If you want to see nationalist pride and propaganda alive and well, look to the Olympics. There’s the usual patriotic support for a country’s athletes and sports teams, of course, but the real display is during the opening ceremony for the games. The host nation uses the global stage of television to broadcast itself in the fullest. We’ll be seeing some kind of celebration of Brazil, its history and its arts and culture this summer, for instance, as designed by three of its greatest filmmakers, Fernando Meirelles, Daniela Thomas and Andrucha Waddington. They’ll be recognizing some less-honorable parts of Brazil’s heritage, too, namely its roots in the slave trade.
Before television offered a direct outlet for such pageantry, the way for a country to best show itself off to the rest of the world was through cinema. There were newsreel cameras delivering the facts, but for historical record the way to go was a feature film. Or two. In 1936, the Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, and Leni Riefenstahl, coming off her success with Triumph of the Will, was again commissioned to showcase the grandeur of the rising Nazi Party and the new Germany and present them and their leader, Adolf Hitler, as respectable hosts to the world. The result was a documentary in two parts, Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations and Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty.
Because the Olympics aren’t as easily managed as a political rally, mainly in that the outcome of the sporting events can’t be known, Olympia wasn’t able to be a total celebration of Nazis and their supposed superiority. Germany did win a lot more medals than any other nation, but as seen in the documentary, other countries did very well in significant areas, such as with the Hitler-attended rowing contest won by the US. And most famously with the African-American Jesse Owens disproving white, Aryan supremacy in his winning of four gold medals for track and field events, also for the US. His success can be seen firsthand about half an hour into the first Olympia.
Or see it dramatized and portrayed by Selma co-star Stephan James in the biopic Race, which opens this Friday. Riefenstahl also has a prominent role in the movie, played by Game of Thrones witch Carice van Houten. The movie will surely be more explicit in what it meant for Owens to perform so well at the Nazi’s Olympics, but it’s all right there in a few minutes of 80-year-old black and white film. And Race is kind of another sort of propaganda as myth-making history. The irony of the Owens story is that German media, on order from propaganda minister Joesph Goebbels, respected his victories better than some papers in the American South, which wouldn’t print the athlete’s photograph.
Of course, Goebbels also reportedly tried to get Riefenstahl to cut most of the Owens footage from Olympia. The two famously clashed through most of the film’s post-production, and to add to the levels of intolerance at play, Goebbels often addressed Riefenstahl’s gender as reason for the faults he saw in her work. During the Olympic games, he and Hitler may have been on their best behavior to fool the world as to their respect of people like Owens and their downplay of race, despite actually believing black athletes should be banned for having non-human advantages. But with the documentary, Goebbels would have thought there be no reason to highlight Owens any more than they should highlight how the massive pigeon release during the opening ceremony was actually a disaster.
While we can get a lot of what Race is about from mere minutes in the obvious contexts of Olympia, there’s a lot of other reasons to see Riefenstahl’s masterpiece. Much of its achievement doesn’t show clearly given its influence on sports coverage in the eight decades since, but the documentary features groundbreaking use of tracking shots, portable cameras and outdoor and underwater cinematography. Her use of slow motion techniques, particularly for the diving competition, is also notable. She made athletes look more like artistic performers than they were typically perceived as. It’s not a sports film so much as it’s a celebration of the beauty of the human body.
NEXT: 10 GREAT FILMS THAT CAPTURE THE OLYMPIC SPIRIT
I also always really like the cheesy opening sequences of Riefenstahl’s Nazi films. This one is less brilliant metaphor than the one in Triumph of the Will and more gratuitous and obvious symbolism highlighting idealistic Ancient Greek sculptures come to life as the German athletes, participating in discus throwing and a nude warm-ups. Then the film cuts to a sequence depicting the torch relay from Athens to Berlin, through an illustrated and captioned Europe – all countries that would be under Nazi rule soon enough. Again, it’s sort of silly by today’s standards, but it should help to remind us that 1936 was the introduction of the relay. Yes, we continue a tradition started by the Nazis, sort of. Carl Diem, who wasn’t technically a Nazi, is credited with coming up with the idea.
Olympia is often lumped together with Triumph of the Will as just another controversial Nazi propaganda film that is remarkable for its construction yet also necessarily disliked for its alignment with the most evil regime in history. But it’s too complex to just be looked at as the product of a gloating superpower. Its legacy for documenting Owens’s own triumph of willpower and physical ability is but a small part, as great as it is. Perhaps the rest of Olympia’s significance can spawn more dramatic movies someday.
Rent Olympia to stream through Amazon Instant Video or buy the DVD through the links below.