OLYMPIA - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(Olympische Spiele 1936)

Germany, 1938

Director: Leni Riefenstahl

Production: Tobis Cinema (Germany); black and white, 35mm; running time: Part I. 100 minutes, and Part II, 105 minutes; length: Riefenstahl's final cut was 18,000 feet. Released 20 April 1938. Filmed 20 July-4 August 1936 in Berlin at the Olympic Games. Cost 2.2 million Reichsmarks (approximately $523,810 in 1938).

Producers: Walter Traut and Walter Grosskopf; Screenplay: Leni Riefenstahl; photography: Leni Riefenstahl, Hans Ertl, Walter Frentz, Guzzi Lantschner, Kurt Neubert, Hans Scheib, Willy Zielk; editor: Leni Riefenstahl; music: Herbert Windt.


Awards: Biennale Film Festival, Venice, 1st Prize, 1938; State Prize (Staatspreis) of Germany, 1938; Polar Prize, Sweden, n.d.



Riefenstahl, Leni, Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf , Berlin, 1937.

Riefenstahl, Leni, Notes on the Making of Olympia , London, 1958.

Sarris, Andrew, editor, Interviews with Film Directors , Indianapolis, Indiana, 1967.

Mandell, Richard, D., Nazi Olympics , 1971.

Stewart, Hull, David, Film in the Third Reich , Berkeley, 1971.

Young, Vernon, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art , Chicago, 1972.

Barsam, Richard, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History , New York, 1973.

Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film , New York, 1974.

Johnson, Lincoln, F., Film: Space, Time, Light, and Sound , 1974.

Infield, Glenn, Leni Riefenstahl , The Fallen Film Goddess , New York, 1976.

Ford, Charles, Leni Riefenstahl , Paris, 1978.

Infield, Glenn, Leni Riefenstahl et le 3e Reich , Paris, 1978.

Berg-Pan, Renata, Leni Riefenstahl , Boston, 1980.

Welch, David, Propaganda and the German Cinema , Oxford, 1983; revised edition, 1987.

Graham, Cooper C., Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1986.

Downing, Taylor, Olympia , London, 1992.

Kubler, Manon, Olympia , Caracas, 1992.

Riefenstahl, Leni, Olympia , New York, 1994.

Riefenstahl, Leni, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir , New York, 1995.

Salkeld, Audrey, Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl , London, 1996.

Hinton, David B., The Films of Leni Riefenstahl , Lanham, 2000.


New York Times , 9 March 1940.

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), no. 175, 1948.

Gunston, D., "Leni Riefenstahl," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall, 1960.

Gardner, Robert, in Film Comment (New York), Winter, 1965.

"Statement on Sarris-Gessner Quarrel about Olympia ," in Film Comment (New York), Fall, 1967.

Swallow, Norman, interview with Riefenstahl on Olympia , in Listener (London), 19 September 1968.

Corliss, Richard, "Leni Riefenstahl: A Bibliography," in Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Fall 1969.

Richards, J., "Leni Riefenstahl: Style and Structure," in Silent Pictures (London), Autumn 1970.

Barsam, Richard, "Leni Riefenstahl: Artifice and Truth in a World Apart," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1973.

" Olympia Issue" of Film Culture (New York), Spring 1973.

Barkhausen, H., "Footnote to the History of Riefenstahl's Olympia ," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1974.

Riefenstahl, Leni, "Notes on the Making of Olympia ," in Nonfiction Film : Theory and Criticism , edited by Richard Barsam, New York, 1976.

Interview with Riefenstahl, in Montreal Star , 20 July 1976.

Vaughan, Dai, "Berlin versus Tokyo," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1977.

Tyler, Parker, "Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia ," in The Documentary Tradition , edited by Lewis Jacobs, 2nd edition, New York, 1979.

Horton, W. J., "Capturing the Olympics," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), July 1984.

"American Intelligence Report on Leni Riefenstahl: May 30th, 1945," in Film Culture (New York), no. 77, 1992.

Foldenyi, F. L., "Felhotlen almok nyomaszto vilaga," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 2, 1993.

Graham, C. C., " Olympia in America, 1938: Leni Riefenstahl, Hollywood, and the Kristallnacht," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (Abingdon, Oxfordshire), no. 4, 1993.

Rose, Charlie, "Film Scholars Debate Riefenstahl," in Film Culture (New York), no. 79, Winter 1996.

Hitchens, Gordon, "Recent Riefenstahl Activities and a Commentary on Nazi Propaganda Filmmaking," in Film Culture (New York), no. 79, Winter 1996.

von Dassanowsky, Robert, "Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema," in The Germanic Review (Washington), vol. 72, no. 4, Fall 1997.

* * *

Any film of the Olympic Games would be useless, Goebbels maintained, unless it could be shown a few days after they ended. Who could be interested after the excitement and the memory faded? Fortunately, director Leni Riefenstahl, with Hitler's approval, over-rode any objections with astonishing results. While Olympia is a superb example of the sports documentary, it also stands on its own as an aesthetic achievement.

The fact its creator is a controversial figure whose alliance with the Nazi Party is still held up to scrutiny, and still as coolly contested by Riefenstahl, forces one to examine the boundaries of "artistic integrity" versus a very fundamental morality. One cannot view Olympia simply as film, or simply as propaganda.

There was almost as much preparation for Olympia 's shooting as for the Games themselves. For the best angles, uninterrupted by distracted participants, two steel towers were built in the stadium infield, and pits were dug for the sprinting and jumping events. Scaffolding platforms caught the rowing teams in their winning strokes thanks to cameras pulled along tracks by car. Hundreds of technicians and advisors were brought in, as were some of the best camera people. Several cameramen had previously worked with Riefenstahl on her earlier film, Triumph of the Will , a stunning record of Hitler's Nazi rallies, as well as the "mountain" films by Arnold Fanck that she had starred in. Despite Riefenstahl's total control, much of the look of Olympia was due to people such as Hans Ertl, for the celebrated diving sequences, Walter Frentz for the marathon, yachting events and the romantic opening scenes in Part II, and Gustav Lantschner for the gymnastic, equestrian and some of the diving.

