Tuesday, April 29, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Olympia (1938)
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Any serious discussion of the relationship of art to politics must, sooner or later, come to the work of Leni Riefenstahl. She was a master at creating images, a director of technical brilliance, but one who used her talent to make propaganda films for Hitler, a fact which has overshadowed her achievements ever since. To discuss Riefenstahl is to ask whether art can be divorced from its own message, whether it is necessary for art to have a noble aim in order to be considered “good,” and whether an artist’s personal politics have to be considered in order to come to any conclusions about the art that they create.
Olympia is a documentary about the 1936 Berlin Olympics and not, technically speaking, one of Riefenstahl’s propaganda films although it often gets lumped in with other films she made such as Triumph of the Will. Olympia is essentially apolitical, even though Hitler does make an appearance or two in the audience. This is a film concerned with an aesthetic appreciation for the human body and the feats that can be produced from it. This is established immediately as the film opens with shots of nubile (and naked) young women and simply watches them as they move. The entire film - which is split into two parts: Festival of Peoples and Festival of Beauty - is about watching the human body move. We witness various sporting events but we rarely have any real sense of who is winning or of the progress of the event as a whole. We just look at the athletes as they manipulate their bodies to achieve a particular kind of perfection, and then we move on to another event, another set of fetishized shots - and what beautiful shots they are; Riefenstahl was a genius at creating images. We aren’t removed from the action as if seeing it from the vantage point of the people in the arena, we’re right there, seeing it often from the vantage point of the ground beneath the athletes’ feet. Riefenstahl was granted control of her subject in a way that is almost unthinkable, given how close she is to the athletes as they are performing. But the shots she gets speak for themselves. From a purely photographic standpoint, the film is absolutely outstanding.
However, this film, like all of Riefenstahl’s work, cannot simply be considered from a purely aesthetic point of view, and the political is always inevitably drawn in. Being allowed to host the Olympics helped to legitimize Hitler’s regime, as did his association with artists such as Riefenstahl. Her film Triumph of the Will helped elevate his image and is seen as so incendiary that even today you have to seek governmental permission in order to view it in Germany. It solidified her association with the Nazi party and made a film career post-World War II untenable. Riefenstahl herself was not actually a Nazi and once stated that she would have made films for anyone who had given her the access to funds and resources that Hitler had given to her. This does not make her innocent of helping to further the Nazi cause, it’s just a point of fact. She considered herself apolitical and insisted that her films simply recorded events as they happened. This is, of course, patently false because every decision she made – from camera angle, juxtaposition of shots, etc. – shaped her films and made her voice active, whether she was willing to own it or not.
Even if she was only seeking to create aesthetic perfection, that same perfection comments on and sculpts our view of the subject – in the case of Triumph it is Hitler and the Nazi party and the people who follow them, in the case of Olympia, the human body itself – which makes it almost impossible to separate the message itself from the way that the message is presented. But does a bad message ultimately make for bad art? Can something beautifully crafted but ultimately hateful, still be beautiful? These are questions that must be asked when you view Riefenstahl’s work, even this film which isn’t political, although certainly an argument could be made that the film’s focus on aesthetic perfection helps enforce the Superman ideals so highly held by the Nazi party.
When you see Olympia, you see immediately how deeply it has influenced not only the way that sporting events are shot and the way that the human body is presented to us through photography, but also the way that the Olympic games are constructed as an event (The running of the Olympic torch, for example, is an event that was first devised by Riefenstahl as a set piece for this film). This is a beautifully made film, regardless of what you think of Riefenstahl’s politics. Incidentally, I’d like to point out that the version I saw featured narration by a British sportscaster that was so jaw-droppingly racist with regards to the black athletes that I was stunned, but which certainly provided context for the age in which Riefenstahl was creating. It is, perhaps, a film best watched without the benefit of sound.