'Olympia' opens with breathtaking shots of Greek ruins and towering statues. Against the backdrop of a seemingly endless sky, the ruins fade out into muscled bodies in motion – nude men and women running, throwing and dancing. The opening ends with the inaugural Olympic torch relay where German runners first carried the torch from Greece to Berlin. Through the first 12 minutes alone, the themes of the film become instantly clear, it is a celebration of sports and the body, more specifically the white, Aryan body.
And yet what 'Olympia' is most known for is the grainy footage of Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete at the 1936 Olympics, racing to the finish line and winning four gold medals.
The moment is often cited as one of sport's most iconic. Hitler had given Olympia's director Leni Riefenstahl the responsibility of documenting the Berlin Olympics, mostly to depict and celebrate Aryan superiority. This was not entirely the case in the end. Owens had almost singlehandedly dismantled Nazi ideology, with Hitler watching from the grandstands no less.
'Olympia' was immensely influential to film and sports journalism even if Riefenstahl did not necessarily fulfil Hitler's wishes. Her cinematic techniques were revolutionary at the time. She chose to portray the body rather than the sport; she alleviated the sporting body to reinforce Nazi ideals. But the result ended up changing sports documentation altogether.
As one of the earliest users of tracking shots, her contributions to cinematography alone made a resounding contribution to the art of filmmaking, in such a way that we still benefit from it. At the same time, she had changed the world of propaganda filmmaking too. Her close association and friendship with the Nazis (which she denied until her death) effectively blacklisted her from the industry.
Separating Riefenstahl from her art seems almost impossible at times; especially since the content is so obviously terrible. 'Olympia' does not have the overtly Nazi symbology that 'Triumph of the Will' has, but the sight of a gleeful Hitler and swastikas everywhere are enough to make the viewer queasy.
In that case, where can we draw the line between the art and the artist? Is it possible to enjoy a work once we know that it has been tainted by the creator or their views? These are questions to consider for any modern philosopher.
There are several arguments for and against, and several ways by which we can deconstruct a work without glorifying the creator. Some arts are easier to enjoy from a detached perspective, some arts can be enjoyed because the artist is not as present in the work.
Convicted child rapist Roman Polanski's work can perhaps be easier to digest than Woody Allen's. 'The Pianist', though based on Polish composer Władysław Szpilman, shares similarities with Polanski's own experiences during World War II as seen through Adrien Brody's eyes.
But in 'Annie Hall', Woody Allen's portrayal of a neurotic, sexually dysfunctional man had ended up being closer to home than we previously thought. Louis CK was accused of doing exactly what he often made jokes about.
As for an actor like Kevin Spacey, well, as it turned out his impeccable talent at playing the villain was not necessarily a 'talent'.
The lines start to get blurry when escaping the presence of the artist becomes almost impossible. Some writers, like Allen and Louis, leave behind traces of their darker intentions in their work. It can become harder to separate and enjoy when their presence is so pervasive. It certainly makes enjoying certain Louis CK jokes harder than the rest.
There is also the problem of consuming the work, and indirectly or directly funding an abusive creator, by a tricky cause and effect.
Riefenstahl's estate has long been donated but Polanski is still well and alive in France; making films and receiving standing ovations at the Oscars, where Will Smith has recently been banned for slapping Chris Rock.
Funding an abuser makes the consumption of their art a moral grey area. Just as shunning and banning a piece of work for having a reprehensible creator is one too. Does Polanski's crime justify erasing the story of Szpilman's horrific experiences in 'The Pianist'? The culture of censoring art or as it is sometimes known now, cancel culture, ironically falls more into Nazi territory even if justifiable cases are made in favour of censoring certain works.
On the other side of the argument, some art often has multiple creators or multiple people working behind the scenes. Erasing one's work for the fault of another seems just as unjust.
From an ethical standpoint, there is no correct answer to the question, 'should you separate the art from the artist?' No one blanket answer fits all situations. The individual makes the choice and the choice should not be made for the individual.
The purpose of art is to evoke an emotion. Once it is out there in the world, it is up to the audience to mould and interpret it as they see fit. Riefenstahl's film techniques and influence have benefitted us all; it has been used to create art, which is the complete opposite of what it was first used for. You can also just appreciate the grandiosity of 'Olympia' and see Nazism objectively. Or you can turn off the TV and consume an unproblematic (that we know of) piece of art.
So maybe the answer is 'up to you.' Dictating how others see art would be playing right into Hitler's hands. Maybe the fact that Olympia is most associated with the footage of Jesse Owens has him turning in his grave.
Who's had the last laugh? Not him, for sure.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.