Three kinds of film stock were used; one was good for half-tones, one flattering to outdoor scenes, a third for architecture. Over ten hours of film were shot each day during the 16-day games. Including training footage (incorporated into the film) and reshooting (some winning athletes were delighted to recreate their finest moments), there were 250 hours for her, alone, to edit. Logging the film took a month, viewing the rushes more than two. According to the director, editing took a year and a half: "It was cut like a symphony . . . according to laws of aesthetics and rhythm." Adding the sound took another six weeks. It must be remembered that in 1936–37, there were no zoom lenses, no soundproof cameras, no computer mixing— merely what was, to us now, primitive technology.

After nearly three years, Riefenstahl was finished. Her powerful 12-minute open-sequence in Part I evokes the classical past, an analogy dear to Nazi propagandist hearts. Classical ruins—ironically to be come Nazi ones—Wagnerian strains, whirling clouds and Greek statues; together with the human body celebrated in motion via the discus throw, the shot-put and the javelin, the epic stance is firmly established. The international foundation of the games was exploited to produce a propaganda climax; in a series of shots, the torch aloft, carried from Greece, is ignited, the flame returns to life, only in Germany, only under Hitler, who pronounces the games open. With lab effects, the results are almost religious.

The high jump becomes a filmic ballet, with slow-motion, different camera angles and cross-cuts. Then follow the discus, hurdles, throwing the hammer, pole vaulting, relays. The long-jump is one of the more interesting pieces in the film, having a personal dimension. The competition between Aryan Lutz Long and American (and, gallingly for the games hosts) black star Jesse Owens. Riefenstahl, sensitive to the symbolism, accomplishes the drama effectively, incorporating the tension in the situation, the personal drive of the two contestants with honed slow-motion camera work, fast audience reaction shots (significantly, not Hitler's who rarely appears applauding any but German athletes), the sharp timing. Primarily, her camera is not aimed at documenting history-making records, but at the athletes themselves. Interestingly, more of the slow-motion effect, with the result of making the bodies almost superhuman, is aimed at the German athletes, whether or not they win, although the film's content is not, presumably, out to confirm the superiority of the "master" race.

The bodies seem to add another dimension, almost bursting out of the flat screen, which is seemingly barely able to contain the exuberance, the strength. And while many sports event have, by their nature, repeated actions by series of contestants, Riefenstahl films each in a slightly different manner to keep the movements fresh by her choreography.

The handling of the marathon, the antidote to any possible flagging attention, is the high point of Part I. Taylor Downing, in her book Olympia refers to this segment, rightly, as "a film within a film. It creates a statement about achievement and endurance, and takes the viewer right inside the race itself. Rarely has a marathon been treated with such imagination on film." Using the distorted shadows of the runners, interspersed with shots of feet pounding the pavement, leg muscles pulsing, the viewer's own body tenses, feeling the strength flowing from, then, as the runners feel the exhaustion, draining out of their bodies; each frame fairly courses with energy, and with the constant drive. The marathon is not an event, in Riefenstahl's camera eye, it is each athlete's personal trial.

One of Riefenstahl's gifts is her ability to manipulate the range of responses (within the film, within the audience) through her use of music, content, editing and tone, not only within each individual sequence but the combining/contrasting of them for the bigger effect. For example, the dramatic rowing sequence is then followed by the occasionally humorous riding event; the result is a dynamic, filmic flow. In Part II, she begins sensuously, with reflected pools of mist-layered water, the tiny details such as a bird's wing in flight, a drop of water trembling on a spider web, with violin music threading through shots of muscled male bodies bathing, birching one another . . . Aryan Fatherland and Mother Nature in harmony. She cuts—like a hit of ice—to the rousing ceremony march, then on to physical training, as the different nationalities get into their stride for the bustling day's events. A shot of mass gymnastics is a long pan; tens of thousands of women in endless regimented lines do push-ups. The result is oddly dehumanising; like Busby Berkeley's routines, individual grace is transformed into a pop design. Here the effect is one of uneasiness, not thrill.

Part II also ends with a crescendo. The diving sequence is justly the most celebrated in the film, even in film history. Camera people Ertl and Dorothy Poynton-Hill had to adjust for distance during the dive, change exposure the second the diver hit the water, then reverse the process when s/he resurfaced. An elevator-type device mounted by the pool insured a fluid movement. The divers become suspended, as the camera seemingly redefines the physical laws of motion, of space and of time. The divers appear in the sky from nowhere, defying gravity; in slow-motion, they become surreal. Bodies twist, twirl, arc and never descend. No commentary mars the effect. Once again, no matter how beautiful each movement, repetition with each contestant could visually numb. To avoid that, Riefenstahl matched each shot with the movement of the dive preceding it; at the end, to the dive following. Such grace shows the director at her best; one forgets the background outside the realm of pure artistry.

She has perennially maintained her political innocence, reminding us of the gold medal the Olympic Committee awarded her in 1948. To many people, her stance rings hollow. Olympia is a stunning, and reasonably accurate account of the games. However, she was only independent of the propaganda ministry because of Hitler's personal involvement. It partly transcends politics, but it was established for political motives for political propaganda. Olympia is not a product of the political naif (she would "borrow" a group of gypsies from a nearby concentration camp for a later film — then return them when she was through), but a brilliant, ambitious director who wanted her work seen. Genius can work both ways.

—Jane Ehrlich

Also read article about Olympia from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: