In the 1937 preface to the first edition of this book, Leni Riefenstahl remarked 'it is the timeless document of a great idea -- a hymn to beauty and competetive endeavour.' Sixty-five years later, the graceful images of athletes competing in the 1936 Berlin games has more than withstood the test of time and validated Riefenstahl's original estimation of this work's ground-breaking importance, not only as a document, but as an exercise in the aesthetics of the idealised beauty of the human body in movement.
Leni Riefenstahl was something of a Renaissance woman: Photographer, motion picture director, editor, dancer, skier, and all-around athlete, no one could have been a better match for documenting the 1936 Olympics on film, from which stills were culled to create this volume. True to the spirit of Ancient Greece, it is fitting that it was captured on silver nitrate by this gifted cinematographer christened Helene (her birth name, for which 'Leni' is a German nickname).
Actually, the term 'stills' does injustice to the photographs contained with -- so alive are they, capturing the essence of athleticism and motive power.
The beginning of the book is devoted to Ancient Greece, and documenting the ruins which monumentalise her greatness: The Parthenon, Myron's discus thrower, the gods, such as Apollo and Achilles. Riefenstahl has brought many of the famous statues of athletes alive, as she photographs naked men and women engaged in the ancient sports, such as the javelin throw, the shot put, eurythmics, dance and the discus throw. Her athletes epitomise the grace, sensuousness and taut, muscular efficiency of the male and female bodies.
Another striking sequence is of the young Greek torch bearer, who ignites the torch at Athens and delivers it on his long route through Thermopaylae, the Grecian shore, Delphi and Corinth. The poise and determination in the runner's body and eyes convey the Olympic spirit with the same glowing certitude as the eternal flame, which the runner holds aloft like a beacon in the night.
Once in Berlin, the bulk of this volume is dedicated to the athletes themselves. Leni's cameramen captured all the events, and some of the images are just astounding for their sense of motion and eloquent simplicity of composition. Among my favourites are: The Flame from Greece, which shows a German youth standing before the crowd of athletes, holding the flame erect before lighting the stadium torch; Start of the 80 meter hurdles, as seen from the timekeeper's point-of-view, the lines demarcating the oval track's lanes sweep into a bird's eye view of the pensive hurdlers as they await the starter's gun; Jesse Owens in the starting blocks, the great athlete is the very embodiment of concentration; German Gisela Mauermayer, discus thrower, shows the female athlete in motion, and in joyous release on her way to the gold medal; Shadows of marathon runners, which convey the fleeting rush of the events; Finale, which shows the Berlin Olympicstadion encircled by pillars of searchlights just before the flame is extinguished.
'Olympia' is, to me, the greatest expression of graceful motion ever captured by a photographer. A tone poem for camera, these images better convey the concept of motion than 99% of the movies today, which are motion pictures in name only.
This edition, by the German publisher Taschen, is truer to the original, both in graphics and in the accutance of the photography, than St. Martin's 1994 reprinting. Highest recommendation.