It seems safe to say that Leni Riefenstahl's document of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad will never be surpassed as a record of the greatest spectacle in competitive sports. The only film that has come close -- Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad -- was made thanks to the deep pockets of its host country at a time before TV coverage of the games was so pervasive and instant home video compilations of the games became available. Moreover, Riefenstahl, as she demonstrated in the technically brilliant propaganda film Triumph of the Will, had a poet's eye for capturing spectacles on both a grand and intimate scale. Olympia might have been a paean to the Third Reich and the superiority of the German athlete (its prologue, featuring only Aryans in various poses and action sequences, suggests that), but Riefenstahl nimbly sidestepped her Nazi masters to offer if not a completely objective view of the games, at least one which did not stint on the accomplishments of runners, jumpers, and swimmers from many nations and of many ethnic backgrounds. If a filmmaker not employed by the Third Reich had made this picture, he or she might have included all of the implicit comparisons between the Nazi athletes and the ancient Greeks who posed for classic sculptures, but that filmmaker also would not have possessed Riefenstahl's eye for composition and movement.
by Tom Wiener review