Sunday, 28 April 2013

Review of Leni Riefenstahl, 'OLympia: Festival of Nations' (1936)

Anyone who reads this blog should be familiar with the question: do we run for inner peace or do we run for glory? I’ve been thinking more about it having watched Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which is often mentioned as a glorification of athletic success. Is this view right?
I’m going to steer away from the obsession with Nazism and WWII which fills much of the British public conversation. Yes, the film shows Hitler, Mussolini, and Goebbels; and yes there is some straight-arm saluting, but beyond that there is little that you wouldn’t find at any other Olympic games. Little hint of the horrors which were to be discovered later.
The film shows a variety of track and field events which are recognizably similar to those in today’s athletics, but performed or described differently. Runners have no starting blocks but dig holes in the cinder track with trowels; high jumpers scissor-kick their way over a bar at 6 foot 5 inches before landing neatly on their feet. Athletes compete in the ‘javelin-throwing’, the ‘hop, step, and jump’ (triple jump), and seek to get a ‘world’s record’.
Although obviously very fit and posting good times, the athletes are not the lycra-clad aliens they are today. Some in field events wear woolly jumpers and slacks. And the phlegmatic English commentator discusses them without the layered encrustations of sporting metaphor – a runner is simply described as ‘putting on a terrific burst of speed’, and of a corpulent shot-putter, it is said that the shot ‘looks like a pea in his hand’.
Riefenstahl’s use of the camera is famous (as anyone who has seen ‘Triumph of the Will’ can remember). We see the athletes perform in slow motion, or speeded up. Dramatic cello- or trumpet-heavy music builds the atmosphere, and crowd shots are carefully inserted. The action in each event is not only as interesting to watch as in today’s coverage, it’s more so: rather than retaining the same camera angle for each pole-vaulter (say), each successive jump is shown from a different angle. This means that your ability to compare the height of the jump is impaired (but who cares, as the announcer reads it out); instead you can appreciate in 3D the sinews and the coordination of the human body, a marble statue hotly breathing.
That’s where people object, of course: when a particular type of young – and often white – body is presented as being better than others. In terms of all Riefenstahl intended her film to be used for, they are right. But I propose throwing a spanner into the thought process that says that because these bodies are *good* at what they do, they are *better* or more worthy than others in general terms. Athletes’ beautiful bodies do not tell us about nationality or race or ideology. Instead they tell us about lives spent ‘obeying in one direction’ (Nietzsche) and thus sapping the ability to obey anything or anyone else. After all, this is what our word for what they do means, with its roots in notions of emptying, sending- or giving-away. That word is sport.