Leni Riefenstahl's movie about the 1936 Olympics is most famously cut into two parts, though it should be viewed as a whole worked instead of the sum of bookends.
Here I will review both works and judge them as a whole.
PART 1: Festival of the Nations
It begins with the Greek columns and the naked human form. With sculptures that melt into real flesh, athleticism is the center of "Festival of the Nations".
If you know your history, you know that in 1936, we really weren't that concerned about the Nazis. In fact, two years later Hitler was infamously awarded the title of "Man of the Year" by Time magazine. To put that in comparison, the most recently named was Pope Francis.
But in 1936, the world's most formidable athletes arrived in Berlin to compete in the Olympics. Having seen "Triumph of the Will" which was made three years before this film was released and only a year before the actual competition, you would expect the Nazi propaganda to fill the screen with unbearable shots of the German flag. Not seeing this, it's a lot for the Western mind to wrap around when the film doesn't shy away from the many American and Great Britain wins that occurred. In fact, the film makes pains to show them, praising the athletes with its slow motion extolling and the way the camera ogles the most pleasing angles on the men and women.
Even more shocking to us is when Jesse Owens and the other "black Americans" get their dues. In real life, Hitler refused to shake Owens' hand after the athlete won many gold medal simply because he was black; but in the film, Hitler just presides over the ceremony like a majestic eagle.
Now this isn't to say that there isn't a lot of heil-ing going on here because every time a German or another nation that recognized Hitler won (such as Italy), the arms went straight up towards the Führer.
Starting out with a brief history on the Olympic ceremonies which culminates in a very interesting moment when an ancient runner travels through time and races into the Berlin stadium with the torch and lights the Olympic flame.
This scene reminds us that Leni Riefenstahl was a powerful artist and a very talented director. I doubt you'd be able to convey as much in a modern day movie without using dialogue...at least, not an American movie.
The events that are documented start with track and field and end with the marathon, which, I'll admit, is some of the most powerful film making I've seen in a long time. While the discus throw may seem trivial, it builds in momentum as the men and women through themselves over the high jump, then to the pole vault. In the marathon, Riefenstahl pulls out all the stops. The music crescendos and the men collapse at the end.
Propaganda aside, Riefenstahl has crafted an ode to athleticism. It's a powerful movie...and one that demands to be seen.
PART II: Festival of Beauty
As compared with "Festival of the Nations", the second part of Leni Riefenstahl's documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics is much more individualized and even more celebratory of the human body.
The movie opens with runners jogging alongside a riverbank. The camera slyly captures them as they jump and swim and then go to the steam room. Riefenstahl, whether it's propaganda or not, seems to favor the male form more. Women do appear on screen sometime but it pales in comparison with the male-dominated time. Perhaps the film is viewing true athleticism as a more masculine act...perhaps not.
"Festival of Beauty" is much less about the competition as "Festival of the Nations" is. Instead, as its title states, it is about the beauty.
There are moments in the film that are glorious, like the hypnotic high dives. There are also moments that seem eerie, like the equestrian dressage. The horses seem like slaves to their riders. They are thrown over hurdles, around obstacles, and into the water. The riders get thrown, this is the event where we see the most injuries. No matter how much slow motion camera work she uses, Riefenstahl can't seem to make this event seem athletic or beautiful. Though, I doubt the film would have been complete if it was excluded.
"Festival of Beauty" seems even less like propaganda than "Festival of the Nations" did because I couldn't find a single appearance of Hitler in the film. The swastika stays on the arms of the Germans and the arms go up in heil fashion; but you can't really find overbearing Nazi dogma in the film. It is much more about the athletes, the competition, and the Olympics.
"Festival of Beauty" includes the equestrian sports, the water sports, and the rest of the track and field.
It concluded with the high dives, which are the most transcendent moments of the film. By the time the movie is finished, Leni Riefenstahl has proven that she is a force of the film word.
The film should be viewed as one work, though differences pop up from part 1 and part 2. The key differences don't matter when the arc of the work is about athleticism and strength. You may find yourself turned off of the film because of Hitler's form and the Nazi flags. But Riefenstahl's movie is the quintessential sports film, never duplicated in its style or beauty.
Posted by Micah Jones