Reading the Olympics 3: the Discobolos Redivivus (1936)

Olympia image
Olympia image

If the previous story of the American student was rather benign, I’m not so sure about Leni Riefenstahl’s quite marvellous 1938 film of the 1936 “Nazi Olympics”. It’s a film that has been claimed rightly as establishing the modern grammar and vocabulary of the moving imagery of sports: cameras were mounted beneath balloons, on rafts, in trenches, on rowing boats, under water  and under saddles to try to capture the kinaesthetic – indeed the kino-aesthetic, or movement aesthetic  – of the struggle towards perfection that governs the overall narrative of the film.

The film opens with a trumpet fanfare calling out into darkness, followed by a short title sequence announcing that the film is a record of the 1936 Olympics. There ensues a long slow sequence of mists and stone over which the camera roves as if searching for something. Eventually the Acropolis is revealed , along with stone statues of Greek deities, male  and female, over which the camera slithers and slides in a langorous eroticism while the soundtrack offers slow chromatic harmonies and fragments of melody recalling the “degenerate” music (Entartete Musik) of, say, Schreker of the 1910s and 1920s.

After 7 minutes the camera comes to rest on – of course – the discobolos, which Riefenstahl, a female Pygmalion,  brings to life in a gender inversion interesting to all students of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century gender.  This is the moment when Riefenstahl breathes into stone so that it becomes flesh, and simultaneously into photography so that it becomes cinematography – kinomatography. This is the moment when stillness becomes action, when Myron’s supposed dream of capturing movement is finally realised. We have had to wait 2500 years for this to be accomplished and it is a woman film director who has had the audacity and vision to do it. Simultaneously, the music shifts to diatonicism with a clear rhythmic pulse and melodic structure, and even at times an almost Orffian folksiness: we have arrived at a form of music which allows for “progression” from one key to another, of symphonic transformation and narrative.

leni reifenstahl discobolos
Leni Reifenstahl discobolos

Riefenstahl was to use the human discobolos as the cover image of her 1937 book of stills from the  making of the film, reinforcing its iconicity as the symbol of the triumph of flesh over stone, of art over nature, of movement over stasis, of regeneration from degeneration.

leni reifenstahl discobolos book cover
leni reifenstahl discobolos book cover

Reifenstahl is taking on the imagery of the early Olympic posters and celebrity photography, intensifying it, universalising it in the typifying spirit of classical Greece, reminding us of the pan-Greek “international games: note in this regard how the image is a perfect history painting, the figure naked, abstracted from setting and any social reality that can anchor it. If the implications of the very historically situated soundtrack belie this, the figure of the discobolos himself (itself?) was also highly politically charged.

The Discobolus Palombara, the first copy of this famous sculpture to have been discovered, had been found in 1781 at the Villa Palombara in Rome. In 1937, the year of Reifenstahl’s book Schonheit im Olympischen Kampf, Hitler negotiated to buy it from the Italian state. He eventually succeeded in 1938, the year Olympia was released, when the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs sold it to him for five million lire. The statue was only returned to Rome in 1948, the year of the first London Olympics. It was clearly on the political agenda for Hitler as a representation of Aryan perfection, and its return in 1948 was an acknowledgement of that which sought to set its ghost to rest.

To return to the film. After the pygmalionisation of the statue, we are shown a sequence of naked or near naked athletes, male and female, as if the original models for the statues we have previously seen: Riefenstahl has turned the whole world of stone to flesh. The narrative continues now through time as a torch is lit in a ceremony invented for the Nazi Olympics, and it’s carried in relay from Olympia to Berlin. There can be no question in this film that it is Germany that has brought the Olympics to life again. The origin of the Olympic torch in Nazi Germany was hardly commented on in the Uk media before or during the 2012 London Olympics – but its televisual and cinematic potential that Riefenstahl invented was certainly exploited to the full.

In some ways the film is historically accurate. It was the Germans who “found Olympia” just as it was German scholarship that vectored the ways the classics were understood in the nineteenth century. Germans had first properly excavated the site of Olympia after a half-hearted attempt by the French in 1829. That said, the modern Olympic Games had been international from the start. De Coubertin, the recognised founder of the modern games that we know, was inspired by the muscular Christianity of Arnold of Rugby – he wanted to learn from the English how to improve the French education system for men. And then we must remember the annual Olympic games of Wenlock Edge founded in 1850 by William Penny Brookes  to “promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”. De Coubertin certainly knew of these games and was in touch with Brookes.

