In her previous feature-length documentary, Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl made Adolf Hitler a movie star. In Olympia, her two-part record of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games — titled Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty — the German director laid the same blessing on the American black athlete Jesse Owens. For Riefenstahl, perhaps the finest female director in cinema history and certainly its most notorious, really had no politics. Rather, she was a prime rhapsodizer of both geometric spectacle (Nazi architect Albert Speer was Triumph‘s production designer) and the glorious human body in action (in Olympia). An athlete from her youth, Riefenstahl began her career as a dancer in Ways to Strength and Beauty, then became the silent star of Germany’s mountain films, her svelte, handsome form clambering over precipices and skiing down treacherous slopes. She admired athletic prowess from the inside and knew, instinctively, how to photograph it.
All televised sport, not to mention nearly every sports film, is indebted to Olympia. It pioneered such techniques as placing cameras in balloons, in ditches, on a track racing with the sprinters, underwater as divers slice into the Olympic pool. More important, the film personalized the athletes: the glint of confidence on Owens’ face, the exhaustion of the marathoners as each painful step leads toward the stadium. In a way, Riefenstahl’s achievements here are more impressive than those of fiction-film directors. They had a script; she had only miles of footage (250 miles) to be scanned and scissored into art. She did it, controlling every frame of both films herself.
Olympia was a worldwide hit, but Riefenstahl’s reputation as “Hitler’s Pin-Up Girl” (the title of Budd Schulberg’s 1946 article on her for the Saturday Evening Post) stymied her film career. In the second half of her long life she took photographs of Nuba tribesmen and, in her 90s, still astonishingly spry and curious, worked on a scuba-diving documentary — starring, of course, herself. Underwater Impressions was released in 2002 on her 100th birthday; she died a year later.