Olympia (1938)

(This review originally ran in the textbook Documentary Film: Contexts and Criticism, ed. Carl Rollyson.)

Leni Riefenstahl was in many ways the perfect filmmaker to represent the Nazi regime; her work signifies both the astonishing grandeur and formal perfection of their outward displays, and the heartless technocratic beliefs that lay underneath these sleek surfaces. This aesthetic is played out in all its hollowly technical forms throughout her 3 ½ hour chronicle of the 1936 Olympic Games, Olympia.

Olympia has many elements for which it can be commended; tellingly, all of these elements are purely in the technical realm. Her use of natural light is excellent; the action is never unclear and the surface is so sleek as to make the entire production unerringly smooth in spite of the necessary shakiness of the camera in most segments. She has a fairly set schematic of shots in each event, which varies little outside a couple bravura sequences(such as the ‘flying divers’ montage toward the film’s end.) The extremely abstract montage that begins the film shows Riefenstahl at her most engaged; even in Triumph of the Will, she seemed a filmmaker uniquely fascinated with turning reality into high abstraction; mythologizing it beyond the imperfect and mundane. Here she explicitly compares, by a carefully spliced transition, the glory of antiquity and the impressive physiques of the then current Olympic athletes. This opening; with its soft dream-like lighting, is the film’s peak; here Riefenstahl is allowed to fully explore her obsessions and thoughts without the need to represent reality in all its messiness(if such a heavily staged and orchestrated event as the Olympics can even be dubbed “reality”). Still, despite the impressive technique, her need to blatantly telegraph her meaning in each shot hampers any artistic ambiguity that might have enlivened this spectacle. Riefenstahl is a film artist capable of great displays which captivate audiences, but has little capacity for any sort of critical thought.

Especially troubling here is her portrayal of idealized forms; her focus here is entirely on the body, not the mind or the imaginative expressiveness that differentiates men. Outside some elongated focuses on her boyfriend, none of the athletes photographed seem like distinct people, but rather are just running or jumping meat. Riefenstahl is no Thomas Eakins. She sees no spirituality in motion; her rowers are shot from the back more often than not; no internal liveliness is conveyed. And for all the fuss made about her background as a dancer, she shows none of the sensitivity and smaller moments which define the artistic peaks of that form; her ideal is a purely physical one defined by a masculinely characterized dominance and stoic poker faces. Her women are androgynous with hard expressions, and more delicate and characteristically feminine movements, such as many of the gymnastics events, were purposely cut out of the film.

The ability to capture the unexpected and the extended period of editing that documentary film offer as an advantage over fiction film hold no interest to Riefenstahl. All of her editing is done solely with the intent of manipulating the audience in the most shallow and superficial ways. A cloyingly melodramatic score runs throughout and each event is edited as a rapid series of repetitive actions, which she usually removes from context so as to deliver an aimless surge of adrenaline to the viewer.

To further this end, she cuts to crowd reaction shots, which traverse the spectrum from bored distraction to fervent screams punctuated by violent gesticulation. Far from offering a self-reflexive commentary or meditation on the rather tribal nature of spectatorship in such a setting, she uses these shots to color her previous rushes of motion with a simple and palpable emotion for the audience to feel. Granted, it is a bit excessive to ask for a critical view on the simplifying nature of crowds from the woman who was Hitler’s filmmaker. Were she possessed of such a capability for reflection she might’ve done the ethical thing like Fritz Lang and left before the complete downfall of Weimar Germany.

Though she comes up with a number of gimmicks like digging trenches to create smooth tracking shots and uses some time-worn tricks like reverse angle shots to liven up the repetitions, they still start to wear down even the most sports crazed viewer; this is no doubt part of why she decided to break it into two parts. Even split over several viewing periods, this is far too much of a technical exercise to inspire any more devotion than an uncritical appreciation of aesthetics; a joy at soulless mastery and animal appreciation of idealized forms. If World War II should have shown the world anything, its the dangerous nature of such a combination. It preys on the weaknesses of men’s minds, and tellingly this film’s greatest aesthetic legacy is in advertising. The innovations seen here are now used to create subconscious desire in the masses for Gatorade or underwear. Not unsuccessfully, but one would hope for art to aspire to higher realms than this.

Riefenstahl’s fiercely claims that she was thinking in artistic terms; but this intent doesn’t exonerate shallow art. After all, wasn’t Hitler convinced he was an artist at the academy?

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