“Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #17: Olympia (1938, Riefenstahl)

November 14, 2011 — 5 Comments

Honestly, I don’t have much at all to say about this film, so I’ll keep it relatively brief. Watching Olympia I could see the talent behind the camera. Leni Riefenstahl, lover her or hate her, knew what she was doing. Olympia is impressive on two technical fronts. The first is in how much it resembles modern sports coverage, which is remarkable because this film covers the Olympics of 1936! The second is that in may of the events, Riefenstahl forgoes standard sports highlight coverage in favour of showing off the human form and the beautiful feats it is capable of accomplishing. These sequences are definitely quite beautiful to watch, in particular the diving sequence at the very end of the three and a half hour, two-part film.

But honestly, as well made as it is, it’s basically three and a half hours of Olympic highlights made for those who wanted to re-live the games or who couldn’t catch them on a television set. Just as I wouldn’t care to pick up a set of highlight footage from a modern Olympics, I don’t really care all that much to see the highlights of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad. There are a couple cool notes, like the fact that Canada won some medals, and that the US and Germany won lots of medals, and that Hitler got really excited during some of the track events. But other than that, it was kind of just like watching two weeks of Olympics coverage condensed down to under four hours, with only some of the beauty left over and none of the suspense.

The last note is about the context of the film. Riefenstahl, no matter how much she claimed otherwise, was a part of the Nazi machine. Without understanding the historical context, Olympia is a fairly simple highlight reel that gives more than its fair share of time to covering the other countries competing, especially the US. But within a historical context, Olympia is a film with a mission that was made within the Nazi propaganda apparatus and was used at the time to show off the glory and “peacefulness” of a Germany under the Third Reich. Leni Riefenstahl would have been aware of this, and this is extremely troubling. While it isn’t as inherently despicable as her clear propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, and while it can be viewed as a perfectly okay movie to watch without that context, I do still think it’s important to note.


5 responses to “Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #17: Olympia (1938, Riefenstahl)


    While they did broadcast the Olympics in 1936 in Germany, it wasn’t broadcasted worldwide until the 1960s so for many around the world this might have been the only way to get a good general overview of the games.

    I think there’s a lot of fantastic editing and camerawork in this film. It sports the first underwater shot in a film and I think it also pretty much defined how the Olympics are shot. You can even see the camera setups in some shots and there in the exact same places you’d see a camera at a Olympics event today.

    I really like the flow and pacing of this film and a lot of sections of this film were infectious and suspenseful to me. Perhaps just my own personal experience.


      Yeah, everything you say is spot on. It’s just the issue of my interest in what was going on from moment to moment that I had trouble with. I just didn’t care. And I’m a guy who watches the Olympics religiously.


    It’s an interesting film. It is, like it or not, propaganda for the Reich, but it’s also in many ways some of the first modern sports coverage. For good or ill, Riefenstahl changed the way athletics are filmed and viewed.

    Riefenstahl was essentially a brilliant filmmaker who used her abilities for ill. Makes her difficult to watch, but no less interesting.


    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Leni Riefenstahl Wednesday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Leni Riefenstahl Wedneday – Watch: ‘Olympia’ (1938) | Seminal Cinema Outfit - April 17, 2014

    […] the coordination of the human body, a marble statue hotly breathing.” An excerpt from the review at Just A Tad: “But honestly, as well made as it is, it’s basically three and a half hours […]

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