Film review: Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” – impure politics, pure cinema


Olympia Part 2: Festival of Beauty. (Internet archive)

Turner Classic Movies erases a work of genius and film history.

The The 2021 Olympics will come to an end this weekend in Japan, but the censorship behind the parallel series of Olympics films on Turner Classic Movies will have detrimental consequences. Instead of celebrating athletics, international camaraderie, and free speech, TCM has given cinematic a hammerlock by making the greatest of all Olympic films, the 1939 Olympia, by Leni Riefenstahl.

Who doesn’t know Olympia can be seen as uncultivated, disadvantaged. Advocacy media routinely point out dubious “breakthroughs” by race and gender, but here’s a case of wiping out a woman who has recorded and literally made history. Riefenstahl is notorious because Hitler commissioned her to make a documentary about the 1934 NSDAP Congress, which led to the notorious propaganda film triumph of will (1935), irritated by many, but seen by a few. Even war of stars a tribute to triumph‘s incomparable visual pattern.

Riefenstahl and her team of photographers set out to capture perfect angles for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, with the result that the athletes look amazingly contemporary almost a century later. TCM missed the opportunity to clarify how Riefenstahl emphasized universal athletics (which, ironically, was formerly called “brotherhood”). In Olympia, Riefenstahl found the greatest potential of cinema in such awe-inspiring images as hundreds of female athletes training epically with Indian clubs.

The three hours Olympia, its two parts, known as the “Festival of Nations” and “Festival of Beauty”, include games from water games, sailing, gymnastics, fencing and pentathlon, to field sports and the record-breaking command of black American Jesse Owens who dominated the 100-meter race, the long jump, the 200-meter race, then the 4 × 100 relay (events recently well dramatized in the 2016 film Race, in which Stephan James Owens portrays and Carice van Houten Riefenstahl embodies). But TCM, recently lauded by Martin Scorsese as our national curators, has not bothered to explain the black censorship of this groundbreaking work, impressionistic, narrative document.

By suppressing film history, TCM curates dishonestly – perhaps to avoid controversy, but ultimately to limit the education of its audience. (One hideous website specifically forbade including Riefenstahl on a list of female directors.)

In Pauline Kael’s critical analysis, Riefenstahl has “proven to be one of around a dozen creative geniuses who have ever worked with the medium of film”.

It is likely that the TCM Riefenstahls Olympia from his Olympia series to remove people from questionable politics and to remind them of the quarrel in classical music over Richard Wagner – but this time without the debate. On visual evidence Olympia should arouse the squeamish, uninformed and intolerant. His crowded stadium shots present us with the contemporary mystery of how crowds of friendly people later turn into opposition – the spirit of brotherhood that politics is currently perverting.

Riefenstahl’s pure aestheticism shames this era in which progressive filmmakers are not even aesthetes.

***

Before there was TCM, Olympia was part of the regular film repertoire. When I moved to New York, I hurried to see it performed in an avant-garde performance space called The Squat in the Chelsea Hotel; the venue smelt, but I was determined to finally see this iconic movie. Riefenstahl’s images were so powerful that they raise our perception above politics. Her poetic opening transition from a hopping Colombian to a hopping kangaroo embodies her understanding of physical strength and dexterity. She praised the American Glenn Morris as well as Owens. French and Swiss flags hoist impartially for the cycling victories. Her climax dive montage is lyrical, insane, glorious. She achieves an admirable blend of shared humanity – or, as Kael put it, “those young men who so soon killed each other”. Riefenstahl captured the skills, gifts and talents that war wiped out.

The Squat (run by Hungarian immigrants who were once banned in Europe because of “political and aesthetic radicalism”) courageously presented radical standpoints without authoritarian anti-art, anti-humanist restrictions and understood that Riefenstahl’s film was as sensual as it was apolitical, his Message more erotic than rhetorical. Her understanding of slow motion – the suspension of movement for deeper visual perception, especially in the gymnastics bar sequence and the ring exhibition, which ranges from a European to an Asian expert – is the first real technical advance in cinema since DW Griffith made the crosscut invented. (The summery images – accompanied by Herbert Windt’s rousing music – remind me of the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which is thought of in Hollywood’s crazy comedy Million dollar legs – another film excluded TCM.)

Part of Riefenstahl’s crazy genius was to create these achievements against an ecstatic backdrop of an infinite, cloud-covered sky. The arched bodies appear to be flying freely, like birds. All athletes and waving flags are thus blessed. Your wind-sail sequence certainly inspired the 1992 film wind, by Carroll Ballard (The black stallion) that couldn’t beat it.

Riefenstahl’s Olympic cavalcade welcomes the height of human diversity – the merging of tribes and cultures for universality, not the differences in the idiotic phrase “Our diversity is our strength”. It is clear that she hardly cares about race or nationality, and that should be part of her reputation.

We could overcome the ignorance of TCM by acknowledging Olympiathe size, but that would mean dealing with the demands of art over politics – complexities that triumph of will and The birth of a nation undeniably impressive despite the backlash on their politics. Only dishonest film critics deny Griffith and Riefenstahl’s artistry. Unclean political criticism offends pure cinema and turns the film repertoire into centers of group-thinking philistines.

It is the act of Riefenstahl’s exclusion that defiles TCM. Instead of leaving film culture to the censors of TCM, we would all benefit if Chloé Zhao, Kathryn Bigelow, Kelly Reichardt, Sofia Coppola, Oliver Stone, Zack Snyder, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese defended Leni Riefenstahl. Is TCM afraid of the demolition culture mob because Riefenstahl’s cinematic aesthetic threatens to free us from political correctness?

Armond White, a cultural critic, writes about films for National review and is the author of New position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available from Amazon.



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