Sebastian Coe doesn’t need the likes of me to spring to his defence. And Coe has probably long got used to the fact that, being a high flyer means that there will always be someone wanting to shoot him down in flames. But arts critic Charlotte Higgins took a stray pot-shot at Lord Coe in the Guardian a few days ago.
Higgins did an excellent job in describing the dog’s dinner that are plans for the Cultural Olympiad to accompany London 2012. But her comprehensive critique was diminished somewhat when she took Coe to task for daring to cite Leni Riefenstahl as an example of a great Olympic artist.
Now, whatever one may think of Riefenstahl’s association with Hitler and his mob (and despite her denials, there should be little doubt on that score), Olympia, her film of the 1936 Games in Berlin is a tour de force. It is not only a great Olympic documentary (Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad is but a distant rival; the rest nowhere), but also a landmark in world cinema, in which Riefenstahl single-handedly invents the grammar of what would become televised sport.
Riefenstahl is arguably the modern equivalent of Pindar, whose odes to Ancient Olympic victors were as important as any of his other work. Incidentally, to the ancients, intellectual or high culture was inseparable from physical culture, which may come as a surprise to those watching modern Olympic competition on television, oblivious to any ancillary ‘cultural’ events going on.
It is no small irony therefore that the infamous line, ‘Whenever I hear culture, I reach for my pistol,’ is variously attributed to Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler or Goering. It is indisputably Nazi, but is a paraphrase of a line in a work, Schlageter, by Nazi poet laureate and playwright, Hanns Johst.
For a comprehensive evaluation of the long and extraordinary life of Riefenstahl and the Nazi era which so thoroughly compromised it, I can recommend Audrey Salkeld’s, A Portrait of Leni Riefenstahl, published over a decade ago.
Riefenstahl was already an accomplished director, formerly a dancer and actor, on ‘berg’ (mountain) films, seen as the German equivalent of the western movie, whose ethic of self-reliance was an ideal match for the philosophy of the rising Nazi party. Despite the animosity of Goebbels, who was nominally in charge of all filming during the Third Reich, Hitler was prepared to give her carte-blanche to be his personal movie-maker.
Riefenstahl readily nailed her colours to the mast of National Socialism with Triumph of the Will, her film of the 1934 Nuremburg Rally, which is an even more extraordinary work than Olympia. Its technical brilliance and singular narrative thrust make it both one of the most accomplished documentaries in cinema history, and the most disturbing vehicle of propaganda in its virtual deification of Hitler and glorification of the young ‘Aryan’ masses.
Riefenstahl’s ‘regard’ for the naked form, mostly male (which she continued to explore in her later career as a still photographer) has all the homo-erotic overtones associated with her Nazi backers, and accordingly reaches its apotheosis in ‘Triumph’. There are direct echoes in the opening ‘Greek’ sequences of Olympia, but baser are things like the jump cuts from black athletes bounding (in training) to hopping kangaroos in the Berlin zoo, making the same bestial association underlined by the Nazi press which described black US athletes as ‘auxiliaries’.
Yes, Olympia has its faults, and as esteemed British film critic Philip French has said, “leaves a nasty taste in the mouth,” because of the Nazi associations. But if London’s Cultural Olympiad produces anything half as accomplished and resonant, then whatever millions may have been poured in will not have been entirely misspent.