September 11, 2014 Leave a comment
First, apologies for my disappearance. I’ve been reviewing films but just not getting them posted…I’ll try to get caught up.
I’m pretty sure the internet has ruined the Olympics. Watching this two hour summary broadcast of the 1936 Olympics it is kind of surprising how much is packed in, but yet with how much detail. Yes, theoretically a lot of non-competitors are cut out and yes, sometimes the events are sliced up enough that you don’t retain a great handle on what is going on (though part of the blame for this is the lack of fancy graphic technology). But the thing that has ruined the Olympics is how accessible results are. Even though this particular Olympiad is almost 80 years old, I didn’t know the outcomes so often the events were actually pretty gripping in how they were presented. Admittedly this production only captures the classical track and field events, not the mass of additional sports that have been added to the tally, but there is something nice about having everything in a tight package. Modern Olympiads are scattered to the wind of a dozen cable channels at all hours of the day. Even if you try to watch the more cultivated tape-delayed prime-time displays it is a painful slog of commercials and puff pieces. Riefenstahl cuts to the heart of the matter and it is surprisingly satisfactory…if you combined that efficiency with modern graphics and a touch more space for context or coherence and it would be a much more satisfactory way to get back to that natural element of sport, especially national competition, that makes the Olympics such an alluring concept every two years (until the aforementioned spoiling, commercials and excess ruins it).
But this is a film, not a sports broadcast. In this respect it has two primary attributes, both tied to its placement within Nazi Germany. For example, the opening ceremony’s entry of countries, typically so dreadful starts to feel pretty creepy, not just when the overtly fascist countries walk by with full Nazi salute, but even the other countries. There’s just something about a military-style parade that gives me an odd feeling. Probably my favorite thing in this part is watching Hitler watch, and react, to the Games. The behavior is common enough, excitement at victory for his country, disappointment with defeat, but everything is different when you’re Hitler.
Ultimately more substantial is the place of race. Certain overt, and frankly unnecessary to anyone with eyes, callouts of race in the commentary definitely place it in a different time or culture, but the film itself is quite honest in showing how much Jesse Owens and the other black athletes kicked butt. Released two years after the Olympics, I suppose Germans had gotten over the performance at that part, but there is a surprising honesty about it. Instead of showcasing a master race, it perhaps unintentionally helps mark a symbolic turning point, a loss of dominance coming from a breaking of the controls that allowed white people to paint themselves as superior. Still, moving back into the film’s unintentional humor, perhaps the best moment on race is after Owens sets a World Record in the 100 meter dash only for it to be discounted because he had a wind at his back. Typical of the white man to come up with a bullshit excuse to deny recognizing the achievements of a minority (though Owens did get the gold if not the record).
If any part of this film (or films, if one insists) that could perhaps be claimed as tilting toward propaganda in promotion of the aryan race, it is the opening of this film and its female gaze appreciation of a pristine assemblage of sporting men, having completed running, in a state of undress. This also is one of only a few places in this part that really feels like it justifies separation and a title indicating a focus on beauty. For the bulk of this second part, it feels like more of the same, though now with those sports that mostly fall outside the track and field context. A few of them, like gymnastics and diving are perhaps more aesthetic competitions but ultimately I feel like the divide is minimal. There does seem to be a more abstract approach to the coverage of many of the events so as sports broadcast it is less effective.
The tricky thing about the artistry of Olympia is that it is hard to appreciate revolutionary technique decades later when the revolutionary has been adopted as the mundane. With a lot of research I could get an exact sense of what is revolutionary about it, but I wouldn’t really feel it. There were more moments in this part that were bold enough to break through this and stand out and ultimately I can see why someone with a more scholarly and technical approach to cinema would value this film particularly highly. But in terms of the narratives of the games that stood out in the first part, this one seemed a lot less interesting and it started feeling a bit long in the tooth. I certainly don’t see much in the film (in this version, apparently early versions in Germany did cut a lot of the Owens stuff) to feel the need to write it off as technical craft in service of something terrible, like Birth of a Nation or, apparently, Triumph of the Will. On the whole I’d say a decent time was had, even though I wouldn’t see myself revisiting it or claiming it as a favorite.