Olympia (1938) by Leni Riefenstahl

This film documents the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, then under Nazi rule. My first impressions were of shock: the opening sequence has several nude women dancing around, and then half-naked men running along the beach. Eventually, we see runners carrying a torch through the night, and then the night turns to day, and the runners finally take the torch to the stadium. This torch run, which today we see as an ancient tradition, actually began during the German Olympics under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, the minister of Propaganda for the Reich. We continue the tradition to this day. The fire actually represents the fire stolen from Zeus by Prometheus, who was also a character of the Enlightenment and electricity.

I’ve been to the Olympic stadium in Berlin, and it was surreal almost to see the olympic rings at the top of the two pillars, the great bell with the Nazi eagle, the field, all where the olympics took place so many years ago. Then to see footage of the events truly made a surreal experience.

I felt the bell was a way to represent Germany calling all of the countries together, much like a church bell calls its members together for mass. Being labeled with an eagle, it was to signify the control and power of the Reich, to which all others would obey. Whether or not Riefenstahl meant the film as propaganda is happenstance. It was a political film hands down.

There was a lot of focus on the German athletes throughout the film. German dominance in sports reflects the Reich’s emphasis on physical training throughout the country. The German people were strong, and it was important to show this in the film.

Some controversy surrounded Jesse Owens, as he won three gold medals as a black man. He commented however that Hitler didn’t snub him, but FDR actually did.

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