Sunday, 8 July 2012

Olympischespiele (1938)

Or Olympia as it would prefer itself to be known to English-speaking nations. In many ways a pivotal film of history but also the model by which sports films have been made since, and also by which many Olympic ceremonies have since been performed, including the 2012 London Olympics.

History (and prudence) prevents Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will from being given any greater celebration from me than it deserves in this 100 list, but her epic 2-part film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics is another matter - much more than just a record of a sporting event, and while it reveals its political influence throughout (Adolf Hitler is an occasional supporting player watching from the VIP box), the approach is subtler. As a film it treats sport as drama, and is all the more exciting for it.

It's easy to see why Riefenstahl was so revered by Hitler and the others. Her name had been made on the filming of various Teutonic legends such as The Blue Light, fantasies which embodied the ideals that the Nazis loved to espouse. Her interest was less in the Aryan supremacy over other nations per se, but moreover the beauty of the human body; endless close-up and slow motion shots (staged as well as filmed at the event) focus not on the achievements of the athletes, but on the grace and balletic quality of their muscles.

And in one particular supreme athlete, Riefenstahl was particularly besotted with the grace and beauty of the great Jesse Owens. Not surprisingly, her major opponent both artistically and politically in this respect, was Dr. Josef Goebbels, who had his own ideas about how to make films.

Successive polls over the decades have usually accorded Muhammad Ali with the title of greatest sportsman of the century, but Owens' achievement for me is so much more significant. His winning of four gold medals in Berlin was a phenomenal achievement, even by today's standards in a "normal" Olympics. It is thanks also to Leni Riefenstahl, that his story can be retold and remembered.

I visited the Olympic stadium in 1999, still remarkably intact from Albert Speer's fine original design. Although certain elements such as the Olympic bell were removed (barely) of swastikas and the names of certain prominent Nazis were removed from the Olympic Hall of Fame (below), the area is the one conspicuous remnant of the Nazi regime, partly because it was from the one time when the Nazis chose (for prudence's sake) to be more international and egalitarian in their attitudes.

There's no getting away from the fact that the Olympics have been - particularly since Berlin in 1936 - a PR circus for the nation hosting the event, and their rulers. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were very much a part of Reagan's America; the preceding Olympics in Moscow (boycotted by the US because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and then again in China in 2008, were a celebration of Communism, and like it or not, the 2012 London Olympics will be celebrating the Conservative Coalition (though instigated by Tony Blair and the Conservative Lord Coe.) In the "Nazi Olympics" of 1936, the hosts - like all others - put aside their political differences to celebrate (hypocritically perhaps) the Olympic ideal. But only for the two weeks.

Once the Olympic fortnight had finished, and by the time the film was released in 1938, the party was over. Within a year the world would be at war again, and that same host nation that welcomed all those countries was planning to overrun them.

But the film still manages to transcend politics,  and that is mainly due to the photographic skills of Leni Riefenstahl, and the heroics of Jesse Owens.

The Olympic stadium in Berlin, 1999

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films