The first twenty-two minutes of Olympia (part one): Festival of the Nations (1938) is a non-verbal, historical presentation that lacks any dialogue or use of descriptive title cards. For the first several minutes the viewer bears witness to a sequence of events that begins with several images of the architectural ruins of Greece, followed by several images of Grecian athletes in mid-pose as they are performing an athletic activity. Then there is an appearance of several live actors reenacting the same physical activities in full regalia. At the end of the sequence, a fire is lit upon the edge of a torch that will be carried from the architectural ruins of Greece to the “present day” Germany (circa 1936). The documentary film was influenced by the time in which it was produced, but it was innovative enough to influence the future of sports broadcasting.
The film’s director, Leni Riefenstahl, is one of the most recognized figures in the history of Germany’s film industry. She is a brilliantly innovative female director who was a creative perfectionist with her work more than any other attribute. By many outsiders, predominantly by American political spinners during the era of World War II, she was labeled as a German propagandist when she directed the famous documentary Triumph of the Will (1935). The cinematic techniques that she had designed for both of the films, Triumph and Olympia, have been utilized in several thousand films and television shows since their theatrical release.
Returning to the subject matter of the opening sequence from the first installment of Olympia it is with artistic interest that Riefenstahl has established an introduction without relying upon a heavy use of verbal dialogue. During the first section of the opening montage the viewer bears witness to several different camera shots that includes (a) several wide shots to display the immensity of the ancient Grecian buildings, (b) medium shots to display how the handcrafted pieces of the buildings fit together uniformly, and (c) several close ups to display the details of the handiwork in addition to the rubble in which they have been degraded to over the immense lapse of time which they have weathered.
Here is a video clip of the opening sequence so that you may view the material for yourself.
The editing of this particular section is composed with the use of several lengthy dissolves, and even an intriguing use of a wipe that is used as a transition from a wide static shot of a ruined building to a tracking shot that runs alongside a rock wall. At the end of the first section, there is an appearance of a statue amidst the ruins. It serves as a visual cue for a transition, using another dissolve, to the next section that is filled with several athletic statues in mid-pose.
The montage of the statues ends with a beautifully used dissolve between two matching shots: the first one of a statue in mid-thrust of a discus throw, and that of a living human in the process of completing the physical maneuver. Perhaps the most enthralling section of the entire opening sequence is the passing of the torch.
It begins in Ancient Greece where the torch is lit and then carried from runner to runner on a course northwest bound toward modern day Germany. As the torch travels across the land, the editor utilizes several half-dissolves to layer together the image of national flags, animated maps, and the image of the runner who carries the torch across Europe.
This particular film is an amazing testament to the innovative talent that Leni Riefenstahl had used to create every single filmed shot, cut, and dissolve. I would like to consider Olympia as an early innovator to sports broadcasting and a historical record of the international Olympic games. The two installments of the films are worth a viewing by everyone regardless of the “propaganda” banner that was mistakenly placed upon its director.
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