Much has been written about Leni Riefenstahl's outstanding documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the director's position as Adolph Hitler's favoured documentary filmmaker, so in this review we'll focus on the nitty-gritty of Pathfinder's new 2-disc limited set in their bannered Leni Riefenstahl Archival Collection, and the unique extras that deserve some examination.
Long available on VHS around the world, Olympia was given a definitive release on laserdisc by Criterion, with a crisp, beautiful transfer, supervised by Riefenstahl, from an original 35mm print. A number of the director's films are available on commercial, grey-level DVD and DVD-R releases, and while Olympia may, at this point, have fallen into public domain status, the film was originally produced and owned by Riefenstahl - evidenced by a copyright notice at the end of both parts on Criterion's laserdisc, but only on Part 1 in Pathfinder's set (as the final seconds are clipped).
Criterion's beautifully packaged gatefold set was a film-only edition, featuring the English release version with an English dub track (via a Britisher announcer) and no subtitles for any sequences involving foreign languages, including Hitler's opening-of-the-games speech in Part 1. This version also had its own English titles, which were zoomed in, resulting in text bleeding off the TV screen - a problem present on both the Criterion source print, and the archived English title sequence on Pathfinder's Disc 1.
Pathfinder's 2-disc set essentially contains Olympia with its original German language track and titles, and is billed as a restored and uncut edition.
Part 1: Festival of the Nations apparently runs the same 114 mins. as Criterion's cut, and the only surviving deletion made from German and English versions after WWII is an early speech by Germany's Reichssportsfuhrer, Tschammer von Osten, which followed the torch bearer's lighting of the ceremonial brazier. Deliberately grabbing the Nazi flag and holding out his arm, von Osten says rather blandly, "In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams."
From there, we continue with the huge opening ceremonies, with Herbert Windt's lilting chorales and Wagnerian fugues giving the images added grandeur. Pathfinder's source for this brief snippet is from an Italian print (watermarked M&R Films), which has original burnt-in Italian subtitles, while all foreign language bits in Olympia Parts 1 and 2 - plus the deleted and alternate materials on Disc 2 - have optional English subtitles.
The alternate footage for five sporting events is given less detail in the DVD essay, and some of the footage looks fairly identical to what's in the final print, except for the score board material, which is in Italian. The only text notation in the Alternate Scene gallery is that the material was not included in the original German version (which one may have to presume, main titles excepted, is identical to the English language version, as the essay doesn't go for precise differences between either release version, except for some postwar cuts that eliminated scenes or material deemed to glorify Nazism).
(Note: while Pathfinder's set offers rarely seen material, never before seen outtakes from the Olympia shoot made their TV debut in Hitler's Women: Leni Riefenstahl, The Film Director, part of a six episode German-American series broadcast on the Discovery Channel after her death in 2003. In two sections, Hitler is seen rocking back and forth among spectators, and later he's captured shoving a flower-bearing fan away. Backed by recollections from the original cameraman, the short TV doc also contains extracts from rare French, German, and American newsreels as Riefenstahl traveled the world as a celebrity, some behind-the-scenes footage as she directed models for the film's famous prologue, and extracts from a 1998 interview regarding the film's production, including the two-year editing session.)
Criterion's source prints for both parts were from the Janus Film Collection, whereas Pathfinder's seems to be from an old VHS or 3/4" PAL video master, with murky details, muddy contrasts, and nasty compression and artifacting in several spots - a marked difference from the Criterion edition (and a key reason to hold onto that laserdisc if you're lucky enough to own it).
Pathfinder's source print of Part 2: Festival of Beauty, however, runs about 3 mins. longer than the 85 min. Criterion edition, although there's no mention on the DVD as to what specific material was found and re-integrated into the film. (These restored sequences lack an English dub track, but are subtitled. A German Region 2 PAL set from Kinowelt/Arthaus is listed as having a running time of 89 mins., although that release only contains a German language track.)
The German and English audio tracks are less crisp than Criterion's cleaned-up English dub track, but Windt's powerful score comes through in each of the film's memorable sequences. The composer had previously scored Riefenstahl's documentary debut, Sieg des Glaubens / Victory of the Faith (1933), and Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will. (Note: for more details on Windt's controversial career as a top Third Reich composer, check out "Composing for Hitler: Film music of Herbert Windt" by Stefan Schmidl, in Film Score Monthly's July 2006 Online Edition.)
Compared to the Criterion edition, Pathfinder's set is loaded with some really tantalizing goodies. A stills gallery features both film stills and some intriguing behind-the-scenes snapshots, with Riefenstahl appearing in some, frozen in that ridiculous 'director in action' celluloid frieze typical of publicity fodder. (Intriguing, however, are the myriad cameras, and unique underwater housings designed to capture the diving shot.)
