In March this year Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Direction for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow’s was in no way the first female-directed film worthy of such laurels. Chantal Akerman, Maya Deren, Claire Denis (who will be presenting the Un certain regard award at Cannes next week), Lina Wertmüller, Agnès Varda, Věra Chytilová, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion… the great pantheon of female direction ensures a presence in all styles and movements, from the experimental to the mainstream. There is one woman, however, who possessed such mastery of the camera that comparisons could only be made with the greatest. She was “an artist of unparalleled gifts… one of the great formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles.” Her name was Leni Riefenstahl.
Olympia, a two-part documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, seals Riefenstahl’s legacy as an innovator and aesthete as opposed to a mere propagandist. Where in Triumph of the Will her camera elevates Adolf Hitler to that of a deity, in Olympia such religious focus is placed upon the physiques of the athletes and the values of competition, regardless of their politics. In a memorable long shot of the flags high atop the Olympic Stadium, the swastika of Nazi Germany is quickly panned over as Riefenstahl’s gaze lingers on the five rings of the Olympic flag. The included shots of Hitler are not to glorify him but simply to document his role in the Games, surely a reasonable expectation of any documentary-maker. It is notable that in English language versions of the film, edited by Riefenstahl herself, the word Nazism does not even appear, such was her determination to present a non-political film.
And so despite the names attached to the project, Olympia is not propaganda: it is a sports documentary, the first of its kind. Many of the techniques used today to record sporting events were developed by Riefenstahl. When you see a tracking shot with a camera placed on rails to follow the action in the 100m sprint, think of Riefenstahl’s footage of Jesse Owens. When you see an athlete looming large over the screen before they run or jump or throw, think of the pits that Riefenstahl dug for her cameras. When you see artistic slow-motion replays of bodies in motion, smash-cuts, focuses on the crowd: Riefenstahl.
As innovative as she was as a cinematographer, she also had an eye for the beauty of the human form. Here, the importance of Riefenstahl specifically as a female director comes into view. Laura Mulvey would later argue that the ‘male gaze’ is dominant, that an audience is always watching a film through the eyes of the heterosexual male. Riefenstahl’s documentary on a fundamentally masculine subject, that of sporting competition, is presented in a very artistic and arguably feminine way. The prologue sees footage of the original site of the Games in Olympia as athletes compete in the nude (Riefenstahl herself makes a brief appearance as a nude dancer). The almost forensic examination by the camera of the technically-perfect lines of movement as a man prepares to throw a discus are repeated throughout the film. The importance of the beauty of human form begins to take precedence as the film progresses, to the point where the results of the events become irrelevant. We see javelin throwers running up but never releasing, we see the twists and tumbles of the divers but never the splash in the water.
This experimental approach to recording sporting events still influences programme directors today. Any montage will see slowed-down replays of bodies in motion with the consequences of those movements often unseen. Think of this the next time you see a replay of the home run swing of any major league slugger. You’ll see the rippling muscles, the precision of the elbows, the bat coming through the strike zone at the perfect angle to make contact. We don’t need to see where the ball lands to know that it was long gone.
And that, more than the camera angles, more than the montages, more than the triumphant soundtracks and the sense of trepidation before an event, is Riefenstahl’s true legacy: a greater understanding of the beauty and importance of human movements.