July 5, 2012, by Stephen Mumford

Riefenstahl’s Olympia

Can art be beautiful even though it’s wrong or would its wrongness destroy its beauty? This rather abstract question of contemporary aesthetics is made concrete in the example of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s work. Riefenstahl was revolutionary, pioneering in the 1930s a number of cinematographic innovations. She used unusual angles on her subjects; she distorted the perspective and deployed moving cameras. There were extreme close-ups and slow motion sequences. Such techniques are now taken for granted but if one compares Riefenstahl’s films with earlier cinema one gets a sense of the giant leaps she took forward. Her most famous works are supposedly documentaries but it is clear that she set out to tell a story and often to illustrate it as gloriously and dramatically as possible.

Nevertheless, it is possible to argue that Riefenstahl’s work was flawed as art. Her two great 1930s films were used in promotion of Nazism and its ideology. Triumph of the Will (1935), for example, documented and glamorised the 1934 Nuremberg party congress with a quasi-messianic depiction of Hitler. Olympia (1938) gave us the story of the 1936 Olympics but woven within a subtle narrative that was recognizably National Socialist. There is little doubt that the film was to be used as propaganda but could we also say that it is beautiful propaganda?

The question of aesthetics is whether an ethical flaw also becomes an aesthetic one? The problem could be distilled into the object of the Nazi swastika flag itself. Might this design be considered aesthetically positive by someone who has no knowledge of its evil associations? Could we say that the red background and black cross on a while circle has positive aesthetic value despite the use to which it was put? Or does history negate any aesthetic of the design?

Cinema-goers of the Midlands get a chance to wrestle with these questions later this month. The International Olympic Committee have granted Nottingham’s Broadway cinema a rare public viewing of Riefenstahl’s Olympia. On the surface, the film is in praise of athletic beauty. It was a watershed in the history of sports cinema and, indeed, in the cinematic depiction of the human body. Viewers will also become aware, however, of several ideological undertones, which at times can make for uncomfortable viewing. Perhaps this latter point is what makes Riefenstahl’s films fail as art. Despite images that would in another context appeal to us, their ethically dubious use removes from us the license to aesthetically enjoy. A sophisticated viewer, however, might still be able to abstract the art from the propaganda.

The two parts of Olympia will be shown with scene-setting introductions on consecutive nights: Part 1, Festival of Nations, on July 17at 6.00 and Part 2, Festival of Beauty, at the same time on July 18. The showing inaugurates the new Café Philosophique, a series of events in partnership between the Broadway Cinema and the University of Nottingham.

Full details of the showing and ticket information can be found at http://www.broadway.org.uk/events/film_cafe_philosophique_presents_olympia

Posted in AestheticsArt HistoryFilm and TVHistoryPhilosophySport