Riefenstahl deleted all that international history, sucking it out of the imagery. Instead she inscribed the games into a quite wonderful aesthetic narrative, a striving for perfection, a struggle for beauty – beauty in struggle (Schonheit im Kampf ) – that had, in its modern form, in a specifically German genealogy. Now Kampf (“struggle” or “battle”) is highlighted by Riefenstahl in her title. It is a term that recalls German romanticism, Nietzsche and, of course, Hitler.  There is much debate over whether the film conveys Nazi ideology. Whether it does or not overall remains to me uncertain, but there are certainly elements that are impossible to ignore (as in the imagery of the discobolos and the stress on Kampf). In the 2nd part of the film, though, there is an increasing tendency for the events to become a celebration of male physical perfection beyond any idea of nationality or race.

There is a huge amount that can be said about this film, but I want to spend these last few minutes by pointing out not just its easily perceptible  Darwinian evolutionary narrative and its linkage to Nietzschean ideas of the ubermensch – both utterly predictable – but a faith in transcendence of the body through technology that again has its roots in German romanticism – above all in music with its emphasis on the modern technology of sound to create sublime effects. It is modern technology that enables the transformation of stone into flesh, stasis into kinesis.

First let’s consider the opening sequences of the 2nd part of the film,  (“Festival of Beauty”) set in the Olympic village. After an establishing shot, we move from plants to slime on water and then through a series of animals increasing in size and strength until we meet a herd of Aryan men training in the woods and cavorting in the sauna and in the woodland  pool – Aryan men swim quite happily in nature: they are casual masters of it while being part of it (a notorious trope we are familiar with from Heidegger). We then see a series of shots of men from other countries which, intercut with shots of animals, more than risks racism. Clearly we have witnessed an evolutionary progression that mirrors the inspiration of stone to flesh in the first part of the film, along with a visual representation of the risks that degeneration back into less evolved nature may remain with us.

Olympia diver
Olympia diver

This evolutionary narrative is halted for most of the film but is meant to register for the next hour or so, casting the Olympics as an evolutionary struggle for existence. It returns and  comes to a climax in the famous diving sequence (1.20.00 onwards here — or here separated from rest of film).  The soundtrack now seems to recast in serious vein the hilariously camp waltz of the superman in Richard Strauss’s ironic symphonic commentary on Nietszche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. In combination with Riefenstahl’s dazzling visual editing it makes men fly.

We have arrived, at the end of the film, to the divine Ubermench, a condition to which all participants in the Games strive. Here, as indeed elsewhere in the second part of the film, the competitors are stripped of nationality and indeed of individuality as they return to the abstract forms of the gods that Riefenstahl had started with. Flesh is now rendered sublime, borne by air not earth.

Olympia end
Olympia end

In the epilogue that succeeds the sky divers (1.25.00 here), Riefenstahl will progress beyond the earthy mists and the stones, the ruins of classical antiquity, beyond the materiality of nations and of the human body, beyond even the clouds as (1.27.27) national flags will bow down to the pure light of technology. Is the sun shining down or are the searchlights shining up? Either and both: the Light is one. Reifenstahl will fling us beyond the body to the utopia of the machine, to a beyond where in fact it’s the German cinema with its powers of light projection and light play – precisely, Lichtspiel – and manipulation of the image that is in absolute control. Even the human voice will have ceased in the Valhalla-like soundtrack so that the technology of German musical instruments will lead us upward and on (zieht uns hinan as the final words of Goethe’s Faust puts it), just as in the perorations of Beethoven 9 or Wagner’s Ring , or – banned though this music might have been by the Nazis – of Mahler 2 or 8, where instruments alone, musical machinery, propel us into the technological sublime.

No longer throwing a discus into an uncertain future – how far and where will it go? – here Germany, the destination of the Olympic flame, now extinguished,  projects light and sound so far that it seems to receive it. Project, reject come to have no meaning in the final scenes of the film: space and time dissolve and become one, as in the land of the grail in Wagner’s Parsifal (cf. Wolfgang Wagner’s comments on the setting of Parsifal). Sublimity and aesthetic deconstruction avant la lettre rewrite classical antiquity to empty the aesthetic object of specificity, an aim quite in line with traditional art historical understandings.  All this through the wondrous technology and art of Germany – and a woman Pygmalion.

And isn’t it through the lens of the technological sublime that the games are presented to us today as mediated spectacle? Spectacles come in many forms, but isn’t the dominant visual image we are presented with that of  heroic and mainly masculine sublimity? Of course women are prominent too now, but there is little doubt about the sex that remains in charge. This is not subtext but the text itself. This is why the discobolos seemed so very right at the outset.

Perhaps, though, instead of Myron’s discobolus,  this photograph of Riefenstahl directing her visual technology of sublimity might be an alternative image to underwrite the Olympics, lending a poster for a study day on the Games a genealogy less “pure”, less masculinist — and more obviously troubling.

