In acknowledgement of the 2020 Olympics, which would have kicked off in Tokyo last week, the Criterion Collection is streaming its monumental collection 100 Years of Olympic Films on their streaming platform, the Criterion Channel. The collection includes 53 films and covers 41 editions of the Olympic Games, from Stockholm in 1912 to London in 2012. Every weekday for two weeks, I'll highlight a different moment and film from the last century of Olympic films.
We had to talk about the Nazis eventually in this series. As the Criterion Channel notes, "More has been written about Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia than about any other sports documentary in history." And that's largely because of the interest in, well, all the Nazi shit.
The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic Games was the first Olympics to be televised, with Hitler using the event to push Nazi propaganda. His filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was reportedly given $7 million to create a documentary film around the games, titled Olympia. Riefenstahl is credited with pioneering many film techniques in Olympia, including the underwater camera, but the part I want to zoom in on is the invention of the torch relay.
The Olympic flame was reintroduced at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, but it wasn't until 1936, under the leadership of Olympic organizer Carl Diem and Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, that the torch relay was introduced. Hitler liked the idea because it "chimed perfectly with the Nazi belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich," explained the BBC in 2012.
Nothing captures this creation, or Hitler's belief of the connection between the German Reich and the Greek classics, better than Riefenstahl's opening for Olympia. In the sequence, Riefenstahl spends an excessive amount of time preoccupied with the alabaster bodies of Greek sculptures, before pivoting to the live alabaster bodies of Nazi athletes. These athletes light the Olympic torch and relay race from Olympia to Berlin. The race ends with an image of Hitler at the Berlin Games (above). We've repeated this ritual at every Olympic Games since. (Here's the current plan for the postponed 2021 Tokyo torch relay.)
It's reported that Hitler was initially hesitant to host the Olympics—Berlin was awarded the games before Nazis seized power in 1933—but he was ultimately swayed by the prospect of pushing Aryanism on the world. Famously, Jesse Owens undermined that entire plot by winning four gold medals, the most of any athlete at that Olympics, in 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and the 4 × 100-meter relay. Owens' overwhelming victory was impossible to edit out, and Riefenstahl's Olympia left plenty of footage of Owens winning—and winning and winning and winning. Hitler seethed while Owens stood taller than Nazi salutes.
Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations is currently available to watch on the Criterion Channel: