Bright Lights Film Journal

Riefenstahl’s Heights and Wiseman’s Follies: Allegories of Flesh in Olympia and Titicut Follies

The body beautiful meets the body besieged

Leni Riefenstahl and Fred Wiseman, though rarely grouped together, are in a category apart from most documentary filmmakers in that they both used reality to construct elaborate allegories of the human condition. Working closely with powerful government institutions, both artists insisted on a creative autonomy rarely achieved even by those not under the direct supervision of the state. Both have been brought to court to defend their work on ethical grounds, and despite the obvious moral and ideological implications of their films, both Riefenstahl and Wiseman insist, shockingly, that art cannot be used for moral and ideological ends.1

As artists, Riefenstahl and Wiseman embodied the tension of the individual in society, and their creative endeavors were also driven largely by this tension. Riefenstahl’s Olympia, about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, about the inmates of a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane, both deal directly with the interaction of individuals and social units, or what Wiseman describes as “the relationships of anonymous people to the monolithic social structures to which we are all subject.”2 But while both filmmakers are concerned with society and the individual, their theories of how the individual exists socially and physically couldn’t differ more, as their choice of subject matter makes clear: Riefenstahl depicts superhuman athletes, the most successful members of an already elite group that act as spokesmen and role models for the nations they represent; Wiseman depicts people who are almost subhuman in their total failure as individuals and as citizens of the state.

Both films contain an extraordinary amount of flesh imagery — depictions of near-naked or totally naked bodies. But the relationships to physicality (and therefore to mortality) that emerge in the two films are almost violent in their antagonism towards one another. In Olympia we behold perfectly sculpted bodies and body parts, abstracted by the frame into exquisite organic forms emanating potency and health. In Titicut Follies, we are assaulted with flaccid, corrupt flesh that invades the frame amorphously, spilling weakness and decay.

Both films contain sequences of the washing of the body, but whereas in Olympia the effort is rewarded with rejuvenation, in Titicut Follies the washing is emphasized as an exercise in futility: an inmate wallows in a bathtub filled with dirty water; another is reproached by guards for soiling his room day after day, thus requiring the daily pointless task of cleaning it and him. In Olympia, the athletes stretch their limbs before winning medals for themselves and their countries; in Titicut Follies, a shirtless inmate walks aimlessly around the prison courtyard, stretching his muscular arms, perhaps to relieve the tension of inactivity and boredom. Olympia contains a vision of the human being at peace with and delighted by his physicality, much like the happy animals in the nature footage that is cut into the washing/stretching sequence. In this idyllic world, the body and the mind are in harmonious cooperation, with the body seamlessly enacting the will of the mind, and achieving great ends as a result. In Titicut Follies, the human being is portrayed as a confused and frightened mind imprisoned in the body like in a tomb, just as the inmates are imprisoned naked in their cells. The mind attempts to control the body and will it into proper form, but in vain. A young sex offender being interrogated by a therapist explains that he knows raping children is wrong, but that he can’t help it. To this confession the therapist helpfully answers, “you are not a normal man.” But the feeling of being compelled by your base physical nature to do things that you mentally identify as wrong is, in fact, normal.

In this and every other scene, Wiseman seeks to “dramatize the often slight differences that exist between those inside and outside the prisons and mental hospitals.”3 In staunch opposition to such efforts at humbling the human race, Riefenstahl revels in hubris and glorifies the strong and powerful. In this endeavor she is not alone: her goals are shared and reflected by the Nazi regime and by fascist ideology in general. Olympia, while not as obviously an instance of Nazi propaganda as Triumph of the Will, nonetheless shares with its notorious predecessor an unmistakably fascist aesthetic, “which invites the ultimate affirmation of and escape from the self.”4 The self that such an aesthetic seeks to escape from is the very self Wiseman exposes in Titicut Follies. Prisons and asylums are a Siberia for the undesirables of our society, but in Titicut Follies, Wiseman shows that they are also a metaphorical Siberia — a place representing the far recesses of our minds, to which we relegate the self-knowledge we would rather not possess.5

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda and the person controlling funding for Olympia, saw the Nazi movement as a form of art, and the Nazi leaders as artists, “the task of art being to … remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy.”6 Leaving aside the terrifying historical implications of such statements, it is not immediately clear how removing “diseased” people and ideas leads to freedom. And yet freedom is doubtless a central visual theme of Olympia, corroborating Goebbels’s notion that freedom is attainable through the aesthetic Riefenstahl embodies in her work. After the release of the birds in the opening ceremony at the stadium, Riefenstahl again and again evokes the image of unfettered upward flight, only it is of athletes, silhouetted in free-fall against the sky and framed such that they appear to be flying away, unrestrained by physical laws (e.g. the famous diving sequence). Titicut Follies, on the other hand, is defined by images of an imprisonment from which the only escape is death. All action in the film, except for a burial at the end, is visually inscribed by the walls of the prison and by the bars on the windows, which one inmate rattles in rage and frustration. The heroes of this world are not free agents, subject to an ordered series of trials to prove their everlasting worth; rather, their behavior is prescribed by the code of an institution — the code of language and of consciousness.

