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Leni Riefenstahl's 'Olympia'

By Bud Greenspan

From Leni Riefenstahl’s 'Olympia'

There is no question that Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, her 1936 masterpiece of the Berlin Olympic Games, is the main reason I became a documentary filmmaker.

She was the original storyteller, introducing innovative techniques that we all try to emulate today. Even with modern technology, which brings intimate beauty and drama to today’s filming of sporting events, what producers claim to be innovative only have to view Olympia to realize that it all began almost 70 years ago with Riefenstahl’s Olympic epic.

One would think that, with Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels as her bosses, Riefenstahl had an easy time of it. Not so. She had to fight for camera positions, and she lost many battles that prevented her from using much of her innovative techniques.

Today’s camera-without-operator, designed to move on steel tracks at the same speed as the runners, was first introduced by Riefenstahl, but her idea never made it to the screen. A few days before the Games began, the International Olympic Committee ruled that the camera was too distracting to the runners, and she had to dismantle the apparatus.

She also received permission to dig pits for cameramen at key vantage points for filming low angle images. At the last minute, officials ordered many of her key pit positions refilled. Instead her cameraman used 600mm telephoto lenses to capture full-screen headshots of Jesse Owens and other Olympic heroes.

Riefenstahl also introduced the 1936 version of “Goodyear blimp” overhead shots, but IOC officials turned that down as too dangerous. She even tried tying small cameras to balloons and letting them fly over the action, but the end result was just unuseable footage.

Most people who see Olympia today are somewhat taken aback when they learn that many of her most effective sequences were filmed before and after the Games. In particular, the poetic diving sequences with no narration and haunting musical background is a combination of pre-, during and post-Games shots, seamlessly blended together.

The rowing sequences from inside the shell, of course, were done during practice sessions, since the cameraman had to be in the boat—an impossibility during the actual race.

Her version of the grueling marathon was also a combination of before, during and after sequences. To avoid what she thought was monotonous, Riefenstahl inserted shots of a marathoner’s legs, piston-like, in sync with the musical background. Added to this were shots of legs bouncing low off the pavement, giving the race a surrealist look.

Perhaps the most amateurish section of Olympia is her depiction of the men’s pole vault. Because it was early evening, with the sun going down, filming had to be stopped at the most critical point of the competition, between one American and two Japanese. Riefenstahl prevailed upon the three finalists to reshoot the dramatic ending, won by the American Earl Meadows the next day. Even the most uneducated eye can see where the actual film of the event is halted and the next day inserts placed in—a small aberration to an otherwise incredible documentary.


Bud Greenspan has been called the foremost writer/producer/director of sports films and one of the world's leading sports historians. His most recent production, Sydney 2000 Olympics: Bud Greenspan's Gold From Down Under will premiere on Showtime in August.