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Film / Olympia

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Olympia is a 1938 film by Leni Riefenstahl. Actually, it was released as two films: Part I -Festival of Nations (German: 1. Teil - Fest der Völker) and Part II - Festival of Beauty (German: 2. Teil - Fest der Schönheit).

It is a documentary about the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Nazi Berlin; in terms of actual sporting contests, Part I is dedicated to track and field, while Part II is dedicated to the other events. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were originally reluctant to stage the Olympics, which were awarded to Germany well before the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. Eventually Hitler was talked into going through with the Games as a way to show off the new Germany to the world. Leni Riefenstahl, who had become famous with her 1934 propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will, was hired to direct another documentary.

The resulting film is something of a mixed bag. There are many shots of Hitler in his box, there are swastika flags everywhere, and the 800m race is introduced as "two black runners against the strongest of the white race". (The aforementioned black runners, John Woodruff and Phil Edwards, finished first and third.)note  However, Jesse Owens also gets a lot of admiring coverage, including a shot of him bashfully smiling at the camera after he defeated Luz Long in the long jump. And much like Triumph of The Will, the cinematography is stunningly beautiful. Regardless of to what degree the film is viewed as Nazi propaganda, it is recognized as hugely influential in the depiction of sporting events, with groundbreaking techniques like slo-mo and tracking shots of athletes in motion that have been used aplenty ever since.

The Olympic torch relay shown at the beginnning of Part I was the first ever, having been invented by the Nazis for this ceremony. Captain Nishi, the Japanese steeplechase rider shown taking a spill, was killed in action at Iwo Jima in 1945 (it is depicted in Letters from Iwo Jima).

Compare Tokyo Olympiad, another well-regarded Olympics documentary.


  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Part II opens with a shot of the Olympic Village, and specifically the nature around it, showing extreme closeups of stuff like a spider on its web and water dripping onto a leaf.
  • Chiaroscuro:
    • The opening scenes of the ruins of Mount Olympus and Ancient Greek statuary, shot in moody, shadowy lighting.
    • The beginning of Part II shows athletes jogging through a forest, in the shadows, as beams of light shine down from the high branches of the trees.
  • Creator Cameo: Leni Riefenstahl is one of the naked women in the opening montage (a spur-of-the-moment decision on her part to present herself as a specimen of Aryan beauty standards).note 
  • Documentary: The first ever sports documentary.
  • Dramatization: The various shots of announcers commenting on the action were clearly shot and inserted after the fact. Many of the sporting achievements depicted in the film are also re-creations, made later on the same day of the actual event when Riefenstahl was more able to control lighting and camera angles.
  • Fanservice Extra:
    • The opening montage in Part I of naked women athletes and loincloth-clad male athletes dancing and striking poses.
    • The scene of chiseled, muscular dudes skinny dipping and then bathing together in Part II.
  • Heroic Build: The close-up depictions of muscular athletic bodies is a theme throughout, starting with the opening montage in which naked and near-naked men and women dance and strike athletic poses.
  • Match Cut: The opening montage segues from Greek statuary to live Olympic athletes by showing the famous ancient "Discobolus" statue, then cutting to German decathlete Erwin Huber striking an identical pose, discus in hand.
  • Rewind Gag: At some point the record of the diving competition becomes less a record of the diving competition and more of a surrealistic study of bodies in motion, as diver after diver after diver leaps from the board and into the water. This surrealistic effect is only increased when some shots of divers are reversed, causing them to fly out of the water and back up to the diving board.
  • Silence Is Golden:
    • The whole opening sequence—the establishing shots of Mount Olympus and the statuary, the Fanservice montage of naked athletes, the Olympic torch relay from Greece to Berlin—is shot without any dialogue. The first words spoken in the movie are Adolf Hitler declaring the Games open, over 20 minutes in.
    • Part II has a similar opening sequence of the same length, showing athletes training and relaxing in the Olympic Village, then the gymnastics competition, also without dialogue.