We recently had the rare privilege of attending a private screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous but seldom-seen film Olympia, made to celebrate the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin. The powerful artistry and technical mastery of “Hitler’s moviemaker” left everyone stunned.
Naturally, the number one question asked afterward was about the relation of art to morality. There has been no clear answer to this question, but here are two sets of reactions that some of us shared:
Overall, the movie is apolitical. The overwhelming effect at the end of the very long movie is of the beauty of the human body in action. Riefenstahl’s amazing camera angles, often catching the athletes from below in motion against a sky filled with fair-weather clouds, are indeed “Olympian” in more ways than one. The astonishment of the second half, which covers the athletic events themselves, tends to cancel out the creepiness of the first half.
The first half of the film is deeply disturbing. It depicts the carrying of the Olympic torch by fleet, proud runners (looking for all the world like the old Modern Library logo) and then the opening procession with numerous shots of a beaming Adolf Hitler taking the salutes of the various teams as they pass. It is impossible to resist the powerful emotional effect of this pageantry. As the team members from the various countries (including the USA) pass in review, many give the Nazi salute with Rockette-like precision, all others turn their heads toward the Führer with perfect symmetry as they march by. What did they know? (By 1936, they should have known plenty.) Did it matter to them? I found myself choking on tears and fury. Here were the principalities and powers on review. Human nature is irresistibly drawn to spectacle, and can be manipulated in almost any direction through pageantry when it is harnessed to nationalism and the will to power. We should beware of our own proclivities when we watch the Olympics this summer.