Olympia and Triumph of the Will • Film and Fascism
Greenscreening Series #13
November 10, 2022
November 10, 2022
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More has been written about Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia than about any other sports documentary in history. Starting with a long and lyrical overture, evoking the origins of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, Riefenstahl covers twenty-one athletic events in part one, Festival of the Nations, culminating with the marathon. In part two of Olympia, Festival of Beauty, the cameras leave the main stadium and venture into the many halls and fields deployed for such sports as fencing, polo, cycling, and the modern pentathlon. Despite the film's fascist origins, Olympia has achieved a certain respectability and endures as a monument of cinema, and of a malevolent ideology. - Criterion Collection
Since this week we're discussing how Hitler is portrayed in film, I'm recommending some counterprogramming. Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit (2019), in which the director plays Adolph Hitler, who happens to be a young German boy's imaginary friend during WWII. It's an incredible film - definitely watch it if you haven't.
If you're interested in learning more about the German industry during the Third Reich, while also watching an incredibly entertaining and violent WWII film, consider watching Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009).
If you've seen these other films, and/or want something more contemporary to Olympia, consider The Great Dictator (1941), directed by Charles Chaplin. Chaplin's first starring role after retiring the Little Tramp: satirizing Hitler. And he talks!
These two films help us understand the potential of filmmaking to influence and coerce; a potential which can be exploited for evil. Nowhere is the political power of cinema more starkly evident than in Riefenstahl’s propaganda films.
Triumph of the Will is the most powerful and infamous work of propaganda ever produced. Riefenstahl's documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg rallies was elaborately staged and composed to portray the Nazis attractively, as a force for good, while leaving out the Party's evil, racist, and violent ideologies.
Riefenstahl is probably the most important female director of the 20th Century, and with the outsized impact of WWII on the century, perhaps the most important director period. At the time, her films contributed to Germany's embrace of fascism; today, her films provide some of the most lasting images of the Third Reich, helping the world remember a terrible evil.
The production design and imagery from Olympia and Triumph of the Will (1935) influenced many filmmakers, including George Lucas, who used similar imagery to make the Empire more sinister in Star Wars.
For Olympia, Riefenstahl used innovative production techniques, including underwater cameras, rapidly moving tracking shots, and slow motion to cover sports in a unique way at the time, but that set the standard for how sports are filmed even to this day.
Riefenstahl was an artist, not merely a documentarian. Olympia includes an artistic opening sequence that feels like the spiritual ancestor of contemporary opening ceremonies, and an absolutely bizarre diving sequence that veers close to surrealism.
Directors have been battling over Hitler's cinematic image since Riefenstahl's propagandist documentaries. While some filmmakers take a sober approach, Hollywood filmmakers have frequently gone for a comedic or satirical on Hitler, as if to rob Hitler of the cinematic legacy he worked so hard to create.
When the Nazi Party rose to power during the 1930s, they quickly moved to control the film industry, seeing the power of the medium and its potential to shape public opinion. Essentially, they wanted to gain legitimacy through imagery, and to silence any opposition.
In 1933, Joseph Goebbels became the German equivalent of Will Hays, overseeing the office that set content standards, ensuring that all films would adhere to the fascist ideology.
The Nazis also drove out hundreds of Jewish movie industry personnel, making it illegal for Jews to work in the industry. Earlier in the series, we discussed how Fritz Lang left Germany in opposition to the Nazis, but many future legendary filmmakers, including Billy Wilder and Douglas Sirk, fled for their lives and livelihoods.
With this brain drain, Germany had to raise up a new generation of filmmakers. Goebbels was ambitious, and wanted the German film industry to rival Hollywood, reflecting the Nazi regime's global aspirations.
Obviously, the Nazis were driven by racist, hateful ideology, and many of the films produced during this period reflected this ideology, and were deeply anti-semitic. Other films were pro-Nazi propaganda, often showcasing the exploits of heroic soldiers and military victories. There were also escapist fantasies and musicals. And there were mountain films - a uniquely German genre combining documentary-style filmmaking and lots of stunts, and adventure plots always centered around mountains - skiing, mountaineering, hiking, avalanches.
While the Nazis had effective control over what content was permitted on screen, and laws regulated who could work in the industry, Germany’s film industry was not nationalized. Ufa continued to be the major studio producing German films. However, propaganda films were subsidized and supported.
Leni Riefenstahl's career took off alongside the rise of Nazism. She was incredibly ambitious and opportunistic. After working as a dancer and painter, she leapt at the chance to act in the movies. Her traditional looks and athleticism made her ideal for roles in mountain films, and she became a star.