Perhaps the Riefenstahl/Goebbels promise of freedom is a little facile: we do not take their word for it when they claim that “like Valhalla, the world of … [Olympia is] a place apart, surrounded by clouds and mist, peopled by heroes, and ruled from above by the gods” — unless by gods they mean Hitler and his army.7 The aesthetics of Olympia, and fascist aesthetics in general, operate out of this contradiction: the illusion of personal freedom achieved through a situation of the utmost social control. In juxtaposition to the recurring images of flight and liberation in Olympia, there is an equally omnipresent reference to order: a synchronized choreography that extends from the repeated physical actions of athletes to a grand-scale organization of huge crowds into one unified mass — the spectators with hands extended in the Hitler salute. In this way, the spectators and the athletes together “rehearse the unity of the polity” and it is through this unity that they as individuals experience the “dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community.”8 This helps explain the nature of Fascist freedom: it is a freedom from the self, from a recognition of personal vulnerability, weakness, and mortality — the very truths that Wiseman bares in Titicut Follies.

A comparison of the technical and formal strategies behind these two films further reveals their disparate philosophies, and the kind of relationship each seeks to establish with its viewers. Both Riefenstahl and Wiseman structure their films as variety shows: spectacles that pick up and then drop a repertoire of characters as they perform a few select functions over and over.9 But whereas Riefenstahl’s formal decisions reflect her interest in situations of control — in this case, control of the viewer’s emotions and judgments — Wiseman’s technical choices exhibit “an aesthetic of uncertainty,” — repeatedly denying the viewer the kind of objectivity Riefenstahl provides.10 Olympia, like the Olympics themselves, is structured as a series of clear-cut competitions and victories, where proper identification of value is a simple matter of numbers: an account of who can throw the farthest, jump the highest, swim the fastest, etc. In Titicut Follies, no such certainty is possible and no information is stated explicitly, disallowing superficial conclusions about worth. While Olympia is set to a romantic orchestral score and edited into a rhythmically stable progression of scenes and images, Titicut Follies has no soundtrack either than the confusing diagetic one, and adheres to a loose spiral pattern of editing, with continuous loops and repetitions of behaviors that lack purpose to begin with, and that seem excruciatingly futile when seen multiple times with slight variations. The result in Olympia is a sense of progress and the continual improvement of humanity, versus a heavy feeling of entrapment in Titicut Follies — a wallowing in the mire of a human narrative lacking causality or closure.

The same comparison can be made on the level of framing and camera movement. In Olympia, camera movement is motivated exclusively by the movements of the athletes, which are controlled and choreographed — there is no uncertainty; the frame is a safe and defined space, within which an ordered dance occurs. In Titicut Follies, on the other hand, the camera is exploratory, panning across the room and focusing on random individuals as they enter the frame. There are few establishing shots to orient the viewer and give a sense of the space, and instead there is a general feeling of claustrophobia — we don’t know from which direction the next disturbing figure will appear. This leads to another aspect of Titicut Follies: it denies the viewer the pleasant habit of forming expectations. There are no cues regarding the expected duration of shots or the overall direction of the film, unlike in Olympia, where the viewer gets a sense of each sequence in the first few seconds and then awaits each resolution in happy suspense.

Through these formal devices, and through their choice of content, Riefenstahl and Wiseman both elaborate complex theories of Man, each rooted in distinct philosophical traditions. Riefenstahl makes clear which tradition she belongs in — the entire opening sequence is one long allusion to the aesthetic theories of the Ancient Greeks. Starting with the columns of the Parthenon and the Diskobolos of Myron, Riefenstahl shows the inheritance of Platonic Idealism by the Germans, a passing down made literal through the passing of the torch from runner to runner, across the map of Europe. In a scene evocative of the myth of Pygmalion, we see a sculpture of an athlete transform (cross-dissolve) into a living, moving athlete — an instance of the ideal made real. If the Ancient Greeks provide the paradigm for Riefenstahl’s aesthetic, then Wiseman can be said to refer us to the aesthetic of the Dark Ages. The figures in Titicut Follies remind one of the grotesquery of Bosch — a warning against human vanity, and a reminder of the words pronounced by Father Mulligan at the film’s end: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

  1. Barsam, Richard Meran. (1975) “Leni Riefenstahl: Artifice and Truth in a World Apart.” Film Comment 11/1973, 32-37. []
  2. Halberstadt, I. “An Interview with Fred Wiseman.” In Richard Meran Barsam, ed. Nonfiction Film Theory and Criticism. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976, 310-14. []
  3. Anderson, Carolyn & Benson, Thomas W. (2002) Reality Fictions: The Films of Frederick Wiseman. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 15. []
  4. Sontag, Susan. (1980) “Fascinating Fascism,” in Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 77. []
  5. Anderson, Benson, 12. []
  6. Sontag, 92. []
  7. Barsam, 257. []
  8. Sontag, 91, 96. []
  9. Nichols, Bill. “Frederick Wiseman’s Documentaries: Theory and Structure” in Ideology and the Image, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 211. []
  10. Anderson, Benson 25. []