'The English attack, but the Germans are still in the lead," says the commentator as two Olympic rowing fours skim over the rippling water. "The English raise the tempo … They want to win again. But Germany is stronger. Germany wins!" The victorious boat glides past the spectator stands, and the four German athletes stick their arms out straight, just above head-height, in a proud Nazi salute.
This was the Berlin Olympics of 1936, immortalised in two films by the controversial director Leni Riefenstahl. Olympia Part I: Festival of the Nations and Part II: Festival of Beauty, both released in 1938, represent a tremendous aesthetic and technical cinematic achievement.
But they also represent something far more sinister. As Londoners obliged to pay extra taxes for the 2012 Games have been repeatedly told, the Games may bequeath a permanent legacy. There is perhaps no more famous attempt to create an Olympic legacy than Riefenstahl's Olympia. When Germany could not repeat its rowing victory over England on the battlefields of the second world war, the way Germans viewed the Olympic heritage of Berlin changed. Olympia did not endure as a monument to the glory of the Nazi superman, but as an all-too-permanent embarrassment.
Olympia is such a striking piece of Nazi pageantry that it is easy to forget Adolf Hitler had not wanted to host the Olympics. Berlin was awarded the 1936 Games in the days of the Weimar republic. Two years later, in 1933, Hitler came to power. Olympian ideals of peaceful competition and internationalism repulsed the Nazis – as did the prospect of Jewish, Slav or black athletes competing against whites. Official Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter declared that allowing black athletes to compete "is a disgrace and a degradation of the Olympic idea without parallel". At Berlin, it decreed, "blacks must be excluded." Still, the German National Olympic Committee persuaded Hitler that even a Games that included non-Aryan athletes could be turned to Germany's advantage. Riefenstahl was commissioned to direct what was originally supposed to be one film. The previous year, she had directed the ultimate Nazi propaganda movie, Triumph of the Will. At its premiere, the grateful Hitler had pressed a bouquet of lilacs into her arms. She was, he declared, the "perfect German woman".
Olympia's opening layers the inevitably Wagnerian score of composer Herbert Windt over cinematographer Willy Zielke's tracking shots of ancient Greek monuments. One of antiquity's most famous statues, Myron's Diskobolos, dissolves into nude Teutonic decathlete Erwin Huber recreating the discus-throwing pose. The film's focus on "perfect" bodies is sometimes cited as an example of its distinctly fascist aesthetic, but that case can be overstated. As the American academic Michael Mackenzie pointed out, "the camera's fascination with the athletic body cannot be differentiated in any meaningful way – on stylistic grounds – from subsequent sports photography." Another of Riefenstahl's fleet of cinematographers, Hans Scheib, was responsible for the technically brilliant close-up filming of athletes and spectators in the crowd, achieved with a 600mm Leica lens.
Though these sporting images might in themselves have been neutral, their compilation in Riefenstahl's Olympia subtly underlined a tenet of all authoritarian regimes: that individuals must be turned into machines that act as required, but do not think. At no point do the sportsmen and women in Olympia speak.
After the war, Riefenstahl – who hoped her films would continue to be shown – claimed that the Nazi government had no influence on Olympia. This was untrue. The Nazi government commissioned and financed the films. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels' diaries indicate that he was in contact with Riefenstahl about their progress, though not always positively. "It is impossible to work with this wild woman," he wrote on one occasion. Wild though she may have been, the films are utterly compliant. The fact that Olympia depicts such moments as the field hockey final, in which India defeated Germany, is sometimes mistaken by Riefenstahl's defenders as evidence of her editorial independence. It is the opposite. Riefenstahl's inclusion of the occasional German defeat fits squarely with Goebbels' instructions to the German press during the Games, which were to create an impression of Nazi fairmindedness by reporting foreign as well as German victories.
The Nazi obsession with race is constantly restated. "Two black runners against the strongest of the white race," muses Olympia's commentator as he surveys the field for the men's 800m. On that occasion the black runners, the US's John Woodruff and Canada's Phil Edwards, took gold and bronze respectively.
