Even after 80 years, Leni Riefenstahl‘s document telling the story of the 1936 Berlin Olympics still remains controversial; not only because of its government-sponsored status but also because of the questions it raises about Riefenstahl’s own ideology. With a near four-hour running time, split into two parts, this film starts with a flashback to the original Greek games when we can see statues coming to life, discus, shotputters, and javelin throwers. The emphasis on the body beautiful with some bold male nudity is more disturbing than inspiring, recalling the fondness for Greek classicism of Nazi architect Albert Speer as well as the party’s general obsession with eugenics.
Although it is entrenched unmistakably in Nazi ideology, Olympia has a little better PR image than Triumph of the Will – the signature work of Riefenstahl – covering the 1934 Nuremberg rally, just because it reflects something more of her documentarian nature. Adolf Hitler, almost a deity in Triumph, is shown as much as any hosting dignitary might. In addition, the director seems to be interested in her subject, presenting what’s really happening in front of her than trying to stylize it to a pre-existing brief. A case to illustrate is Reifenstahl’s admiring presentation of the Olympic hero, an African-American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals so irked the Führer.
If we disregard the question of intentionality, it is clear that the movie Olympia is a work which is crafted by an extraordinary film-maker, whose ideas exceeded wildly the simple propaganda that her paymasters demand. Many techniques of Riefenstahl like smash-cuts, aerial shots, and particularly her thundering music use have been appropriated by Hollywood. As a practical study guide, hardly can Olympia be bettered in its sports portrayal as a noble and communal pursuit, capturing athlete and audience alike. However, this movie will never be simply seen as art because it is too rooted in the darkest times of 20th-century history.