I just saw this movie for the first time last night with about a dozen other
people. We were all very surprised at how deep an effect it had on all of
us, even with us knowing what it came out of.
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Music: Herbert Windt
Release Date: 1938
Running Time: 201 Minutes in two parts (3 hours, 21 minutes)
is a movie produced by the (in)famous German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl who is
better known for her work promoting the Third Reich than for any of her other
films. Like the more famous Triumph of the Will, she claims it is a
"documentary"; in this case of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.
Riefenstahl is best known for her love of editing her films. In this
case, three different edited versions of the film exist; a German, French, and
English version, each with a different order of scenes. This is a review
of the English version.
Summary: The film opens, like many of Riefenstahl's films, with
a rousing score of music and no spoken words for several minutes. The
camera pans over ancient Greek ruins and broken marble statues, especially
focusing on the idealized Greek nudes. At the end of the sequence there
is a truly masterful fade from a shot of the Discobolus to a shot of a man
holding the identical position right before he throws the discus. There
continue to be several more minutes of men in loincloths throwing disci or
javelins in slow motion interspersed with nude women performing calisthenics.
The sequence abruptly changes to show the Olympic torch run (in actuality a
practice devised by Riefenstahl and Nazi party officials, in part, to be shown
in this movie). There is a cut to the opening ceremonies and the Parade
of Nations. Following the parade, the torch runner enters the stadium and
proceeds to light the Olympic Flame.
The rest of part one is taken up by exposition and commentary of various
track and field events such as the hammer throw, shot put, javelin, high jump
and various distances of footraces, ending with the marathon.
In many ways the second part can be considered a separate film from the
first. Similar to part one, it starts out with an instrumental
section. In this case it is of a group of young men running through the
woods in the morning until they arrive at a bath house and begin to bathe each
other in a rather homoerotic fashion. However, the similarities end
The second part progresses very differently from the first, most notably in
the lack of commentary. Riefenstahl displays the less classical events
such as gymnastics, sailing, and swimming along with more famous ones including
the decathlon. There is also more emphasis on team sports: polo, soccer,
field hockey, and rowing.
The final competition scene is considered the masterpiece of all of
Riefenstahl's work—the diving scene. This scene is a compilation of shots of
the diving competitions, shots of the athletes falling beautifully and
seamlessly intercut with underwater film of their entry into the water.
Review: This film is much more emotionally engaging than
Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl's other 'great' work. Though the
events took place more than 70 years ago, I still found myself cheering
on the American athletes in the film along with the rest of the people
watching the film. One of the hardest parts of this film is trying to
decide whether it is intentional propaganda
or simply a result of the situation in which it was produced. The
at the beginning of both parts scream propaganda to me with their
with the idealized body in a non-sexual manner and yet there was a
of screen time devoted to what the Nazi's considered 'inferior races',
notably Jesse Owens.
Though it's impossible to separate the film from the ideals it represents,
the film is a masterpiece in cinematography. In one scene two men are
fencing each other, the only sound being the whip and occasional clash of their
foils. Instead of the traditional shot, Riefenstahl distorts the
perception and points the camera downwards; filming not the men but their
combating shadows. The effect is seriously disorienting but at the same
time refreshingly different. The diving scene uses the same style to
create the same mental double take. Riefenstahl begins by showing the
divers from expected profile and rear angles but then begins filming them with
the camera on its side, making the divers fall diagonally across the screen.
She establishes a pattern: jump, fall, splash, underwater view. Then she
turns the whole sequence on its head and shows another dive in reverse—starting
with the diver's fingers just barely touching the water and ending with them on
Aside the editing, the most captivating part of the movie is the
music. Herbert Windt composed a score that, while sounding somewhat
minimalist, works perfectly with the repetitive motions of
the athletes. Repeating motifs of music are paired with images of
running, rowing, and cycling. Riefenstahl's editing ability also shows
through in the spectacular synchronization of audio and visual
experiences. The music rises to a crescendo during the peak of a javelin
throw, turns quiet in a slow motion section to raise tension, and triumphant at
the end of the marathon.
This movie is definately worth the three and a half hours. The
innovations in cinematography and the superb editing are reason enough
let alone its controversial position in world history. If you ever get
a chance to see this film, do so with an open mind: it is truly one of
the greatest uses of film as art in the 20th century.