Downing, Taylor. Olympia. London: BFI Publishing, 1992.
The chapter “Aftermath” in Taylor Downing’s examination of Olympia describes the reception of the film and its post-release history. Initially the film received generally positive reviews, but as Germany became more threatening, Riefenstahl and the film became less popular, resulting in a boycott of the film in the United States. For the rest of her life, Riefenstahl would have trouble clearing her reputation for her involvement with the Nazi party. The film stands as a major artistic achievement, however, and the author notes its influence on films about future Olympics, although competition with television coverage of the games made a cinematic masterpiece such as Olympia more difficult. Downing argues that Olympia beautifully captured the spirit of the Olympics, and Riefenstahl’s use of retakes in the film aid its artistic vision if they decrease its level of journalism.
The chapter concludes by grappling with the film’s propaganda question. Downing notes that the Berlin Olympics themselves were designed as propaganda to promote Germany as a friendly, peace-loving nation, and hence the Nazi party invested in Riefenstahl’s production to display their propaganda to the world. The author affirms Riefenstahl’s artistic independence during the production, however, and concludes the film is not intentionally propagandistic. Nevertheless, he maintains the film is still political since it was set up for political reasons and documents a political event, but he argues this fact does not and should not detract from its artistic merit.
Large, David Clay. Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
The chapter “Olympia” in David Clay Large’s book on the 1936 Olympics provides a succinct history of the film. It notably refutes some of the claims made by Riefenstahl regarding her independence from the Nazi party in the making of the film. While Riefenstahl claims the film was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee and funded by a firm called Tobis Films, the author contends it was commissioned by the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and financed by the party. Furthermore, while Riefenstahl claims that Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, was at odds with her, Large asserts that he tolerated her despite his preference for a different director to make the film, although he acknowledges that Goebbels did cause some problems for Riefenstahl such as when he audited her company. The chapter then discusses some of the technical innovations of the film and some of the difficulties the crew encountered during filming, and finally finishes by describing the mixed critical reception Riefenstahl received internationally.
The chapter also devotes some time to discussing the film’s propaganda value. Large argues the film, even the German version, was not explicitly partisan in any particular way. The film gives no sense that the Germany was the winning team, and it includes some of the nation’s defeats as well, although the Ministry of Propaganda did mandate fair reporting of the games. On the other hand, while the author notes that the black Jesse Owens was portrayed very favorably, other black athletes did not receive as much screen time as they probably deserved. Furthermore, many of the most dramatic moments are of German athletes, and some events featured disproportionately more footage of Germany and her allies Japan and Italy. Additionally, the German version contained more shots of Hitler and swastikas and placed a greater emphasis on the games as a national battle. And finally, the film’s glorification of physical perfection and the communitarian togetherness depicted in the Olympic Village are reminiscent of Nazi values. The author concludes by suggesting the film’s late release lessened its political potential as propaganda to foreigners, however, since by then Germany was well into its path of aggression, undermining any sense of international good will the film could evoke.
Masumoto, Naofumi. “Interpretations of the Filmed Body: An Analysis of the Japanese Version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia.” Critical Reflections on Olympic Ideology. Centre for Olympic Studies, 1994. 146-158. 31 Mar. 2008 <http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/ISOR/ISOR1994t.pdf>.
This article analyzes the Japanese version of Olympia and explores its relationship to contemporary Olympic events. While it touches on a wide variety of questions such as the film’s political implications, its focus is on the aestheticization of the human body, particularly of the strong and victorious. It suggests that Olympia was not so much a document of the 1936 Olympics as it was a unified body of art. While the article acknowledges the historical context of the film and its influence, it affirms Riefenstahl’s commitment to producing an artistically free and independent picture. For example, it notes that Riefenstahl beautified the bodies of not just Aryan athletes, but also blacks and Asians, against the wishes of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Additionally, it argues that Riefenstahl’s use of retakes and overdubs serves to discredit the film as a historical documentary but instead supports it as an artistically united statement. It connects the film to today’s Olympics by contrasting its emphasis on beauty with mass commercialization yet also notes the film represents universal and unchanging Olympic ideals.
The article raises several points in the question of the extent that Olympia is propagandistic. Aside from noting the film’s beautification of the human body irrespective of race, the article suggests the film was not propaganda in and of itself, but rather a record of a propagandistic event. On the other hand, the article also spends some time on the introductory sequence in which an Olympic torch is carried from Greece to Berlin, suggesting the Germans as the true descendents of the culturally advanced Greeks. Additionally, it argues that the film’s depiction of Hitler as a typical sports spectator humanized him and was inherently positive.
Riefenstahl, Leni. Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
The chapter “Problems and Worries” in Leni Riefenstahl’s memoirs describes the harassment she received from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, during the making of Olympia. Goebbels requested that she include less footage of “niggers” in the film and that she dismiss her press chief because of his marriage to a “non-Aryan” wife. Riefenstahl ignored both demands, and Goebbels resultantly cut off her funding in an effort to take over production of the film. She appealed to Hitler, giving him a police report indicating the Ministry of Propaganda had previously had members of her staff arrested. Her work was then removed from the auspices of the Ministry of Propaganda and placed under Rudolf Hess, which, to Riefenstahl’s delight, ended any harassment and interference during the film’s production.
