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Is this the most beautiful (and controversial) film ever on the Olympic Games?

‘Olympia’, Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s chronicle of the 1936 summer Olympics in Munich, is unmatched in its scope and technique.

One of the most effective propaganda filmmakers of all time also made one of the most gorgeous sports documentaries of all time. Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part chronicle of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, was released in 1938 to universal acclaim. Shot in shimmering tones of black and white and featuring camera and editing techniques that were largely unknown in documentary filmmaking at the time, Olympia is a tribute to the games and the beauty of the athlete’s body. Its achievements just about override Riefenstahl’s reputation as an apologist for German dictator Adolf Hitler, and Hitler’s attempts to use the event to push through his theories of the superiority of the German race.

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‘Olympia’.

Riefenstahl embarked on Olympia soon after completing the notorious Triumph of the Will, a paean to the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg in 1934. The seductive camerawork frames Hitler as a divine force descending from the heavens, while low-angle shots lend the dictator a monumental effect that propagandists and filmmakers have imitated ever since.

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‘The Triumph of the Will’.

The impact of Olympia on the documentary, sports coverage, advertising films and music videos is equally extensive. In just one instance, the shots of divers seemingly floating through the air from Herb Ritts’s music video for Madonna’s 1989 song Cherish are directly taken from the closing minutes of the second part of the project, Olympia Festival of Beauty.

Some of the high diving sequences were printed backwards to give the effect of the divers leaping out of the water and back onto the springboard. “They really had to look like birds.” Riefenstahl told Ray Muller in the 1993 documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.

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The diving scenes from ‘Olympia’.

Riefenstahl, a dancer and actress, directed her first feature, Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) in 1931. Her first propaganda film for the Nazi Party was Der Sieg Des Glaubens (The Victory of Faith) in 1933, which impressed Hitler enough to entrust her with Triumph of the Will.

Riefenstahl received unprecedented financial and logistical support from the German government for Olympia. She took two years to complete the project and released different versions of varying length. There are at least 220 minutes of material that reveal practice sessions and the various stages of the 132 events. The first part, Olympia Festival of the Nations, doesn’t open in Germany but among the ruins of the Acropolis of Athens. Riefenstahl modelled her vision on the Olympics in ancient Greece. “Not only the stadium, but the whole culture – the temples, the sculptures,” she told Ray Muller.

Body worship in ‘Olympia’.
Body worship in ‘Olympia’.

The first part kicks off with a staged torch relay featuring a series of nude and near nude athletes stretching their perfectly sculpted muscles as they throw javelins and discuses. Rifenstahl’s near-fascistic worship of the human form was a leitmotif running through her films and documentaries.

The rest of the documentary chronicles the highlights, which are shot from unusual camera angles, edited to give a sense of the efforts of the athletes and the enthusiasm of the crowds, and set to a soaring score by Herbert Windt and Walter Gronosaty. Some of the sequences are in slow motion, while others are cut with the energy of the contemporary sports news report.

Riefenstahl trained her team of over a hundred cameramen for several months before the games. They snuggled themselves into trenches at the arenas, positioned themselves in the bleachers in the stadium, and crawled into pits dug below the race tracks to capture the movements of the runners.

Leni Riefenstahl during the ‘Olympia’ shoot.
Leni Riefenstahl during the ‘Olympia’ shoot.

Using different lenses, cameras and film speeds, the crew captured the various sporting actions from near and far. In a hallucinatory sequence in Olympia Festival of Beauty, Riefenstahl elevates a marathon by shooting the sweat on the brows of the runners, their bodies from below as they lurch forward, and the shadows they cast on the track.

Among the athletes showcased in loving detail is Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Games. The highly enthused commentators at Munich made it a point to remark on the “black athletes” from America, and the games themselves were tainted by Hitler’s racial prejudices, but at least in Olympia, Owens’s achievements gets their due.

Jesse Owens at the Munich games.
Jesse Owens at the Munich games.

Riefenstahl directed the shoot as though it were a military campaign, says a voiceover in Muller’s film. She would hold production meetings every night with her crew, and “every camera angle was deliberate and coordinated”. It took her 10 weeks just to look at all the footage.

Although acclaim was showered on the documentary after its premiere in April 1938, Riefenstahl’s association with the Nazi Party caught up with her. She was in the United States of America in November 1938 when news emerged of the Kristallnacht pogrom that targetted Jews and their property in Germany. She was asked to leave the USA.

Riefenstahl made only one feature film after Olympia, called Tiefland, in 1954, and raised more hackles in the 1960s with her photographs of the Nuba tribe in Sudan. “All four of Riefenstahl’s commissioned Nazi films—whether about Party congresses, the Wehrmacht, or athletes—celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader,” Susan Sontag wrote in her famous takedown of Riefenstahl in the New York Review of Books in 1975.

Riefenstahl embarked on several films, but only one was completed. In the ’70s, she began documenting marine life and learnt scuba diving. The 2002 account of her scuba diving adventures, Impressionen unter Wasser (Impressions under Water), was made when she was 100 years old. She died the following year on September 8 in Germany, leaving behind a body of work that is as startling as it is divisive.

Leni Riefenstahl.
Leni Riefenstahl.
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.