You’ll have to wait until February for the Winter Olympics (minus the Russian team, banned for doping) in
PyeongChang, South Korea, and until 2020 for the Summer Games in Tokyo. But in the meantime you can dip into the box set “100 Years of Olympic Films” (Criterion; $399.95). Its many disks (32 Blu-ray or 43 DVD) include 53 newly restored films that cover 41 summer and winter Olympics from 1912 to 2012. That’s about a solid week of viewing, plus a 216-page book with commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie. It’s the ultimate sports binge.
Among those offerings is a compilation of newsreels from the 1912 Stockholm Olympiad V. The pristine silent footage shows such historical highlights as the epic tug-of-war final between Denmark and England (spoiler alert — England won), the first competitor to die of exhaustion (a Portuguese marathoner), and decathlon champ Jim Thorpe receiving a trophy almost as big as he was. And who knew that George Patton, the future four-star general and bane of the Third Reich, competed in the modern pentathlon? Though he finishes fifth, he wields a mean epée.
The 1912 Olympics were the last before World War I and the Games would not resume until 1920. Similarly, the 1936 Berlin Olympics celebrated in Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part masterpiece “Olympia” (1938) would be followed three years later by the German invasion of Poland and the start of World War II, preempting the event until 1948. Ironically, the film’s prelude — the lighting of the Olympic torch in Athens and its progress through Europe to Berlin — is a ruefully prescient inverse of the Nazi conquests that would begin in 1939.
But “Olympia” is more restrained in its partisan propagandizing than Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (1935). Though it fetishizes the kitsch gigantism of the Berlin Olympic stadium and its 100,000 screaming spectators — especially Adolf Hitler and his trollish cohorts — the true star of the film is the human body. Not regimented masses bent on world domination, as seen in “Triumph,” but individual athletes striving for personal perfection.
Employing countless cameras located everywhere (including hung around the necks of runners), the occasional reenactment, and 1.2 million feet of film, Riefenstahl depicts with voyeuristic intensity the ecstasy of those pushing the limits of physical possibility. And no one she films embodies the ideal of athletic excellence better than Jesse Owens (“The world’s fastest man,” a German broadcaster acknowledges) with his record-breaking victories. Whatever Hitler’s reactions to Owens’s achievements may have been, they are not recorded in Riefenstahl’s film.
Tokyo was supposed to follow Berlin and host the Games in 1940, but the war put an end to that. Instead, japan would have to wait until 1964 for its turn, which is the subject of the poetic and humane “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965) by Japanese auteur Kon Ichikawa (“Fires on the Plain,” “The Makioka Sisters”).
Though attuned to the grandeur and spectacle of the event itself, Ichikawa also subtly puts it in its historical perspective, such as with the poignant sequence in which the runner bearing the Olympic torch passes through Hiroshima en route to Tokyo. And he celebrates the pathos of the participants as well as their glory — Riefenstahl never filmed anything as moving as Ichikawa’s shot of the last finisher of the 10,000-meter race.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.