The history, the scandals and the indomitable woman behind Nazi Germany’s epic sports film.
In February 1936, Leni Riefenstahl was preparing to shoot a film so controversial it would still have the world’s opinion divided 80 years on. Her two-part Olympia, which captured the Berlin Olympic Games, has been heralded as an artistic achievement and criticised as Nazi propaganda. With the jury still out, here are a few lesser-known facts about Riefenstahl’s contentious documentary that’ll help you reach your own verdict.
The 1936 Olympics
When Berlin was awarded the Games by the International Olympic Committee in 1931, Adolf Hitler was still two years away from clinching power. When the dictator rose to the fore, the competition quickly became the Nazis’ pet project. Hitler, along with his right-hand man Joseph Goebbels, spotted the propaganda potential of the Olympics and set about exploiting it. By officially allowing ethnic minorities, including Jews, to compete (albeit with nowhere to train), Hitler masked the racial policies his party would later go on to enforce so severely. Olympia was the perfect platform from which to exalt the Reich – something Hitler and Goebbels knew fully well, but which Riefenstahl later ardently denied.
To realise his Olympic dream, Hitler ordered the construction of a gargantuan sports complex to host the event. Albert Speer and Werner March were tasked with designing the new Olympic Park. Its centrepiece was the Grecian-inspired 100,000-seat Olympic Stadium, which still stands in Charlottenburg. In nearby Elstal (now Wustermark), a sprawling Olympic Village was built to house 5000 athletes. Hitler also ensured Berlin scrubbed up for the occasion: anti-Semitic posters were stowed well out of sight and to make way for the stadium, thousands of Roma people were relocated to a Marzahn facility that would become the Nazis’ first concentration camp.
You’d think that a film about a Nazi-funded Olympics would give Hitler a prominent part, but you’d be wrong. Actually, the two main stars of Olympia have nothing to do with National Socialism. In fact, the first, Jesse Owens, was Nazism’s ultimate antithesis. The African American athlete was the most successful Olympian at the Games, claiming a tally of four gold medals. Riefenstahl emphatically captured him storming the 100-metre-dash finals and soaring through the air in the long jump.
Riefenstahl’s second hero was Glenn Morris, the American sportsman who won decathlon gold. For Riefenstahl, Morris embodied the Olympic ideal – his rippling muscular physique and ambition on the track left her weak at the knees. So consumed was she by Morris’ presence that she forgot to film his victory in the 5000m race. Fortunately, he agreed to run an additional 5000m the following day, staged entirely for her cameras. In her memoirs, Riefenstahl alludes to a brief fling with the Colorado-born athlete. After he claimed his medal, she says, “He grabbed me in his arms, ripped off my blouse, and kissed my breasts right in the middle of the stadium, in front of a hundred thousand spectators.” In actual fact the ceremony was a sedate one, with Morris receiving his award from Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun. Following his silver screen debut in Olympia, Morris went on to have a short-lived acting career, starring as Tarzan in the massively underwhelming Tarzan’s Revenge (1938). He was the fourth Olympian to play the loin-clothed legend, a role earlier occupied by the swimmer Johnny Weissmuller.
After getting the go-ahead from Hitler to film Olympia in August 1935, Riefenstahl made it her duty to assemble the best cameramen she could find. Having met on the set of Arnold Fanck’s S.O.S. Eisberg (1933), Riefenstahl picked Hans Ertl as her chief cameraman. Another of Fanck’s protégés, Kurt Neubert, joined the team after impressing Riefenstahl with his camerawork on The Holy Mountain, a triumph of the Bergfilm (mountaineering film) genre. Completing the team were Willy Zielke and Ernst Kunstmann, who’d helped shoot Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935), and the relatively unknown Hans Scheib. These five men formed the core of Olympia’s 48-strong camera crew. The single most vital quality Riefenstahl sought in her recruits was that they were compliant and willing to kowtow to her authoritarian demands.
The sideshow that went along with Olympia was as spectacular as the film itself. Pairing tyranny with tears, Riefenstahl’s mood teetered on a knife-edge throughout the 16-day event. And this infuriated her boss, Goebbels. On August 6, the propaganda minister decried her in his diary: “Riefenstahl is acting unspeakably. A hysterical woman. Clearly not a man!” Goebbels also saw fault in her irresponsible handling of the film’s 1.5 million-Reichsmark (about €19 million) budget. In October 1936 he audited Olympia’s accounts to find that Riefenstahl had lavished money on motorboats, lovers, cars and luxury items. Enraged, Goebbels forced Riefenstahl to fire her press officer, Ernst Jäger, on the grounds he was married to a Jewish woman.
