Book Review: Olympia (BFI Film Classics)

The BFI Film Classics range played a formative part of my film education upon their arrival in the early nineties. Here was a series of monographs devoted to some of the greatest cinematic works of all time being published just as I was beginning to sample them. One week I’d be watching 42nd Street thanks to a Saturday afternoon screening on the BBC, the next I’d be reading a hundred or so pages thanks to the pen of J. Hoberman. And the authors were important too. Simon Louvish’s book on It’s a Gift would lead me to those he’d written on the great comedians of the silent era and the thirties, whilst Edward Buscombe’s Stagecoach monograph did exactly the same for his various Western-devoted tomes. In the years since the format has mutated so as to take in modern classics and television too. It’s also become slightly more erratic in its publishing method; no longer do we have a quartet of titles arriving in bi-annual blocks, but rather more haphazard appearances. Consequently I tend to be more selective with my purchases these days, yet during those first few years I must have devoured every entry in the series.

A particular approach to writing a BFI Film Classic has never been set in stone. Each entry into the series presents its own take on the title question. Which is hardly surprising, of course, given that each of those titles comes with its own qualities, backstory and legacy: Rocco and His Brothers is different from The Wizard of Oz is different from Night Mail and so on… Furthermore, the choice of authors has been such that uniformity is practically impossible. Alongside the critics and academics the range has also found room for artists (Ian Breakwell on An Actor’s Revenge), an MP (Gerald Kaufman on Meet Me in St. Louis), fellow filmmakers (Nelly Kaplan on Napoléon) and writers who refuse to be categorised (Gary Indiana on Salò). In the face of such eclecticism it’s been practically impossible to pick a favourite and yet, for me, one particular title has always stood out. First published in 1992, amongst the second batch of releases, was Taylor Downing’s volume on Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Here was a combination that worked wonders: focussing on this most famous (and notorious) of sporting documentaries was a man who had himself captured two Olympic Games on film. Not only did he fully understand the territory, but he also had that fascinating story of its making - with Adolf Hitler playing a prominent role - to delve into.

Olympia was the official film of the 1936 Berlin Games, although it didn’t premiere until almost two years after the closing ceremony. It was a record of a sporting event that went beyond mere newsreel reportage but rather considered itself art. Yet owing to Germany’s National Socialist rule it was also an epic piece of propaganda designed as much to promote Hitler and his party as it was the achievements of the medallists. What we have then is a problematic work, one that (much like Riefenstahl’s earlier record of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, Triumph of the Will) ties together pure cinema and politics. To muddy the waters Riefenstahl always played the innocent in the post-war years, claiming she was unaware of any such dimensions and was working solely as an artist. Downing’s job is as much to unpack to complex relationship between Olympia and its party sponsors as it is to examine the many qualities.

Understandably, Olympia the book has to encompass a number of approaches. Downing begins by providing a potted history of the Olympics on the big screen in the run-up to 1936. Before they became “the biggest show on television”, the Games were captured via newsreels and actualities. It was only in 1924, at both that year’s Summer and Winter Olympics, that feature-length efforts were produced. According to Downing the results were nothing much to speak and neither was the 1928 film record despite its editing being overseen by Walter Ruttmann (the director of Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grosstadt). Interestingly, we also learn that there was only a cursory presence of cameramen at the 1932 games - and this despite them being held in Los Angeles! Thus Riefenstahl had no template for her own film and no precedent to live up to - a blank slate, if you will, on which to create whatever she wished.

Before discussing this creation, Downing fills us in on Riefenstahl’s background as a dancer and star of the ‘Mountain Film’ (which the author relates as Germany’s equivalent of the Western). The biographical detail is both fascinating and necessary. Given Riefenstahl’s desire to reinvent herself in the post-war years, she is something of a slippery character. It has only been since around the time of her death in 2003 that we’ve seen publication of two biographies which attempt to correct her various claims. Indeed, it is these which have proven invaluable to Downing in correcting and updating this second edition. When relating the director’s early years in the industry and her growing friendship/relationship with Hitler he is forever at pains to question the validity of such claims, especially if they come from Riefenstahl herself. Furthermore such details are not there in order to satisfy some kind of need for salacious gossip. The relationship between filmmaker and Fuhrer, indeed the Nazi party as a whole, is an essential component of her work and would prove impossible to ignore.

