Olympia (1938 film)

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Olympia (1938 film), Poster I.jpg

Olympia is a 1938 German sports film written, directed and produced by Leni Riefenstahl, which documented the 1936 Summer Olympics, held mainly in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany.


Olympia (1938 film), Poster II.jpg
Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf (Beauty in the Olympic Games).jpg

The masterpiece with it's beautiful film score, the first ever sports documentary, still praised as "splendid artistry" 84 years later, was released in two parts:

  • Olympia 1. Teil — Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations)
  • Olympia 2. Teil — Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty)

It was the first documentary feature film of an Olympic Games ever made. Many advanced motion picture techniques, which later became industry standards but which were groundbreaking at the time, were employed. The opening scenes of the ruins of Mount Olympus and Ancient Greek statuary, shot in moody, shadowy lighting. The opening montage segues from Greek statuary to live Olympic athletes by showing the famous ancient "Discobolus" statue, then cutting to German decathlete Erwin Huber striking an identical pose, discus in hand. Leni Riefenstahl is one of the naked women in the opening montage.

The whole opening sequence—the establishing shots of Mount Olympus and the statuary, the Fanservice montage of naked athletes, the Olympic torch relay from Greece to Berlin—is shot without any dialogue. The first words spoken in the movie are Adolf Hitler declaring the Games open, over 20 minutes in. Part II has a similar opening sequence of the same length, showing athletes training and relaxing in the Olympic Village, then the gymnastics competition, also without dialogue.


  • Although Leni Riefenstahl's documentary film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, called “Olympia,” has become an acknowledged classic, her book of photographs (1937), “Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf” (Beauty in the Olympic Games), is less known but no less spectacular. Sometimes Riefenstahl relied on poses modeled on the antique Greek ideal… But far more original were her depictions of superbly athletic bodies soaring gracefully through the air and knifing effortlessly through the water. Riefenstahl applied certain devices characteristic of the new German photography – strong diagonals, tight croppings, and bird's-eye and worm's-eye views. No longer was the camera an earthbound witness; it took to the air and the water with the athletes.[1]
  • The resulting film is something of a mixed bag. There are many shots of Hitler in his box, there are swastika flags everywhere, and the 800m race is introduced as “two black runners against the strongest of the white race”. (The aforementioned black runners, John Woodruff and Phil Edwards, finished first and third.) However, Jesse Owens also gets a lot of admiring coverage, including a shot of him bashfully smiling at the camera after he defeated Luz Long in the long jump. And much like Triumph of The Will, the cinematography is stunningly beautiful. Regardless of to what degree the film is viewed as Nazi propaganda, it is recognized as hugely influential in the depiction of sporting events, with groundbreaking techniques like slo-mo and tracking shots of athletes in motion that have been used aplenty ever since. The Olympic torch relay shown at the beginnning of Part I was the first ever, having been invented by the Nazis for this ceremony. Captain Nishi, the Japanese steeplechase rider shown taking a spill, was killed in action at Iwo Jima in 1945 (it is depicted in Letters from Iwo Jima).[2]
  • Never had audiences seen such a vast assemblage of the Olympic Games in the motion picture medium. Leni Riefenstahl and her army of cameramen capture the events and nuances of the games as never manifested on screen before. To put into context, audiences to this point would have only seen images of the games in snippets in a newsreel from time to time, but here the German filmmaker tries to capture all of the grandeur of what goes into this large gathering of world’s greatest athletes. With wide use of close ups, angular shots, majestic aerial views, long dolly tracking shots, and angles that seem to be coming up from the ground, Riefenstahl brings audiences closer to the games than they could have ever imagined. It allows people to see the men and women focused, perspiring, conquering, failing, evoking that these athletes are almost gods among men; the finest specimens of the human body. [...] The film induces the theme of the games to its core as a time of world piece for two weeks that the summer in friendly competition. With all the nations flags and many of the winners’ national anthems playing interspersed the grand visions and even more imposing score, the film makes the games more than just a singular event, but makes the film a capsule for all time, that of an age of greatness that took place in Berlin. [...] Staged in stadium that sat over 100,000 spectators, meant to overshadow the grandeur of Coliseum in Los Angeles where the previous Olympic Games were held in 1932, Riefensthal would make the most of her creative freedom with the Olympic setting, planning shots months before the events, paying off with views of the sports unseen previously, accented by the splendor of her filmmaking. Many aerial shots of the Olympic ground and creatively new techniques in slow motion and even underwater photography would bring the games to an art form instead of just competition. 1936 would introduce a new element to the Olympic Game opening ceremony that continued for every games since, the Olympic torch relay. [...] After the conclusion of the games Riefenstahl’s own production company would receive added funds from another studio for distribution in Tobis, taking two years for the filmmaker to finish that final masterpiece. The final product would be a master of presentation for sports. Released in 1938, Olympia would be praised wildly [...] Olympia by all right should be looked at as a groundbreaking picture, a peak of the cinema world at its time forever capturing brief moments in the world that can be long remembered as nations seemingly at piece would be on the brink of war.[3]


The film won several awards:

  • National Film Prize (1937–1938)
  • Venice International Film Festival (1938) — Coppa Mussolini (Best Film)
  • Greek Sports Prize (1938)
  • Olympic Gold Medal from the International Olympic Committee (1939)
  • Lausanne International Film Festival (1948) — Olympic Diploma

The Film

Olympia 1. Teil — Fest der Völker:

Olympia 2. Teil — Fest der Schönheit:


  1. Source: William A. Ewing, “The Body”
  2. Film / Olympia
  3. Olympia (1938)