Leni Riefstahl directing
Leni Riefenstahl directing




Reading the Olympics 2: the Discobolos Redivivus (1896)

Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics
Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics

After the set up in the first part of this talk, here, surprise surprise, is a photograph of a discus thrower of the 1896 Olympics. It is the celebrity victory photo of Robert Garrett, who won the discus event on the evening of the 1st day of the first modern Olympics , 6 April 1896. An American athlete, Garrett – so goes the founding myth – had originally not intended to enter the competition at all. Indeed, the American contingent – all from Boston Athletics Association and Princeton University – had almost not been able to go. Senior students from their University – who would have been of the appropriate age – could not attend because they had finals to sit, and the expense of travelling to Greece was high. But Garrett’s father coughed up the funds and in March Princeton University Track Athletics Association sent 4 men, including Robert.

Now discus throwing  was not internationally practised at this time – it was pretty much a reinvented sport by the modern Greeks in imitation of the discobolos statue that Curtius had unearthed. It was a sport that they had designed so that they could win. But Professor Sloane of Princeton, a future IOC member and friend of the driving force behind the 1896 Olympics, the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, suggested to Garrett that he enter the discus competition anyway. Not short of funds, Garrett commissioned a Princeton blacksmith to replicate the discus of the Discobolus – it weighed 9 kilos, and was just too heavy to throw in a discus-like way, so Garrett decided that he wouldn’t go ahead and enter.

But, so the story continues, Garrett picked up a  discarded discus used by Greek competitors that he found on the track the morning of 6 April – the very day of the first modern Olympic Games. It was much lighter than the discus he had had made back in Princeton, and there and then he decided to enter after all. Clearly, things were much simpler back then! The Games hadn’t become the highly mediated and orchestrated event it has today – Gale NewsVault for example gives only 145 mentions of the Olympics in its corpus of British newspapers throughout April and May 1896, many of them, as was usual for the time, duplicates of London newspaper commentary on the idea of the games themselves.

But to return to the story of Garrett.

Discus throwing was the last event of the day. After the King of Greece had formally opened the Olympic Games at 2.15pm, there had followed the 100m heats followed  by the long jump  and the first medal of the games – won by a Bostonian – and then there were the 800m heats. Now the sun was going down and the air was cooling. It was time for the discus. The Greeks, unsurprisingly, were considered elegant: they were being measured by Myron’s discobolos and in turn had used it as their measure. It was, as so often, a self-confirming evaluation. The English entrants were apparently nothing short of ludicrous. Nonetheless, in true heroic style, Garrett won the discus event after a couple of false starts. Later in the Games, he came second in the long jump to the Harvard athlete Ellery Clark, and went on to win the shot put. Garrett went on to become a very successful  investment banker – and collector of Egyptian manuscripts (which he donated to Princeton in 1942). He is the very type of ancient Greek athletic aristeia, perfect in body and mind, on the field and in society, who wins and offers a sacrifice (his manuscripts) to the organisation that nurtured him. He is indeed the discobolos redivivus, the Winkelmanian mortal embodiment of the divine, a wonderful extension into sport of the Paterian ideal of the artistic god descended to earth that is explored in Pater’s essay on Pico della Mirandola. Even more, Garrett is the perfect student, the product of University-as-Pygmalion+Inspiration. As a student he is a statue moulded and brought to life and inspired by his institution.

Yet pause for a moment – look at this photograph again. The US flag is the wrong way round. The American hero was left-handed!

Garrett did not therefore accord with the classical precedent of the right-handed discobolos. In ways quite typical of late nineteenth-century celebrity photography, trickery was involved to make the reality conform to an idea. The photograph was turned round so that in this case  the celebrity could be attributed more easily an illustrious classical ancestry. I don’t think we can say this is just an American trick, a US claim on the authority of the classical, a simple usurpation of the ancient Greek ideal or effacement of modern Greek claims to it. It’s not just national propaganda so much as conformity to media propriety. Of course the discobolus redivivus had to come to life from the ancient pattern, and therefore he had to be right handed. This was one of the rules of what was by now the dominant pop-classical discourse about aesthetics that classically derived sport incorporated. We can see its roots in Winkelmann and Pater extended by 1896 to become demotic and general, a notion spread far and wide by an ever more intense celebrity culture: by this stage it’s tacitly accepted that celebrities have something divine about them, as Barthes, 60 years later, was to explore when discussing Greta Garbo.