Having laid down the groundwork Downing is free to relate the complexities of Olympia’s making. Of course the politics loom large - endorsement from Hitler, interference from Goebbels - as too does a heavy dose of misogyny. Many of Germany’s leading cameramen staged an unofficial boycott, refusing to work a woman and thus leaving Riefenstahl to employ a number of more experimentally inclined filmmakers. We learn, for example, that a camera adopted for the 1992 Olympic coverage which could simultaneously above and below water had been superseded by 56 years. We also learn that Riefenstahl made a number of “Olympic preparation films” in which to test various potential techniques and devices. There were even experiments with various colour processes. Most interesting is the revelation that many of the director’s ideas rarely considered the effects on the athletes themselves. A spring-loaded, and extremely noisy, contraption was designed to capture the 100m, for example, whilst it was also suggested that the track be dug up in certain places in order to ensure optimum vantage points for the various cameras. Unsurprisingly, the Olympic Committee rejected many of these ideas.

What such revelations show is a massively determined filmmaker only concerned about her own creation. Needless to say, this also produced some conflict with the other powers-that-be, i.e. the Nazi party. Downing shows us how, on a number of occasions, Riefenstahl used the film as a means of self-promotion - in fact, she even commissioned her own ‘making of’ short years before they become the norm. Moreover, she also went against some of Hitler’s wishes, as in the inclusion of Jesse Owens in the final cut. This clearly was an independent woman, which of course only muddies further the propagandist elements. Olympia is neither a piece of pure endorsement for Hitler and his party, nor is it an entirely apolitical work. Indeed, the very fact that Riefenstahl prepared a ’de-Nazified’ cut in 1958 attests to that.

Pleasingly Downing is reluctant to err on either side when it comes to his close analysis. He knows his Olympic coverage and is able to point out how, for example, any heavy endorsement of Germany is arguably no different from the manner in which the US promoted itself incessantly during the 1984 Los Angeles Games or the 1996 Atlanta Games. Similarly, if he thinks a particular event or sequence is badly handled then he’ll say as much - and, again, he’s the man to know about such things. Riefenstahl had no qualms about incorporating non-competitive footage into her final cut and was happy to re-stage the pole vault final the day after the actual event or to incorporate test footage into the sailing material. Downing isn’t blind to the artificiality and makes it known. With that said, such opinion is also tempered by his own experience; as he states in his introduction - “Nothing goes as planned. Everything changes.”

The disapproval is rare, however, and there’s some excellent analysis of why certain sequences do work so well. The marathon which closes part one is treated as its own mini-movie and broken down moment-by-moment. Here Riefenstahl would distance herself from conventional footage and head into more impressionistic territory, but the effect is the thing and there she undoubtedly succeeded. On the other hand she also knew when to keep it simple: the 1500m men’s final was presented in a single unbroken take, the competition itself providing all the necessary drama. Downing’s descriptions do an excellent job of both reminding the reader of these various key moments and providing sufficient detail for those who have yet to see Olympia. Given the difficulty in obtaining the film, or at least in a proper form, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are quite a few in this situation.

Hopefully the situation should change shortly. As Downing informs us in his new preface the International Olympic Committee has set about restoring its various filmed records (i.e., not just those from the 1936 Games) in the archives. The complicated rights issues that has arguably kept Olympia from a wider audience have now been resolved and so it should re-appear sometime soon. The restoration has also had the added effect of allowing Downing to compare the original version with that of the differing European cuts, noting alternate emphasise or instances where footage was cut (the staged prologue involving the nude dancers encountered prudish censors in some territories), trimmed or excised altogether. As with the additional “colour and detail” allowed for by those new Riefenstahl biographies, such instances have allowed the author to make this new edition just that little bit more definitive. Indeed, it’s hard to think of what more a reader would want without straying too far from the film in hand. This is as thorough and detailed an account of a classic as you could hope for.

The second edition of Olympia was published on the 13th of February and can be purchased from the usual retailers.

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