When it comes to discussing the work of Leni Riefenstahl it becomes almost impossible for any writer not to resort to overused clichés: greatest, astounding, incredible, are all words that you will likely read more than once placed next to the German director's name.
Olympia (1938), the famous sports documentary which the Nazi propaganda machine unleashed to commemorate the Olympic Games in Berlin, is often seen by film scholars as one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema. Both beautiful to watch and at the same time intimidating with its politically-charged agenda Olympia reveals a state firmly placed in the iron grip of a man with a dangerous mission.
Olympia is divided into two parts-the first one titled Festival of the Nations and the second titled Festival of Beauty. As one could probably easily guess both of these episodes focus on specific aspects from the Olympic Games which the Nazi ideologists decided to twist in a manner suiting best their political goals. From the enormous emphasis on male athleticism (the white male and its "physical supremacy" is indeed the focus of attention here) to the unbridled German enthusiasm for winning (the footage showcasing the aftermath of the American victories is strangely absent here) Olympia seems to be consistently highlighting the potency of the new German state.
Even with all of the above in mind however Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia is not a typical piece of propaganda where purely political statements are being made. I always thought that while the footage seen clearly offers plenty of what one might describe as intentional proliferation of German supremacy in the heart of the documentary lies the desire to capture the spirit of a great sporting event. Certainly the fact that Leni Riefenstahl's camera spends plenty of time on winning athletes from different nationalities seems to support such a claim.
Unlike the German director's notorious, and rightfully tagged as Nazi-propaganda piece, Das Dokument vom Reichsparteitag a.k.a Triumph of the Will (1935), her follow-up Olympia also remains rather tame in its portrayal of Hitler. Even though we see him being joyful, annoyed, or simply enthused by the crowds Leni Riefenstahl's camera hardly treats his presence with the amount of respect we witnessed in Triumph of the Will. Certainly there are moments when we sense that his approval of what is happening on the field is being emphasized yet in general it is the Olympic Games and those participating in them that take precedence over everything else.
I don't know how much of an enjoyment this film would be for sport enthusiasts who might walk into it expecting to see a panorama of images from a historic sporting event that took place under some strange socio-political conditions. Yes, the fact that the Olympic Games were held under the gaze of Hitler and its supporters surely places a strange enigma next to them yet somehow I think that those looking to witness a purely political piece of cinema or simply a faithful sporting documentary will walk away somewhat disappointed.
How Does the DVD Look?
I am aware that many were hoping to see a deserving R1 release of Olympia in this produced by Pathfinder Home Entertainment DVD. Unfortunately the presentation which I will address below ranges from bad to poor!
Let's begin with the fact that this-newly released disc appears to have been delivered from a secondary PAL source and as a result there is a large amount of "ghosting" as well as "combing" present. Given the rather complicated nature of the film elements used (dated materials, visibly damaged footage, etc). it might be a bit more difficult to spot the above occurrences however clearly the incorrect sourcing appears to be a major issue here. Aside from the PAL sourcing the actual quality of the print used is nothing short of disappointing. In fact, I am very much convinced that what we are seeing here has been provided from an analog master. Furthermore, the image is shaky, distractingly unstable at times, with plenty of damage throughout.
Before I continue further on with the review allow me to point out that when I state that the image reveals various issues of concern what I mean has absolutely nothing to do with the age of the materials provided. The side damage I mentioned above clearly could have been addressed by the producers of this DVD set.
In addition to the poor treatment the disc has received so far I also must report that more than once the print reveals a strange yellowish tinge (as close as I could describe it would be something resembling heavy digital noise and/or aliasing) in addition to smearing. To sum it all up this is one dirty, digitally unconditioned, presentation that leaves me utterly disappointed and frankly saddened to see that Olympia will be on the US market in such questionable condition.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Each of the two episodes of Olympia are presented individually (a disc for each feature) and they both offer English dubs in addition to the German mono tracks. This being said, the audio presentation is pretty close to the video presentation: disappointing. Balance is virtually non-existent, hissing is often present, and I sense that not much restoration has been provided here either. Finally the German tracks come with optional yellow, rather large, English subtitles.
Perhaps the only good part about this DVD is the fact that there are quite a few extras provided. On disc 1 you will find the so-called "English version opening" which provides the film with a friendly English prologue.
On disc 2 where all of the extras appear you will find: a biography of Leni Riefenstahl in text format where event from her life and career have been highlighted. Next, there is a short deleted scene titled "Olympia Oath" in which you will see Hitler greeting the blocks of athletes in the middle of the Olympic stadium as well as the torch being carried by an athlete. Next, we have six alternate scenes (Sailing, Gymnastics, Fencing, Wrestling, Boxing, Scoreboards) from the Italian version of the film which were not included in the German release. Each of those scenes in rather short. Next, there is an informative gallery of stills. Next, there is a large essay by David Calvert Smith titled Olympia-Documentary or Propaganda Film? which attempts to shed some light on the true motives behind the creation of this film. Next, there is the short Jugen Der Welt a.k.a Youth of the World (1936) which is the official documentary for the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The feature is quite similar in spirit to Olympia showing Hitler's greeting to the athletes and various scenes from the event. Next, is the short Die Kamera Fahrt Mit a.k.a The Camera Goes Along: a 1936 documentary by Bavaria Filmkunst offering footage from Olympia and Triumph of the Will. The short is provided with optional English subtitles.
Despite of the excellent extras this presentation of Olympia is by all means quite disappointing. The video treatment is far from deserving for a film of such magnitude and I believe that many will think twice before they decide to purchase this double set. Nothing else left to say really…perhaps somewhere along the way another company will provide a better DVD presentation.