Olympia Review

Image for Olympia

Divided into two parts - Festival of the People and Festival of Beauty - this epic record of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games attempts to combine sporting reportage with a celebration of physical beauty and the spectacle involved in this uniquely unifying event.


It's still disputed exactly who commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to produce this account of the 1936 Olympiad or who provided the funding. The debate will also continue as to whether this is a exceptional documentary or a piece of pernicious propaganda. What's clear is that it would not be open to such conjecture had it been made by a Soviet icon like Eisenstein or, rather, had it not been made by the director of Triumph Of The Will.

If it's nothing else, Olympia is an object lesson in the making of a motion picture. In collaboration with production designer Walter Traut and cinematographers Walter Frentz and Hans Ertl, Riefenstahl spent months analysising film stock in varying lighting conditions and attending sports meets to ascertain the optimum angle, distance and exposure required to capture the aestheticism and athleticism of the different events.  

Circumventing restrictions imposed by the International Olympic Committee, she made pioneering use of telephoto lenses and occasionally restaged action to secure the exact image she required (e.g. strapping Kinamo cameras to training marathon runners to gain a subjective insight into the race's gruelling nature). But Riefenstahl retained a fierce independence throughout the entire process, resisting in particular the envious snipes of Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels.  

Having worked tirelessly during the 16 days of competition, personally supervising the crews whenever possible, Riefenstahl spent the next 18 months editing the 1,300,000 feet of footage down to 18,000 feet. She also travelled to Greece to oversee Willy Zielke's prologue.  

Dividing the two parts into 13 and 11 segments respectively, she gave the opening ceremony a mythical feel and turned the climactic diving sequence into a magisterial study of human poetry in motion. She also risked Nazi ire by emphasising the victories of African-Americans Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalf, and regardless of the critical fraternity's mixed response, the IOC was suitably impressed by her homage to the Olympic spirit to make her an honoured guest at subsequent Games.  

 Inevitably reflecting the time and place of its making, this is a remarkable personal vision and it remains the finest example of documentary film art.