“Olympia” is not a classic Hollywood film, but with the Olympics upon us again, it is a good topic to discuss. Director Leni Riefenstahl’s film tribute to the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a masterful work, but so mired in controversy. Filmed beautifully, its poetic visions of the human form are chained to that other reality, the elephant in the room: the swastikas in the background.
The film begins with idealistic Greek statues in a setting of ancient ruins coming to life, of naked men and women appearing both god-like and human, and bringing forth the divine fire that will light the torch. The torch relay, a feature of the Olympics which has become standard, originated at the 1936 Berlin Games, and we see the torch passed to a modern runner in his less than god-like baggy shorts. An animated map shows us the journey from Greece up the Balkans to Berlin. Despite the controversy of allowing the Games to continue in Hitler’s Germany after his rise to power (it had been awarded to Germany before Hitler came to power), there did not seem to be the same disruption over the torch’s journey as there was this year in protest to China’s human rights violations. However, many countries considered boycotting.
From the viewpoint of popular culture and sports history, we see that the athletes wear saggy uniforms in this Spandex-free world. The crowds in the stands are well-dressed in their suits and hats, and the equipment the athletes use might be considered dangerous now.
The gymnastics events were performed outside on the open field of the track and field stadium. The athletes performed simple moves, and the women gymnasts appear to be women, not very young girls too small to even menstruate. It is not yet a world where arthroscopic surgery for ACL repair is a rite of passage.
There is obviously an ominous undercurrent to this joyful world of drug-free sport when the athletes really were amateurs, and nobody wears a corporate logo. Some of the teams marching into the stadium in the opening parade of nations, including Germany, wear military style uniforms. Director Riefenstahl always maintained in later years that she had no interest in politics. Unfortunately for this talented woman, being a Nazi, and being apolitical while selling one’s soul to the devil for artistic patronage, may not be the same sin of equal proportion, but it does nothing for one’s resume.
What is most striking about this film is what we know about it, and the world, in hindsight. We have discussed on this blog before how our viewpoint is tainted watching World War II era films because we know how the war ended. We cannot have the same sense of anxiety and passion that wartime audiences did when watching these films. We have decades separating us from their experience. We are safe.
Yet that same distance that lessens our emotional experience in watching World War II films actually increases our emotional experience watching “Olympia”. It is what we know now about what happened then and afterward that makes the film remarkable.
We know that in only three years, most of these athletes and the cheering crowds will be in the horrific grasp of war. Some years ago, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. had an interesting exhibit of the 1936 Games which featured the many athletes from that Olympics who died in the war, either as soldiers, as civilian victims, as concentration camp inmates.
The film shows us the arrogant dictator posturing in his box. We know he died a coward’s death in a bunker nine years later, after setting the world on fire and misery. We know his clean and spacious Berlin shown pristine in the aerial shots was bombed and in a post-war world, was bisected and kept alive on Allied charity.
We see the lean and muscular American Jesse Owens winning his four events. We know that when he came home, he struggled to support himself and his family in a United States not ready to accept a black man as a national hero, let alone an equal citizen before the law. We see in one of his competitions, how he defeated the German Luz Long in the long jump. Long, handsome, looking contemplatively from the sidelines on Jesse’s next attempt, was killed in the war as a soldier in the German army fighting in Italy.
We see Son Kitei of Japan win the Gold Medal for the Marathon. We know now that he is really Kee-chung Sohn of Korea, and that his nation was occupied by a Japanese Empire already stretching its muscles and testing the limits of its expansion. We know that he fought for years to have his real name and his real country listed on his Olympic records, and that after many decades, he finally won. We saw him again, an old man jumping for joy, as a torch bearer in the 1988 Seoul Games. Most other athletes in that tumultuous Olympics of 1936 did not have such happy endings.
We know that Jesse Owens ran two team events and won medals because Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the only Jews on the American track team, were removed at the last minute to appease IOC president Avery Brundage. We know that German track star Gretl Bergmann was kicked off her national team at the last minute, also because she was a Jew.
We know that the Silver medalist of the women’s 100 meter dash (also a medalist in the 1932 Los Angeles Games), Stanislawa Walasiewicz of Poland, was discovered decades later upon her death to be a man. “The Games of ‘36” by Stan Cohen (Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1996), the source of some of these facts, has more interesting information on the 1936 Summer and Winter Games.
We know that the next Olympic Games in 1940, scheduled to be held in London, were cancelled because of the war. Our next Games after Beijing, in 2012, are also scheduled for London. Let us hope, as we always seem to hope, that history does not repeat itself, and there will be no cancellation ever again for war.
There is much nonsense in the overblown modern Games, but there is a kind of salvation, too. There is nothing else that brings the world together so regularly and so well, with so much promise of peace. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a noble attempt.
The “Olympia” which may be seen today is a different version than the one Leni Riefenstahl first produced. She had edited it and re-edited over the years, mainly to lessen the Nazi images. After the war, she attempted to interest Hollywood in distributing the film to American audiences. Not one studio would touch it.
Hollywood’s contribution to Olympic sport at that time was “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” (1937) when he and Number One Son foil some spies at the Berlin Games. It was innocuous, but “Olympia” gives us something more profound.
Have a look here at the beautiful diving sequence from “Olympia”.