The lighting of the Olympic Flame, Berlin, 1936, as seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda doc, Olympia.
It is the ultimate glorification of sports on film and a testament to the man Max Bialystock would later call, “The Hitler you loved, the Hitler you knew, the Hitler with a song in his heart.” Superior in form and execution to anything those weaklings at NBC currently have on display, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia stands as the single greatest, most influential sports film ever made.
Richard D. Mandell, author of The Nazi Olympics, called the 1936 Summer Games, “Festivity as a modern political force,” a logical offshoot of the Nuremberg rallies, this time with Chancellor Hitler’s Department of Entertainment and Propaganda awarding medals to the victors. Riefenstahl seized the opportunity to impress her boss, finding just the right visual correlation to underscore the propaganda. The result is nothing short of spectacular.
Olympia: Festival of Nations (1936)
Difficult though it may be to separate the art from the artist, Riefenstahl deserves much praise for advancing the art of cinema. She wasn’t the first to employ canted angles, tight close-ups, synchronized music, or tracking shots, but it’s safe to say that all future sports docs and televised sporting events owe much to Riefenstahl’s innovative filming techniques.
The documentary is best remembered for its treatment of Jesse Owens, the legendary African-American track-and-field star who took home four gold medals as well as a sound snubbing from the Reichsfuehrer. Riefenstahl’s previous Nazi doc, Triumph of the Will, opened with Hitler descending from the clouds, an angel of mercy sent to unify a band of lost Aryan boys. As Time critic Richard Corliss observed, “That was in 1934–35. In [Olympia] Riefenstahl gave the same heroic treatment to Jesse Owens.”
Olympia: Festival of Beauty (1936)
A wire piece in the August 23, 1936 edition of the Chicago Tribune found an unlikely ally in the Ohio State flyer. Owens told a reporter from the United Press that he “was not offended because Adolf Hitler failed to honor him with an invitation to his private lodge after any of his triumphs.”
According to Owens, Hitler’s snub was not without exception. “I was on my way to talk on a radio broadcast to the United States and passed near Hitler’s box,” Owens chuckled. “He waved his hand at me and I waved back. I guess he’s all right.” That was in 1936. A few years later found Jesse running to a different drum.
The film was released in two parts: Olympia 1: Festival of Nations and Olympia 2: Festival of Beauty. A legible DVD copy, let alone a Blu-ray pressing, has yet to hit store shelves. Unless your home video projection booth houses a VHS and/or LaserDisc player, urging one to track down a copy would prove as fruitless as recommending a good night’s sleep to an insomniac. For those with a functioning VCR, I suggest a visit to Kensington Video is in order. The rest of us will have to make do with these muddy YouTube dupes.