She leveraged this success into the opportunity to direct, and her debut was a mountain film that she also wrote, produced, and starred in, The Blue Light (1932).
Hitler was a major fan of The Blue Light, and in particular of Riefenstahl and her Aryan looks. The two developed a friendship, and Hitler personally recruited her to make films for the Party, offering financial support for her projects. Riefenstahl also helped with fundraising for the Party.
After making a short film for the Party in 1933, Hitler proposed an ambitious project: a documentary about the Nazi Party's 1934 Nuremberg rallies. He gave Riefenstahl extensive resources to make the film, allowing the rally to be organized and staged specifically for maximum cinematic effect. This included sets designed by architect Albert Speer and over 30 cameramen.
The film was billed as a chronicle of the Reich Party Conference, held 16 years after the beginning of German suffering (end of WWI), and 19 months since the rebirth of the country (Hitler's rise to power). The propaganda begins almost immediately, as Hitler's plane descends through the clouds and he exits the plane to adoring crowds.
The production work on the film is stunning and oddly, horrifically beautiful. Riefenstahl utilized moving cameras, aerial photography, and deep-focus photography to great effect. She often shot the speakers from low angles, and interspersed close-ups of admiring spectators, along with immense wide shots of the crowds to move from emotional intimacy to epic grandeur. The film is also conspicuously free of hateful speech.
Historians don't entirely agree about how much the film influenced public opinion. Within Germany, the film was the third highest grossing of the year; but it’s unclear whether the film was converting recruits or preaching to the choir. The point is somewhat moot - deepening support from the base or increasing the size of the base both serve to strengthen a movement; that Triumph of the Will aided the Nazis is inarguable.
In the US, many feared that the film would have influence outside Germany, giving legitimacy to the Nazi Party and to fascism. Director Frank Capra used footage from Triumph of the Will in his film Why We Fight, in effort to boost the US war effort. He declared the film "edit proof," as it lacked evidence of the racist speeches, war-mongering, and book-burning that Americans might use to discredit the Nazis.
Riefenstahl became an international celebrity, and was easily the most famous female director in the world. Hollywood courted her, and she nearly accepted a directing contract, until she received a better offer from the Fuhrer.
From the success of Triumph of the Will, Hitler envisioned a grand film covering the upcoming Berlin Olympics, and hired Riefenstahl to document the event. Again, he offered almost unprecedented support and resources.
Riefenstahl shot over 200 hours of film at the Olympics, using nearly 50 cameramen to shoot both the events, the pageantry, and the surroundings.
Riefenstahl and her crew pioneered many techniques that are still used today in covering sports, including slow motion, fast-moving tracking shots, and underwater photography.
She also photographed the athletes with the type of admiration and borderline idol worship that we enjoy today. She quite simply created the standard by which all sports coverage is measured.
She produced a lyrical opening sequence that linked the Berlin Games and the German Aryan ideal to ancient Greece. You can see echoes of this sequence in today's coverage of the Olympics, particularly in the glorification of athleticism and athletic bodies, the cultural pageantry of Opening Ceremonies, television networks' efforts to link the Games to the broader cultural moment, and the way every country's coverage creates a rooting interest in its own athletes.
She produced a lyrical opening sequence that linked the Berlin Games and the German Aryan ideal to ancient Greece. You can see echoes of this sequence in today's coverage of the Olympics, particularly in theglorification of athleticism and athletic bodies, the cultural and artistic pageantry of Opening Ceremonies, efforts to link the Games to the broader cultural moment, and the way every country's coverage and human interest stories create a rooting interest in its own athletes.
Riefenstahl captured the successes of one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time, Jesse Owens. Owens had previously set three world records on a single day, and the Germans were hoping to prove their superiority at the home Olympics. Owens was having none of it.
Owens and the US flying past the rest of the world in the 4x100, despite a terrible fourth leg handoff:
Probably the most famous moment from these Olympics, Jesse Owens winning the 100m gold, making Hitler furious.
Perhaps the most famous scene from Olympia is the coverage of high diving, in which Riefenstahl gives in entirely to her artistic sensibilities and her love of dance.
This diving sequence also captures the delirium one feels after watching hours of Olympics coverage.
Riefenstahl spent two years editing the 200+ hours of coverage down to a two-part epic. The resulting film was an international sensation, further cementing Riefenstahl's international celebrity as well as her place within Germany. She was almost unanimously considered the greatest German filmmaker and one of the great filmmakers in the world.
