Techniques from Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (1938)

Techniques from Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (1938)

Film nerds are constantly like “GASP! Is Triumph of the Will a propaganda film??? Dat cinematography tho….”

And it’s like… Dawgs… Have you not fuggin SEEN Triumph of the Will?

It’s a straight up cinematic celebration of Adolf Hitler and his political party!

Triumph of the Will is a documentary idealizing a Nazi rally. It was meant to hype the Germans internally as well as the global audience external to Germany… The purpose? To persuade people of the strength of Nazism.

Yahhhh bro, that shit is about as propaganda as it gets. It definitely does not warrant the nonsensical prompt of… “But it be propaganda doe?” Yes, it’s propaganda. Moving on —

The movie by Leni Riefenstahl that deserves this level of inquiry is actually the one she made a few years after Triumph… her take on the 1936 Berlin Olympics, titled Olympia.

On the surface, Olympia appears to be a documentary covering a global event. In many ways, it looks like an older version of modern Olympics recap videos.

The funny thing is that it looks like the modern highlights videos because Riefenstahl originated many of those techniques in her film.

But I will say this — “Is Olympia propaganda?” is a far more fascinating subject than “Is Triumph of the Will propaganda?” Triumph, despite the innovations in its production style / cinematography / editing, is a clear cut Nazi propaganda poster.

Yes yes, one could replace Hitler & Nazis with Trump & his rallies, for example, and arrive at an analysis that could be parallel.

But then the discussion is back at the level of super-liminal obviousness: Hitler / Trump are considered glorious figures because the camera angle is low; perspective effects are used to artificially increase the size of the crowd; selective editing functions to push political ideas forward; etc.

You can change the political leader / nation / era / but everybody has an implicit understanding that these things are propaganda for their respective subjects.

Olympia, on the other hand, looks practically identical to modern cinema. Nothing inside the movie is obviously propaganda like… It appears & feels very documentary.

And that’s where the propaganda magick lies.

In this film, the propaganda is invisible. Things appear to be as if they truly are.

But in many ways it’s the same thing as in Triumph of the Will

A mixture of production style / camera angles / and editing combine to create this macro-sensation of thoughts & feelings.

I’m not going to discuss the nature of the propaganda in Olympia here because, well, that’s not what I want to talk about.

I mean, in short — It has to do with the superiority of Nazi Germany & the reaffirmation of the race-blood theory (white civilization as a megalithic expression of humanity via spotlight spectacles; the invention of the Olympic torch intro; the construction of giant neoclassical stadiums; the juxtaposition of the white sportsmen with ancient Greek sculptures; etc).

Blah blah, white supremacy, typical BS.

Here’s the techniques that stood out to me in the film, propaganda or not —

  1. Slow motion footage mixed with regular sync sound.

  2. Myth-like narrative threads.

  3. The Big Event as a metaphor; as a theme.

  4. Telephoto lenses are dope. Great for capturing action, actually.

  5. Stage moments in order to get the camera close to the action — this creates a uniquely cinematic record of the documentary event. Although it may be fake (in terms of being staged for the camera), it’s absolutely real — as it’s a moment that could only be captured with official Olympics cooperation in Berlin during 1936.

  6. Have many, many, many, many cinematographers on set. Shoot A LOT A LOT!

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