Film #9: Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations Feb 21, 2018 12:27:21 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Feb 21, 2018 12:27:21 GMT -5
Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations (1938)
Directed by: Leni Riefenstahl
Directed by: Leni Riefenstahl
Jesse Owens is shown at various points in Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations.
Film #9/53; part of the Criterion Collection's "100 Years of Olympic Film" box-set
Carl Junghans's 1936 short film, Youth of the World, showed what could happen if a director and editor brought distinct vision along when filming the Olympic games. While such ambition produced a uniquely compelling recount of the triumphant and harrowing moments of the 1936 Winter Olympics, no vision of an Olympic documentary during this time was quite like Leni Riefenstahl's. A consultant on some of the previous documentaries housed in Criterion's respective box-set and famous for her propaganda piece Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl's magnum-opus Olympia is often considered to be one of the most impressive and exceptional accounts of any Olympic games since the creation of film. Who am I to disagree with that?
The documentary cost 1.5 million reichsmarks to make, and culminated in 1.2 million feet of film. By comparison, Gone with the Wind's reel resulted in 475,000 feet of color film-stock, something that would have to remain a dream for Riefenstahl, who wanted her immense creation colorized but had to table it due to costs. On top of the eyebrow-raising facts of Olympia as a film, Riefenstahl was extremely particular when it came to directing the film. Returning to the idea she brought along her vision to help shoot the project, she regimented her large camera-crew by telling them what to film, how to film it, and how exactly it should look when it's done. When lighting didn't agree with her or her crew's equipment, she'd ask the athletes to strike a pose similar to the one they did while performing, technically making aspects of Olympia more of a docudrama than a black-and-white documentary.
After being finished and subsequently preserved, most restorations take the film as two parts; part one, titled Festival of the Nations, includes 21 events concluding with a marathon, while part two, titled Festival of Beauty, focuses on the finely chiseled physiques of the competitors, both male and female. For now, however, Festival of the Nations looks longingly at a handful of events by establishing a formula early on that Riefenstahl carries through over the course of the initial two hours. The formula shows the athlete's form before engaging in the act the game requires — let's say discus-throwing in this case — followed by their names/countries being announced, their action, and their respective throwing distance. The setup is used for javelin-throwing, long-jumping, and high-jumping, and its through this process that Riefenstahl creates considerable suspense, especially as the number of athletes dwindles as the finalists emerge.
I found myself captivated by this method, so much so that I even found unnerved pleasure watching the high-jumping competition come down to two men, one from America and one from Japan, an event that lasted several hours (it starts in the daytime and continues until nightfall). Riefenstahl makes use of many external details of the games, most of which not essential to the documentary and its purpose, but that much more all-encompassing without being ponderous. Several crowd-shots are used during unlikely throws or jumps by male and female competitors (the latter generating considerable interest for Riefenstahl and her crew); at one point, we even see the disgusted expression of Adolf Hitler, who watches Germany's dismal performance in a track and field event along with thousands of others.
Olympia Part One opens with a montage of famous and localized ivory sculptures being ogled, so to speak, by Riefenstahl's camera as she admires their embodiment of heroism and strength while also highlighting the curvatures of their form. Instances like this show how seriously the then-34-year-old directress took her work, so much so that she decided to experiment even further, by implementing tracking shots and off-kilter camera-perspectives. Consider the concluding marathon, which takes up the last twenty minutes of part one. Riefenstahl had cameras securely attached to straps that went around the necks of runners, so their feet would be filmed as they ran, allowing for a never-before-seen look at the most vital body-part in a marathon. Furthermore, the extended sequence employs multiple cameras at various heights and angles while showing runners engaging with one another, stopping to hydrate themselves, and simply running.
Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations is a real delight in both a film and a historical sense. Riefenstahl's connections with Nazi Germany cannot be disputed but neither can her craft or her eye for pristine visual beauty. The depth of Olympia doesn't stop at how she chooses to capture the events nor does it cease at the outcome of any particular game, for it extends beyond what each person brings to the game when watching it, something like what each Olympian does when participating. It's a romantic notion, sure, and an especially lofty one to bring to a documentary as linear yet layered as this one, but given what Riefenstahl has created, it's one that's absolutely warranted.
Directed by: Leni Riefenstahl.