Olympiad, The/Olympia (1936)

“For the last time, the athletes have to fight with all their might.”

Olympia Poster

Synopsis:
Athletes from around the world compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as Adolf Hitler watches from the sidelines.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “two-part film of the Berlin Olympics of 1936” — “regarded as one of the best documentaries ever made”, as well as “among the most controversial” — is “extremely disappointing”, given that “there is virtually no excitement on any event” and we “have no idea who most of the athletes are [or] what their strategies will be”. He concedes that some of the “best moments in this long, interesting, but overrated documentary… are the close-ups of the athletes’ faces, the shots of cheering fans in the grandstands, and, of course the heralded [final] diving montage in which faceless, acrobatic bodies become one with the sky, air, and water”. He notes the interesting fact that “the clips we always see of [Jesse] Owens setting Olympic records (and thus disputing the Nazi myth of white supremacy) are taken from this documentary, but that [the] shot of unhappy Hitler we always see after Owens’s victories was taken from another part of the movie and… had nothing to do with his reaction to Owens”. Finally, he points out that despite being regarded as “fascistic” because “it idealizes athletes as beautifully built, superhuman figures”, Riefenstahl “gives fair coverage to events in which Germans lost”.

Indeed, given its reputation as yet another propaganda-laden film by the infamous Nazi-affiliated director of Triumph of the Will (1935), Olympia — officially titled Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations and Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty — comes across as surprisingly even-handed in its representation of athletes from across the globe. The primary indicators that this film was made in pre-WWII Germany are the presence of swastika-laden German flags, several collective heil-salutes, and reaction shots of Hitler and his key henchmen in the audience. Regardless of her political affiliations (which of course one shouldn’t dismiss or forget), Riefenstahl was an undeniably brilliant filmmaker. Although the film is too long to enjoy in one setting, and often repetitive, I find it far from boring; Riefenstahl could have chosen a different, more personal approach to filming this material, and edited more strategically, but her decision — to show a range of incredible sporting talent and physical beauty across nations — seems defensible. One finishes this marathon, two-part documentary with an appreciation for what the Olympics are (in part, ideally) designed to do: allow gifted athletes to compete as humans while simultaneously bringing honor to their homelands.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gorgeous cinematography and direction
    Olympia Cinematography
    Olympia Cinematography2
  • Valuable historical footage of early Olympics games set in a notorious global era
    Olympia Owens
    Olympia Salutes
  • The stunning closing diving sequence
    Olympia Diving

Must See?
Yes, for its historical significance and aesthetic value.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Olympiad, The/Olympia (1936)”

  1. I’ve only seen this once – but what’s written in the assessment (which I think is rather accurate, as I recall) more or less brought it all back to me.

    I honestly don’t think I could sit through it again (for an update of my own assessment), but that’s mainly due to its length and my general feeling of “once was enough”.

    I’m not sure, really, that I would consider it must-see viewing for all film fanatics – but definitely for those who have an interest in Riefenstahl’s work. I noted for ‘Triumph of the Will’ that that is once-must-see viewing (as a valuable historical document). What also is most likely must-see is the doc about her: ‘The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl’.

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