He smugly celebrates the victories of his Aryan subjects.  But--hah!--when that African-American superstar, Jesse Owens, wins medal after medal, beating out Hitler's chosen ones, what did he think then?
The opening ceremonies would have been better without all the goose-stepping and heil-ing.
Riefenstahl's Olympia is considered one of the great sports films and pioneered several filming techniques.  I know nothing about making a movie, or about the technical requirements of certain kinds of filming.  I do know this: most of this movie can be done better today with a low-cost, commercially available, hand-held video camera.  This is not to slight Riefenstahl, but to say that the modern film watcher is spoiled by what we see in theaters and what we're able to film on our own.

As an historical artifact, Olympia is valuable and important both for the Olympics and for the filming of sporting events.  But for purposes of entertainment and enjoyment, you might be left wondering what's the big deal.

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