Having finally watched the entirety of Olympia – piecemeal, over the course of several days – I’m now in what feels like the tricky spot of surmising, as I think any viewer must, that although this documentary of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin was backed by the Nazi party, and features several adoring cuts to the seemingly-affable fuhrer in the stands, it’s nonetheless a gorgeous, versatile, inspiring masterpiece that, if not quite inspiring pity for its director, Leni Riefenstahl (who completed only two other films in her remaining 60 years of life), it does inspire remorse for the fact that such a talent was sequestered for the services of evil, and thereby tainted.
Riefenstahl appeared on the List before this with Triumph of the Will, another piece of Nazi propaganda that showcased the same talent, albeit with less focus. In Triumph — with sweeping shots of the crowds at a Nazi rally, the gorgeous structures of Berlin, and the energetic beauty of Nazi youth — Riefenstahl’s work seemed to me strong but tasked with something more nebulous and flexible. Show how happy and beautiful and united Germany is. Show its strength. There’s a lot to marvel at in that movie, and a good deal to be unsettled by, but Triumph of the Will is also really boring. You can look toward Sergei Eisenstein’s work to see how Riefenstahl got the idea of meandering toward her point, using montage.
Olympia, a comprehensive filming of various events in the world Olympic games, is tasked with a lot more than Triumph, and those tasks are more concrete. First, on the simplest level, it’s tracking the many micronarratives of the games themselves: the excitement of the race, the suspense of an athlete preparing to dive or throw the ball, the triumph of the victor and humble resignation of the defeated (they do all seem remarkably gracious about these crushing losses). A step above that is the effort to communicate something about the nature of the sport. The running of the horses for instance, though graceful and romantic, is also a pretty brutal-looking charge. We see the awful angles at which jockeys are thrown from their saddles and the frenzied panic of horses up to their neck in water or their obstinate and resolve to stay in that water and have a drink. She puts a camera in the boat with rowers and juts the audience forward, back, forward, back, giving us a sense of how intense things are in the boat before cutting to a distant shot that reveals how quickly the rowers are propelling themselves through the water. Finally she lavishes attention on the strangely-moving sight of the rowers, at race’s end, slumping, in perfect unison, into heaving piles of reedy muscle. Immobile. Exhausted. They look like they’re about to die. We see what they’ve demanded of themselves.
Finally Riefenstahl makes clear, with the sultry opening of the film wherein beautiful muscular bodies bend, twist, stretch and dive and pivot among what look like the foggy ruins of ancient Greece, that she’s communicating the grandeur, history, and timelessness of the games themselves.
It’s one of those sweeping artistic achievements that seems to illuminate whatever theme you want to throw at it. The simple power of its beauty and its testament to human ability are mesmerizing.
Of the many narratives within the movie the most compelling and defining has proven to be that of Jesse Owens, an African-American track star whose victory in four Olympic events (100m run, 200m run, long jump, and 4×100 relay). Owens was carved into history not just for the collection of honors but for Riefenstahl’s chronicle of his exhaustive performance in the 200m run. Such a victory by an American athlete, black-skinned and gracious and, in height and speed and strength, a model of the exact sort of athletic beauty Riefenstahl sought to glorify, was of course pretty symbolic in Nazi Germany and, watching it even today, there’s something about the attention Reifenstahl pays to the event, from beginning to end, that suggests some appreciation of it.
Or maybe not. Maybe she just saw its potential for suspense. She cuts it that way, back and forth between the athletes and the varied reactions from the audience as one or another takes the lead.
Whatever the grace or beauty of something she’s filmed, it’s hard to tell if Riefenstahl’s got an agenda. If she’s immoral or amoral. If she cares about anything at all but the image.
I wanna go back to the segment with the horses, I’m not even sure what it is. Not a race, clearly. Is it just a jump? Is it a full course? Anyway: what I found engaging about it is the aforementioned intensity with which the jockeys are launched from their saddles. One of them, trudging behind the horse after they’ve both landed in a pond, just narrowly avoids getting kicked in the face (i.e. dying). But I noticed that, as the riders fall, their bodies seem to take some kind of action against it, or with it, and though neither the falls nor the rebounds are graceful, exactly, they do suggest something of habit. The person who masters the ride also masters the fall. Not exactly a profound observation, but it rang my bell.
I feel a kind of paralysis in addressing a movie with such a sweep, to say nothing of its sordid background and the fate of its filmmaker. The film’s enormity, and the fact that there’s equal talent in front of as there is behind the camera, affords the movie a kind of autonomy that lends well to conversation, a back-and-forth between two viewers about what it evoked from them, but it also seems to resist appraisal. Observations can be made, and subtexts or nuances underlined by one or another intelligent viewer, but it seems like a unique achievement on the List up to now in that there’s just no refuting its greatness, historical significance, beauty, intelligence.
And at the same time it’s one of the handful of occasions on the List where the viewer has to reconcile what they’re watching with the means by which it was made, the agendas of the people behind the camera, the blood and hate upon which the producers’ means were achieved. And to puzzle over the relationship between morality and beauty.