Directed by Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia is the most famous of Olympic films. Much praised for its technical innovations, it even won the Mussolini Cup for best foreign film at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. The IOC presents a restoration of the 226-minute domestic version that was released in Germany less than 17 months before Germany invaded Poland to launch World War II. In 1935, Riefenstahl had directed the frightening Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will.
Part one of Olympia, subtitled Festival of Nations, begins with a nine-minute montage of ancient Greek architecture and sculpture. This morphs into another montage, this one of naked men and women. When we finally get to the Opening Ceremony, overseen by Adolf Hitler, the Nazi imagery is inescapable. For example, when weightlifter Rudolf Ismayr (the defending middleweight Olympic champion) reads the Athletes’ Oath, he does so while holding the Nazi flag.
The rest of part one is devoted to athletics, although some events, such as the decathlon and the relays, are saved for part two. The coverage is compelling, and some of the running finals are shown in their entirety. But, from the point of view of Olympic history, it is clear that the film is more of a docudrama—a drama based on fact—than an actual documentary. Riefenstahl freely combined competition footage with staged shots filmed after the events were over, and she did not hesitate to include shots of spectators cheering to make it appear that her post-Olympics sequences were taken while the competitions were in progress. She also inserted fake audio to make it seem like fans are chanting cheers for their own countries’ athletes. For example, during the decathlon, we might hear in the background, “USA, USA, Morris, Morris”, but with a distinctly German accent.
At the beginning of the women’s 4×100-meter relay, Hitler is seated with one set of sycophants, but seconds later he is surrounded by a different group of sycophants. Riefenstahl evidently didn’t think moviegoers would notice, or she didn’t care.
The throwing and jumping events are also manipulated to make it seem like they are decided with the final throw or jump. For example, Gerhard Stöck of Germany won the javelin event with his fifth throw, not his sixth, as did his countryman Hans Woellke in the shot put. Both of these events, by the way, slip in Nazi propaganda. We see Hitler congratulate Woellke. Despite calling the Berlin Olympics a “Festival of Peace,” Stöck’s victory is underlined with the singing of the German national anthem which, at the time, was translated as “Germany, Germany above all, Above everything in the world.”
Riefenstahl does present us with some lovely shots of Jesse Owens running, jumping and just smiling. And there are a few seconds in the women’s high jump coverage of Dora Ratjen, who two years later, was outed as a hermaphrodite and no longer allowed to compete as a woman.
Another story that Riefenstahl missed was that of “Kitei Son,” who won the marathon as a member of the Japanese team. In fact, he was Korean, and his real name was Sohn Kee-chung. The bronze medal was earned by another Korean, Nam Seung-yong, who was forced to compete as Shoryu Nan. Sohn repeatedly tried to describe his true nationality to sports reporters and to explain that his country was under Japanese occupation. Riefenstahl shows Japanese fans cheering, but at the Medal Ceremony, Sohn and Nam bow their heads, and Sohn uses the oak tree he is given as champion to cover up the Japanese rising sun on his outfit.