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Leni Riefenstahl (1902—2003) German film-maker and photographer

Jesse Owens (1913—1980) American athlete

Adolf Hitler (1889—1945)


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A documentary film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games made by Leni Riefenstahl under the patronage of the Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945) and Adolf Hitler himself. The film is in two parts—Festival of Nations and Festival of Beauty—and it is widely agreed that it constitutes an innovative, pioneering piece of film-making, capturing the human body in action and athletic performance from angles and in close-ups that few if any film-makers had previously achieved. The film's opening sequence is a memorable one, depicting the torch relay—an innovation of the 1936 Games—following the metamorphosis of Myron's statue of a discus-thrower (Discobulus) into a living human being; the classical is thus fused with the modern, the individual with the purportedly universal. The English version of the film comprises 218 minutes of coverage of more than thirty events, and also shots of athletes swimming naked in forest-bordered lakes.

Riefenstahl, with an earlier history of acting in romantic mountain films, and a later history of filming sealife and the Nuba of Sudan, consistently sought to depict her subjects as examples of a pure untainted community or natural order. In Olympia this is certainly the case, with the notion of physical excellence and beauty framed so as to all but transcend the political, historical, and moral order in which it is exercised and expressed. The Riefenstahl oeuvre has almost routinely abstracted the human body from its social, cultural, and political context; and this allows some to argue that Olympia should be read as an autonomous piece of aesthetic brilliance. But two years after the Berlin Games a Nazi film journalist could observe that the work is ‘filled with a spirit which we sense not only as the spirit of Olympia but also as the spirit of the German reality of today’. The film is a multi-layered text, articulating Riefenstahl's artistic genius and her romantic and primitivist philosophy and aesthetic (particularly in her focus upon US black athlete Jesse Owens), and upholding the corporeal and athleticist ideals of the Olympics; but, intended or not, the film is also a visual hymn to the Nazi principles of pure physicality and physical might, celebratory of a particular and extreme political variant of the celebration of the corporeal.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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