A biographical essay gives a good chronology of Riefenstahl's career, particularly her final film projects, which included her 2002 underwater documentary, Impressionen unter Wasser / Underwater Impressions (glimpsed in Ray Müller's marvelous 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, and later released in complete form on DVD in Asia and Germany), and her abbreviated return in 2000 to the Sudan (documented in Muller's Leni Riefenstahl: Ein Traum von Afrika, and broadcast on European TV in an edited version as Leni Riefenstahl im Sudan).
Of greater interest are a pair of vintage newsreels that borrow footage from Olympia, and each other.
Jugend der Welt / Youth of the World is an extended newsreel that gathers footage from several camera teams (including Fox and Paramount , whose cameramen also participated in the Olympia shoot) and assembles material from the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in fairly clunky montages.
Scored by Third Reich composer Walter Gronostay, Jugend copies Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will prologue by moving from snow-capped mountains down to tumbling clouds of mist, and the opening ceremonies. Intercutting many shots of Hitler and his cronies between competing athletes, the sequence has the Fuhrer giving a similar oration on good sportsmanship, and the familiar self-aggrandizing montage of marching soldiers, 'heiling' crowds, and omnipotent march music. The sports sequences are inelegant, the editing inept, and stylistic twists - some jump cuts, and parallel editing between airborne ski jumpers and hawks - feel like third-rate hackmanship.
The bobsled race has some intriguing moments where a bad track frequently causes sleds to brush the edge of a narrow turn and dramatically wipe out, but like other sequences, there's grating use of looped and canned sound effects. The finale is comprised of fireworks, and some cutaways to alert soldiers further enhances the newsreel's purpose as a propaganda piece demonstrating native physical and military strength in what's supposed to be a newsreel of a non-political event.
The fact newsreels were a key tool in Goebbels' propaganda machine is even more evident in the DVD's second newsreel, Die Kamera Fahrt Mit / The Camera Goes Along (subtitled 'The Work of the News"), from 1937.
Basically a promo piece that shows the newsreel unit in action, with a particular emphasis on photographing, editing, scoring, dubbing, and the inimitable contribution of the lowly Glue Girl (neg cutter), the short promo includes some very brief footage of a massive tabletop stadium model designed to help position camera crews and spotlights, and moments as a crew head for the 1936 Winter Olympics. Here, there's a dramatic qualitative difference between the dupe footage used in this promo versus the aforementioned Olympic newsreel that's murky, washed out, and resembles a 20th generation copy - a less frequent problem affecting the newsreels of Hollywood studios, whose inventory wasn't lost or banned after a World War.
In spite of the accessible design of the newsreel - and a concluding moment involving a bi-plane stuntman getting clocked in Take 1 of a separate news item - it's very clear that The Camera Goes Along is a promo reel crafted to evoke a synergic relationship between the new political regime and the government-controlled news organization. Over footage of Hitler, flags, marching soldiers and incessant march music, the narration croons:
"In the new Germany , the news has a different point of view, but an artistic point of view of the greatest experience of our time. The union of state and people, Fuhrer and society gives the Deutchen Wochenshau (German News) a historical objective. The backing of the Fuhrer and of the people in such a large presentation also gives credibility to and makes this graphic document of the new large German society possible."
In a pre-satellite era with oceans and languages dividing entire nations, the bombardment of images, sound, and key words in theatres, newsreels and films were a powerful tool for the Nazi regime, and if anything, this promo demonstrates the total control that would produce nasty works like Der Erwige Jude / The Eternal Jew and Jud Süß / The Sweet Jew - both from 1940.
(1940 also yielded a curious spin-off from Riefenstahl's film - Wunschkonzert - Eduard von Borsody's romance that used footage from Olympia to enhance the film's story about a woman who meets a man at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and maintains a romance when he goes off to war.)
Riefenstahl's Olympia is a grand sports symphony, and while it has its residual (or lingering) nods to the Third Reich and the director's own grand fixation with beautiful human forms in motion, there are moments that managed to preserve a level of editorial balance: in Jugend der Welt, winning athletes of rival countries are given a singular shot of their billowing, native flag to celebrate their victory, whereas all German winners get a whole montage , intercutting the flag and visages of jubilant Aryans in a far longer ode to a greater kind of triumph; in Olympia, both the German and English dub tracks contain the same sound effects, including American fans chanting a perfectly audible "U-S-A!" as Jesse Owens readies for his career-making and symbolic victory - a discreet detail that would've been snipped from the film under the dominance of the Ministry of Propaganda.
Overall, the picture quality, heavy compression, and imperfect PAL to NTSC conversion reduces the uniqueness of this longer version of Olympia (thereby begging for a Criterion edition), but there are some significant extras that make Pathfinder's reasonably priced set worth picking up. It's a real mixed bag, and a major disappointment for those hoping this landmark in filmmaking would get a definitive release, but Pathfinder's stumble means another label now has a chance to do it right.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan