Saturday, April 19, 2008

Connecting the Dots from Beijing 2008 Back to Berlin 1936

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has opened an exhibition on the 1936 Olympic Games,"The Nazi Olympics, Berlin 1936," which you can explore online. The exhibition was shown once before, in 1996, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Games. Presumably, they are bringing it back now because people are drawing parallels between the Berlin Games and the 2008 Beijing Games.

Incidentally, as the Olympic torch makes its way to Beijing I've noticed several press references to the modern German origins of the Olympic torch ceremony. The New York Times ran a good article on it that highlighted Leni Riefenstahl's role in creating the myth of the torch run out of Wagnerian allusions and giving it a contemporary political meaning:

So Riefenstahl [in her film Olympia] creates the myth the Greeks never got around to telling, creating a filmic counterpart to the opening of Wagner’s “Ring,” in which an entire world gradually emerges from elemental fragments ...... Humanity is given its purpose; the relay begins. The torch is conveyed from one bearer to the next and ends in Berlin at a 110,000-seat stadium where it ignites an altar of flame. Through shimmering heat the sun itself can be seen, vibrating in sympathy. And Hitler salutes the cheering crowds ...... This passing of the torch thus demonstrates a lineage of inheritance — a historical relay — making Nazi Germany the living heir to Ancient Greece. A claim was being staked.

Reportedly, Jody Foster has purchased the rights to Leni Riefenstahl's autobiography and will portray her in a movie, but that project seems to have been hung up for years. Riefenstahl is such a fascinating figure that I can't understand why she hasn't received far more critical attention. Sergei Eisenstein can be studied and even revered for his brilliant and original films despite the fact that those films served the political interests of the Soviet Union. But evidently not all Political Cinema is the same, and the special opprobrium that attaches to Nazism prevents treating Riefenstahl apart from her political context.

Personally, I find someone like Riefenstahl all the more fascinating for the fact that her high artistry was put to an atrocious political purpose. Another such figure is Jacques-Louis David, the great Neoclassical painter who served the French Revolution's Reign of Terror as, in effect, its artistic director. Studying David's paintings, like Riefenstahl's movies, is a great way to access the self-image of the mass movements they romanticised, and maybe to understand the appeal they held for so many.


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