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Back in '36, She Gave Him Something to Shoot For in '84

Jim Murray

May 16, 1985|JIM MURRAY

The 1932 Olympic Games were held at Hollywood's back door, but the 1936 Olympic film, of the Berlin Games, was the greatest of all time. Not just the greatest Olympic film of all time, but maybe one of the greatest films of all time, period. It was, without doubt, the greate documentary ever photographed.

It was the work of one of the most fascinating women of century, Leni Riefenstahl.

She was thought to be either Adolf Hitler's or Joe Goebbels' mistress--she wasn't--or someone who had something on those Nazi Party bigwigs no one else knew about. That wasn't true, either, and it would have been impossible to blackmail anybody as totally and rigidly amoral as those two, anyway.

No, Leni Riefenstahl was just an extraordinarily gifted film-maker, a sensuous, sensitive woman who knew something about the art of movie-making that one else knew at the time.

Part Brunnhilde, part Marlene Dietrich, she was something right out of a Wagner opera, a towering blonde given to wearing the flowing gowns of Greek goddesses.

Hitler was infatuated with her, and she had made the diabolically rousing propaganda movie, "Triumph of the Will," a film that did more to promote the National Socialist Par than all the jackboots in Bavaria.

\o7 Fraulein \f7 Riefenstahl was a plumber's daughter from Berlin, but she became a protegee of Max Reinhardt, the great impresario. She was a Valkyrie-like presence on screen who specialized in outdoor movies--mountaineering, skiing, aquatics--but she learned more about the art of the camera than anybody in UFA,German movie-making company.

Her specialty was the celebration of the human body. Nudity, even frontal nudity, was tastefully, almost innocently done in her films, and the Olympic Games were, for her,orgy of artistic gratification.

Sports cinematography, before her, consisted of stilted newsreel long shots that looked as if they had been photographed by a cameraman with terminal St. Vitus Dance or \o7 delirium tremens.\f7

She elevated the art. She wheedled 80 cameras and crews out of a doting Fuhrer. She shot a million-and-a-half feet of film. She shot from Zeppelins. She shot from underground tracks. She used the most sophisticated telephoto lenses. She worked 20-hour days in her own special building. She brought an intimacy to the film and subject that no one had seen in an athletic event.

She showed diving from the aspect of the diver as she followed him or her through every turn into the water below. She lingered lovingly over the form of Jesse Owens, who fascinated her. She showed every nuance of musculature, every straining tendon, every pulsing artery. Da Vinci could not have created a more defined work of art. Tchaikovsky wrote a ballet more sensual.

It took Riefenstahl two years to assemble the film, "Olympia". Released theatrically in two parts with an intermission, it won the gold medal at the Venice Film Festival and was a sensat wherever it played in Europe.

It got nowhere in the United States.

Hollywood snubbed her. Her work got no distribution in this country. "Hitler's girlfriend" was hardly America's sweetheart, and even though she tried to distance herself from the Nazi horror, no one was convinced. She was trying to glorify the human form, but she was glorifying human hate. The United States wasn't interested.

That was nearly 50 years ago. Up to 1984, there had been nine more Olympics and Olympic films, and although all film-makers had copied Riefenstahl, none had come up to her artistic dimensions.

Now, it is time for the 1984 film. The Leni Riefenstahl of the Los Angeles Olympics, if he will pardon the allusion, is a longtime film recorder of track and field Jonah (Bud) Greenspan.

Greenspan's love affair is not with the athlete as an artist but with the athlete as a superhuman performer. Greenspan's cameras are more worshipful of human end than of human physiology.

Bud's problems are subtler. Technology that was revolutionary in Riefenstahl's day is ho-hum stuff now. Hundreds of millions already have seen the Olympics on television, compared with the few who saw the Games in person or newsreels in Riefenstahl's day.

Greenspan celebrates the drama the Olympics, not the anatomy.

"There are 8,000 stories in an Olympic Games, one for every participant. Yo have to go find it," Greenspan says.

His film, "16 Days To Glory," is a cornucopia of melodrama ranging from tragedy to comedy, the Olympics as Shak might have viewed them.

"First of all, we want to subtitle this, 'The Olympics You Didn't See,' " Greenspan said. "We want to show you the heartbreak, joy, triumph, disaster--the Olympics in human terms. The boy who worked and sacrificed and gave up his childhood for 10 years only to pull a muscle on the verge of making his dreams come true. The girl who lost 70 pounds and turned her child over to her husband to rear so she could make her try for the better life. The agony of a wife watching her husband lose.

"For all her artistry and symbolism and devotion to the art forms of the game--which we have not neglected--marvelous symbolism, Leni Riefenstahl did not tell a story. She filmed a pageant. We have personalized the Olympics. We have m it a drama as well as a ballet.

"My ambition is to have this film seen by ABC's Roone Arledge and have him say, 'Why didn't we have that?' I want to show the universality of the Othe Olympics as life."

Greenspan is not turning his talent--or his proceeds--over to some despot or political oppression. He will screen portions of his epic, which will be released in theaters in July, at the First Interstate Bank Athletic Foundation May 29. At that time, he will also donate funds from his previous Olympic hi films to the foundation.

"I only want the film to be worthy of the gallant people in it who uplift all of us," is Greenspan's epilogue.

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