This chapter is significant to the question of Olympia as propaganda because it supports Riefenstahl’s claim that her work was not propaganda. Riefenstahl’s account describes her work as not an instrument of the Ministry of Propaganda, but rather a nuisance. She refused to bow to Goebbels’s demands that would have incorporated propagandistic elements into the film. When her film was removed from the Ministry’s authority, she noted that she felt liberated, suggesting that her film should be understood as artistically free and without political influence.
Rings, Guido. “Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia: A Documentary Film as Instrument of Propaganda?” Storia della Storiografia 36 (1999): 105-119.
This article examines the question of Olympia as a propaganda film and largely concludes that it is indeed propaganda. Much of its argument is derived by drawing parallels between the aesthetics of Olympia and the ideals espoused by National Socialism. The author argues that in its depiction of the athletes the film glorifies the strong, healthy, and young and celebrates physical perfection, creating a cult of the idealized body that Nazism champions. The sacrifice of the individual for the better of the community, epitomized in the marathon sequence as the runners visibly suffer for their nations’ glory, is also a key part of Nazi ideology conveyed in the film. The author notes a militarist tone that celebrates discipline and unity over individuality throughout the film, especially during the parade and calisthenics sequences. The article concludes by pointing out that although the film may not have explicitly been intended as propaganda, the fact that there existed propagandistic overtones meant German audiences, who were accustomed to such ideas being conveyed in their media, would make the political connections suggested by the film.
Other points relevant to this debate that the author mentions include, as other scholars have noted, that the shots of Hitler depict him as an average, relatable person, and he suggests that these shots are intercut with segments in which Germany is winning, thereby linking Hitler with the success of the nation. While other scholars have praised Olympia for its seemingly fair treatment of the black athletes, Rings takes issue with the fact that they only appear on the podium as winners once, despite winning numerous times. Overall the article takes a less forgiving stance towards the film, and its assessment of the political connotations of Olympia’s aesthetics is quite useful. However, the author sometimes quotes German sources without providing an English translation, which can make a full comprehension difficult.
Rother, Rainer. Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius. London: Continuum, 2002.
Rainer Rother’s analysis of Olympia in the chapter “The Political Significance of an ‘Unpolitical’ Film” looks at the ways the film conveys a political message. Rother reasons that the film is unsettling because it was supported by the Nazi party, presumably because of its propaganda value, yet it does not contain explicit pro-Nazi material. He notes the Berlin Olympics themselves were largely ideologically motivated and considers some of the ways the film builds upon that ideology. The beginning of the film is perhaps the most explicitly political in its homage to Nazi Germany and Hitler, especially during the highly nationalistic opening ceremonies. Additionally, the commentary and reaction shots of the patriotic audiences emphasize a battle between races and nations. Still, the fact that Hitler appears in the film even when the Germans don’t win conveys a certain respect for other nations’ achievements.
The chapter is directly relevant to the debate on the question of the propaganda value of the film. The author concludes that the film is largely non-ideological, but notes certain ways in that it communicates political messages. The film’s emphasis on nationalism is the theme most clearly in line with Nazi ideology.
Hinton, David B. The Films of Leni Riefenstahl. Filmmakers Series, No. 74. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000.
David B. Hinton provides a succinct history and analysis of Olympia in his chapter of the same title in his collection of works on Riefenstahl’s films. He holds it to be the first truly successful film about the Olympics, having been a massive undertaking that captured the spirit and beauty of the games in ways that previous newsreel footage could not. He praises the prologue of the film, set in the Greece, which connects the games to their ancient roots and implies the unchanging nature of beauty. He spends some time detailing the meticulous preparations Riefenstahl made for shooting the film such as devising innovative camera techniques that influenced how sports would be shot from then on. He goes on to describe Riefenstahl’s perfectionist quality, as she controlled every aspect of production to the minutest detail. The end result of her toils was that the film did not just record the games but rather illustrated the essence of each event, such as the physical strain of the marathon and the beauty of the divers.
The chapter discusses some of the accusations of propaganda leveled against the film but discredits most of them. Hinton notes that Riefenstahl’s use of retakes made the film less of a historical documentary but more of an artistic vision, which could potentially aid any propaganda aims. Still, he rejects the presence of Hitler in the film as evidence of propaganda because his appearance is brief and unspectacular. Furthermore, Riefenstahl’s choice to give the black Jesse Owens significant credit for his athletic accomplishments instead of downplaying them undercuts any support for racist Nazi ideology. The Germans are not portrayed as a “master race,” but rather internationalism is honored, as the Olympic flag is the dominant symbol, not the swastika. Some critics have contended that the glorification of competitiveness and strength reflects fascist ideals, but Hinton argues that this is an inherent quality of the Olympics themselves and not the film.
