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.
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.
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.
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.
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.