When Riefenstahl requested an extra 500,000 Reichsmark to pay for the English, French and Italian versions of the film, her boss vented his disdain. “It is impossible to work with this wild woman, now she wants half a million more,” he scrawled on November 6. “Yet it stinks to high heaven in her shop.” With Goebbels on the brink of requesting Riefenstahl’s removal, she dashed off to the Reichstag to pay Hitler an impromptu visit. “My nerves were in such a poor state that I began to weep unrestrainedly,” she recalled of the November 11 meeting. Summoning her tears, Riefenstahl begged Hitler for an extra injection of cash and complained about Goebbels’ harassment. A couple of days later she received her half a million and Olympia was moved under the watchful eye of Rudolf Hess. Years after the war, Riefenstahl purported that Goebbels had tried to initiate an affair with her in 1932, and his vendetta was aroused after she quashed his sexual advances. “The Minister of Propaganda never forgave me for that humiliation,” she wrote. No matter his detestation of the woman, Goebbels always respected Riefenstahl the artist. He confides in his diaries that her Olympia was “a masterly achievement” and that “one is electrified by the power, the depth, the beauty”.
Riefenstahl on set
Breaking cinematic ground
Olympia pioneered a range of shooting techniques that are still used to film sports today. Scheib’s telescopic shots of long distance runners and Ertl’s underwater footage of the diving competition were at the very vanguard of the day’s technological capabilities. Trenches were dug in the Olympic Stadium to track airborne pole-vaulters, camera-fitted helium balloons were set aloft for aerial shots and 30 foot steel gantries were erected to film award ceremonies. Riefenstahl even used a 1930s-style GoPro, the Kinamo: a tiny camera, capable of holding 100 feet of film, which was strapped to marathon runners to capture first-person footage. To deal with the monstrous amount of film the crew was churning out – roughly 15,000m per day – the Geyer Works laboratory charged with processing the film had to build a brand-new machine that was capable of developing 1200 metres per hour. Four vans were used to ferry film to and from the Olympic Stadium, two of which had onboard darkrooms fitted to expedite the process.
Admirers, accolades and detractors
After three years in the making, Olympia was premiered at the UFA-Palast am Zoo (now the Zoo Palast) on April 20, 1938, Hitler’s 49th birthday. It was an instant hit. By the end of October 1938, the German receipts for Olympia amounted to four million Reichsmarks (€50.4 million). The film toured European capitals with dazzling gala premieres and landed awards including the Swedish Polar Prize and the Coppa Mussolini at the Venice Film Festival. From June to September, Riefenstahl toured the continent and collected clippings that called her “genius” and “a goddess”. She pricked the attention of world leaders from Scandinavian kings to Josef Stalin, who sent her a gushing letter of praise via the Russian ambassador in Berlin. Only in the UK did anti-German feelings run so high that her film didn’t find a distributor.
Worse was Olympia’s reception in the US. In early November 1938, Riefenstahl made a trip Stateside to promote the film. Only five days after her arrival in New York, the Nazis carried out the November 9 Kristallnacht pogrom, prompting Jewish-sympathetic Hollywood to organise a boycott in protest. Advertisements paid by the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in mags such as the Hollywood Reporter read: “Leni Riefenstahl, head of the Nazi film industry, has arrived in Hollywood. There is no room in Hollywood for Leni Riefenstahl!”
She did brush shoulders with famous admirers such as Henry Ford and Walt Disney, who she remembered as “warmly welcoming” – although Disney turned down an offer to watch Olympia and, arguably afraid of repercussions, later denied he knew who she actually was. Few Americans ended up seeing her film, but some did. After a screening of a Hitler-free edit at the exclusive California Club, the LA Times reported, “Olympia is in no way a propaganda production… it is a triumph for the camera and an epic poem of the screen.”
Following the war, Riefenstahl entered into a long dispute with the German National Archives for the rights to Olympia. In 1964, she brokered a common ownership agreement with the federal government that entitled her to 70 percent of the distribution fees. In December 2003, two months after her death at age 101, the film’s rights were sold on to the IOC in a deal supported by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.