Mandell, Richard D. The Nazi Olympics. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971.
Richard D. Mandell’s work on the 1936 Olympics provides a notably positive overview of Olympia in his chapter “The Olympics Preserved.” The chapter begins with background information about Riefenstahl, her career, and her close relationship with Hitler. Mandell then turns to the film itself and notes its technical achievements in areas such as editing and its use of zoom lenses and slow motion, which ultimately contributed to a dramatic cinematic experience that was unprecedented in sports film. Mandell likens Riefenstahl in the editing process of the film to composing a masterpiece more than a documentary film. He then spends some time analyzing particular scenes to reveal their drama and beauty, but notes that the second part of the film, “Festival of Beauty,” is less successful than the first because it is more disjointed and varied. The chapter ends with a discussion of Riefenstahl’s disgrace after World War II for her associations with the Nazi party, a fate the author considers lamentable given her artistic genius.
Mandell’s appraisal of Olympia is mostly positive, and he considers the film to be largely non-political and lacking in propagandistic content. He points out the prominence of black and Asian athletes in the film as evidence of the film’s disassociation with racist Nazi beliefs. He acknowledges that the mass exercise scene is reminiscent of the grand and awe-inspiring shots of Triumph of the Will, but contends that it is nonpolitical and only meant to convey beauty. Mandell does admit, however, that the film does capture the Nazis’ promotion of nationalism through the games’ intense communal competitiveness.
Graham, Cooper C. Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. Filmmakers Series, No. 13. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1986.
Cooper C. Graham’s text on Olympia is one of the most in-depth and thoughtful on the subject. In its concluding chapter, it provides an insightful and articulate investigation of the film as a piece of National Socialist propaganda. Graham’s main argument lies in the claim that Olympia can qualify as propaganda without being a politically motivated project if it encompasses what he terms “sociological propaganda.” He notes that such propaganda does not have to be intentionally constructed to permeate certain ideologies or beliefs, and in this sense Olympia does promote views in support of the Nazi party. Graham argues that in the 1930s, the Nazi party was attempting to mold the image of Germany as a peaceful and liberal nation, in direct contrast to its true aspirations, and saw the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a unique opportunity to further this public relations campaign. The party took measures to ensure the competing nations were treated well in the press to create an aura of fairness, and in the same manner Olympia fulfills this goal with its apparently evenhanded depiction of the games. Hence Olympia did not need to promote racist Nazi ideals or glorify Aryan athletes to be propagandistic; in fact, not doing so made the film seem more credible and effective. The film is propaganda because of the deceptive image it gives to Germany, that of a happy, benevolent, and just society, an image the Nazi party was eager to promote.
Graham raises several other points relevant to the question of the film as propaganda. He notes the Nazi party financed and was heavily involved in the production of the film. The shots of Hitler also humanized him by portraying him as a friendly, average sports fan. Additionally, he explains that the existence of the film itself served as a symbol of German technological and intellectual achievement. While the film’s most significant element of propaganda lay in its apparent fairness, Graham contends that some portions of the film were subtly skewed towards a pro-German stance through dramatic shots that emphasized German athletes and victories, especially in the German version of the film.
Schneider, Robert C., and William F. Stier. “Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympia’: Brilliant Cinematography or Nazi Propaganda?” The Sport Journal 4.4 (Fall 2001). 31 Mar. 2008 <http://www.thesportjournal.org/article/leni-riefenstahls-olympia-brilliant-cinematography-or-nazi-propaganda>.
This article provides an overview of the debate about whether Olympia qualifies as a Nazi propaganda film. It presents many of the arguments’ pros and cons, and the authors ultimately side with the belief that the film did contribute to the Nazi movement, though in subtle ways. They reject the claim that Riefenstahl, and by extension her film, was removed from Nazi politics because of her professional talent and political skills that provided her with connections to the Nazi party. The authors acknowledge that it is difficult to prove that Olympia was produced with the intent of serving as propaganda, but they maintain that the film functions as propaganda anyway, largely because it portrays Germany in a kind and positive light, even if it does not attempt to indoctrinate its viewers with Nazi principles. One of the ways it does this is by portraying the athletes of other nations positively, hence harboring good will towards the seemingly fair host nation, Germany. Additionally, the fact that Olympia’s finances were controlled by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, lends support to the argument that the film served certain propagandistic purposes. On the flip side, the seemingly unbiased depiction of the multinational athletes lends credence to the argument that the film is not propaganda. Riefenstahl even resisted pressure from Goebbels to modify the film to endorse Nazi beliefs. After acknowledging both sides of the debate, the article concludes with more support for the argument that the film is propagandistic.
The article is directly relevant to the film Olympia and the question of whether it is a Nazi propaganda film. While the article is not as in-depth as some other sources on the topic, such as Cooper C. Graham’s work on the film, it does provide a succinct overview of the debate and several of its key points.