It might be a little odd in today’s day and age to opt to watch a documentary about the Olympics, when one could just’ve watched the Olympics themselves, but even in 1930’s pre-television era, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia stands out as an exception for many reasons. The first is that this was the first documentary ever made about an Olympic Games, which would probably have put it on a number of important lists alone. The second biggest reason is the documentary itself; rather, how well made it is. Sure, Riefenstahl was commissioned to do the documentary by the Nazi party, and thus the film at times does come across as an obvious piece of propaganda. But few tend to acknowledge the much more often amount of time that the film remains steadfast and unwavering in its pure coverage of the games, and its salute to what the games mean to both the athletes and to the world.
Aside from its direct footage of the events themselves, there is a little more to Olympia than just a newsreel of the 1936 Berlin Games. The film could’ve started any which way in regard to the games, but Riefenstahl chooses to start with a visual exploration of the ruins of ancient Greece, revealing her reverence for the subject at hand. What was especially enjoyable, as the documentary proper got started, was the reverence with which everyone involved, not just Riefenstahl, treated the Olympics; a reverence that has sadly been very diluted in the decades since. The torch relay, the releasing of doves, and even Hitler’s proclamation opening the games are all done in spirit of what the Olympics means, even with the underlying alternate intentions of those involved, as seems to be the case with every Olympic games. It’s a little disconcerting, for instance, to see a number of the countries in the Parade of Nations walk in displaying the Nazi salute, which the audience very often echoes, but one must be prepared for the time and place in which this film was made. Thankfully, Riefenstahl knows how to be an objective documentarian, presenting the events just as how they happened, even if it means showing how American Jesse Owens destroys his competition, in direct opposition to the Aryan supremacy Hitler wished to promote with the games. What made this especially watchable was a multitude of things. First off, the editing; this could have very easily turned into a boring repetitious watch, seeing the same athletes do the same motions over and over, but Riefenstahl, who supervised the editing of nearly 250 hours of footage herself, knows how to keep these events interesting, even though that is essentially what we are watching. Another large aspect that made this especially entertaining was the music, which was often bombastic and orchestral in its obvious manner to make the games seem as overblown as they are, but it’s the Olympics; it works, and nowhere is that more readily apparent than in Olympia.
This film, which was released in two parts (seemingly for no other reason than length), would become the gold standard (hehe, Olympic pun) in not only sports documentaries, but all documentaries, for decades to come. Many documentary techniques that are taken for granted in today’s releases were originated or refined in Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and to ignore that just because the Nazis were technically behind the film and funded it is to be a little too jingoistically condemning to the film, even with the fact that Nazis were involved. For a documentary that, with both parts combined, ran over three and a half hours, this was a surprisingly easy watch, though I will acknowledge that others may not share the ease with which I was able to get through it, mostly due to the fact that it is indeed as long as it is. Still, this is a much more amiable watch than Triumph of the Will, for obvious reasons, so if you can’t stomach both films for whatever reasons you may have, I’d say to choose to watch this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10