Olympia is mostly seen in fragments. Very few people actually watch all 3+ hours. Because of this, some critics have questioned Riefenstahl's legacy as the greatest female director; after all, if you really only need to watch the brilliant fragments of the film, and ignore the rest, does it mean the film actually isn't a masterpiece? Does this diminish Riefenstahl's brilliance as a filmmaker?
After Olympia, Riefenstahl didn't make any further propaganda films. She turned to photojournalism for a period, and covered the German invasion of Poland in 1939, which was her last work for the Third Reich. Her brother was killed on the front line, and there were reports that she was appalled at the cruelty some German officers showed their captives during the invasion.
She began working on a film adaptation of a German opera, which took four years to produce. Riefenstahl cast herself as the lead in addition to directing, and she had the support and cooperation of the Third Reich, though she maintained that she was producing it independently. She completed the film just as Germany fell to the Allied Powers, and ultimately she wasn't able to release the film until the mid-1950s, to tepid reviews.
After the War, Riefenstahl was tried at Nuremberg, but was not condemned as a collaborator. But the global film industry essentially blacklisted her, and she was never again able to make a major film, despite living until 2003 and continuing to try.
She spent much of the 1970s working on a film about the Nuba tribe in East Africa, ultimately scrapping the film but publishing a book of photographs. In 2002, when she was nearly 100 years old, she released a documentary about underwater photography and deep sea diving, which had become one of her passions late in life.
For the rest of her life after the War, Riefenstahl maintained that she didn't know about the Holocaust and the atrocities. She even claimed that had she known their evil intentions, she never would have made films for the Nazis. Given her friendship with Hitler and the tremendous access she had, as well as her use of Romani concentration camp prisoners as extras during the filming of Lowlands, it's a dubious claim. However, she stuck by it.
Ironically, her ongoing efforts to distance herself from the Nazis only further cemented her historical ties to the Nazis, as the industry never forgave her or offered another chance to carve out a legacy separate from her major films, Triumph of the Will and Olympia.
Today, Germany does not censor Riefenstahl’s propaganda, but requires special educational material to accompany any public screenings. There is still fear surrounding the power of Nazi rhetoric, and the power of Riefenstahl's filmmaking. And in the end, most of the people who appear in Triumph of the Will were dead within a few years of its making.
Ever since Triumph of the Will, there's been a battle over how to portray Hitler in films. How to contend with someone responsible for genocide, responsible for the deaths of millions of people? For Jewish filmmakers, the question is obviously more personal.
One common response has been to ridicule Hitler.
Here are a few examples of how Hitler has been satirized over the years.
One of the first fictional portrayals of Hitler was by Charlie Chaplin, in The Great Dictator. He plays a fictional version of Hitler, Adenoid Hyenkel, in a film released during the height of Hitler's power. Obviously, this is different from posthumous satire, but Chaplin was one of the few to take on Hitler comedically during his life.
The Producers (1968), directed by Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks said it was his job to make terrible things entertaining. With Hitler, it was his way of robbing his legacy, of posthumously undermining Hitler's attempts to hijack cinema to gain legitimacy. "Listen, get on a soapbox with Hitler, you're gonna lose — he was a great orator. But if you can make fun of him, if you can have people laugh at him, you win."
In The Producers, a Broadway producer and an accountant figure out they can make more money from a flop than a hit, and set out to make the biggest flop possible. They settle on a musical about Nazi Germany, Springtime for Hitler.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1991), directed by Steven Spielberg
A great moment in the Indiana Jones franchise, almost Hitchcockian in its tension. Indiana Jones is in the middle of his second fight against the Nazis, as they try to capture his father's diary, which contains secrets which reveal the location of the Holy Grail. In this scene, Indiana Jones goes undercover as a Nazi officer and ventures into a rally to retrieve his father's diary, only to accidentally hand his father's diary directly to Hitler. The payoff of this scene is a terrific punchline at Hitler's expense.
Jojo Rabbit (2019) - Taika Waititi's film is absolutely incredible. By making Hitler a young boy's imaginary friend, Waititi makes the allure of fascism to 1930s Germany relatable but also deeply satirical. Also contrast his use of footage of Beatlemania with the opening scenes of Triumph of the Will - the hysteria sweeping 1930s Germany comes into clearer focus. And Waititi's cartoonish, flamboyant Hitler goes just to the edge of absurdity - he's a clown, albeit a malevolent one.
There is a well-regarded documentary about Riefenstahl, The Wonderful and Terrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993), that I wanted to include as our film for this series. But it doesn't seem like it's made the jump to streaming. If you're interested, check it out.
New Yorker analysis of a Leni Riefenstahl biography, Where There's a Will
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