Going for the gold in mind control

With the 2012 Summer Olympics kicking off in London, I‘ve been thinking about the Olympics and film. The 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin come to mind immediately. These games were the subject of the 1938 film Olympia, produced at the height of the ascendancy of Germany’s National Socialist Party, the Nazis.

During a 1934 rally in Nuremberg, Nazi party members had anointed Adolf Hitler their Führer—not only their party’s leader, but Germany’s “savior.” Hitler’s interest in making Olympia is part of Germany’s fascinating pre-World War II film history. From the outset, powerful Nazi officials viewed the motion picture as an effective propaganda tool, as well as a potentially dangerous form of artistic expression that had to be controlled by the government.

Propaganda machine

Hitler was a fan and daily consumer of movies. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, whom Hitler named minister of propaganda in 1934, shared his fascination with the moving picture. Goebbels was a filmmaker groupie who enjoyed hobnobbing and socializing with screen celebrities. Quentin Tarantino tapped into that well-known aspect of Goebbels’ persona in his 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds. Goebbels, along with Hitler and other government officials, is seen in Paris at a cocktail party prior to the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film. Also present is the great German silent film actor Emil Jannings who had returned from Hollywood to become an avid supporter of the Nazi organization, even offering himself up as an actor in films that served its mission. (See “Tarantino’s Film History” in Michigan Today, November 2009).

One of Goebbels’ first major assignments was to record on film the events of the 1934 Nuremberg rally with the intention of broadcasting to the world the indisputable arrival of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Goebbels and Hitler selected Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) to direct the film project, which Hitler titled Triumph of the Will.

Riefenstahl had come to Hitler’s attention in the wake of her success as actor/director/producer of the mountain film The Blue Light in 1932. From the late 1920s, mountain films had been popular with German audiences for their scenic photography and heroic action sequences—often involving the rescue of stranded mountaineers. Actors were commonly blonde, fresh-faced youths whose demanding mountain experiences led to a kind of spiritual enlightenment. Youth adulation, with an emphasis on physical endeavor, had gained importance in Nazi ideology and, symbolically, mountain films were seen to promote the Nazi vision of a “pure Aryan race.”

With unlimited state subsidy, Riefenstahl assembled a production crew of 135 technicians to film the Nuremberg rally. This included the official party events as well as huge rallies and ceremonies occurring in the parks and streets outside. Sixteen cinematographers captured images from every angle, perspective, and point of view to enhance the sense of drama surrounding Hitler’s seemingly intoxicating presence in the ancient city of Nuremberg. Working alone as editor with a massive array of footage—only three percent of the shot footage would be used—Riefenstahl turned out a two-hour-long, Wagnerian glorification of Hitler.

Many observers would declare Riefenstahl’s editing skills comparable to those of Sergei Eisenstein, the pioneering Russian filmmaker often cited as the “father of montage.” Clearly, Triumph of the Will gave clear indication of the powerful, often unnoticed, role of editing in film propaganda. Film theorist and social critic Siegfried Kracauer, in his book From Caligari to Hitler described Triumph of the Will as a creative experience in which “palpable life becomes an apparition … (achieved through) an inextricable mixture of a show simulating German reality and of a German reality maneuvered into a show.”

Let the games begin

With the 1936 Summer Olympics scheduled in Berlin, Goebbels and Hitler again summoned Riefenstahl to document the event. The Führer said he wanted a film that would be “a song of praise to the ideals of National Socialism.” Specifically intended were two goals: first, a film that would show Germany in “friendly” competition with other countries, many of whom had threatened to boycott the Olympics because of Germany’s increasing aggression; second, a film that would reveal the prowess and superiority of Germany’s Aryan athletes.

The 1936 games took place between Aug.1-16 with approximately 4,000 athletes from 49 countries participating in 129 events. Riefenstahl had at her disposal more than 20 camera units and an even larger crew than that deployed to Nuremberg for Triumph of the Will. The crew shot more than 250 miles of film during the 17 days of the games. They captured images from airplanes and hot-air balloons, from pits dug in the ground, from under water, from towers, and from lengthy mobile tracks that ran alongside rowing teams. Cinematographers used slow motion, along with sharp-angled, low-angled, and high-angled variations on traditional techniques. In addition, the crew logged thousands of spectator reaction shots that could be rapidly intercut for tension and rhythmic control.

It took Riefenstahl 18 months to edit the footage and supply a carefully synchronized musical score to the imagery. The end result was a film in two feature-length parts, the first introduced by a lovely tribute to the history of the Olympic games, revealed in part through statuary representations of the athletic body. The second part presented the athletes in preparatory warm-ups and Olympic competition. The movie debuted on Hitler’s birthday.

Hitler and other government officials appear briefly, but Riefenstahl’s overriding emphasis (often against Goebbels’ wishes) remains on the athleticism and physical beauty of the participants. Watching Olympia one encounters content that is committed less to the tensions of competitive sports and more to the dynamics of the human body in motion and in space. The result is what critics have variously called “a virtually delirious celebration of the postures of … physical vitality” and a film where “the human body is eroticized in a paean to physical beauty.” Riefenstahl herself said her goal was to offer “a hymn to the power and beauty of Man.” These defining qualities can be seen throughout Olympia, but the high-dive sequence perhaps best displays the film’s unique stylistic way of treating athletes in performance. The divers are revealed in a highly elliptical manner, often being discovered already in the midst of a dive and seen only momentarily before another diver appears abruptly onscreen. Combined with slow motion, the jump-cut diving imagery becomes abstract and balletic.

Fair play

As for Olympia’s larger intentions, any goal of revealing German superiority was diminished by non-Aryan gold medalists, most notably African American sprinter Jesse Owens. Competing for the U.S., Owens won gold medals for the 100- and 200-meter races, the 4×100 four-man relay, and the long jump. Owens was a national hero in the States, having in one day set three world records and tied a fourth at the Big Ten track and field meet at the University of Michigan’s Ferry Field on May 25, 1935. (Owens was a student at Ohio State University.)

Hitler, angered at Owens’ achievements, refused to personally offer the athlete his medals. Riefenstahl, on the other hand, rejected Goebbels’ demands that Owens’ victories be downplayed in the editing of the film. Instead she treated Owens’ prominence at the Berlin Olympics with the respect he earned. In the end Germany did come out on top in the medals total at 89, with the United States a distant second at 56. But the idea of proving Germany an emerging superior master race in Berlin in 1936 got lost somewhere along the way.

Eye on the prize

There’s been much debate and controversy regarding Olympia‘s merits or lack thereof as a documentary subsidized by the Nazi Party’s ministry of propaganda. Some industry experts declare it the greatest sports documentary of all time; the film regularly is cited among history’s best. In the year of its release, Olympia received the Best Film Award at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival.

The undeniable artistic genius displayed within the film resides in counterpoint to Riefenstahl’s role within the Nazi propaganda machine that hired her and funded both Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Until her death Riefenstahl defended herself as simply a film artist documenting the events put before her. But it has been asked time and again, how someone so astute, so wise, so artistically brilliant would not have been aware of the propagandistic ideology that impelled the two films. How could she have been ignorant of Germany’s aggressive political maneuverings in Europe at the time of the Berlin Olympics?

Aviva Kempner, University of Michigan graduate and director of one of the very best sports documentaries, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998), addressed these points at Riefenstahl’s death in 2003. “Until the day she died, Leni Riefenstahl defended herself by saying ‘I was just doing my art’ and ‘I really didn’t know what was going on.'” Kempner noted. “But we’re never artists in a vacuum. The great irony is that one of the best documentary filmmakers was a woman with fascist ideals and we cannot separate her filmmaking from that.”

Leave a comment: