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.
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.