The most exhilarating section of the first Olympia film is the long-jump final, in which black American athlete Jesse Owens faces the white German champion Luz Long. In the last of three jumps, Long hits 7.87m: a new European record. The crowd is ecstatic, as is Hitler himself, who is shown applauding his champion. Then it is Owens's last jump. He composes himself. Sprints. Flies. Lands lightly in the sand. It's 8.06m, a new Olympic record (Owens already held the world record, having jumped 8.13m in 1935).
Tactfully, Riefenstahl does not show Hitler's reaction to Owens's spectacular achievement. According to Albert Speer, the Führer was "highly annoyed", but rationalised Owens's success within the terms of his pseudoscientific race theories. "People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than civilised whites."
Riefenstahl claimed that Goebbels did not want her to show black athletes in the final film but, in the context of Hitler's remarks, it is hard to argue that there was anything subversive about the way she depicted them. The only shot that might have raised Nazi eyebrows is when Owens wins the long jump. For a moment, he makes direct eye contact with the camera, and smiles a bashful, slightly goofy smile. In a film that permits its subjects little by way of individualism, this looks almost like an acknowledgement that he is a human being.
Being treated as less than fully human was, of course, nothing new to Owens. At his alma mater, Ohio State University, he was not allowed to live on campus. Interracial sporting competition was banned in the American south, so none of the American Olympic Committee's qualifying events could be held in states such as Owens's native Alabama. President Franklin D Roosevelt refrained from sending black athletes the conventional telegram of congratulation on their victories, prompting Owens to declare: "Hitler didn't snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me."
If Owens was the star of the first Olympia film, though, the star of the second was white American Glenn Morris, whose physical form is as noticeably lingered on by Riefenstahl on film as it was in real life. In her memoirs, she wrote that Morris, who took gold in the decathlon, pounced on her during the medals ceremony. "Never before had I experienced such passion," she remembered breathlessly. Their brief affair was useful when she realised she had neglected to film Morris's victory in one decathlon event: the 5,000m run. So besotted was Morris with this "perfect German woman" that he agreed to run another 5,000m the following day, just for her cameras. It is these staged shots, not Morris's competition run, that have ended up in the film. His starring role in Olympia inspired Morris to dream of silver-screen stardom; but his 1938 performance in Tarzan's Revenge put a stop to that.
Riefenstahl, too, hoped Olympia would take her to Hollywood. On 4 November 1938, she arrived in New York to promote Olympia. Her timing could hardly have been worse. Five days later came the horrors of Kristallnacht. Reports from Germany told of 1,000 synagogues burned in one night, and 30,000 Jews dragged off to concentration camps. A defiant Riefenstahl told reporters that she did not believe such things could have happened. Even when the German consul in New York told her the stories were true, she vowed to brazen it out in the US until "this damn Jewish thing is no longer in the headlines".
It stayed in the headlines, and the invitations she had received before Kristallnacht from Hollywood players, including Louis B Mayer, vanished. Only one studio boss still agreed to meet her: Walt Disney.
When war broke out in 1939, the prints of Olympia were seized from the German embassy in London. The reels were signed over to the British Army Kinema Corporation. In the spirit of "make do and mend", army editors snipped out the Nazi bits, and recut Riefenstahl's footage of athletes into shorts to use as information films during the physical training of British recruits.
Olympic parks, as those of Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 have demonstrated, swiftly decay if neglected. But Riefenstahl's Olympia will not go away. Captured on celluloid, the athletes' muscles still tense as they did on a sunny 1936 day in the sharp focus of Scheib's telephoto lens. The Olympic bell, featuring a German eagle clutching the five rings in its talons, still tolls. Beneath his toothbrush moustache, Hitler still smiles. Despite multiple recuttings by Riefenstahl to minimise or remove the overtly Nazi footage, Olympia remains the permanent legacy that the Olympics would surely rather forget.
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