Sunday, March 28, 2010

Film #17: Olympiad (1938)

Director: Leni Riefenstal

Release Country: Germany

Times Previously Seen: none

The Story:

No story. This is a documentary of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The production was directed by one of Hitler's favorite film makers, one who also did propaganda films for the Nazi party.

The film is divided into two parts: the first being the events that took place in and around the main arena: mostly track and field events. The second part covers the away-from-the-arena events, such as equestrian events, pentathlon, swimming and such.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after one viewing, before any research on the film):

This was a really enjoyable watch, and one that surprised me a bit. Knowing that Riefenstahl was a Nazi propaganda filmmaker, I fully expected this documentary to be ridiculously skewed and biased toward the German achievements at the Games. Such was most certainly not the case, to my delight. Rather than create a glorification of German superiority, the film focuses on the majesty and beauty of competition and the human physical form. Germany, having been the host country, had a large number of representatives, which means there are a lot of Deutchlanders in the film, but certainly to no greater ratios than you would see Americans during NBCs coverage of the games nowadays.

From the opening sequences, one gets the sense that this film goes beyond simply recording the events and results. There are slow pans along naked human forms, men and women alike, as they strike various athletic poses or engage in athletic activities. At first, the 6th grader still buried in my brain wanted to chuckle while saying "huh-huh. bare butts." Fortunately, this was short-lived and I was able to drink in the truly stunning symmetry and attraction of the human body at its peak. Certainly, there's a certain eroticism meant, but it goes far beyond this, into a very Platonic appreciation for visually attractive objects. From these forms, we get a few shots of Grecian ruins, which connect the 1936 Olympics to the traditions of the past, giving the viewer a real sense of the history behind everything. Here's the sweeping and majestic opening sequence:

Once the Games begin, a few unnerving things are shown. During the opening ceremonies (only 51 countries participated back then, by the way), each country's representatives were obliged to give the "Zieg Heil" salute to the Fuhrer, who was of course in attendance. Really eerie to see a bunch of Americans, French, and English doing that, a mere two years before all hell would break loose in Europe. When in Berlin,...

The events themselves were really interesting. Quite a bit has changed in 74 years, most notably the lack of universal techniques and equipment in sports. These days, thanks to the mountain of research done on such things, all athletes use essentially the same kinetics and the same uniforms. Back then, though, such was not the case. The variety of methods that the high-jumpers used (before the Fosbury Flop method became universal) equalled the number of jumpers. In terms of outfits, some runners went with fuller coverings, longer shorts and sleeved shirts; some were not afraid to go for what amounted to skin-tight hot pants. These days, we don't bat an eye at this, but it stood out back then.

Seeing the actual competitions was pretty engaging, for the most part. The definite highlight of the first part of the film was when they get to the men's 100 meter dash - the first appearance of one Jesse Owens at the Games. I had, of course, known the man and his accomplishments there, yet it was something else to see how this almost goofy-looking black kid absolutely destroyed the competition. Then, the stunned stillness of Adolf up in the stands made it even better. So much for that Aryan physical supremacy thing, eh? In addition to this, the film does not duck domination of events by countries other than Germany - a sweep by the Finns in the 10K run, the Japanese success in the high jump and pole vault, the U.S. taking over the long jump, and others are all given plenty of time. Here's a low-quality version of a somewhat nervous-looking Owens smoking the field (edited out was Hitler's petulent smacking of his knee):

Take that, you f***ing Nazis!!

The other thing it's easy to see early on is that Riefenstahl was not satisfied to simply keep the camera at a distance. Anyone who's watched sports footage from the 1930s, be it baseball, football, or (gag) soccer, you may remember that it was always a single camera, usually up in the cheap seats so that it could catch the entire field. Thanks to massive funding, Riefenstahl went far beyond this, positioning cameras all over the place and getting as close as humanly possible to the athletes while they were competing. You can see the sweat falling, the teeth gritted in concentration, and the pursed lips of the disappointed failures. I can only imagine how intense it must have seemed to viewers back then.

The second disc was even more interesting since it featured certain events that are off the beaten path or no longer exist in the Olympics. Of note was the pentathlon, which included horse-riding, pistol shooting, a 5K cross country run, swimming, and fencing. It was a series of very military activities, and the competitors were all soldiers who even competed in full dress uniform, at least for the equestrian and shooting events. Talk about something you simply wouldn't see these days. Even more eye-catching was a moment when, after the grueling 5K run, an American officer nearly collapses at the finish line, only to be caught and warmly seen to by a French officer on his left, and a Nazi German soldier on his right. Surreal in hindsight, to say the least.

The only gripe I can attempt to level at Olympia is that there is some manipulation of the editing for emotional impact. Many events are shown in isolation and there is always a swell of crowd noise during the more intense moments. After a while, you realize that it is not authentic, but dubbed in, much like the laugh track of lame TV sit-coms. It was meant for maximum dramatic effect, and it certainly doesn't kill the power that it has, but it does weaken it to be just a bit.

Olympia was a tremendous work in terms of sports filming and an absolute must-see for anyone interested in the history of sports, and aficionados of Olympic history would absolutely love it. Getting past the fact that it was a Nazi propagandist who did the work, which is not difficult, is the only small step required to appreciate the sheer artistry and innovation of the whole thing.

Take 2: or, Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

Oh, those silly Nazis! They continued to screw things up for everyone, including incredibly talented German artists.

All joking aside, in reading up on Riefenstahl, it's not hard to see why her work got initially butchered by both editors and critics back in 1938. In the U.S., her initial 260-odd minute piece (the version I watched was a little over 210) was seriously hatcheted to erase any visuals of Hitler or even any German victories in the games, some of which are, admittedly, a bit bombastic. What the American public saw was a 92-minute version. Here's TIME magazine's 1948 (12 years later, mind you) review of it.

These days, however, as people far removed from the real threat of Nazis and with somewhat clearer vision, it's easy to see past what some mistook as propaganda. The fact is that Riefenstahl apparently only did one real propaganda film - and seemingly it was basically to pay the bills. Many essays and modern filmmakers strongly debate that there was any Nazi bias in Olympia at all. In fact, the film was not paid for by the Nazi party, but the I.O.C. Knowing this, I tend to agree with those who say there's very little evidence of a political agenda. How else does one explain the amount of time given to Owens' throwing a massive monkey wrench in Hitler's machine?

Above any debate is the technical artistry. Review after review points out how incredibly innovative the film was. It's still required viewing for many modern film students, as Riefenstahl invented many methods still at work today. The gents at TIME put it nicely.

On Riefenstahl herself, whole tomes could be written. Apparently, she was a phenomenal talent. Before film, she was a tremendously popular dancer in Germany. Injuries put a stop to that career, so she carved out her place in film history for a few decades. After WWII, she turned to photography and won even further acclaim. She went on to do documentary films in Africa and underwater films throughout the world. At the age of 100, she was directing a film in central Africa, was in a helicopter crash, and survived it. She did pass away a year later, but I'd say she managed to squeeze every ounce of life that a human can get in one body.

In finishing, here's a segment of the diving that I think showcases nearly all of Riefenstahl's mastery in using all that a camera could capture and relay to convey all that I wrote of up top:

That's a wrap. 17 shows down. 88 to go.

Coming (Very) Soon: Ninotchka (1939):

Oh, joy of joys...Greta Garbo again. I last saw her over a month ago in that overblown melodrama Camille. I've actually seen this one, and don't remember liking it too much. It's been a while, though, so I'll try to keep an open mind.

Please be sure to take all empties on the way out...