But clearly, Garrett’s photographer was not entirely in change of the technology: it was in change of him. Unlike so many better celebrity photographers (such as Queen Victoria’s as explored by John Plunkett), he forgot about the details, reminding us all too clearly that the divine is moulded from the same flesh and clay as us. 40 years later, another visual artist will not allow such slips, with more sinister results.

Reading the Olympics: the Discobolos 1

Reading the Olympics Study Day programme
Reading the Olympics Study Day programme
The following trio of blogs comprises the opening plenary  given at the Reading the Olympics Study Day at the University of Greenwich 7 June 2012.  

 It is a great pleasure and honour to have been invited to speak before you all at Greenwich: it’s the first time I have had the opportunity of doing so since starting 5 weeks ago. Even though this kind of cultural history is hardly my core area of research, I want to seize the opportunity to explore some very basic issues that the title of the event and the programme itself raise about how we study and represent history and gender.

The text I want to think about is the flyer before you of this very study day itself: “Reading the Olympics”. Trained to be attentive to the paratextual as much as to words, I looked at this flyer and wondered at its quite literal subtext – the image the day’s organisers chose to placed beneath the words, THE image of the Olympics. Why did this image seem so right to me? What affiliations or genealogy does it suggest that make it seem an obvious image to underlie the programme? What is being rewritten or written out (in every sense) so as to make it seem right?

It is of course the discobolos (or diskobolos or discobolus) of Myron which I recognised from my classical past. What did I know of this statue? What did I know of its association with the Olympics?

Myron's Discobolus
Myron’s Discobolos

The original Greek statue, supposedly by the sculptor Myron, dated from some time around 450-460BC. We know it mainly from a marble Roman copy found in Italy in the eighteenth century; smaller bronze copies have also turned up. It’s famous for having solved a problem in sculpture that the exhibition that opens tonight in the Stephen Lawrence Gallery also addresses (“The Present is a Moment just Passed“). For the statue captures movement through time even while it is, being a  statue, arrested in time. The thrower is about to launch the discus off into an uncertain future.  How far will it go? Where? What will this projection into futurity mean? Victory? Loss? Something else again? And then, who is this man? His nakedness abstracts him from society: we cannot place him other than to say he was almost certainly a Greek free man, not a slave, as only Greek-speaking free men could participate in the Olympic games. He has no name, no individuality. Typically classical, the statue aspires to the type, the idea, not the individual likeness.

But then, I want to ask, how much has this image to do with the ancient Olympics?  Discus throwing was, it is true, one of the five parts of the ancient Pentathlon (discus, javelin throwing, jumping,  wrestling, running). But it was just one of them and, furthermore, it was practised everywhere in the palaestra as part of a general gymnastic training. There’s nothing about discus throwing  per se which is Olympian.

Yet here we find discus throwing on the official posters for the 1920 and 1948 Olympic games (the latter more specifically Myron’s).

1920 Olympics1948 Olympics

Was a copy of Myron’s statue perhaps found in Olympia to validate our association of the statue with the Games?

Well, no. All the copies of the Discobolos I know about have been found in Italy: it does not seem to be connected to Olympia it all.


Only two statues were dug up when the Prussian Ernst Curtius excavated Olympia between 1875 and 1881: a winged Victory and the so called “Hermes of Praxiteles” in which the god holds the baby Dionysos. Despite Hermes’ typically perfect body, this statue is hardly a model of the competitive athletic. The original Olympic games were held in honour of the king of the gods, Zeus, and there is a clear connection of this statue to Zeus. Dionysos’s mother was consumed when her lover Zeus revealed himself to her. Zeus saved the unborn child inside her and gave it to Hermes to take to the nymphs to be nursed and brought  up. Here Hermes has paused on his flight to amuse the infant Dionysos with a charm in his right  hand – now missing.  From the direction of this photo Hermes looks serious, but when seen from the left his face is sad, when from the right, smiling.

The Hermes of PraxitelesWhy don’t we use this emotionally complex image of surrogate fatherhood as an image for the Olympics? Perhaps because while Hermes’ body is perfect, the statue is hardly a marker of competitive individualism or struggle  that the Olympic Games seem to valorise above all else.

What’s at stake, then, in using as the icon of international sporting competition a Roman copy of an emotionally blank athlete? I leave that for yourselves to ponder for the moment. What I will say is that the very idea of the discobolos and discus throwing as the embodiment of the Olympics started at the very first international Olympic Games in 1896. I’ll talk a bit about those first Games before going on to discuss briefly the most famous of all movies about the Olympics, Leni Riefenstahl’s amazing 1938 two-parter, Olympia, as a way of setting up and contrasting with the talk that will follow mine, a discussion of the 1948 London Olympics by our colleagues from History.

Part 2 is here.