Classic Films

Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia — Impure Politics vs. Pure Cinema

Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty. (Internet Archive)
Turner Classic Movies erases a work of genius and film history.

The 2021 Olympics conclude in Japan this weekend, but the censorship behind the parallel series of Olympics films on Turner Classic Movies will have detrimental consequences. Rather than celebrate athletics, international camaraderie, and free speech, TCM put a hammerlock on film art by deliberately excluding the greatest of all Olympics-themed movies, the 1939 Olympia, by Leni Riefenstahl.

Anyone unfamiliar with Olympia can be considered uncultured, deprived. Advocacy media routinely points out dubious “breakthroughs” by race and gender, but here’s a case where it erases a woman who recorded and literally made history. Riefenstahl has been infamous because Hitler commissioned her to make a documentary chronicling the 1934 Nazi Party Congress, resulting in the notorious propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935), excoriated by many but seen by few. Even Star Wars paid homage to Triumph’s unequaled visual patterns.

Riefenstahl and her team of photographers set out to capture perfect angles of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, with the result that, almost a century later, the athletes look startlingly contemporary. TCM missed the opportunity to clarify how Riefenstahl emphasized universal athletics (what, ironically, used to be called “brotherhood”). In Olympia, Riefenstahl found cinema’s highest potential in such awed images as female athletes by the hundreds exercising epically with Indian clubs.

The three-hour Olympia, its two parts known as “Festival of Nations” and “Festival of Beauty,” covers the games from aquatics, sailing, gymnastics, fencing, and the pentathlon, leading to field sports and the record-breaking command of black American Jesse Owens who dominated the 100-meter race, the broad jump, the 200-meter race, then the 4×100 relay (events recently well dramatized in the 2016 film Race, in which Stephan James portrays Owens and Carice van Houten impersonates Riefenstahl). But TCM, lately praised by Martin Scorsese as our national curators, didn’t bother to account for the blackballing censorship of this groundbreaking, impressionistic, narrative document.

By repressing film history, TCM curates disingenuously — perhaps to avoid controversy but ultimately limiting its audience’s education. (One detestable website explicitly prohibited mentioning Riefenstahl in a list of female directors.)

In Pauline Kael’s critical analysis, Riefenstahl “proved herself one of the dozen or so creative geniuses who have ever worked in the film medium.”

It’s likely that TCM omitted Riefenstahl’s Olympia from its Olympic series to cancel persons of questionable politics, recalling the dispute in classical music over Richard Wagner — but this time without the debate. On visual evidence, Olympia should shake up the squeamish, uninformed, and intolerant. Its crowded stadium shots present us with the contemporary mystery of how masses of friendly people later convert into the opposition — the spirit of brotherhood that politics currently pervert.

Riefenstahl’s pure aestheticism shames this era when progressive filmmakers are not even aesthetes.

***

Before TCM existed, Olympia was part of regular film repertory. When I moved to New York, I hastened to its showing at an avant-garde performance space located in the Chelsea Hotel named The Squat; the venue smelled, but I was determined to finally see this legendary film. Riefenstahl’s images were so powerful that they elevate our perception above politics. Her poetic opening transition from a hopping Colombian to a hopping kangaroo epitomizes her understanding of physical strength and dexterity. She extolled the American Glenn Morris as well as Owens. French and Swiss flags rise impartially for the cycling wins. Her climactic diving montage is lyrical, delirious, glorious. She achieves an admirable blend of common humanity — or, as Kael put it, “these young men who were so soon to kill each other.” Riefenstahl captured the skills, gifts, and talents that war obliterates.

The Squat (operated by Hungarian immigrants once banned in Europe for “political and aesthetic radicalism”) courageously presented radical points of view without authoritarian anti-art, anti-humanist restriction, understanding that Riefenstahl’s film was as sensual as nonpolitical, its message more erotic than rhetorical. Her understanding of slow-motion — suspending movement for deeper visual appreciation, especially in the gymnastic bar sequence and the rings exhibition that goes from a European to Asian skilled experts — is cinema’s first real technical advance since D. W. Griffith invented the crosscut. (The summertime imagery — underscored by Herbert Windt’s rousing music — makes me recall the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics commemorated in Hollywood’s madcap comedy Million Dollar Legs — another film TCM has excluded.)

Part of Riefenstahl’s madcap genius was to frame these feats against an ecstatic backdrop of infinite, cloud-filled skies. The vaulting bodies seem to fly freely, like birds. All the athletes and waving flags are, thus, blessed. Her wind-sailing sequence surely inspired the 1992 film Wind, by Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion), who could not surpass it.

Riefenstahl’s Olympic cavalcade salutes the acme of human diversity — blending tribes and cultures for universality, not the differences of that idiotic phrase “our diversity is our strength.” It’s clear that she hardly cares about race or nationality, and that should be part of her reputation.

We could defeat TCM’s ignorance by acknowledging Olympia’s greatness, but that would mean dealing with the demands of art over politics — complexities that make Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation undeniably impressive despite one’s recoil at their politics. Only dishonest film critics deny Griffith’s and Riefenstahl’s artistry. Impure political criticism offends pure cinema, thus turning film repertory into hubs of group-think philistines.

It’s the act of excluding Riefenstahl that sullies TCM. Instead of leaving film culture to TCM’s censors, we’d all benefit if Chloé Zhao, Kathryn Bigelow, Kelly Reichardt, Sofia Coppola, Oliver Stone, Zack Snyder, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese all came out in Leni Riefenstahl’s defense. Is TCM scared of the cancel-culture mob because Riefenstahl’s cinema aestheticism threatens to liberate us from political correctness?

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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